Written by Gallagater and Charli Booker
"The ideal tyranny is that which is ignorantly self-administered by its victims. The most perfect slaves are, therefore, those which blissfully and unawaredly enslave themselves." Anonymous
* * * * *
Biting her lower lip in concentration, Elena Jimenez gently swept the softened bristles along the turned-out rim of the small vessel. Though still mostly buried in the hard-packed dirt, it was evident this piece, like the small shard she'd discovered two days ago, had been smudged during firing. First being treated with a fine slip – in this case, red in color – which would seal the permeable material of which it was molded, the container had then been decorated with an intricate pattern of detailed markings before the entire thing was fired, a process which hardened the porous clay into something functional. Smudging merely enhanced the delicate engravings, the smoke darkening the surface while bringing out the details of the carvings in sharp relief. Closely examining what little she could see of the exposed portion of the artifact, Elena blew a lock of dark hair out of her eyes and carefully leaned closer.
"I know what you're thinking," he sing-songed.
Immediately recognizing the familiar voice, she smiled and squinted up at the figure looming over her. Backlit by the brilliant sun which bore down on the planet and its inhabitants for fifteen long hours every day, Daniel Jackson's features were shadowed. Using the back of her filthy hand, Elena brushed the stubborn strands from her face and turned back to her find. "Why, Doctor Jackson, I have no idea what you're talking about."
He laughed softly and knelt beside her, his sunburned features suddenly exposed to her view. He hadn't shaved for at least a week and for twice that long he'd worn the same Army-green doo rag tied around his head. His muscular arms were smudged here and there with dirt, and three weeks of toiling under a tropical sun had burnished his exposed skin to a sheen nearly as brown as hers. All in all, she supposed he was no more overdue for a nice, hot shower than she was.
Glancing at the treasure Elena was meticulously unveiling, Daniel tilted his head and studied it at an angle. "You mean to tell me, you're not fingering your rosary and chanting prayers about ecofacts?"
"You shouldn't make fun of my religious beliefs," she said without rancor. "Or my passion."
"Speaking of which," Daniel grinned, "attacked any geeky scientists lately?"
Elena glared at him before looking away, embarrassment heightening the sun's blush on her cheeks. She couldn't believe he was still teasing her about that – it'd been months since she'd fallen under the spell of the alien mist and tried to make out with Balinsky.
"Seriously, though," Daniel cleared his throat, "I would never make fun of paleoethnobotany. It's way too difficult to fit into a punchline. Now, shamanism, on the other hand...."
At his mention of her two specialties, Elena glanced at him. He was smiling, as she'd known he would be. Immediately, her irritation with him was forgotten. Daniel Jackson had a great smile which encompassed his entire face, dimpling the stubbled cheeks, wrinkling the nose, and crinkling the corners of the blue eyes. In her humble opinion, Daniel's smile was nearly as great as Marco's. At the thought of her husband who was light years away caring for their two little girls, she felt a pang of homesickness and covered it by once again puffing the hair from her face. "You know, it's true what they say," she said, still bent over her small corner of the much larger dig.
Daniel reached over and without asking, tucked the stubborn strand of hair behind her ear. "And what is that?"
"Thanks." Unable to ignore her work for long, she unconsciously returned to brushing dirt from the rim of the pottery. "When you're with someone long enough, you start to resemble them." At his puzzled look, she smiled and finally gazed down at what she was doing. "You sound more like General O'Neill every day."
"Oh, great. Thanks."
Elena chuckled softly.
"So," he said, his voice suddenly serious, "what do you think?"
She didn't need clarification; she knew exactly what he was asking. "It's too soon to say for sure, but this could possibly be intact, which means..."
"You may have found what you're looking for."
Elena grinned. "I don't want to get my hopes up."
"A vessel that size...." He leaned down, squinted along the length of the exposed pottery, then reached out and picked up something from the ground. "Yours?"
Her face flushed at the sight of the silver hair clasp her daughters had given her on her last birthday. That certainly explained the recalcitrant locks. "Sorry."
Palming the small barrette, Daniel shrugged dismissively. "As I started to say, a vessel that size couldn't hold much."
"Enough," she said. "Dried herbs for cooking, or healing maybe. Seeds. At this point, I can't afford to be choosey." Glancing past him in the direction of the Stargate, Elena frowned. "How much longer do we have?"
Straightening, Daniel sighed and glanced around at the dozen or so busy members of the archeological department and the small contingent of bored security forces forming a loose perimeter around the dig site. "Last I heard, Jack can give us another two, three days, tops. After that...." Once again he shrugged, and smirking, he met her gaze. "Washington's breathing down his neck – as I'm sure he'll be only too happy to soon remind me." At her questioning glance, he added, "We're due to check-in. I guess we should count ourselves lucky he was able to buy us as much time as we've had."
Abandoning her work, Elena sat back on her heels and rolled her tight shoulder muscles. "We've been fortunate," she agreed. "Still, I would have liked more samples to take back. I hardly have enough to–"
"Hey," he dropped a hand on her arm, silencing her. "I know how it is. Always thinking there's more if we could just dig a little deeper, if we just had a little more time. But, considering what we're working with, you've done a great job. Look at what you've already shipped back. You've assembled more than you realize."
Flattered, Elena grinned. "Yeah, maybe. It's just...in order to understand the culture, the practices and beliefs of the people who lived here, I need to learn everything I can about their foodways. How did they procure it? And, what kinds of foods did they have? Did they grow–"
Daniel laughed softly and held up a hand in surrender. "You're preaching to the choir, remember?"
She smiled and twirled the brush with one hand. "Sorry. Say," laying aside the brush, she pulled a rubber band from her pocket and reached back, gathering her hair in her hands, "how about when we get back, Marco and th–"
Something punched her in the chest, forcing the air from her lungs and the words from her mouth with a soft grunt. Her legs still bent beneath her, she fell back, landing awkwardly with her arms thrown over her head. Breathless, she frowned up at Daniel and tried to figure out what was wrong.
"Elena?" He leaned over her, fear dilating his eyes. "Elena, can you hear me?"
She opened her mouth to tell him 'yes,' to ask what had happened, but instead she coughed weakly. She was surprised when something wet and thick filled her throat and coated the back of her tongue.
"Oh, God." Daniel looked around wildly. "I need help here!"
Watching Daniel through a gathering fog, Elena heard the distant rattle of gunfire and felt a burning sensation slowly build in her chest somewhere just over her right breast. Clumsily, she managed to tilt her chin enough to glance down at herself. She was shocked to see a gaping hole just below her collarbone. Where fear should have been all-consuming, a strange calm engulfed her, growing exponentially with the pain. She looked up, meeting Daniel's eyes. Obviously scared, he hunched protectively over her, throwing wary glances around them and fumbling for the sidearm he always wore in the holster strapped to his right thigh.
Marco and her babies – Teresa and Sofia.
Dodging something, Daniel's weight settled on her heavily. Without meaning to, Elena groaned. Daniel swore and raised himself off her with one arm. "Oh, God, I'm sorry." Despite the surrounding gunfire and the screams of their colleagues, Daniel stared at her, his brow furrowing. "Elena?"
