Faith in the Matter

Episode 15

Written by Foxphile and Tricia Byrne

Authors: Foxphile and Tricia Byrne
Status: Complete
Rating: 15+
Category: Angst, action/adventure, drama
Summary: Carter returns to Prometheus and once again encounters the little girl from "Grace".
Spoilers: Everything up to the end of S8, plus the first half of VS9.
Warnings: None
Authors' Notes:

Once again, special thanks to Dee and everyone on the VS9 team. It's been great fun putting this together! Double thanks to my betas, Dee and Dinky.

Archive: Jackfic. Otherwise, do not archive without the author's express permission.
Disclaimer: The characters mentioned in this story are the property of Sci Fi and Gekko Film Corp. The Stargate, SG-I, the Goa'uld and all other characters who have appeared in the series STARGATE SG-1 together with the names, titles, and back story are the sole copyright property of MGM-UA Worldwide Television, Gekko Film Corp, Glassner/Wright Double Secret Productions, and Stargate SG-I Prod. Ltd. Partnership. This fanfic is not intended as an infringement upon those rights and solely meant for entertainment. All other characters, the story idea, and the story itself are the sole property of the authors.
 
Faith in the Matter
By: Foxphile and Tricia Byrne

"Faith is not something to grasp, it is a state to grow into." -- Mahatama Gandhi

~~{<>}~~

“So you see, sir, this new technology can be easily put to use almost immediately on board the Prometheus. I believe it will resolve the issues that they’ve been having with their hyperdrive and greatly improve performance.”

“Pendergast did get himself quite a lemon with that one didn’t he?”

He watched as Colonel Carter visibly bristled under the remark. “I wouldn’t exactly say that, sir.”

O’Neill knew he shouldn’t smirk but there was something to be said for knowing exactly how and when you had gotten under the skin of your second in command. “So, Carter, how do you propose we get this tidbit of information to the Prometheus so that they’ll be able to put it to good use?”

He knew from the smile on her face that he’d walked right into the trap that she had set for him.

“Well, assuming they are taking the most direct route to get here as quickly as they can, they will be passing within very close proximity of P3X-452. It won't be too difficult for them to swing by and pick up a small team. SG-1 is on down time for the next two weeks and that will give us more than enough time to put the upgrades into effect and come home.”

“And it will get you out of having to come up with yet another excuse as to why you can’t join me fishing at the cabin again.”

The corner of her mouth tipped up, “Not at all, sir.”

O’Neill looked at her for a few moments before turning his attention back to the briefing before him. There really wasn’t much of a reason for him to say no. Throwing herself into her gizmos might be just what she needed for her down time; she had seemed a bit tense lately.

Closing the folder before him, he looked up. “Fine. Go. Have fun with your tinkering. I’ll contact Pendergast and let him know you think you can tune up his lemon.”

~~{<>}~~

Sam moved around her lab, gathering the tools she needed to implement the adjustments and repairs to the Prometheus’ hyperdrives. She felt the stare at her back long before she turned around.

“Daniel.”

“Sam.”

Raising an eyebrow she pressed on, “Is there something I can do for you?”

Daniel bowed his head a bit before meeting her eyes. “Just don’t push it too much and be careful, okay?”

“Aren’t I always?” Sam added the last item to her pack and zipped it up. Checking all of her pockets to assure herself she hadn’t forgotten anything, she slung the pack into position on her back and secured it for the quick trip through the ‘gate. “Besides, I’ll only be planetside for an hour before the Prometheus is able to pick me up. There aren’t any local inhabitants, so there's nothing to worry about.” Walking to the door, she preceded him from the room. “Besides, the General is having SG-3 go with me till I’m picked up. Perfectly safe.”

Daniel silently followed her from the lab and through the corridor beyond.

~~{<>}~~

Sam exited the event horizon, stepped off the platform and shrugged the heavy pack off of her back. SG-3 was already busy scouting the perimeter, looking for non-existent hostiles. She was grateful that she had managed to talk the General out of sending a full-fledged Marine unit to guard his pet scientist. She still remembered when he had called her a "national treasure". It was a compliment, sure, but sometimes his over-protectiveness rankled. And things had gotten worse since her father died. He and Daniel both treated her like a fragile glass figurine that would shatter if anything or anyone got too close. She had one big brother -- and that was enough. At least Teal'c still treated her like a "most formidable warrior". He was supportive, but not in a smothering way.

Colonel Reynolds and his team were still scouting the area around the stargate. At least they were Air Force. Once they secured the area, they would act more like human beings and she might have a chance of a bit of light conversation while she waited for Prometheus to pick her up. In the meantime, she sat down on the ground, pulled her laptop out of her pack and began to review her notes on the upgrade.

~~{<>}~~

An hour later, Sam was still sitting cross-legged on the ground, her laptop cradled between her knees. She lightly traced a line on the schematic display, memorizing the configuration of crystals. The reconfiguration would be delicate, and the more she committed to memory, the less she would have to stop to check her notes and diagrams. She hoped the big printer onboard Prometheus was working. She could manage with just the diagrams on her laptop, but it was nice to have a full-sized schematic on paper. And there hadn't been time before she left to print one out.

"Colonel Carter?"

Gary Reynolds was standing over her, his head cocked to one side, a curious expression on his face.

"Carter, how do you read all those little squiggly lines? Looks like spaghetti to me."

"I had a tough time with schematics myself, Colonel Reynolds, back in school. But after you've studied a few dozen of them, it starts to click, you know? It's a little different reading crystal configurations this way, but I can understand these better than the Asgard representations."

"Well, General O'Neill said I'd probably have to pull your nose out of that laptop. He called to say that Prometheus was about twenty minutes out. They should be contacting us any minute now, so you'd best get your gear packed up. Pendergast won't want to do much more than a quick fly-by."

"Thanks, Colonel. I'll be ready." Sam began the shut down routine on the laptop. As soon as it completed, she closed the lid, shoved the computer back into her backpack and zipped the compartment closed. She stood up and realized that Reynolds was still watching her. "Is there something else, Colonel?"

He looked a bit embarrassed. "No, nothing. This has certainly been one of the easiest missions I've ever been on. Hardly even worth writing up a report. I can't for the life of me figure out why the general was so insistent that we keep a close eye on things." He paused and scanned the treeline. "There's nothing on this rock that would hurt a flea. Makes me wonder why there's a stargate here at all."

Carter surveyed the landscape. The gate was completely isolated in the midst of a large open field. A sparse line of trees was barely visible in the direction that the gate faced. Behind the gate was nothing but more open field, with only scraggly scrub brush and a few tufts of tall grass all the way to the horizon.

"There must have been something at one time, or else there would be no reason to put a stargate here." She shrugged the heavy pack back onto her shoulders, waving off Reynolds' unspoken offer of help. "The two recon missions that came here found nothing, though. We can only guess that whoever was here either packed up and left completely, or were destroyed so long ago that nothing remains. Daniel seems to think it must have been a temporary outpost. Even he can't find anything. It's almost impossible to obliterate a civilization and leave no trace."

Reynold’s eyes clouded over a little as he looked out over the surrounding area. “We’ve certainly seen enough obliterated planets to have learned that one.”

Sam turned her head as the wind picked up and she looked around to see an X-302 descending through the atmosphere of the planet. She and Reynolds moved hands to shield their eyes from the dust and dirt flying through the air.

“Well, it looks like you boys can head home. My ride is here.” Sam sketched a quick salute for Reynolds, grabbed her pack and sprinted toward the small fighter. Prometheus could have just used the rings to bring her up, but Colonel Pendergast liked to give his pilots a chance to spread their wings occassionally and this shuttle run provided a good opportunity for a little take off and landing practice.

~~{<>}~~

Carter dropped her pack and her personal gear in the temporary quarters that were assigned to her for her latest stint on Prometheus. Taking her laptop and one or two other things from the bag, she headed down to the bridge to brief Colonel Pendergast on the reconfigurations that would be necessary in order to implement her upgrades to the hyperdrive. She opened the door and was both surprised and flattered to see that the ship's commander had come to meet her.

“Welcome aboard, Colonel Carter.”

“It’s good to be back, Colonel. What’s our position?”

“We’re a good six hops from home, about three hundred light years from Earth. But if I understood the General correctly, you’re here to help us out with that.”

“That’s correct, sir. The adjustments that I’m proposing should increase the hyperdrive's capability by at least fifty percent and correct the instability in the integration between the Asgard technology that poses the need for the cooldown periods.”

“Sounds like a plan worth trying to me. We’re just about to make another small jump followed by a short cool down and then a longer jump. Then we’ll have a full cool down period plus if you need it.”

Carter stopped her forward motion as Pendergast continued down the corridor. Six jumps from home. Three hundred light years from Earth. The next jumps would land them right in the same area as their encounter with the mysterious hostile aliens from before. In very close vicinity to the nebulous cloud.

“Carter?”

Shaking her head to clear out the flashes of memory, Sam moved to catch up with him. “Sir, when we get to the next coordinates, you might want to watch out for…”

“I know, Colonel. I’ve read the reports. The last thing we need is to have our hull rotting away around us, while you’re finally fixing the inside.”

~~{<>}~~

On her walk back down to the room where the crystal arrays were housed, Sam pondered her conversation with Colonel Pendergast. It seemed funny that she still felt compelled to address him as "Sir" and "Colonel", when she knew her new rank didn't require it. Maybe it was because of his position as commander of the first space vessel ever launched by Earth. As she approached the threshold of the crystal room, Sam was grateful that no one was around. The last time she’d been in here she’d been trying to override the safety measures so that Prometheus could make a short jump into the nebulous cloud for protection from the hostile aliens they had encountered in this region.

She’d managed to knock herself upside the head and turn her viewpoint and her whole life upside down as the result of one hell of a concussion. She almost expected to see flashes of the little girl running through the hallways when she’d stepped on board the ship. As of yet that hadn’t happened. It was all for the better, she assured herself, taking a confident step into the room. She’d finally gotten settled after the last time.

Sam carefully placed her laptop bag and tools down where they could lean against the wall out of her way. Then she moved toward the drawers that contained the control crystals. Gingerly, she opened first one and then another drawer, just to assure herself that she knew what crystals were where and how they needed to be rearranged.

Suddenly, an odd feeling washed over her and she shook her head. The inertial dampeners were working just fine. There was logically no way she should be able to tell. Still, she was certain the ship had just exited hyperspace. Sam closed her eyes and unconsciously bit her lower lip. It was ridiculous for her to be so jumpy. She needed to knock it off and get on with her work.

"Little Miss Muffet sat on her tuffet
Eating her curds and whey.
Along came a spider,
Who sat down beside her
And frightened Miss Muffet away."