Teresa. Her sweet-natured, curly-haired kindergartener.
Resting his weight on one elbow, Daniel's gun hand brushed her cheek as he tucked the lock of hair into place behind her ear.
Sofia. An old, curious soul in toddler's shoes.
"Elena, please," Daniel sobbed, tearlessly. "Don't do this. You have to hang on."
Marco. Her best friend.
"What?" He pressed his ear to her mouth.
She missed her husband. In a strange way, she wished he was here to see this – what she did for a living and how easy the passing over was. It was easier, far less frightening, than stepping through the gate.
Daniel raised himself slightly and met her gaze from mere inches away. Through the blurry fog and the sounds of battle, she barely heard his, "I'll tell them, Elena. I promise."
Then, gun hand still touching her cheek, Daniel smiled. It was forced, but he did it for her – gave her that wonderful smile which captured his whole face and reminded her so much of Marco. Elena opened her mouth to thank him, but instead she rolled her head to the side and stared out across the dig site. It was foggy there, too, but she could dimly see the fallen and the fighting. Through the weight of the peacefulness settling over her, she sensed the anger and the fear raging around her, and she was saddened by it.
At the end of her final, gurgling exhalation, she heard Daniel's muffled yell. His scream of fury brushed past the sensitive skin of her left temple, and she was vaguely aware of his hand pressing down upon her shoulder as he pushed himself off her and ran straight toward the battle. His war cry lingered over her, the echo of it silenced only because she could no longer hear.
* * * * *
General Jack O'Neill held his cup of lukewarm coffee and
stared down into the empty
It had become his early morning routine since assuming command of the SGC, much like the pre-flight checks he'd once performed at the beginning of each new day. Now, at the start of his shift, he accepted the cup of coffee offered him as he exited the elevator, passed through his office dropping his briefcase onto his desk and moved into the briefing room. There, he looked down on the naquadah marvel, and he mentally assessed the day ahead and compared it to the days behind, wondering how the hell he'd ever managed to do something as remarkable as stepping through the Stargate, only to end up flying a desk. Pre-flight complete, career dilemma unresolved, he'd carry his untouched cup of java back to his office and take his place in the pilot's seat.
Basically, the whole thing sucked. But, what was a general to do? Especially this general. The hardest part of his job was standing back and watching as the men and women over whom he served stepped through the gate into the unknown. The only thing he could imagine that could possibly be worse would be _not_ being here to watch them step through. To hand their welfare over to some poor schlub who didn't know his ass from a wormhole would be unforgivable, especially if the only reason he had for turning his back on them was a personal career crisis.
So what if some days he thought he was going to suffocate inside this damned underground silo?
So what if his knees ached and his head throbbed just as bad and just as often as when he'd been stumbling through the gate on a regular basis?
Yesterday, he'd promised himself he'd publicly flog the next airman who kissed his ass just because someone had slapped a couple of flashy stars on his lapels. So what if he'd already broken that promise to himself at least a dozen times?
So what if, despite Siler's relentless efforts, the fluorescent light in his office continually emitted a high-pitched hum? Considering it made him want to pull out his hair, he wondered if that futzy fixture explained Hammond's follicularly challenged pate.
So what if his days were spent authorizing the purchase of binder clips, ammo and slash file jackets, and signing off on memos ordering the folks in accounting to turn off their 'smart quotes' so the clerical staff didn't have to reformat all their reports? He had no idea what a slash file jacket even was and, to be perfectly honest, he wasn't sure he wanted to know. And what the hell was a 'smart quote' anyway? Walter had already explained the concept three times and he still didn't get it. Carter's wormhole physics made more sense – which was a totally scary thought.
So what if he was losing his meager hold on his sanity?
All that mattered was that his people were counting on him. And he knew, firsthand, how reassuring it was when someone who'd stood in your shoes guarded the room's only entrance and exit.
Holding his coffee cup in one hand, with the other Jack scratched the back of his head and idly wondered when his right elbow had started predicting storm fronts. His knees had been in the weather forecasting business for several years now, but at least the knees had seen some rough action. Seeing as the problematic elbow had reared its ugly head sometime within the last year, it was most likely a case of inaction. Carefully flexing the cranky joint, intimately acquainting himself with the pain, Jack stared down at the maintenance man methodically repairing a large chink in the gateroom wall. Was the chip in the silo a result of last week's misguided UAV or SG-9's recent 'misunderstanding' with the natives of that really dry planet with the weird purple trees? He couldn't remember.
And, what about the elbow? Was it the one he'd broken as a teenager, or was he simply wielding the mighty pen a bit too much of late? It certainly couldn't be age. Could it? Shrugging off the possibility, Jack turned toward his office and glanced at his watch. It'd be interesting to see if the elbow was going to be as reliable as the knees. If it was, odds were that within the next day or two, something nasty was going to come slithering down out of the mountains.
"Good morning, General," Sergeant Harriman said, rising from the visitor's chair as Jack entered his office.
Sitting down behind his desk, Jack waved the man back to his seat and mumbled, "At ease." Setting his coffee cup on the corner of his desk, Jack opened his briefcase and pulled out the work he'd hauled home last night. Brushing a tiny fragment of sesame chicken from the topmost file in the stack, he tossed the empty briefcase onto his credenza, straightened the loose papers flooding his in-box, uncapped his favorite pen, then glanced at his subordinate.
Walter smiled. "Would you like to go over today's roster, General?" he politely inquired as he did every morning.
Jack smirked and rubbed a thumb over his left eye. "Sure, that might be nice for a change."
Frowning slightly, Walter studied him momentarily before raising the clipboard which held a thin sheaf of papers containing Jack's day. "The representatives from the Joint Chiefs of Staff are scheduled to arrive at oh-eight-thirty hours. I've printed–"
"Wait." Jack glanced at his watch. That was a little over an hour away. "I thought I was meeting with that Joe...Joe Blow–"
"Joseph Blumgardner," Walter supplied, "the adviser with the Defense Commissary Agency."
"Yeah, him. I thought that was at oh-nine-hundred."
"It is – oh-nine-hundred tomorrow."
Frowning, Jack flipped open his desk calendar. "Tomorrow? You're sure?"
"I thought tomorrow was those jokers from SAFARI."
"AFRRI." At Jack's blank look, Walter clarified, "The Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute. And, that's in two days."
Jack flipped through his calendar. "What the hell day is this?"
Reaching across the desk, Walter turned back several pages of Jack's calendar and tapped the date with his pen. "This is Tuesday, General."
"Crap," Jack mumbled before frowning over at his assistant. "Tuesday? You're sure?"
"Dammit." Jack slid his laptop closer and hit the power button. "So, tell me again who the Joint Chiefs are sending – some guys from Operations?"
"Yes." Walter pulled a sheet of paper from the bottom of the clipboard and handed it across the desk to Jack before reading from his own matching memo. "We're to expect two officers from the Directorate of Operations. They want to do a summary–"
"I know what they want to do," Jack grumped and watched his computer come online. "And, believe me, sitting down with the suits and doing a summary briefing of our upcoming missions for the next six weeks sounds absolutely...," Jack glanced at his subordinate and mentally revised his comment, "fun. It sounds like a real hoot."
Walter smirked. "Yes, sir. They're also sending a Colonel Elliot Singer with–"
"Wait a minute." Jack scanned the memo Walter had handed him. "Elliot Singer. Singer. Why does that name sound familiar?"
"I don't know, General." Frowning, Jack waved the sergeant to continue. "Colonel Singer is with the Joint Staff Logistics Directorate. According to the correspondence from General Hughes' aide, they're interested in," Walter squinted at a faxed copy of a letter, "'the logistical parameters for strategic and contingency plans development as well as maximizing logistics capabilities of combatant commands.'"
"That's original," Jack mumbled.
Leaning his aching elbow on his desk, Jack rubbed his eyes. At this rate, he'd have to start actually drinking the morning cup of coffee just to get through his daily meeting with Walter. "It's straight out of the book," he sighed. "But, go ahead. Finish. I beg you."
Walter chuckled softly, trying not to smile as he continued reading from the letter. "'Maximizing logistics capabilities of combatant commands, including the development of strategic mobility, mobilization, medical readiness, civil engineering, and the sustainment of policies and procedures to support combat forces,'" Walter finished in one breath.
Jack stared over at the man who'd manned the control room and the iris for as long as he could remember. "Tell me something. Did you understand any of what you just read?"
Walter flushed. "Actually…no."
"In layman's terms, Walter, it's called a shakedown." When the younger man frowned, Jack forced a tight smile. "Don't worry about it, Sergeant. Nothing I can't handle."
"Now, who's off-world?"
Walter flipped to another page on his clipboard and read off the list as Jack listened and scribbled on a legal pad. "SG units 4, 13, and 21 are out on short-term assignments. SG-4 and 21 are due back later today, and 13 is slotted for return at oh-ten-hundred tomorrow. SG units 5, 9, 18, 19, 20, and 23 are standing in rotation. SG-3, 11, and 15 are still on location with Doctor Jackson and the civilian members of the archeological department." When Jack glanced at his watch, Walter nodded. "Yes, sir. They've overshot their scheduled check-in by a little over twenty minutes."
Still scribbling, Jack said, "Make it an hour, then dial it up."
"Yes, sir." Walter straightened his papers, watching as Jack frowned down at the page in front of him and silently ticked off items on the hastily scrawled list. Softly, the sergeant cleared his throat.
Without looking up, Jack mumbled, "Dismissed."
"Yes, sir," Walter acknowledged and hurried out of the office.
* * * * *
"Dammit!" With an over-handed throw that would have made her high school baseball coach proud, Samantha Carter heaved the wrench across her backyard. She stood and watched the hand tool turn end-over-end through the air in a graceful arc, then land with a single bounce and an anticlimactic thud on the dew-covered grass near the shed. Scrubbing her hands through her short blonde hair, she groaned softly.
If she hadn't been so angry, it would have been laughable. For the better part of a week, she'd been tinkering with her motorcycle every time she had a chance. Ten days ago when she'd taken it for a spin, it'd been idling rough. Instead of taking it to a mechanic, paying premium prices for parts she could buy from the local shop, she'd decided to tune it up herself. Hell, she repaired the Stargate all the time – a simple motorcycle was nothing compared to that.
Or, so she'd thought. Unfortunately, the bike had gone from idling roughly to not starting at all. She'd awakened this morning with an epiphany. Excited, she'd quickly dressed and hurried outside before the sun had barely cleared the horizon. Thirty minutes later, she was filthy, pissed, late for work, and now the timing _and_ the carburetor were screwed up. Heaving an exasperated sigh, Sam left the wrench and the motorcycle where they were, and went back inside to grab a quick shower before heading to the mountain.
Stripping off her jeans and t-shirt on the way to the bathroom, she caught sight of herself in the hallway mirror. What the.... She stopped, faded denim dangling from one hand. Since when had she started looking older?
Turning slightly, she eyed her profile. Physically, she was still in good shape, but the wear and tear was beginning to show. A tiny sag here, a little softening there, a slightly worrisome 'clicking' sensation in her left knee when she ran. She was about the same age General O'Neill had been when they'd first met – which seemed totally weird. Despite the fact his hair had been brown at the time, he'd seemed so much older than her. Now, the difference in their ages didn't appear quite so vast.
Flattening one hand over her abdomen, she pressed and turned. She studied the narrow, calloused feet, the long legs, and the curve of stomach and breasts. Her gaze traveling upward, she lifted her chin – effectively removing the subtle roll which had recently taken to appearing whenever she lowered her head – and she stared at the tiny lines around her mouth and the puffy skin under each eye. Blinking at her reflection, she wondered exactly when life had begun taking its toll. And, when had she started looking skittish?
Blue eyes stared back at her from a pale face. She'd always been confident and self-assured, and when she wasn't, she'd at least managed to mask it with a bravado that was earnest if not heartfelt. Lately, however, that façade had been slipping. She'd questioned herself, her decisions and her actions more times in the last two years than she had since deciding to make a career out of the Air Force. The problem was, she wasn't exactly sure why. And until she knew the reason, she wasn't sure how to remedy the problem.
Grimacing at the smear of grease in her blonde hair, she turned away from her reflection and headed for the bathroom. Daniel and Teal'c kept assuring her she was doing great and they trusted her leadership skills. They'd not said or done anything to make her believe otherwise. General O'Neill seemed pleased, although she suspected he was merely being kind. Too kind, perhaps. Still, career-wise, things were going great. In fact, the promotion to lieutenant colonel had come much earlier than expected.
As a student, she'd enjoyed affirmations that she was gifted, that she had a sharp mind. And, as an adult, she savored those moments when her dad told her how proud he was of her, or when General O'Neill gave her a pat on the back for a job well done.
The question was, when had the craving for reassurance evolved into a _need_ for it?
* * * * *
Even as he slammed down the phone and strode towards the briefing room table where Carter and Teal'c were standing, Jack was barking, "What's their status? Did you talk to Daniel?"
"No, sir," Sam answered with a worried expression. "Per your orders, we gave them the additional forty minutes then attempted contact from our end."
"And?" Jack snapped with an impatient gesture. "Come on, Carter, our guests are on their way down, and in a few minutes, I'll be up to my neck in brass. So, tell me something I don't know, because I can hear us dialing out in my sleep. What'd you find out?"
Sam flushed. "Sorry, General. Actually, sir, we were unable to make contact, and the MALP gave us little or no information."
"It would appear the base camp has been abandoned," Teal'c interjected, his customary frown deepening.
Fingers unconsciously playing with his pen, Jack frowned. "That doesn't make sense. Just last week, Daniel was asking for more time because of the stuff they were finding."
"He wouldn't just walk off and leave everything without contacting us. Not even to start another dig nearby," Sam said, her brow puckered with concern.
"No, he wouldn't," Jack agreed. "And, even if he did get a wild hair to go exploring – which I don't think he did – Reynolds wouldn't let him."
"How can you be so sure, O'Neill? Daniel Jackson has lost himself in his work many times and, as you know, he can be persuasive and," Teal'c suppressed a smile, "extremely persistent."