There was no mistaking the lyrical, sing-song voice. Sam spun around in the enclosed space, expecting to see the young girl from her previous adventures aboard the Prometheus, only to find herself alone in the room.

She shook her head and rubbed a hand over her eyes, then looked up at the ceiling, as if to pray for strength. “You’re really going nuts now, Sam. You've just got a case of the willies because of what happened last time. Get a grip on yourself!”

The flashing of a small red light above the drawer she had left open brought her back to the task at hand. She switched the safety off and returned to her study of the crystal configuration. It was important that she verify that the current design matched her original schematics. If it didn't, she would have to rerun the simulations to verify that the new configuration would still provide the expected power boost and increased stability.

~~{<>}~~

Daniel sipped carefully from the hot cup of coffee. Without turning his attention from the computer monitor, he returned the cup to the small clear spot reserved for it on his cluttered desk. Maybe he sensed that he was being watched. Or maybe it was just that a shadow crossed the light that came in from the corridor. He turned to find Jack leaning against the doorframe, his own steaming coffee warming the hand he had wrapped around it.

"Hi, Jack. Something you need?" Daniel turned back to resume his study of a particularly tricky passage of text.

Jack straightened and walked into the room, looking over Daniel's shoulder at the unintelligible characters displayed on the screen. "Nope. I just thought you'd like to know that Carter made it safely onboard Prometheus. Pendergast tells me she's already happily playing chess with those crystal thingies."

"Come on, Jack. We both know that Sam getting safely *on* Prometheus isn't what we're worried about." He gave up what was now a pretense of work and turned to face the general, gesturing for the other man to take a seat. "I'm worried that with all she's been through in the past year, the situation that happened before on that ship is going to come back to haunt her. I know she's pretty level-headed, but you have to admit - that was one bizarre story she told."

"I know, Daniel. And I also know that Carter doesn't spook easy." He stared down at his coffee, as if the answers were swirling in the dark liquid. "I can't shake the feeling that there's a lot more to that story than just hallucinations caused by a bump on the head. Do you remember the part where she said the vision of you suggested that the cloud was a sentient being?"

Looking up again, Jack smirked. "I mean, granted - if I was having hallucinations about you, that's just the kind of crazy stuff you might say. At least we don't have to worry about a kick-ass lady super-soldier getting the hots for her." His smile fading, he grew pensive again. "Like I said, I can't help wondering if there's more to this."

Daniel pondered what Jack had said. He'd had the same suspicions, that the hallucinations Sam described had been something more - like visitations. Someone or something had been trying to tell her something - to give her hints - to lead her in a direction that would save both her and the ship. He felt sure there were details of the experience that she had confided to him, and perhaps to Teal'c, but not to Jack. Very little concerning the visions had been in her official report. He suspected Jack knew only about half of them.

"Bottom line is; there's not a whole lot we can do about it from here. She knows better than either of us what happened to her, I'm sure she'll be careful. And hopefully by the time Prometheus gets within range of that region of space, she'll have finished the reconfiguration and they can long jump all the way home. In the meantime, all we can do is sit and wait."

"Which, as you know Daniel, is not exactly my strong suit, or yours either. At least Teal'c is visiting with Ry'ac and Kar'yn. A pacing Jaffa is not a pretty sight. Speaking of which, I wonder how long it'll be before we can call him Granpa Teal'c?" Jack grinned and winked as he stood to leave the room.

Daniel shook his head. Jack's humor helped to keep his sanity, such as it was. Sometimes the speed with which he went from joking to serious and back again could give a person whiplash. Daniel's crutch was his work. And he got back to it now, to keep his mind from dwelling on what might be happening so many light years away.

~~{<>}~~

The quarters assigned to her didn't boast much in the way of amenities. The longer flights required a larger crew complement to keep things running and to keep morale up - not to mention the additional supplies required - so space was at a premium. She'd been provided private quarters so that she could work undisturbed, but they amounted to little more than a bunk wedged into a cleared area of a supply closet. As she had requested, it was just a few steps away from the hyperdrive control room, but that was its only advantage. There was a small chair, but no desk. So Sam sat on the bed, cradling her laptop on her knees, the power cord stretched off in one direction and another cable snaking off in another, connecting her to the ship's network. She kept the door open to ease the sense of claustrophobia.

Shaking her head, she rechecked the comparison once more. There was no way around it; the crystal array had been modified from the original configuration she had been using. Sam knew that she had made some modifications the last time she had been on board, but those were documented and she had incorporated them into her work. Sometime since then, someone had reconfigured the array slightly. One of the blue crystals had been replaced with a yellow one. And the change hadn't been documented.

Sam knew better than most that in-flight modifications to equipment happened all the time - more so in situations where a crew spent days and weeks far from a maintenance facility. The Navy had been dealing with it for decades. The Air Force was just beginning to experience similar problems. Even if she reset the array to the configuration she had assumed in her simulations, there was no guarantee that the hyperdrive would respond in the same way. She would have to rerun the simulations, using the modified configuration as a starting point. And with no time to run enough redundant simulations, she would have to run more comprehensive tests of the upgrades, once they were in place. The additional simulations and tests would mean a longer stop at the next cool down. She would have to inform Colonel Pendergast of the unexpected setback.

"Little Jack Horner sat in a corner,
Eating his Christmas pie.
He stuck in a thumb
And pulled out a plum
And said 'What a good boy am I!'"

Startled, Sam looked up, searching for the source of the voice.

"Remember me?"

The little girl stood in the doorway, her golden hair shimmering in a nimbus of light that streamed in from the corridor. She was smiling, one hand deftly playing with a yo-yo while she waved enthusiastically with the other hand. With a quick snap, the yo-yo touched the ground and rolled along for a few feet. And then the little girl vanished.

Sam shoved the laptop to one side and sprang to the door. Dashing out, she ran a few yards down the corridor.

"Hey! Who are you! What do you want with me?"

Sam turned and ran in the other direction, past the door to her room and nearly to the hyperdrive room. There was no trace of the little girl, no answer to her repeated calls. She slowly returned to her room, where she began to pace in the cramped quarters.

"This doesn't make any sense. I haven't been hit on the head, why am I seeing things again? Am I really that paranoid about a *ship*? Maybe I'm just tired. Janet used to always hound me about missing sleep when I'm working on something. Add a bit of gate travel messing with my body clock and that must be it. I'm just really tired. Maybe I should take a quick nap."

She turned toward the bunk, intending to lie down - if only for an hour or so.

"Yep - that's it, Sam. You're probably working too hard."

Daniel Jackson, or at least something that looked just like him, was lounging comfortably on the bunk, his head propped up on one arm. The rumpled BDUs he wore blended into the rumpled blanket on the bed. He sported a few days' growth of beard and an impish grin.

Sam sat down on the chair, afraid her knees would buckle if she didn't.

"You've had a really rough year, Sam. You've had to deal with the responsibility of commanding your own team - and not just any team, but SG-1, flagship team of the SGC - the folks who save the world seven times before breakfast. You tried the gene therapy, and it didn't take. You with all your brains and you'll never be able to play with Ancient toys.

"Your father dying was pretty rough, too - especially all the hoo-haw over his burial. And then there was the break up with Pete. But you knew that was coming, didn't you? You had to have known from the beginning that it would never work out. How can you expect any man to deal with all the secrets you have to keep? It would have been okay if he had stuck to the rules - kept everything nice and casual - just a few laughs now and then. But he had to go and get all serious and want to get married and buy a house."

Daniel swung his legs off the side of the bed and sat up, his hands lightly gripping the edge as he leaned forward. Sam raised her eyes to look into his face.

"And then you went to talk to Jack, to pour your heart out to him. And what do you find? He's burning beef, guzzling beer and schmoozing some CIA lady. So you chickened out. Saved by the cell, huh?"

Sam straightened up and starred at Daniel. "Wait a minute! You don't know about that - you can't!"

Daniel leaned back on the bunk and folded his arms across his chest, smiling smugly.

"Wanna bet? You're not the only person who knows why you interrupted the general's private little barbecue that day. Did you know the lady in question broke up with our esteemed general the next day? Gave him a bit of advice concerning you before she left, too."

Before she could ask him anything more, Daniel vanished.

Sam slowly got up from the chair. Leaning over, she felt the rumpled bedcovers. They were warm, as if still retaining body heat. But then, it hadn't been that long since she had been sitting there herself. Shaking, she kicked off her boots, pulled back the blanket and crawled in. She turned to face the wall, curling up and pulling the blanket over her shoulder. Within moments, she was asleep.

~~{<>}~~

Sam blinked her eyes and rolled over to face the sound of approaching footsteps. She groaned when she noticed that she’d never closed the door to her makeshift quarters the night before.

Throwing back the covers she rubbed her temples gently as she sat up, wondering if the slight headache pounding at her temples was coming on as a result of just thinking of all the extra work that lay ahead of her, or if it was because of the appearance of the girl from last night. Normally, if anyone could consider something like this normal, she would have brushed it off as stress and flashbacks. But one point was clear in her mind – the girl last night was most definitely not Grace.

They were similar; there was no question about it. But they were not the same girl. Possibly a familial resemblance – if hallucinations had family – sisters or cousins.

Looking at her watch she decided that she needed to use some of the extra time she had from waking up early to take a longer, more relaxing shower. Then she’d be off to a breakfast briefing with Colonel Pendergast, during which she’d have to break the news about the additional time needed to put her upgrades into effect.

Standing underneath the steadily pulsing stream of water Sam found it anything but relaxing. As usual, her body was starting to relax when her mind went into overload. Her previous experience in this region of space had been logically explained away by her concussion. That was not the case here. So, she could either continue under the assumption that she was truly going nuts, or one of her theories was correct.

If her theory were correct, she needed to figure out how to handle it. How to figure things out and get enough proof so that she could prove it to everyone else without them thinking she was nuts. She’d been down that road once already. The ordeal with Orlin had almost managed to drive her nuts. She didn’t need to try that again.

Stepping out of the shower she quickly dressed and made her way back to her quarters to grab her laptop before meeting with Colonel Pendergast. She doubted the colonel would want an illustrated explanation of everything she was planning on doing, but she wanted to be prepared regardless.

Entering the Prometheus’s mess hall, she found Pendergast’s table and made her way over. Depositing her things, she grabbed her bowl of cereal and a banana before returning to the table. She really needed to talk to them about stocking Jello, the pudding selection looked absolutely horrid.

“Did you have a good night, Carter?” Pendergast was obviously making small talk to start off their informal meeting, but the question made Sam wonder if her face belied her concerns.

“Pretty well, thank you. Though I did make some interesting discoveries during my inspection yesterday. There have been modifications to the hyperdrive that were never logged in. Unfortunately that requires changes to the modifications that I was going to put into effect, and it will take more time.”