Jack snorted softly. "All true, T, but Daniel wouldn't risk the entire project being yanked because he didn't follow protocol. Besides, Reynolds is scared shitless I'll re-ass him to permanent babysitting duty, so he's not about to let the civvies go wandering." Teal'c acknowledged this logic with a tilt of his head. "So, something else is going on. Agreed?"
"Yes, sir. Daniel's not going to jeopardize his people or his project. It has to be something else."
"And, it would be your job to find out what that something is, Colonel. Take SG-18 for backup. Find out what the hell's going on, and report back to me personally within the hour. That'll give me an excuse to shake the Suits and pawn them off on somebody else for the Dog and Pony Show."
"Sir." Sam cleared her throat and nodded, her wide-eyed embarrassment telling him the aforementioned guests were arriving. Jack released a pent-up sigh and turned.
"General O'Neill. It's been a long time."
Jack studied the stocky, curly-haired man walking toward him. "Yes, it has, Colonel." It might have been the greeting of two old friends had the temperature not taken a sudden nosedive as Colonel Elliot Singer and his entourage stepped into the briefing room.
"I see you decided it was time to join me behind a desk where you can actually make a difference. Or, did you finally get your wings clipped?" When no answer was forthcoming, Singer snorted. "I thought as much." He glanced up at the man standing nearest him. "The General and I have a longstanding difference of opinion as to how an officer can best serve his country. So," he looked back at Jack with a smirk, "enjoying the perks of your promotion, General?"
"Oh yeah, loving every minute of it."
Studying the neutral mask of his opponent, a feral smile slowly spread over Singer's face. "You always were the best poker player I knew, Jack. No one could bluff like you – even when you were holding squat and were way out of your league."
Jack's eyes narrowed. "That would be 'General' to you, _Colonel_. And speaking of leagues, did you ever figure out you were the fish? Ever wonder why guys who couldn't stand you were so eager to have you join them at the table?" Jack laughed softly. "You know what they say: 'Don't tap on the aquarium.' As long as you keep the fish happy, you can keep taking his money." Singer's face flushed. Deliberately ignoring him, Jack spun on his heels. "Carter, carry on, and have me paged when your team's geared up."
Lowering his voice, Jack tossed a smirk in Sam's direction. "By the way, Carter, new make-up?" Without giving her a chance to respond, he reached up and tugged on his earlobe. "Got a little carburetor trouble?" His eyes sparked with unshed amusement as Sam's hand flew to her own ear to wipe away a remnant of grease. Turning back to his guests, all traces of humor evaporated as Jack ignored an angry Singer and nodded to the other representatives. "Gentlemen, follow me."
* * * * *
"Fan out. Gilbert, have your team secure the gate and set up a perimeter while Teal'c and I check out the camp." Sam moved forward, confident her orders would be followed. Even moving with caution, they arrived at the abandoned camp within a few minutes. Once again, she tried to radio Reynolds or Edwards, Daniel, anyone from the missing team. Once again, there was no response.
The only sign of life was a buzzing insect that looked remarkably like a horsefly. "It's quiet," she commented softly as she and Teal'c scouted the dig area.
Weapon raised, Sam shot a questioning glance in Teal'c's direction. "Too quiet?"
"I am uneasy. O'Neill was correct: Daniel Jackson would not abandon his work without cause."
"And certainly not without letting the General know." Sam reached down to pick up a piece of broken pottery. It had been unearthed then discarded in the dust next to a delicate brush, the kind of brush she'd seen Daniel use hundreds of times. She examined the red shard, her stomach churning. Absent team members aside, something was missing. She glanced around. She was missing something, and the fact that Teal'c was uneasy spoke volumes.
Daniel had been thrilled when this project had been approved. During their last meal together in the dining hall just hours before he'd left, Daniel had excitedly chattered on to her about having an opportunity to perform frequency seriation. Sam readily admitted that little of what he'd said made much sense – Daniel's field of expertise was as rife with perplexing terminology as was her own – but she'd been happy to let him prattle on. She'd been glad to see him so excited about the upcoming project. There had been very little time for archeological digs over the past few years.
So, it made no sense that Daniel, or anyone on the expedition, would carelessly abandon an artifact like the one she held in her hand. Even if she didn't understand all the elements of archeology, she knew enough to know a piece of pottery definitely fell within Daniel's boundaries of import. Turning the fragmented vestige of history over and over again in her hand, Sam examined the smooth finish, vaguely impressed with a craftsmanship that was obvious even to her untrained eye.
The churning in her stomach suddenly gelled into a knotted solid. Holding out the pottery on her palm, she looked anxiously at Teal'c. "Does this smudge look like blood?"
Strong fingers gently lifted the delicate pottery from her hand as if holding gossamer butterfly wings. "It does."
They shared a worried glance. Reaching immediately for her radio, Sam toggled the switch, her eyes cutting across the surrounding landscape. "Gilbert, this is Carter. We've confirmed the site has been abandoned, and we've found a piece of pottery with what appears to be blood on it. We're going to scout around. Keep your heads up."
"Roger that, Colonel," a voice scratchy with static acknowledged.
Teal'c slipped the pottery fragment into his pocket. "What do we know of the indigenous life of this planet?"
"Not much," Sam admitted. "We did a standard MALP recon and the General ordered a UAV fly-by. It would have been easy to miss something."
Teal'c's face was grim as he searched for minute clues which might be persuaded to give up their secrets. "There." He gestured toward a distant clump of bushes.
Sam strained to see what he had spotted, but gave up with a muttered curse and dashed after her teammate. By the time she arrived, panting slightly in the oppressive heat, Teal'c had knelt and was pushing aside prickly branches of undergrowth. Sam gasped. It was Elena Jimenez, one of the civilian archeologists in Daniel's department. The woman was dead, and the gaping hole in her chest left little doubt as to the cause.
Her eyes pooling with sorrow, Sam looked over at Teal'c. "Could you give me a minute here?"
Rising gracefully, Teal'c nodded. "I shall scout the area across the clearing."
"Thanks. We need to report to General O'Neill shortly. We obviously have a hostile situation on our hands, and we need to locate the rest of the group." She watched Teal'c walk silently toward the other side of the dig site before turning her attention to the cadaver at her feet. "Elena," she whispered softly. Sam reached down and gently plucked a dark, wayward curl off the woman's cheek. "I'm so sorry."
They hadn't been close friends, more like acquaintances. But, in a tight community like the SGC you got to know nearly everyone to some degree, even across departments. Elena had brought a Pastel de Tres Leches to the last interdepartmental potluck. At a function where a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken was considered homemade, it had been as showy as a peacock in a barnyard full of guinea hens. Dipping her fork into the dense, moist cake, Sam had casually mentioned she'd never had time to learn to do much cooking. A mean soufflé was her one and only claim to cooking fame. Without hesitation and with obvious sincerity, Elena had offered to teach her.
When you were considered the wiz kid, people had an annoying tendency to generalize, expecting you to excel in all areas of your life. It could be maddening and lonely. Elena's selfless offer had touched Sam deeply. The two women had spent the rest of the evening chatting about their families and backgrounds, and they'd ended by tentatively setting a date to get together at Elena's. Sam had sensed then that given the opportunity, she and Elena might become close friends. Now, that opportunity was lost forever.