Sam put a spoonful of cereal up to her lips as she watched Pendergast’s face to gauge his reaction. He took it in stride, shrugging. “Egh, such is life. If it will prevent us from having further problems with the systems in the long run, it’s worth it. How long will you need?”

Sam looked back to her cereal, trying to make a quick estimate, though she knew there was no way she could say for sure. “It shouldn’t be anything extraordinary, just…”

She raised her head to meet Pendergast’s gaze, only to discover that he wasn’t there. Her spoon landed forgotten on the table as she stood up and surveyed the entire mess hall. Everyone was gone. The tables were cleared and there wasn’t a person to be found, or a sound to be heard.

“What the – ?“

“Little Miss Muffet sat on her tuffet,
Eating her curds and whey.
Along came a spider,
Who sat down beside her,
And frightened Miss Muffet away.”

Sam closed her eyes, wishing that this could be happening to someone else, before she turned towards the melodious voice. The same girl from the day before was standing in the entrance to the mess hall. Her hair had the same golden curls that Grace had sported, the same childlike features that were so quick to smile.

Taking a few steps toward her the girl continued to play with the yo-yo that seemed to be connected to her. She used it with the same grace and precision of someone using an extra appendage. It seemed to glide and swirl out from her, the kaleidoscope of colors swirling on its side reminding Sam very much of the nebulous cloud that floated off in the distance.

Sam’s sigh was distinctly obvious in the eerie quiet of the ship. “You again. Who are you? What do you want with me? And where is the rest of the crew?”

The young girl smiled, her wrist flicking slightly to release the yo-yo and let it settle to the ground where it rolled along for a foot or so before coming back up to join with her hand once more.

“I’m Faith.”

Sam waited for a few moments, expecting the girl to elaborate or at least answer the other questions she’d posed. When nothing further came and the girl just stood there smiling at her Sam sat down. Her head rested in her hands as she watched the girl move closer.

“Why are you here?”

Faith’s smile grew larger, apparently this was a question she was supposed to be asking. “I live here. Well, nearby.” The girl sat down across the table from Sam, where Pendergast had been just moments before. “You remember don’t you?” The question was whispered, as if its answer would divulge the secrets of the universe.

Sam nodded, her hands moving to rest before her on the table. “You live here? On the ship?”

“Not on the ship; here, all around here." The girl leaned forward, a fit of giggles overtaking her before she grew serious. "I have to warn you…”

“Warn me?” Sam’s head shot up. “About what? Is something wrong with the ship’s hyperdrive?”

“Not to the best of my knowledge, Colonel Carter. Did you discover some problem yesterday?” Pendergast asked before he took a mouthful of oatmeal.

Sam felt her jaw drop and her eyes grow wide. The little girl was gone, not a single trace of her remained. Pendergast and the rest of the crew were all back where they’d been before Faith had appeared.

“Colonel Carter?” Pendergast looked at her questioningly. “Are you sure you’re alright? You seem rather… distracted… this morning.”

Carter blinked and swallowed several times before she felt confident enough to reply. “I’m fine, Colonel. I guess my slightly disturbed sleep just bothered me a bit more than I wanted to admit. I’m just a little tired.”

Pendergast accepted the excuse easily. “It happens to the best of us, Carter.”

Sam picked up the banana, but her appetite was ruined by the gnawing concern in her gut. Still, she knew that not eating would only add to her problems. She began to strip the peel from the fruit.

"I assume we're still on schedule for the next cooldown stop, sir?" Sam took a small bite of the banana while she waited for Pendergast to swallow his oatmeal so he could answer her question.

"Sure are. We'll be stopping just after ten hundred hours, about two million kilometers from that cloud thing of yours. I trust that's a safe enough distance, because we'll be there until you get through with your tinkering."

"I'm sure that will be fine, sir," she replied, not totally confident in her answer, "although, I should be going. I'd like to complete the additional simulations before we stop so that I can get started on the adjustments as soon as we finish this jump." She put the remains of the banana back on her tray and stood to leave. "With your permission, of course, sir?"

"Absolutely, Carter. Don't let me keep you. But if you find out anything about who made those adjustments without logging them in, let me know, will you? I don't like sloppy work on board my ship and not keeping records of that sort of thing is sloppy work. Especially when it impacts productivity or performance later on."

"Yes, sir, I'll let you know if I find anything."

~~{<>}~~

It took a bit over seven minutes to navigate from the mess hall through the corridors, down two sets of elevators to the engineering level where the hyperdrive control and her makeshift quarters were located. Sam had planned ahead and grabbed a cellophane wrapped sandwich and a couple of diet sodas from the canteen before she left the mess. A fifteen minute round-trip for lunch would be wasting too much time. Although juggling the food and her laptop was becoming a bit awkward on the long walk.

"I would be pleased to assist you with your burdens, Colonel Carter, however, I do not believe it would be practical under the circumstances."

Sam dropped one of the sodas. She watched it roll down the corridor about six feet, pivot thirty degrees to the right and roll diagonally until it hit the wall, where it finally lay still. Only then did she turn to look behind her, where an imposing figure in heavy robes stood patiently, hands clasped behind his back.

"You mean because you're a figment of my imagination, Teal'c?

"Not precisely, Colonel Carter. Although the source of my appearance is your mind, I do not emanate from your imagination, but rather from your memory. Still, I do not have physical form in the usual sense, and am therefore unable to carry your things. I am, nonetheless, here to help you."

"Really?" Sam adjusted the laptop and the sandwich, and shoved the remaining soda into a pants pocket in her BDUs. The chill through the thin fabric of the pocket lining made her shiver, but it was better than juggling. Walking up the corridor, she bent to retrieve the other soda and slid it into another pocket. She made a mental note to remember which one it was, and to be sure to open it last. "So just what are you here to help me with? I think I've got a pretty good handle on the hyperdrive adjustments." She continued to walk down the corridor. Teal'c apparition fell into step beside her.

"I have no doubt in your scientific skills. You, however, are having doubts about your own sanity. I am here to assist you in easing those doubts. You are a strong warrior, Samantha Carter, both physically and mentally. It is true that you have dealt with many emotional difficulties in the past year. It is important that you understand that these have not affected your mental stability or the performance of your duty. You must have confidence in what you know to be true so that you will be able to warn the others."

"Warn the others? Who? Warn them about what?"

"This you will learn in time. For now, be assured that all that you are seeing is real, in its own way."

They arrived at the first set of elevators. Sam punched the down button and turned to face Teal'c. Not surprisingly, the normally busy corridors were deserted. Apparently, her memories didn't like to appear in public.

"How can you be real, Teal'c? Or Daniel? Or that little girl I keep seeing? Daniel's back on base and you're supposed to be visiting Ry'ac. And that little girl I don't even know. How am I supposed to believe that you're not some after-effect of the grief over my father, or guilt over the break-up with Pete?"

The elevator doors opened and Teal'c motioned for Sam to precede him into the car. She waited for him to follow, then punched the button for the lower level, wondering how nuts it was to wait politely for an apparition to enter an elevator.

"Samantha Carter, you have grieved for Jacob Carter well and with dignity. You honor his memory. Even at his funeral, in the face of much opposition, you honored the alliance he fought so hard to protect. I believe he was and still is very proud of you. As for Pete Shanahan, even the strongest of warriors can stumble when it comes to matters of the heart."

The elevator came to a halt, the doors opening onto yet another non-descript gray corridor. If it weren't for the numbers posted every few feet, it would be impossible to tell where you were in the mammoth ship.

Proceeding down the hallway, Teal'c continued. "All are subject to mistakes in love, Samantha Carter. You have no cause to feel guilt. It was not your intention to deceive Pete Shanahan, anymore than O'Neill intended to deceive Kerry Johnson. Although I find it curious that he - "broke up" as you call it - so soon after you ended your involvement."

Sam stopped walking, needing to absorb all he was saying. "But what about what Daniel - or - the vision of Daniel - said?"

"It is important to understand your fears, if you are to overcome them."

The vision of Teal'c began to fade. After a few seconds, he was gone.

"Wait! Don't go yet!"

"I'm sorry, ma'am." A young airman was standing at attention in front of her, a confused look on his face. "Was there something you wanted?"

Sam shook her head, and backed up against the wall to get out of the way of the crowds of personnel walking briskly through the hall.

"No, airman, it's nothing. I'm sorry - as you were."

She continued slowly through the corridors, eventually coming to the engineering section. Was it really possible that the apparitions she was seeing were somehow "real", as Teal'c said? And what sort of warning was she supposed to give, and to whom?

"Jack, be nimble, Jack, be quick,
Jack, jump over the candlestick."

Even in a high-pitched sing-song, Sam recognized that voice. Turning a corner, she was just in time to see Doctor Janet Fraiser. The doctor was standing smartly in dress blues, holding a bright, multi-colored balloon. She wiggled her fingers in a silly greeting that matched her broad grin. Within seconds, like Teal'c she faded and disappeared.

Sam ran down another corridor and ducked into her temporary quarters, slamming the door behind her. She knew by now that the corridors that had been deserted while Janet made her appearance would suddenly be full of people - people who would wonder why a Lieutenant Colonel was bawling her eyes out.

~~{<>}~~

Lieutenant Colonel Samantha Carter had completely lost it when she heard that her best friend, Doctor Janet Frasier, had been killed in action while trying to save the life of a wounded young airman. She hadn't lost it right away, of course. General Hammond had come to her office, closed the door and placed a comforting hand on her shoulder as he tried to gently break the news to her. She had sat silently for a moment. Then she thanked him for coming to tell her in person. He went on to explain that Janet's body was being brought back through the stargate, and that a memorial service was being planned. Then he mentioned that Jack's injury was not as bad as they originally thought, and that he was being released from the infirmary. It was when she went to see Jack that she found herself unexpectedly clinging to him, sobbing, her grief overwhelming her.

"I think you cried more for Janet than you did for me. Not that it surprises me. You had a chance to prepare for my death. And it's natural, for a parent to die. It's a lot harder when someone young, someone your own age, dies unexpectedly."

Sam raised her head, the ghost of a smile crossing her face. "Dad, I kinda wondered if you would show up. After Janet, I figured, 'Why not?' I'm glad. It's good to see you, even if it means I'm completely nuts."

A faint chuckle escaped her and she grinned. Her hand reached across the bed to where the apparition sat wearing a simple golf shirt and a pair of old jeans. Legs crossed, he held his hands in his lap and lowered his head. When he looked back up, his voiced had deepened to the rich timbre of the Tok'ra.

"As others have told you, you are not 'nuts' Samantha. You must understand that you have a gift that allows you to communicate where others cannot. That is why it is so important for you to deliver the warning. There is no one else who can."