Sam blinked as a fly loudly buzzed in the stillness surrounding the woman's untimely death. The alien bug landed on a cloudy, once vibrant, brown eye, and greedily rubbed its front legs together. Angrily, Sam swatted at the insect, scaring it away before gently trying to force Elena's eyelids closed. Only vaguely aware of the rattle of gunfire in the distance, she flinched when her radio crackled.
"Colonel, we're under fire!" The transmission broke off with a sickening finality.
"Dammit," Sam snapped, slamming the door on her grief.
"Colonel Carter, I have located another body," Teal'c called across the clearing.
"Leave it, Teal'c," she shouted. "We've got to get to Gilbert." She sprinted in the direction of the gate where weapons fire raped the lazy quiet of a hot, summer day. Sweat raced in parallel lanes down her back – seasonal heat versus the heat of battle. She could sense more than hear Teal'c's catlike footsteps shadowing her.
Soon, smoke filled her nostrils. Nearby, a man screamed incoherently, his pain and terror universal in any language. Feigning to the left, Sam signaled Teal'c to the right. His dark bulk faded into a smoke which brought stinging tears to her eyes. Sam stumbled over something in her path. On her hands and knees, she glanced back. Gilbert lay in a crumpled heap like a discarded doll, his head nearly severed from his body and a dumbfounded look of surprise frozen in his blue eyes. Bile burned Sam's throat. Swiping her arm across her face, her mind screamed at the injustice. One uppermost thought scorched through her mind: she hadn't asked Teal'c if the body he'd found was Daniel's. If something happened to her now, she'd never know.
* * * * *
"Singer, for God's sake quit grilling me. I'm not in the mood for a barbecue."
"Sorry, General," Singer apologized with all the sincerity of a rainmaker in the high desert. "I was under the assumption grilling you is exactly why we're here." His smirk widened.
"For cryin'–," Jack began, before issuing a sigh of capitulation and shaking his head in frustration. "Let's just get this over with." Since leaving the briefing room, the representatives had presented a steady stream of questions for him to field. It wasn't his favorite activity on a good day, and with a team of civilians overdue for check-in, today wasn't even close to being in the strike zone of good. Singer was being particularly brutal – turning the Q&A session into an interrogation that had Jack on the defensive more than usual.
"General, I'd like to discuss an event which took place shortly after you took command of the SGC." Jack eyed him warily, but withheld comment. "I'm talking about the near overrun of the base when an alien plant Doctor Lee's staff was experimenting on escaped and–"
"It was a _plant_!" Jack interrupted indignantly. "Besides, it didn't 'escape,' as you put it."
Singer smiled indulgently and acquiesced. "Fine, General. It _tried_ to escape. What I'd like to know is: what were your plans for evacuating the base in case the plant had proven to be dangerous?"
"It wasn't dangerous. My people handled the situation fine."
"That's not the point. It could have been. We need a detailed evacuation plan for each department containing, at a minimum, two separate routes of escape, excluding the Stargate. No doubt you received the memo."
Singer stepped in front of Jack, blocking the group's passage down the corridor leading to Section K7. "O'Neill, I've kept tabs on your fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants techniques over the years. That kind of mentality might work out in the field, but a desk officer has to plan ahead. He has to prepare and react accordingly. He has to be more responsible...."
At the softly spoken, clipped word, the other two Suits took a single step back as if to avoid any fallout. Jack and Singer ignored them.
"I beg your pardon?"
Jack glared at the man. "I said, 'bullshit.' You don't have a clue what goes on here. What's needed."
"No? Then, by all means, enlighten me."
Jack grimaced. "The work Hammond did here was important – more important than anything you'll ever do – and I'll go to my grave defending him and the job he did. But, the General would be the first to tell you, you're full of shit. Above all, Hammond valued his officers' ability to think on their feet and act under pressure. Hell, I've seen him do it himself a dozen times over. This job doesn't fit in your neat little box of regulations and neither do I. Hammond knew that when he recommended me for this job."
Singer glowered. "You never did appreciate the power one could yield from behind a desk."
"You've got that right, Colonel." Jack allowed his eyes to drift lazily over the heavy display of ornamentation decorating Singer's uniform. "Purple heart, huh?"
"That's right," Singer answered cautiously.
"Pretty hard to get flying a desk."
"Not as hard as you'd imagine, General." His eyes hardened.
Jack crossed his arms and leaned casually against the wall. "Unless, of course, they're handing them out for a rusty bullet hole." His smile took on a dangerous glint. "I must have missed that memo."
Singer's face flushed at the reference to sucking ass or brown nosing. Ignoring his colleagues' stifled laughter at his expense, Singer took a step forward, his fists clenched. "Time hasn't changed you a bit, has it, Jack? You're the same rude, opinionated bastard you were in OTS."
"And like fine wine, age has only improved those qualities." Jack's smile was so cold it could easily have frozen the Netherworld.
"You son of a bitch, I ought to–"
Sparks and tempers snapped in unison. "That would be General Son of a Bitch to you, Colonel. Look it up in the regs if you don't believe me."
"You really are a bastard," Singer ground out through gritted teeth.
"You know, you could use a thesaurus." An eyebrow rose sardonically. "Tell you what, I'll send you one. I know where I can get a nice _desk_ copy. It was made just for you."
The angry flush slowly melted from Singer's lean face. He shook his head and chuckled softly. "Isn't this where we started this dance?"
"A lot more years ago than I'd rather admit," Jack acknowledged quietly.
"Then maybe it's time we sat one out."
Jack shook his head, gesturing vaguely around him. "I still have a job to do."
"And, so do I. So, what do you say we lay aside our differences in methodology and concentrate on doing what we both do best?"
Jack shrugged. "Is that a direct order from the office of the Joint Chiefs?"
Grinning, Singer glanced at his two, silent colleagues before looking back at Jack. "I've known you since the day you got caught skinny dipping with that general's daughter. You're not gonna pull that old rag on me, Jack. What have you got in mind?"
Before Jack could reply, they were interrupted by a page over the loudspeakers calling for General O'Neill to report to the control room. Without a word, Jack turned and ran for the nearest elevator.
"What's going on?" Singer yelled as he and his colleagues hurried to catch up.
The atmosphere was heavy with tension as Singer and the Suits clambered into the elevator behind Jack. The tension mounted as the car descended, the doors hissed open, and they stumbled out after him. Sprinting to keep up, they breathlessly climbed the steps to the control room. Jack was already standing behind Sergeant Harriman, his eyes glued to the grainy MALP transmission.
"Even by your standards that was reprehensibly rude," Singer panted. "What the hell do you mean taking off like that and leaving us standing there without one word of explanation?"
Taking his cue from the General, the young man ignored the Colonel's sputters of protest and looked up at his CO. "No one is responding to our radio signal, sir."
"What's going on?" Singer walked over to where Jack stood and looked over Walter's shoulder at the monitor. "Sweet Mother of God," he muttered as the blood drained from his face. "Jack?" Through the picture transmitted from a galaxy away, he could see bodies tossed together like a pile of cord wood. Like their wooden counterparts, motionless limbs lay twisted and broken. Sightless eyes stared, while frozen grimaces of death smiled for the camera.
"There's someone alive!" a shout echoed through the room. "General, I saw movement."
"Jack," Singer repeated, "what–"
"Get them out of here," Jack quietly demanded.
"Wait," Singer began, but an SF was already firmly guiding him and the two pasty-faced Operations officers from the room.
"Sirs, please, follow me. You can wait in the briefing room."
It was nearly half an hour before Singer, still mentally reeling from the sight of the dead, could bring himself to rise from his seat at the long conference table and stand on shaky legs to silently stare into the empty gateroom below. From here, there was no hint of the horror or the tension that had filled the small room just one floor below where he stood.
His mind focused on the pile of bloodied, mutilated corpses, he flinched at the sound of hurried footsteps on the metal stairs. Jack's silver hair rose from the depths of the madness below. As his body came into view and he reached the top of the stairs, the man himself suddenly halted as he noticed the three men awaiting him in varying poses in the briefing room. Staring at his old acquaintance, Singer realized Jack had changed – not only in demeanor. Along with the stern features, he was wearing a black tactical vest over his BDU's.
"Gentlemen, I'm afraid you'll–"
"I'm coming with you." No one was more surprised by Singer's statement than he was himself.
Jack met his gaze, his face unreadable. "No."
"I don't remember asking. As the representative of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, I have the authority to take any action I deem necessary in an effort to get a good handle on the SGC's development of strategic mobility, mobilization and medical readiness."
Cold rage filled Jack's face. "Listen, Singer, those are my people out there, and the last thing I need is an arrogant asshole like you getting in the way. Right now, I don't know how many of them are hurt or dead. More importantly, I don't know how many are still alive. But, I intend to find out, and I intend to bring them home."
Shutting out the gory images inspired by Jack's words, Elliot stiffened his spine. "You can't stop me. I'm going."
Even from across the room, he could see the muscles in Jack's jaw clenching and unclenching. "Fine. But, stay the hell out of my way and let me do my job. Understand?"
Jack seemed to reconsider his decision, before quietly telling him, "Gear up and head to the gateroom. We leave in twenty minutes – with or without you."
Actually, it was closer to fifteen when the gateroom door slid open and a fully geared general stepped through waving down the saluting members of the search and rescue teams who were completing last minute preparations. "Carry on, men." Jack looked up at the control room window, adjusted his cap and tapped on his earpiece. "Dial it up."
"Uh, sir," Walter began nervously, just as the door slid open a second time and Colonel Singer rushed in.
"You weren't thinking about leaving me behind were you, Jack?"
"Do I have a choice? Just remember who's in charge of this mission, Singer. You will follow my orders to the letter, and I will not – repeat, not – take time to explain my reasoning. If you get in my way or even look like you're going to interfere, I won't order you shot." Jack's eyes were like ebony marbles, unyielding and hard. "I'll shoot you myself. Understood?"
"Got it," Singer gulped, the sound lost in the snap of the opening wormhole.
Walking to the base of the ramp, Jack looked over his shoulder to the control room. "Walter," he yelled, "I forgot to call Hammond to let him know what's going on. Give him a buzz for me, would you?" Without waiting for an answer, he stepped into the wormhole and disappeared.
* * * * *
Daniel was awakened by screaming. Groaning, he rolled over onto his back without opening his eyes. His head was throbbing, and he was laying on something hard. Something hard and uneven and lumpy. Feeling hungover – worse than hungover – he cautiously forced his eyes open. Despite the fact it was dark, he groaned again, louder, and draped a shaky hand over his face.
Gasping, Daniel opened his eyes at the sound of a male voice coming from nearby. He squinted up into the face leaning over him. It took a moment for the features to come into meager focus. "Woeste?"
"Yeah." The lieutenant from SG-11 frowned down at him as another distant scream rent the humid air.
Daniel started to sit up, but a gentle hand on his shoulder and a sickening dizziness held him down. A quick glance told him he was in a small, dark shed of some kind, and he was sharing his quarters with several members of the SG units. "What...what's going on?"
Woeste grimaced and sank down onto his haunches on the dirt floor. The man was the epitome of exhaustion. "They're killing the rest of them."
"_What_?" This time Daniel did sit up, despite the hand and the spinning of the room. As he squinted at his surroundings, Woeste reached into Daniel's shirt pocket and held something out to him. His glasses. He slipped them on, flinching as the bent earpiece hit a sore spot on the side of his head. Through a crack in the left lens, he peered at the men and women around him. Some were reclining wearily; others were obviously tense and on edge. Many were wounded and bleeding. Colonel Reynolds, sporting a bloody, makeshift bandage tied around his right bicep, was seated a few feet away, his face squeezed against the boards as he peered through a small gap in the wall. Colonel Edwards sat beside him, his back pressed against the wall, anger hardening his tired features. Daniel glanced back at Woeste. "They're killing the rest of who? What are you talking about?"
As if in answer, another scream pierced air stinking of sweat and fear and urine. Both men flinched before Woeste murmured, "The scientists."
Daniel felt the blood drain from his face. He quickly scanned the room confirming what he already suspected. He was the only civilian in their makeshift prison. Pressing a hand to the side of his head, he gingerly explored a large knot just over his right ear. His hair was tacky with dried blood. "I don't understand," he croaked, finally daring to trust his voice.
"What's to understand?" Edwards muttered. "After the attack, they rounded up the survivors. You were unconscious, but they tossed you in with us. They killed three of our men and most of yours then they dragged the bodies close enough for us to identify them before they started–" The man swallowed convulsively, his eyes failing to mask his horror. "Now, they're finishing the job. At least, that's what it sounds like," he added bitterly.
"No." Daniel cautiously shook his aching head.
Reynolds sighed, turned around to sit facing the room, and rubbed his eyes. "Yeah, Jackson." When Daniel frowned over at him, the Colonel forced a tight smile. "Funny thing – all this time we've been here, a Goa'uld and some damn Jaffa have been watching us and we didn't even know it."
"I don't think they're Jaffa. Not like any we've ever encountered before anyway," Edwards quietly protested.
Reynolds snorted. "Fine. They're not Jaffa. Who the fuck cares after th–" His fists clenched in silent fury as another scream rent the air.
Edwards gave a non-committal shrug and released his pent breath. "Sorry. I just thought it might be important." He gave Reynolds an even stare, "But, you're right. I guess it doesn't matter." Reynolds met his fellow officer's stare and gave a terse nod.
"There's a Goa'uld here?" Daniel was confused. Aside from the ancient remnants, they'd seen no sign of any human life on the planet, certainly no sign of a Goa'uld presence.
"Not any more." At Daniel's questioning glance, Reynolds continued. "Like Edwards said, you were knocked unconscious during the initial attack – before the Goa'uld revealed itself."
"What about Elena?"
Edwards shook his head. "She, Barton and Parker bought it."
"They were dividing us into two groups," Reynolds said. "Most of the scientists – the civilians – on one side. The rest of us on the other. That was when the Goa'uld showed up."
"For what purpose?" Daniel interrupted with a frown. "Why separate us?"