"Selmak? You're here, too?"

"Of course, Samantha. In some ways, I am as much your parent as Jacob. After all, I have all his memories. I remember the day you were born. You were the most beautiful, most precious being in the universe - even more beautiful than your mother. And when you graduated from the Academy, no father could have been more proud. Jacob was, and is, so very, very proud of you Samantha, even if he doesn't tell you." Again, his head dipped and when it rose again, Jacob was back.

"I don't need to tell you every day of your life something that you already know. Besides, like Selmak said, you need to warn people. We don't have time for personal chit-chat."

"Warn people? Warn them of what, Dad? And don't you dare fade on me!"

Jacob, of course, didn't listen. His fading image stood up from the bed. Before he could take the two steps that would allow Sam to see if he could walk through the wall, he vanished. Sam was left alone again, not sure if she should believe the apparitions that kept assuring her that she was sane. Wouldn't they be the first to tell her that they were real? It was in their best interest, after all. Without her, they would be relegated back to whatever oblivion apparitions and visions lived in between hauntings. Probably a pretty boring place. Maybe it was like the Green Room on TV shows where at least they served donuts and coffee. Of course, Selmak didn't like coffee. Hopefully they had tea, too.

"Oh, Christ!" Sam gripped the hair on both sides of her head. "I am *completely* nuts. None of this makes any sense!" Falling over sideways onto the pillow, she curled up, bringing her arms down to protectively hug herself. She sobbed for a few moments, rocking back and forth. Grasping the edge of the rough military blanket, she turned over, cocooning herself in its scratchy warmth. After a few moments, exhaustion overwhelmed her and she slept.

~~{<>}~~

"Colonel Carter!"

Sam's eyes popped open and she frantically rolled over on the bed. She was not yet awake enough to realize that the voice that had woken her from a sound sleep was coming from the intercom on the wall. In her haste to get out of the bed, and face the glaring officer she was sure had caught her napping, her legs became tangled in the blanket and she nearly rolled off the small cot. Fortunately, she was able to catch herself and come to a seated position on the edge of the bed, blanket still wrapped tightly around one knee. She leaned over to hit the small, blinking button. Sometimes cramped quarters came in handy.

"Carter here."

"Colonel Carter, this is Pendergast. Did I catch you napping? It took quite awhile for you to answer. Are you all right?"

Sam momentarily wondered if Pendergast had surveillance cameras positioned throughout the ship to catch unsuspecting junior officers goofing off. Then logic overtook guilt and she realized it was just a bizarre coincidence.

"I'm fine, sir. I was just...um...a little tied up."

"I see," said the disembodied voice, "I was just wondering if you would join me in the mess this evening for dinner, eighteen hundred hours. Be a good time to let me know how things are going. I'd also like to get an update on our timeline. Have you had a chance to finish those additional simulations you were talking about?"

Sam glanced at the alarm clock on the small bedside table, hoping she hadn't slept the entire day away. It wouldn't do to report back that she had gotten absolutely nothing done all day. Even if she did have a good shot at an insanity defense. Relieved, she noted that it wasn't even noon yet. She'd lost some time, but she could still complete most of the simulations before dinner. With luck, she would have a good start on the modified upgrade plans as well. If she worked all evening after dinner, she'd have those finished in time to present them to Pendergast at breakfast and start on the actual implementation right afterwards.

"No, sir, they aren't finished yet. It's...um...going to take a bit longer for me to reprogram the simulator with those undocumented modifications. But I should be able to give you that update at dinner. I look forward to joining you."

"Good. We've made some changes since the last time you were here. I've got a pretty decent cook on board now. No more MREs. The menu isn't extensive, but what we have is pretty darn tasty. I'm sure it will be something to tempt you away from your computers and crystals, at least for a little while."

Sam smiled, but it was humor tinged with chagrin. She had the distinct feeling that General O'Neill had talked to Pendergast about her propensity for working through meals. He was being protective, even from light-years away.

"I'm sure it will be wonderful, Colonel. I'll see you at six o'clock. Thank you, sir."

"See you then, Carter. And I promise not to disturb you again until then. Pendergast out."

Sam grabbed her laptop and the now lukewarm sodas and sandwich that would be her lunch and ran out the door to the crystal room. She would need to verify the modifications to the simulation, checking the original configuration against the actual crystals of the array. And she needed to get those changes completed quickly. No sense in wasting time doing the modifications from her notes. It would have been more comfortable to work in her room, but she couldn't afford comfort when she had just napped most of the morning away.

And since when did Colonel Samantha Carter, leader of SG-1, flagship team of the SGC, fall asleep while on duty? She would have to do some serious self-assessment when she had the chance. She had never fallen asleep on duty, not even on long missions when she had taken midnight watch while her teammates slept. Of course, on those missions she usually didn't have to deal with having visions of people who weren't there...or were dead. That was enough to unsettle anyone, right?

Thankfully, no one appeared to answer the unspoken question.

~~{<>}~~

The mess had been decked out like a four-star restaurant. White tablecloths, china and polished flatware adorned the tables. There was no wine, but a uniformed steward stood ready to refill their water glasses or to provide soft drinks or coffee. With the expanse of space through the observation ports as a backdrop, the setting could have been very elegant and romantic. The ships lighting, however, didn't work well to complete the ambiance. Still, it was much more than Sam had expected. She was pleased to see that the majority of the ship's crew, from airmen up to the bridge officers, had come in for dinner. Apparently, Pendergast didn't reserve such special touches only for the senior staff. She swallowed her bite of Chicken Divan and marveled that food that had been onboard ship for months could still taste so fresh. It was a sure bet that they hadn't gotten any food preservation or preparation technology from the Asgard. She shivered at the memory of the yellow Asgard food cube she had tasted. Setting her fork down, she continued her report on the results of the simulations.

"I was able to complete three full run-throughs, using the new configuration." She moved the mouse to highlight a section of the schematic on the laptop's screen. "I'm confident that I can get the same results if I just cross link these three crystals. The additional modulation that results will boost power during long jumps, without the sympathetic vibrations that were causing the system to overload."

Pendergast made an effort to study the screen, but it was evident from the look on his face that he understood her explanations no more than General O'Neill did. At least he didn't make funny noises and plug his ears with his fingers.

"Bottom line this for me, Carter. How long before we can make another jump? The food's good, but I'm still anxious to get home."

"Well, sir, I want to run a few more tests tonight and complete my documentation. I should be able to begin the actual work first thing in the morning. I noticed a couple of crystals with hairline cracks, so I'd like to replace those first. Fortunately, you have replacements on hand. It will take most of the day tomorrow to complete the reconfiguration, then another day to test and validate everything. We should be ready for a short hop test by the following morning. If that goes well, then it's just one more big hop home." Sam took another bite of the chicken, suddenly realizing that she was very hungry. In her frantic need to make up for lost time, she had completely forgotten to eat her sandwich.

Pendergast finished his meal and leaned back in his chair. He took the napkin from his lap and laid it neatly beside his plate. His fork and knife were resting on the plate, with regimental precision, at exactly four o'clock.

"That's excellent, Carter. I can't tell you how pleased I am that you've gotten us through this so quickly. And if everything works out, I'll be very happy to stop this bunny-hopping through space. But next time, leave the laptop in your quarters. I'm perfectly happy with a verbal report, particularly since I did not understand any of what you were trying to show me." He rose from his chair. "And now, if you'll excuse me, I have some personnel reports to work on before I turn in tonight. If there's anything you need, let me know."

Carter rose from her own seat. "Thank you sir. I think I'm all set. Have a good evening."

Pendergast turned and strode out of the mess. The steward quickly removed the dishes, and brushed invisible crumbs off the linen. Sam gathered her laptop, took one last swallow of water and left to complete the remaining tests. She was relieved that her lapse of the morning had not severely impacted the upgrade schedule. She'd been very lucky. The new simulations had gone very smoothly. If her luck held, she would get through the modifications tomorrow with no problems...and no more apparitions. Then she would be back at the SGC and put in for some long overdue vacation time. Only this time she *would* get away...far away from the SGC and naquadah generators and hyperdrives. Maybe a nice, quiet beach somewhere where she could rest and recharge her engines.

~~{<>}~~

The next morning Sam woke feeling back to normal. She had worked until late in the evening putting the finishing touches on her upgrade plan and making sure she had every connection, coupling and crystal array committed to memory. She was determined to complete this operation with no more bizarre occurrences and absolutely no glitches. She fell asleep the minute her head hit the pillow and slept soundly through the night, not even remembering her dreams. If it were up to her, she would skip breakfast and get straight to work. But Pendergast had made it obvious that he preferred to get updates in the casual atmosphere of the mess, over a meal. He would expect her to show up. But she would leave the laptop in her quarters.

Sam ate her cereal quietly as Pendergast's head officers went through their morning routine. Yesterday, she had been the special guest and got to go first. This morning, she was apparently lower in the pecking order. When the colonel turned to her, she gave a quick outline of the successful completion of the previous night's tests and final preparations, and reported her readiness to begin the reconfiguration. Pendergast listened attentively and granted her dispensation to leave right away and get to work. She did not have to wait to finish the meal or listen to the remaining officers' reports. Sam thanked him and nodded to the rest of the officers. Then she all but sprinted out, anxious to get started.

"Georgie Porgie, puddin' and pie,
Kissed the girls and made them cry.
When the boys came out to play,
Georgie Porgie ran away."

Sam stopped short. She should have known. The crowded corridors had become deserted. And now she was hearing O'Neill. Jack O'Neill, of all people, reciting nursery rhymes.

"Little Boy Blue, come blow your horn,
The sheep's in the meadow, the cow's in the corn."

Okay, so maybe General O'Neill wasn't planning a personal appearance, because the latest rhyme was recited by the little girl, Faith. Now if she would only show herself so that Sam could get this latest incarnation over with and get on with her work. As long as she didn't have to say "I see dead people", she could deal with it. But it was wasting valuable time.

"I'm sorry you think I'm such a nuisance."

Sam turned in the direction of the voice. Faith stood in a doorway, her face a picture of hurt and dejection. The yo-yo spun listlessly at the end of the string.

"Faith, I'm sorry. I don't want to hurt you. But in the first place, I'm not sure I even think you're real. And in the second place, I really need to get to work. You all keep telling me that I need to warn people. The sooner I get the hyperdrive, the sooner we can get home. And then I can warn whoever you like. Assuming you ever explain to me what I'm supposed to warn them about."

"But the danger is coming. It's almost here. You have to warn them. You have to warn them now. They haven't given up. They're coming back and they'll be here soon. Very, very soon."

The little girl turned and ran down another corridor. Sam started to follow, but the girl had vanished. Sam was exasperated. She shouted after Faith, "Who's coming? What is this danger? Can't you just tell me? Why do you have to keep speaking in riddles?"

She turned back and resumed her trek to the lower levels. She wasn't surprised to see the corridors once again crowded with crew persons on their way to their various work stations. She welcomed the crowds. As long as other people were around, the apparitions stayed away. She had thought she would be able to deal with them. But they unnerved her more each time. And now she would be spending the better part of the day alone working on the hyperdrive crystals. She needed to be uninterrupted. She needed to keep her focus and concentrate on the reconfiguration. Maybe she should ask Pendergast to send her an assistant, just to have someone else in the room with her, apparition deterrent. Then she remembered the previous morning at breakfast. The room had been full of people, but they had simply vanished when Faith first appeared. Obviously, crowds were no guarantee that she wouldn't have a vision. They just made it a bit more awkward. No, it was better to work alone. At least no one would witness her talking to people that weren't there.

~~{<>}~~

In spite of the repeat appearance by Faith in the corridor, the morning's work went surprisingly well. But in her haste to get to work, Sam forgot to bring along anything for lunch. Or even anything to drink. You would think that a ship this size would have water fountains. She would have to address both hunger and thirst soon. It was nearly one o'clock. On a ship where the morning shift started at seven, most of the crew would have finished lunch by now, so the mess shouldn't be too crowded. She decided to take a few minutes break.

"Sam, wait."

Oh, great. Just when things were going so well, another one pops up. At least this time it was the General and not Faith. And he wasn't spouting nursery rhymes. He was, however, leaning on door frame, blocking her exit.

"Sir, look, I'm really hungry. Not to mention thirsty. And I'd really like to get this work done today, since I promised Colonel Pendergast. So if you don't mind, will you just leave me alone and let me get to the mess hall?"

O'Neill stood and sidestepped into the room, bowing slightly and sweeping his arm, inviting her to leave.

"Fine with me, Sam, let's go. But, given that I'm not really here, do you think you could drop the 'sir' business? It's really cool at first, but after awhile it gets a little old. I think that's one of the things I really liked about having Teal'c and Daniel on the team. They didn't have to call me 'sir'. As long as we're out here, and I'm not real, call me Jack."

Sam eyed the apparition suspiciously. 'Let's go' he said. She didn't like the idea of one of her visions joining her for lunch. But she really was very hungry. And she didn't think she could stop him if that was what he wanted to do - especially not this particular apparition. She marched through the door and proceeded down the corridor to the elevators.

"So, Sam. I really need to talk to you about this warning business. You don't seem to want to believe anyone else, maybe you'll listen to me. And you asked for more information, I've been authorized to give you some of the details."

Sam stopped and turned to the vision that was following her. "Are you telling me you know what this is all about? Do you know something about this danger that Faith keeps blabbering about?"

"Know all about it. You see, you weren't listening to Faith, so she decided you might listen to me. But it's really her that's talking to you. I, myself, the real Jack - don't know a thing. But that's neither here nor there. And she would have told you sooner but there's some metaphysical thing where she has to be around you for awhile before she can really communicate well. That's why all the nursery rhymes. She was sort of learning the lingo. C'mon, let's keep walking. You're hungry, after all."

Jack...or Faith/Jack or whoever he was proceeded down the corridor. Sam stared after him, wondering if she should follow or run the other way. Well, she'd asked for more details, and whoever he was, he was in a talkative mood. She followed.

"You see, she lives here. Or rather, they live here. There's a bunch of them and they're energy beings. Something way beyond even the Asgard. The only way they can communicate with physical beings is by some sort of emotional booster shot they give you. It enhances your awareness, and then they can talk to you. That's why you see the visions. Only awhile back they found out they have to be really careful who they try it on. They ran across a bunch of folks travelling through this area of space and tried their little booster trick. Only these people had a nasty aggressive streak. The booster made them tons, tons more aggressive and now they run around blasting away at anyone they come across." Jack had arrived at the elevators and stood waiting for Sam to catch up. "Those are the ones that were in that big ship that got stuck in the cloud with you the last time you were here. Oh, and the cloud - that's the closest thing Grace and Faith and the bunch have to a physical form. They've been hanging around in this area of space ever since. They try to warn ships that wander through here, when they can. "

Sam punched the up button and waited for the elevator to arrive, listening intently to the story unfold.

"Anyway, she's really glad you were able to get away from them the last time. But apparently that ticked these aggressive ship folks off, and they've been just waiting for Prometheus to show up again. They're on their way here. "

The elevator doors opened and Sam and Jack stepped on.

"Wait a minute." Sam wasn't sure she should be believing all this, but so far it seemed plausible, if a bit bizarre. "You said the cloud is the physical form of Grace and Faith. That physical form almost destroyed Prometheus. The ship was starting to dissolve in that cloud. Are they aware of that?"

Jack hung his head. "They're aware. They do that on purpose. They wouldn't have let it cause permanent damage. A lot of ships duck into the cloud, trying to escape the aggressive ships. Every time the aggressive ships follow, their own ship deteriorates a little bit more. Since the aggressive ship people were affected by the boosters, all their creative energy goes into fighting, they haven't bothered to reverse the effects of the cloud. Faith hopes that, eventually, they'll be destroyed. The other ships usually have someone that can figure out a way out of the cloud, or figure out how to stop the deterioration. And Grace or Faith can sometimes communicate with them, to help them. Either way, it usually gives them time to get away from the aggressors."

The doors opened again and the two stepped out into the empty corridor.

"So your saying that these aggressors are coming here to get revenge because we're the one that got away?"

"Well, yes. You among lots of others. Their ships have been pretty badly damaged by repeated exposure to the cloud, so they don't travel as fast as they used to, except in really short bursts. But Prometheus is just sitting here. You really need to get moving. If they find you here, they'll follow you all the way back to Earth. They do have rather sophisticated sensor technology. They may be able to follow, even through a hyperspace jump."

The mess hall doors were just ahead. Sam really didn't want Jack following her inside. But she wasn't sure how to get rid of him. The other apparitions had never lasted this long.

"It's getting a lot easier to talk to you, Sam. The boost didn't work on you as well last time because you hit your head. This time it's working pretty well. But now I really need to go. You need to talk to Pendergast and get him to get this ship out of here." Jack began to fade.

"Wait a minute. How do you expect me to convince the colonel? If I tell him I've been seeing visions of a little girl, he's going to think I've gone nuts. He'll never believe me."

"You'll think of something, Sam. I have faith in you. You're pretty clever, you know."

And he was gone.

~~{<>}~~

Sam paced in the corridor outside of the mess hall. Jack, or rather his apparition, had been so detailed, so convincing. She couldn't help but believe him. And she had seen enough other bizarre things that nothing was truly unbelievable anymore. If an ascended being could make himself at home in her house and make himself mortal again, a race of energy beings living in a cloud in space was no big deal.

Pendergast, on the other hand, wasn't going to be so easy to convince.

Still, she had to try. That ship had been intimidating. Even if it was badly damaged, she had the feeling it packed enough firepower to blow Prometheus to vapor.

Her mind made up, she marched into the mess hall.

~~{<>}~~

She could pace from one end of the tiny room to the other in just under five steps. If she stretched, she made it in four. At least Pendergast had done her the courtesy of locking her in her own room, with a guard posted at the door. But there was no question, Pendergast thought Lieutenant Colonel Samantha Carter had gone completely wacko. He had locked her up where she couldn't bother anyone.

The ship's engineer was working on the hyperdrive, checking it over with a fine tooth comb to make sure the insane woman that had her way with it hadn't somehow sabotaged it. As soon as he gave the all clear they would resume their slow, hopping way home, where she would be put into the custody of the SGC's mental health staff, and more than likely locked away for extended treatment.

It would be years before she went through the stargate again, if ever.

She probably shouldn't have mentioned the cloud beings, or the visions. But she couldn't think of any other way to explain why she knew the ship aliens were on their way back. Without the visions, her story would just sound like extreme paranoia.

With the visions, it sounded like extreme psychosis.

Sometimes, you can't win for losing.

"Jack and Jill
Went up the hill
To fetch a pail of water.
Jack fell down
And broke his crown
And Jill came tumbling after."

Here we go again. Sam wondered who would be visiting this time. She turned toward the bed. They seemed to like the bed.

"Martouf."

"It's good to see you again, Sam. I want to thank you, by the way, for what you did when I died. It was comforting to know that you weren't angry with me."

Sam sat down next to the Tok'ra. She was getting used to these appearances from the people in her life. But when people she had lost showed up, it was harder. It brought the loss back into sharp focus, as if they were dying all over again. And she felt as if they could see into her soul, and knew the things she feared and hoped for most.

"Sam, I know you tried. But you need to try harder. If Pendergast won't believe you, you need to talk to someone who will."

There it was, that lovely, soft, lilting voice. She could listen to him talk forever. It was soothing and sexy all at once, even when he was asking the impossible.

"What good will that do? Even if I convince one of the crew, Pendergast won't believe them, either. He'll just think he's got a case of space madness on his hands. He won't budge."

"Samantha, the Tau'ri have a saying. 'If Mohammed won't come to the mountain..."

Sam looked up, but Martouf, like all the others, was gone, leaving a riddle for her.

~~{<>}~~

General Jack O'Neill was not happy. He'd gotten the usual 'Arrived safely' message from Carter when she'd landed on Prometheus. Then he'd spent nearly two days confident in the knowledge that she was happily working on her hyperdrive, as safe as was possible when surrounded by light-years of not-so-empty space. The area they were in was not known to be heavily traveled, and aside from the bizarre incident with that cloud, they should have been perfectly safe. And he was pretty sure Pendergast knew enough to stay away from the cloud.

This morning, before he'd had a chance to take his second sip of coffee, he'd gotten a cryptic message from Prometheus. Expecting the high praise always heaped on Carter when she went visiting, he was more than shocked to hear that Pendergast had restricted her to quarters, under guard no less. The message didn't give any details, but there was a vague sense of unease to it, almost apologetic. Something was terribly wrong and Pendergast didn't want to put it in writing. The message went on to say that Carter's work to that point was being carefully undone. Prometheus would be resuming her journey home, one small jump at a time, along the original planned route. It would be at least another two weeks before they arrived.

It had been so much easier when he led his team through the gate. Back then, if one of them got into trouble, he just went in after them, guns blazing. Yee-haw, Jack O'Neill to the rescue. He couldn't very well lead a rescue team onto Earth's own ship, with a respected officer in command. He would just have to wait it out, until he could get the whole story and get this colossal mess straightened out.

Carter, confined to quarters. Never in a million years. Until now.