Reynolds refused to meet Daniel's gaze. Ignoring the question, he continued, his manner uncharacteristically hesitant. "That was about the time the gate activated. We could hear it. It was the General sending through a search and rescue team. The Goa'uld started shrieking orders and the Jaffa–," the Colonel looked at Edwards, "–the natives tied us up and left us under guard while they headed for the gate. We heard weapons fire."
Daniel glanced around at their accommodations. "Obviously, the S and R wasn't a success."
"No, but they did manage to kill the snakehead. A runner came tearing back babbling something about the death of their goddess."
"Goddess?" Daniel murmured. "That's unusual."
"That's also when it really got ugly," Edwards commented. "The two groups they'd been forming?" Daniel nodded for him to continue. "They forced the other group back to the gate. They–"
When it was obvious Edwards wouldn't finish, Reynolds stiffened his spine and looked Daniel in the eye. "They killed them. We could hear them screaming. I figured it'd be our turn when they finished with the civilians, but they herded us in here instead."
"Where we've been sitting on our asses ever since," Edwards added.
Daniel's face was pale. Bile stung his throat. "And the search and rescue team?" he whispered. No one answered his question. "Reynolds?"
The Colonel shrugged. "We don't know. All we know is the natives are short one Goa'uld, and we haven't seen hide nor hair of Carter's team."
"Sam?" Daniel's heart began racing, and the throbbing in his head picked up the tempo to keep pace. "Jack sent Sam?"
Edwards smiled sadly. "Colonel Carter tried to contact us when they first came through the gate, but the head jerk had already confiscated our equipment. We couldn't warn her."
"It would have been a little hard to respond anyway." Reynolds gingerly rubbed the angry rope burns on his wrists – testimony to his struggle against his bonds. "What a damn waste," he muttered bitterly.
"They killed her?" Daniel couldn't believe it. He wouldn't. He looked to Reynolds for reassurance. "Maybe she and Teal'c were captured."
The Colonel stared back at him, his expression an odd cross between anger and pity. "If Colonel Carter was captured, why didn't they toss her in here with the rest of the survivors from her team?" He nodded towards a small cluster of soldiers huddled against the far wall.
"Well, we have to do something." Daniel saw Reynolds' shoulders tighten, and for a moment he thought the man might strike out in frustration and fury.
"Unless you have a suggestion that–" Reynolds' remaining words fled beneath the shadow of another scream, and his taut shoulders sagged. "I'm sorry, Doctor Jackson."
* * * * *
With the exception of the liquid plops signifying the deposit of the humans on the planet's surface, Jack and his personnel arrived in silence. Contrary to the well-intentioned advice of several subordinates, Jack came through first. He immediately ran toward the MALP which had been sent through earlier – toward the gory mound which was his people. Taking up a position between the two, Jack held his P-90 at the ready and scanned the surrounding area until all twenty-one members of his team had come through and fanned out, and the wormhole had shut down.
Lowering his weapon, but not his guard, Jack tried unsuccessfully to contact Carter's team then turned to find Singer standing mere inches behind him. The man's face was pallid, and he was staring fixedly at the pile of mutilated corpses. Sparing the obnoxious desk jockey a mere glance, Jack nodded at Harper, the leader of SG-5, who immediately strode over to stand next to Jack.
"Pick two men to help you check for wounded," Jack indicated the bloody heap.
Harper didn't flinch. "Yes, sir." He turned away and called out to two of the older, more seasoned Marines.
Once the three men began gently disassembling the tangled mess, Jack turned back to the remaining units. Within minutes, he had the teams arranged in a tight perimeter, forming a protective barrier around the gate and the DHD, and more importantly, around the dead and – hopefully – the wounded.
"Erickson," Jack called to the young leader of SG-23, the latest unit to be added to the SGC's arsenal. He grimaced as Major Erickson stepped up and lifted a hand to salute. At the last moment, the man quickly dropped his hand and blushed.
Jack frowned and from the seclusion of his dark sunglasses, he studied the Major's appearance. Yeah, the guy was young, but even a wet-behind-the-ears cadet knew you didn't salute an officer in the field. Not unless you _wanted_ to get your CO shot. The Academy sure didn't make them like they used to. Jack sighed. He supposed the Major wasn't accustomed to accompanying a general onto the battlefield, but still, he made a mental note to talk to Reynolds about some refresher courses. No need for Jack to lose his best officers because subordinates were pointing them out to the enemy.
"Major, we need advance recon. Take your team and scope out the campsite. As soon as Harper and his men are finished here, we'll follow."
"Yes, sir," the Major snapped, and turned to go with an eagerness Jack found disturbing.
"Hey!" Jack waited until the young man had turned back around and he had his full attention. "You will not engage the enemy. Is that clear?"
Struggling to keep frustration from his voice, Jack's tone remained clipped and edgy. "You will scout out the area between here and the campsite. If you see or hear the enemy, you will make yourselves scarce and you'll radio back numbers and position. I repeat: you are _not_ authorized to engage them." Jack wrapped tense fingers around the grip of his P-90. "Do you understand?"
Jack nodded as the Major obviously fought back the urge to salute before spinning on his heels to round up his team. Still frowning, Jack turned to check on Harper's progress and bumped into Singer who'd apparently been dogging his every move. The mere sight of the man infuriated him. Singer was imposing himself on Jack's turf, insinuating himself into the midst of his personnel, and his obvious ineptitude in the field would more than likely increase the risk to them all. Jack opened his mouth to tell the man so when Harper called out to him. Glaring at his old classmate, Jack stepped past Singer and stalked towards SG-5's leader and the neat row of bloodied, familiar bodies laid out at the foot of the Stargate. "Harper?"
Someone's blood smeared on his forehead, Harper's face was pale. "We have two survivors, sir – barely. We need to get them back ASAP."
"Do it." As the men began hurriedly bundling up the two torn bodies, Jack slowly walked along the row of corpses. Chevrons engaging with resounding thunks, he stopped at each corpse and studied it in detail. Eight dead. Two close on their heels. How many missing?
Jack stared at the mutilated body laid out at his feet. A woman. Someone he was pretty sure he didn't know. By her clothes, she would have been one of the civilians assigned to Daniel, and – he was sorry to say – he'd actually met very few of Daniel's scientists face-to-face. That very fact made her death harder to swallow – she'd been a civilian in his care; she and her family had trusted him to ensure her safety. Jack scrubbed a hand across his forehead in a futile attempt to wipe away the tension clustering there. The woman had dirt under her fingernails and on one upturned palm, he saw the calluses indicative of her trade. Her shirt was ripped and bloodied, her left leg had been removed at the thigh by what looked like a sharp instrument of some kind, and her face was missing.
Quelling the fury building inside him, Jack stepped to the next body in the row. Another female. This one had long, dark hair. Unlike her companion, with the exception of a small amount of dried blood coating her lips, her face was unmarred. Cloudy, brown eyes in an attractive Hispanic face stared up at an alien sky. She wore a fist-sized hole like a gory badge on the right side of her chest. Despite the fact the chest wound had been mortal, the woman's throat had been slit. Her head had been nearly severed from her body. Overkill.