~~{<>}~~

Pendergast hadn't counted on Sam's tendency to plan for any contingency. If she brought along one laptop on a trip, she always brought a spare, fully configured for whatever she might be doing. Computers were too finicky to trust. She had left her regular laptop in with the hyperdrive, and it had been confiscated. Pendergast's engineer was using it to reverse all her hard work. Can't trust the tinkerings of a mad woman, after all.

Meanwhile, the mad woman was busily tinkering with the ship's communications systems. She had already tapped into the sensors. At the first sign of another ship in the area, at least she would know about it. Not that she could do much, stuck in a tiny supply room that doubled as a brig. But she sure as heck couldn't do anything if she didn't know what was going on.

Sam was also monitoring all intra-ship communications, as well as incoming messages. All that she could do without anyone knowing that she was listening in.

What she really needed to do was get a message out. That was a whole lot trickier. There was no way she would be able to actually hold a conversation with anyone without being detected, but she hoped that a very short and carefully worded message could be compressed into the tiniest of microbursts that she could piggy-back onto one of the next outgoing messages back to Earth.

Awhile back the SGC had received an amazingly well compressed message from Atlantis. It had contained reports, tons of data on the city and the Pegasus galaxy and the planets they had already visited, and it contained video letters to the loved ones of all the Atlantis expedition team. But best of all, it contained the key to the compression algorithm that had allowed them to send so much information in such a small burst. The key had, of course, Rodney McKay's name all over it, literally. He made sure anyone who picked it up knew that he had every intention of getting a patent on it as soon as he returned to Earth and that he would sue anyone who tried to usurp his idea.

But that didn't mean that Sam couldn't copy it to her hard drive and make good use of it until McKay got back.

Pendergast made regular reports, morning and evening. His next one would be going out in about an hour, just before he sat down to his very fine, elegant meal. Sam could include a lengthy message to General O'Neill, detailing all that she had learned about the cloud beings and the ship aliens. He had been through as many bizarre experiences as she had and would be less likely to assume she was 'tetched in the head' as his grandmother would undoubtedly put it. With the compression algorithm, the message would be so tiny that anyone in the ship's communication center who even noticed it would assume it was just a bit of static.

The problem is, so would the crew back at the SGC. She had to somehow include a marker that would go unnoticed by the Prometheus crew, but would alert her friends back home to the extra bit of 'noise'.

~~{<>}~~

As his clerk walked in with the evening reports, Jack was amazed as usual at the man's energy. Sergeant Harriman had been on the job to greet Jack with his morning cup of coffee since the general arrived at oh-seven-hundred. It was after eight p.m. and he was still here. In spite of what was stretching into another fourteen-hour day, Walter bustled into the inner sanctum resembling a squirrel stocking up nuts for the winter.

After he placed the reports on the desk, the sergeant stood uncharacteristically hesitant. It was obvious he had something to say, but was oddly reluctant to come out with it. Jack realized he hadn't been in the best of moods since receiving the notice of Carter's incarceration aboard Prometheus. He supposed it wasn't terribly surprising that the man would be dancing on eggshells around him. Walter was his eyes and ears in places he couldn't always be present. As such, he was much too valuable to be intimidated. It was best to make sure he was comfortable saying whatever he had to say, whenever he had to say it.

"Something interesting in this evening's reports, Walter?" It sounded lame to Jack's own ears, but it was too late in the day for him to come up with anything more witty. He hoped it did the trick and let Walter know that the bear was safely in his den and it was safe to approach.

"I um...noticed something a bit odd about Colonel Pendergast's evening report today, sir."

Jack picked the top sheet off the pile and read the short message. "Doesn't look odd to me. He says they're still working on getting the hyperdrive back to its original configuration and, as a result, haven't moved. Aside from being unnaturally boring, it seems pretty normal." Jack tossed the page back onto the pile and looked back up at his clerk. "Am I missing something?"

"It may just be a coincidence, sir. And I wouldn't have noticed it myself if I hadn't worked in the control room so much." Walter picked the report up and laid it in front of Jack, pointing at the gibberish that occupied the top third of the page. "See here, sir. This is the message id. It's a lot of codes and numbers that indicate the source of the message, the intended recipient and the date and time of transmission. There's also a unique message id, right here." He pointed at a string of numbers that came at the tail end of the section of what had always appeared to be random characters.

Jack's eyes widened as he scrutinized the part of the message he'd never paid any attention to previously. "Is that what I think it is?" He looked up again, seeing his own excitement mirrored in the other man's face.

"Yes, sir. It's Colonel Carter's IDC. Like I said, it could be a coincidence. Those message numbers are generated randomly, and it's possible that the Colonel's IDC could come up in the random sequence."

The fatigue that usually characterized the end of another long day vanished. Jack was on his feet, ready for action, even if action these days only meant shouting orders and pacing the floor waiting for them to be carried out.

"My fat fanny it's a coincidence. My guess is that Carter could quote the odds on that for you, and the number would make your head spin. What's the name of that communications wiz...Captain Simons..or Simmons..or Simpson?"

Jack's excitement was infectious. Walter was practically bouncing. "Sampson sir. Captain Sampson. She's off shift right now, sir, but I'm sure I can reach her."

"Good. Get her down here and get her working on that transmission, pronto. I'm betting Carter found a way to sneak something into that message right under Pendergast's nose. And if Carter hid it, we're gonna need a world-class electronic sleuth to find it."

"Yes, sir. "

Walter turned and practically ran down Daniel on his way out the door.

"Woah! Jack, are you browbeating that poor man again? He almost ran me over trying to get out of here!"

"What? Daniel, what are you still doing here at this hour?"

Daniel looked at Jack quizzically, then slowly drew a chair away from the desk and sat down, a methodic counterpoint to Jack's frenzied state.

"I got caught up in some work and when I realized how late it was, I thought I'd see if you were still here. I figured you'd be buried in here cursing the Air Force and the Prometheus and idiot colonels in general. I hoped that maybe I could talk you into grabbing a bite to eat on the way home. I had this whole speech worked up about how you can't sit in here and mope just because Sam somehow got onto Pendergast's shit list. I was going to convince you that it was just a misunderstanding and that we'd get it all worked out once they got back."

Daniel's eyes had been following Jack as he stomped around the room, muttering incoherently about hidden messages and occasionally letting fly with some particularly juicy epithets regarding the parentage of one Colonel Pendergast.

"I thought you might have at least gotten the profanity out of your system by now. Jack, you can't possible still be in this much of a huff about Sam, what's got you so worked up?"

Jack stopped and stared at Daniel, as if just noticing that the archeologist had entered the room.

"Carter sent a message, Daniel. We got Pendergast's usual evening report and I'm positive Carter has a message embedded in the transmission. She tagged the message with her IDC. That idiot's got her locked up, but he underestimated our Colonel Carter. And whatever she's got to say, it must be important for her to go to all this trouble to tell us. But I don't have a clue what it is yet, and we won't know until we can get somebody to find the part she's hidden."

"So you've got Walter working on finding someone, and in the meantime your job is to ruin the carpet. Is that it, Jack?"

Jack sat back down behind his desk. "You know, Daniel. Sarcastic is my schtick. You should stick to talking really fast about stuff nobody else is interested in."

"Ouch. Okay. How about this? The good sergeant is going to come through and find your wizard. It's what he does. Then it's going to take a little time, even for a genius, to find this mystery message. Meanwhile, there is not a thing you can do, until you know what's in the message. On the other hand, once you do, you will probably need all the energy you've got. So how about we go grab some dinner in the mess hall and then maybe get a power nap. You're running on adrenaline, Jack, and it's going to catch up with you. You're not that spry, forty-something colonel I used to know."

It was Jack's turn to wince. "That'll teach me to trade insults with a linguist. I hate to admit it, but you have a point. It seems my whole life these days consists of waiting for other people to do their job so I can do mine. Which usually involves making a decision or two and then going back to reading reports." Jack sighed, his sudden burst of kick-ass enthusiasm deflated. "I'll let Walter know where to find me on our way out. But Daniel, one more crack about my doddering old age and I'll show you just how spry I still am!"

Daniel rose from his chair to follow Jack out the door. "On one condition, Jack -- stop making cracks about how boring archeology is."

"Yea, right. Never gonna happen, Daniel. Never gonna happen."

~~{<>}~~

"Told you so."

He was standing beside the door, arms crossed, leaning back with his legs crossed at the knees.

"Okay, Daniel. I'll bite. What did you tell me?" It was silly, but Sam checked carefully to be sure that she was decently covered by the bed clothes. The contingencies of missions meant that Daniel had occasionally seen her in her skivvies - or even less - but that didn't mean she'd given up on modesty entirely. Although she wasn't quite sure why she should be concerned about a figment of her imagination seeing her in her undies.

"I believe the last time you were out here, I was the one that suggested that the cloud might be some sort of sentient being. I just thought I'd remind you of that fact."

Daniel uncrossed his legs and sat comfortably on the edge of the bed, leaning back to rest his elbows against Sam's legs. She could feel him through the covers. Hallucination he might be, but he was uncomfortably heavy.

"So if you're so proud of yourself, how about you tell me how I can get out of here?" She shifted in the bed, bringing her legs up to sit cross-legged, while still holding the covers up around her shoulders.

With the sudden loss of support, Daniel slipped down and nearly hit his head on the wall beside the bed. He turned to face her, lying on his side with one hand propping his head up.

"I don't have to. You've already done a pretty good job of setting that into motion. But your job's only half done - running away isn't enough anymore."

"Daniel, I don't mean to argue with you, but I'm not running away from anything here. I'm locked up in this room, and I've done everything I can to get out of here. There's not much more that I can do. There's no sign of the aliens on the sensors yet. Pendergast won't even talk to me, so I don't have a prayer of getting through to him. What more can I do?"

Daniel rolled over onto his back, stretched his arms over his head and sat up on the edge of the bed. He pushed off the bed and stood looking down at her. She couldn't decide if his expression represented amusement, aggravation or resignation.

"You have to work that out for yourself, Sam. You have to decide what to do next. It's all up to you."

She was about to press him for more information, for a clue to what he meant, when he seemed to melt into the floor. Like all the others, he was gone, leaving her with no more concrete clues to what was going on.

~~{<>}~~

The glaring ring of the phone interrupted yet another dream. Jack was used to it, but just once he'd like to sleep through to the end. He rolled over and grabbed the handset, held it to his ear and mumbled, "Hello?"

A faint voice said his name, and mumbled something else. Jack glared at the phone, flipped it around and spoke again, this time into the mouthpiece. "I'm sorry, Walter, what was that?"

He listened as he rolled to sit up, scrubbing his free hand over his rumpled hair. "Great, Walter. I'll be right down. And if you could have about a gallon of coffee ready, I'd be eternally grateful."

Jack shook his head to scare away the last of the cobwebs left over from his short nap. Daniel had been right - he'd been running on fumes. The nap had helped, but it had also made him realize just how tired he really was. The fishing trip he'd taken to relax and get away seemed to have happened a lifetime ago. And, just to be contrary, the torture he'd recently endured at the hands of Baal and Horon seemed like it was just yesterday. He'd worked all day shifts for three days running. Not for any particular reason. There was no crisis keeping him at work. There just hadn't been any pressing reason to leave. And there was every reason to stay and keep himself busy. He needed to stop that. Face the demons. Get away from the base when he could, and work things out in his head so that he'd have reserve energy built up for when he truly needed it.

~~{<>}~~

Klaxons were sounding all over the ship. It had been going on for a good ten minutes now and Samantha was beginning to wonder if it was Pendergast's mission to deafen his entire crew, or if it was just her he intended to drive mad with the constant cacophony.

She was fully aware that it was just a drill. There hadn't been a peep yet on the sensors. She did wonder why the ship's designers had seen fit to put one of the alarms just outside her door. She felt most sorry for the guard. He must be truly deaf by now, having to stand directly under the damn thing.

Just as she was contemplating hacking into the ship's systems with her laptop and shutting down the alarms, they stopped.

"Thank God!"

With the noise abated, she could resume studying the mission logs from her last trip onboard Prometheus. There wasn't much else she could do locked away as she was. And there wasn't much point in trying to escape, since there was really no where she could go. Locked away and forgotten in this little room, she was free to roam the ship's systems. She needed to learn what she could about the progress of the engine retrofit, even though it boiled her to know that all her work was being discarded. General O'Neill would come through somehow and when he did, she would need to know exactly what shape the engines were in so she could resume her work and get them back in top form. Then they could get the heck out of this region of space before the ship aliens caught up with them.

And she could go back to some semblance of mental peace where she wasn't constantly being visited by people who had no business being here.

Janet had appeared again, shortly after Daniel left. Then Teal'c had stopped by. Neither had said very much - Janet had spouted the rhyme about the Three Blind Mice and then advised Sam to stop running. Teal'c had told her, in his best commanding tone, that she would need to stand and fight if she expected to prevail. Then he had apparently traded places with the little girl, Faith, as he continued to warn her about the aggressive ship aliens. He told her that, while they wasted a great deal of energy fighting among themselves, what little cooperative spirit they had they used to develop ever more powerful weapons. Weapons they used to destroy any other ships they might encounter.

She wasn't sure how they expected her to fight the ship aliens, if they kept her awake all night with their constant popping in and out. A soldier needed sleep as surely as she needed food and weapons to fight with. Teal'c of all people should realize that. Even the Jaffa needed to kel'noreem every now and then.

She almost missed the first blip. She had minimized the program monitoring the ship's sensors while she had been working on other things. The small icon in the system tray at the bottom of the screen was blinking red. She quickly clicked it and a vast image of nearly empty space filled the little screen, a small red circle blinked in the bottom right corner, surrounding an even smaller white blob. It was a ship - definitely a ship - and it must have winked in from hyperspace or the sensors would have detected it sooner. Sam hoped against hope that Pendergast would remember her warnings and get them the hell out of Dodge before that ship had a chance to get any closer.

"All hands, this is Colonel Pendergast. We have detected a ship of unknown origin, approaching at sub-light speed. All hands to your ready stations. It is my hope that the beings on board will turn out to be friendly, but I want to be prepared should they prove otherwise. Colonel Pendergast out."

At least the man wasn't a complete fool.

~~{<>}~~

Lionel Pendergast was no man's fool. When Colonel Carter started spouting fantastic stories about cloud beings, he'd been skeptical. But when she spoke of visitations from friends and family, some of whom were long dead, he'd been convinced she was fruitier than a nutcake and locked her up where she couldn't harm anyone or anything, least of all his precious hyperdrive.

Space was a very, very big place. Unless you went out of your way to meet someone, you could travel for months without running into another ship. So it certainly seemed an unlikely coincidence that they would encounter another ship just hours after Carter's bizarre tirade, warning of just such an encounter with...how had she put it..."aggressive aliens under the influence of the emotion-enhancing affects of the space cloud being".

Yep, straight out of the "Outer Limits". Still, it was a pretty odd coincidence. It wouldn't hurt to proceed on this one with extreme caution.

"Lieutenant Coker, as soon as they're within range, scan their weapons systems. I want to know what kind of firepower they're packing before we get too friendly."

"Yes, sir, they're coming into range now."

Pendergast turned to his left to address his other officer. "Lieutenant Billings, begin broadcasting friendly messages. Let's see if they feel like talking."

"Sir," Lieutenant Coker interrupted, "I'm detecting weapons systems now, sir. They appear to be massive. Nearly eighty percent of the ship's energy systems are devoted to weapons. That would explain why they're moving so slowly. Still, they'll be in firing range in about fifteen minutes."

"No response to any messages, sir." Lieutenant Billings reported. "Should I continue hailing?"

Pendergast sighed. He still didn't want to believe that Carter had been right. What she'd said had been just too crazy to believe. No commander in his right mind would have run away at full speed on untested engines that had just been reconfigured. Although her voice was drumming an "I told you so" in his brain. Maybe he should get her out of that lockout, beg for forgiveness and find out just how fast she could get the hyperdrive back online. Just in case. But first things first. He flicked a switch on his command chair.

"All hands, this is Colonel Pendergast. I have reason to believe the approaching ship is not friendly. All hands, go to full alert. I repeat, all hands to full alert. Bring all weapons systems online. Pendergast out."

He flipped the switch back, then pressed another button further back. "Pendergast to security." He waited for the response.

"Security here, sir, this is Sergeant Willows."

"Willows, get down to where we've got Colonel Carter locked up. I want you to bring her to the bridge. No need for handcuffs or anything like that, unless she does something to warrant them. But keep an eye on her."

"Yes, sir. Willows out."

He'd done all he could do for the moment. Now there was nothing left to do but wait. If there was one thing he'd learned how to do in his long career, it was wait.

~~{<>}~~

Colonel Carter and her assigned escort were just walking onto the bridge when the first blast hit. She stumbled and nearly fell to her knees as the entire ship shook from the blast. One of the officers seated in front of the commander began shouting.

"Minimal damage, sir. Shields holding. Appears to be some sort of energy weapon. Most of the force was deflected. But too many hits like that and ships systems may be affected by the shaking."

Another blast, followed by two more in quick succession and Carter learned to walk around the outer perimeter of the bridge, holding on to whatever she could to keep from falling flat on her assets.

Pendergast slammed his fist down on the arm of the command chair. "Return fire. Missile bays one, three, and five, fire when ready."

The indicators on the forward screen showed that the display was focused on the starboard side of the ship. Centered in the screen was an image that Carter recognized immediately from her previous sojourn. Even from a distance, the ship dwarfed Prometheus.

Three streaks appeared on the screen, racing toward the alien ship, becoming smaller and more ineffectual looking as they got closer to their intended target. Tiny flares bloomed as they impacted. Cheers went up from the bridge crew as the effect on the other ship's hull was revealed. Gaping holes were left where each of the missiles had hit.

Upon closer inspection, however, the damage to the other ship's hull was obviously older and more extensive. Huge patches had been peeled away all over the skin, like some degenerative leprous disease. Carter wondered how many of their own crewmates the ship aliens had allowed to perish because they devoted more resources to their weapons than to the repair of their ship. Still, their shortsighted folly meant they would not survive in space much longer. Prometheus might not be the victor in this encounter, but at least they didn't have to worry too much about the aliens attacking many more ships that might wander by. And they would never make it all the way to Earth, should they decide to pursue the battle further. Sam Carter could die peacefully knowing that her friends and family were fairly safe from these marauders.

That didn't mean she would go down without a fight, or without making sure Earth and its allies were warned.

"Colonel," she addressed Pendergast, "is there something I can do to help?"

Pendergast turned, noticing her for the first time. "You can belay any arguments or 'I told you sos' and get down to the hyperdrive right away. I don't care if you put it back together with baling twine and sealing wax, just get that drive back online so we can get the heck out of here."

The commander turned back to the more immediate problem, Carter and everything else but the defense of his ship forgotten. "Billings, send a report back to the SGC. Include a status report and a warning. I don't know if that ship can follow us, but if it does, I'll try to lure them away from Earth. If I can't I want Earth to know about this."

Again the fist slammed onto the chair arm. "Weapons, fire remaining starboard missiles at will."

Carter didn't need any prodding. She turned and ran out into the corridor, gripping the walls for stability as more blasts rocked the ship. She wasn't sanguine about her chances for restoring the hyperdrive, but it certainly wasn't going to happen if she didn't get down there.

~~{<>}~~

Jack was thankful that the Free Jaffa were once again on...well he wouldn't call it friendly, but at least cordial terms with the Tau'ri. Otherwise he didn't know how he would have gotten a hyperdrive equipped Al'kesh with which to intercept the Prometheus. True, there was still evidence of great distrust on the part of the Jaffa. He'd been surrounded by at least five or six of them from the time he'd come through the gate on Dakara until he'd taken off with Teal'c, Daniel, and a couple of the Jaffa guards tagging along.

Jack had agreed to the additional Jaffa largely because he figured someone would need to drive the Al'kesh once he and Teal'c were onboard Prometheus. He wanted Teal'c with him as backup. Not that he expected any real trouble. He was, after all, a general. But Teal'c could be very intimidating from a psychological perspective as well. It wouldn't hurt for Pendergast to understand that General O'Neill did not take kindly to his people being incarcerated when he sent them off on a fix'er up'er. Even less did he care for the commander of one of the Air Force's biggest and baddest ships ignoring a warning of danger, particularly when it came from a fellow officer with as much experience as Carter, no matter how bizarre it might seem.

He needed Daniel along to smooth the feathers he fully intended to ruffle. All in all, Pendergast was actually a pretty decent commander. He had excellent tactical skills, and Jack didn't want to have to replace him. He couldn't afford to overlook the man's flagrant idiocy in this instance, but he didn't want to leave the man resentful, either.

"O'Neill," Teal'c broke through Jack's mental preparations, "we are approaching the Prometheus. There appears to be another ship in the vicinity. The two are apparently engaged in battle."

"Oh, crap!" O'Neill got up from where he'd been sitting on the floor, cursing the Jaffa reluctance to install seating on their ships. One of these days he'd remember to bring a camp chair with him. His knees were never going to forgive him otherwise.

As he approached the big viewscreen, he saw clearly the weapons bursts passing between the two ships. Prometheus looked like a mouse next to the behemoth alien ship. She was holding her own, but he didn't think she stood much of a chance in the long run.

"Teal'c, any chance we can sneak up behind Prometheus, get underneath without that monster seeing us?"

"I shall endeavor to approach with stealth, O'Neill. However, will the aliens not intercept our hail? "

Jack placed a hand on the big Jaffa's shoulder. "We're not gonna hail Prometheus just yet, T. I hope they'll be too busy to take much notice of us. And by the time they do, we can call them all we want. We'll be all cozy up under their belly and it won't matter too much if those aliens see or hear us."

One of these days, Jack was going to say something that sent that eyebrow right over the top and down the other side of Teal'c's head.

~~{<>}~~

"Attention, Earth ship Prometheus. This is Teal'c aboard the Free Jaffa vessel Kor'tac. General O'Neill wishes to transport aboard. Please lower your aft shields so that we may use the rings."

For some time, the only answer was static. Teal'c repeated the request.

"Teal'c...this is Colonel Pendergast. In case you hadn't noticed, we're a little busy over here. If this is some kind of a crazy joke, I'm not laughing."

Jack fumbled with the Al'kesh controls, pressing the same areas he thought he'd seen Teal'c manipulate before. Teal'c moved in and deftly eased O'Neill out of the way.

"You have just turned out the lights in the bathrooms, O'Neill. If you wish to speak to the Prometheus, you need to touch these three symbols, in sequence." Teal'c hands floated over the controls, barely touching. He signaled O'Neill to speak.

"Pendergast, this is General O'Neill and this is no joke. Lower your shields and let me on that ship, now!"

After a moment's pause the answer came in an incredulous voice. "Yes, sir, General. Aft shields are lowered. You may board when ready. I hope you'll forgive me if I don't greet you personally."

"Not a problem, Lionel. I can see that you're a bit busy right now. O'Neill out."

Teal'c signaled one of the Jaffa to take the controls while he, Jack and Daniel sprinted into the ring room. Seconds later, they were onboard the Prometheus. Jack led the way through the maze of corridors and onto the bridge.

As they entered, Jack took in the smooth operation of the bridge crew. No question, Pendergast was a good battle commander. He kept his people from panicking and they worked efficiently to carry out the orders he gave. Orders born from years of studying the history of naval and air battles of the past. Unfortunately, Pendergast lacked imagination. And sometimes, imagination was what was needed most out here.

~~{<>}~~

"Lionel, how's it going?"

Pendergast turned just long enough to recognize General O'Neill and the Jaffa, Teal'c. Doctor Daniel Jackson was also with him. With Carter onboard, he had the entire original SG-1 team. They certainly picked an odd time for a reunion. Still, he was too well trained to tell the General he was just as nuts as his subordinate - at least not in front of his entire bridge crew. He turned to study the continue battle on the viewscreen.

"Sir, welcome aboard. We are engaged in battle with an unknown alien vessel. Their attack was unprovoked and without warning. Thus far they have limited their attacks to the use of some sort of energy weapon. No serious damage as yet, but our shield strength is weakening. I estimate another hour before the forward shields are breached at which time continued hits will begin to penetrate the hull plating. Approximately half our missile supply is depleted. They are unshielded, and have sustained heavy damage, but it does not appear to affect their ability to continue fighting. At this range, I don't dare use one of the nuclear weapons, as we would be unable to achieve a safe distance from the blast area. Hyperdrive is still inoperable, although Colonel Carter is working on bringing the drive back online."

Jack walked forward to stand in front of the viewscreen. He turned to face the commander. As the battle continued, explosive flashes appeared behind him, each one ripping another small hole in the skin of the gigantic ship. Still, it fired back continuously.

"Looks kinda like a draw to me, Colonel. It's been what, about fifteen or twenty minutes like this? Aren't you getting a little tired? Don't you think it's about time to try something else?"

Pendergast looked directly at Jack, puzzled. "I'm sorry, sir. I don't know what you mean."

Jack strode back to stand behind the command chair. He leaned over, one hand on the back of the chair, and lowered his voice to a near whisper. "Of course, you don't, Lionel. You'd have to be a little nuts to do what I'm about to suggest. Still, it's better than sitting here, hoping their weapons run out before yours do." Louder, Jack put on his best command voice. "Change your heading and pull away toward the cloud. Shift shield strength to cover your backside. Hail the Kor'tac and tell them to get the heck outta here before they get their tail singed. Then open a hyper-channel to Stargate Command. I don't care who's there, anyone will do. As soon as I start talking, I want you to head for that cloud with all the speed you can muster."

Flustered, and feeling his command slipping away, Pendergast nonetheless signaled the bridge crew to follow the general's orders. This battle couldn't go much worse than it already was.

A few moments later, Lieutenant Billings announced, "The Kor'tec has jumped into hyperspace, sir. They're on their way back to Dakara. Channel is open to Stargate Command, General. Colonel Reynolds is on the line. There will be about an eight second delay at this range, sir."

"Thank you, lieutenant." Jack walked back to the front of the bridge, and looked toward the navigator.

"Sir," Lieutenant Coker nodded toward the general, "we are headed toward the cloud, I've got engines prepped and ready to accelerate to full speed on your mark, sir."

Jack whispered a response. "Good. Go Lieutenant."

Jack assumed a parade rest stance, and proceeded to speak. The image of the ship behind him moved off the screen as the Prometheus veered to change course and picked up speed.

"Attention Earth Central. This is Commander Jack O'Neill, onboard the S.S. Prometheus. We have engaged the enemy, but I fear the battle is nearly lost. We will make one final attempt to enter the cloud and obtain the highly volatile...Corbomite. If we are successful, we will use the Corbomite to blast these aliens to kingdom come. If not..."

Jack made a quick slicing movement across his throat, and Lieutenant Billings nodded, cutting the transmission off as he did so.

"Corbomite, General? Have you lost your mind? What the hell is Corbomite?"

Back behind the center chair, O'Neill resumed his stance behind the colonel and spoke in a low voice. "Not much of a Sci-Fi buff, are you, Colonel? Switch to the aft screens, let's see if they took the bait. And keep those missiles firing, we're not out of the woods yet."

"General, respectively, I don't get it, what bait?"

Jack stepped down to the navigational console. "In a minute." Jack addressed the young lieutenant at the controls, "Wait until we get as close to that cloud as you dare, then veer off at the last second. We don't want to go inside if we can avoid it, but we need to make sure that big ol' ship behind us doesn't have a chance to change course, got it?" The navigator nodded her head and turned back to her panel, her fingers flying over the keys. Jack walked back to resume his position behind Pendergast. As he passed, he noticed that Daniel was holding his head in one hand, his shoulders shaking in silent mirth. Teal'c stood, as always, stoic and unmoving.

'I hope this works, Danny,' Jack thought, 'I can see you're gonna have a great time talking about this one when we get back.'

Speaking in a low voice, Jack began to explain. "Carter sent me a message, Colonel. She told me all about the little girl and the cloud entity. She also told me that the cloud is caustic, and the aliens have been chasing ships in and out of it for years, never bothering to fix the damage that's done. Once I got onboard, I could see for myself that most of their hull damage has been there for awhile. They may be big and bad, but I get the impression they're pretty darn stupid, too. So I figured if we could get them to go into the cloud, this time might just do the trick and disintegrate what's left of that poor ship. If not, we're no worse off than we were before, and we go back to blasting until our weapons run out or theirs do."

"Approaching the cloud, sir," announced Lieutenant Coker, "The alien ship following close on our port side sir. Point of no return coming in five...four...three...two...one."

The ship lurched as it turned too suddenly for the inertial dampeners to completely compensate. Jack found himself sprawled on the floor behind the command chair. A moment later, Teal'c loomed above him, offering a hand to help him to his feet. A quick glance at the viewscreen showed him that his ploy had worked. The big alien ship hadn't been able to turn as swiftly as the smaller Prometheus, and had glided well into the cloud, where it was now slowing to a halt. The affect of the cloud on the already damaged hull was almost immediate. They could see the holes from missiles, and from previous forays into the cloud, widening as the over-stressed metal deteriorated before their eyes. New patches appeared, accompanied by small puffs in the surrounding cloud as atmosphere vented through the breaches. Before long, it was obvious that the ship would not again escape the cloud.

"Prometheus, this is Colonel Reynolds. What the heck is going on out there?"

Jack grinned. Apparently, his eight seconds were up. "Relax, Gary. This is General O'Neill. I'm just giving these folks a little lesson in the application of popular science fiction to battle tactics. Everything's A-Okay and we'll be heading back soon. Keep the home fires burning. O'Neill out."

"Okay, General. If you say so. I can't wait to hear about it. Reynolds out."

"I still don't get it, General." Pendergast was oblivious to the fact that half his bridge crew were endeavoring to keep from laughing. "What the heck is Corbomite?"

"Corbomite is a fictitious, extremely powerful weapon, employed by Captain James T. Kirk as a bluff to defeat the formidable Balok. Balok too, was bluffing and was found not to be nearly as formidable as he appeared."

"Teal'c! You've been borrowing my DVDs again, haven't you?" O'Neill sputtered in mock offense.

Teal'c inclined his head, "Indeed, I find them most instructive."

The ship's intercom beeped again. "Colonel Pendergast, this is Carter. I've just about got the hyperdrive fixed, sir. It should be online in about five more minutes."

When it became obvious that the commander of the Prometheus wasn't going to respond, Jack jumped in.

"Carter! Have I ever told you you're *way* smarter than Scotty?"

"General! You came! It's good to hear your voice, sir. I guess you got my message, then."

"I did, Carter. Like I said...*way* smarter than Scotty. Incidentally, thanks to your message, those nasty aliens have been lured into the cloud, where they politely disintegrated and won't be bothering anyone anymore."

"Really, sir? How did you get them to enter the cloud?"

"Carter, I'm gonna let Daniel tell you that story. He's dying to tell someone and I figure he can use the practice before he gets back home - where he will undoubtedly tell everyone on base. Now, if the hyperdrive's ready, let's get the heck outta here."

That brought Pendergast back from wherever he had gone. "Lieutenant Coker, bring the hyperdrive engines online, set a course back for Earth. Let's start with a short hop - say about twenty light years. I don't want to put too much faith in those engines until they've had a good shakedown."

Jack shook his head. "No imagination."

~~{<>}~~

The End. Thanks for reading!

  DISCLAIMER: Images and characters on this site are the property of Sci Fi, MGM-UA Worldwide Television, Gekko Film Corp, Glassner/Wright Double Secret Productions, and Stargate SG-I Prod. Ltd. Partnership. This site is not intended as an infringement upon those rights and is solely meant for entertainment. All original characters and stories are the sole property of the authors.