Jack's fingers tightened around his weapon as he realized he knew her – Elena something-or-other, the lady who studied dead plants. The one who'd helped them out with that damned smoking mirror thingy. Suddenly, he wanted to punch something. Kill someone. He wanted to strike out at whoever could take the lives of his people in such a heinous, unprovoked fashion. He wanted to take the enemy one by one, slam them to the ground, and brutally shove the barrel of his P-90 into their mouths, cutting off their pleas for mercy. His heart raced with a cry for justice, for revenge.
The need for retaliation forming a hard, unforgiving lump in his chest, restricting his breathing, Jack spun on his heels...and promptly bumped into the silent figure shadowing his every step. Instinctively, he shoved Singer back. "What the fuck?"
"What?" The shakiness of his voice revealed Singer's fear, an emotion punctuated by his dilated eyes and pale lips.
As the wormhole snapped shut behind Harper's men and their fragile cargo, Jack realized he should have sent the desk man back to the SGC with them. He should have tucked him safely into the harbor of the mountain. He should have removed him from his own sight. Swallowing around the emotion clogging his throat, Jack blinked and glanced at the men and women still forming a deadly barrier around the area of the gate.
"What do you plan on doing about this, General?"
Jack's eyes snapped back to the Colonel's face. "Excuse me?"
"Something needs to be done. This is unacceptable." When Jack failed to respond, Singer drew himself up to his full five feet, ten inches. "You should do something."
Several ideas of what he'd like to do flashed across Jack's mind, but wisely, he discarded them all. His jaw muscles clenching, Jack smiled tightly. "You're absolutely right," he nodded. "Something should be done. Collect their tags."
"I said, collect their tags." Jack nodded his head toward the row of dead, and he felt a small rush of satisfaction at the sickened look on Singer's face.
"You want to best serve your country? You want to act responsibly?" Jack took pleasure in flinging the man's words into his soft face. "Collect their tags, Colonel."
Jack started to move on, but Singer sidestepped, cutting him off. "Why me? Why are you having me do this, Jack, when there's a dozen other people here more qualified, better suited?" Singer looked and sounded desperate.
"Consider it my 'fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants' technique. Now," Jack's features hardened as the urge to kill swept through him again, "I'm ordering you to get down on your fucking knees and collect their tags." Without waiting to see if his command was followed, Jack stalked away. He'd gone only a few paces when simultaneously his radio crackled to life and he heard the distant rattle of gunfire.
'_We're under fire! We're under fire_!'
Cursing himself for not sending a more seasoned team, Jack grabbed his radio. Before he could respond to Major Erickson's cries, he saw the teams around him shift as they strained to break formation in an effort to go to where the battle was raging. "Hold your positions!" he demanded. Keying his radio, he spoke forcefully. "Major, report."
'_General, we're under fire. Chaney's been hit_.'
"Position and numbers, Major."
There was a long, worrying pause before Erickson responded breathlessly. '_Uh, about...ten...maybe twelve...hostiles. We're–_'
Jack frowned at the sudden silence. Forcing a calm exterior he didn't feel, Jack keyed the radio again. "Erickson, what's your position?"
Jack looked in the direction an airman was pointing. Through a thin layer of scrub, he detected movement. Turning to the young lieutenant manning the DHD, Jack shook his head. There would be no dial-out. Certain no hostiles would slip past their defenses to access the SGC, he moved quickly and decisively to reorganize his troops with an efficiency engrained from years of command and teamwork. His men and women swept forward in response to his hand signals, forming a wide V that funneled outward toward the brush and inward toward the gate. If all went smoothly, the hostiles hot on SG-23's trail would storm into the clearing and be cut off from retreat as the wide ends of the V closed behind them.
His people scrambling into place, Jack had only a moment to question his strategy. Striding toward the gate, one eye on the area where SG-23 should emerge from the brush, he toggled the safety switch on his P-90, glanced towards the MALP, and spotted Singer pitifully hunkered down amidst the bloody corpses. For a brief second, he considered hauling the man out, forcing him to take up a position in the defensive line, but honestly, they were all probably better off with the idiot huddled amongst the dead.
Shaking his head in disgust, Jack swung around at the sound of gunfire. SG-23 came barreling out of the brush. Erickson and another man were dragging a third man between them; the fourth member of the team stumbled behind them shooting at something Jack couldn't see.
Bad knee forgotten in the familiar rush of adrenalin, Jack ran down the line of personnel on his right, heading directly for the frontline. "Heads up, people!" he yelled as he went.
He was fifty feet away when half a dozen natives, dressed in leathers and furs and toting staff weapons, broke through the brush and lumbered into the crosshairs of the waiting soldiers. As fiery trails of weapons fire were exchanged, Jack closed ranks with a man who was attempting to fight his way through a gap in the defensive line. The guy rivaled Teal'c in size. His P-90 held in front of him, Jack was less than ten feet away when the hostile turned.
_Shit_! Jack nearly dropped his weapon. The man sported a tattoo in the center of his forehead. At the sight of him, the Jaffa grinned a rotten-toothed smile and lifted his staff weapon. Jack's P-90 was already trained on the broad chest; the guy stood no chance at this range.
His face grim, the sound of fighting nearly deafening and the smell of cordite stinging his nostrils, Jack slowly shook his head. "Don't do it."
The Jaffa paused, and Jack actually had a moment when he thought the man would lay down his weapon. Then, the enemy laughed hollowly and swung the staff weapon with all his might. Without hesitating, Jack pulled the trigger. The Jaffa jerked and his weapon dropped from nerveless fingers. Still standing, the man staggered toward Jack, a stunned look on his face. When the Jaffa was less than two feet away, Jack raised the barrel of the rifle slightly. Before he could fire, his enemy twisted and toppled noiselessly at his feet, landing on his back in a puff of dust. Like Elena, the Jaffa stared up sightlessly into a smoke-filled sky.
Immune to his surroundings, Jack stared into the dead eyes. "That was for the plant lady, you bastard." Using his right hand, he casually centered the barrel of his rifle over the tattoo and fired a single round. The dead body twitched, and Jack lowered his weapon. "And that was for overkill," he muttered.
Turning toward the battlefield, Jack never saw what hit him. He only knew that something large slammed into him from behind. He felt a burning sensation on the back of his neck and then there was darkness.
* * * * *
Barking laughter put them on the alert. It was so out of place in the aftermath of the massacre both at the dig and the subsequent battle, it seemed like an entity all its own. Teal'c signaled silently and nodded in the direction of the clearing. Sam's head dipped, acknowledging she was ready. Tightening the grip on her weapon, she slipped forward, stopping next to Teal'c.
The silence of the surrounding forest was deafening. The native birds and even the pesky flies had fled the scene. Sam envied them and for a brief moment, she would have gladly relinquished her silver oak leaves had she been able to find sanctuary in the foliage of the surrounding trees.
There was a wet thud, followed by another round of maniacal laughter as the two men they'd followed from the village went about their gruesome business.
His dark features frozen, Teal'c's countenance was so taut no emotion would dare breech the icy surface. "Colonel Carter," his voice was so low it might have been a part of the landscape, "we should take them now while they are...distracted."
"Remember, we need them alive," Sam murmured, her eyes never leaving the grisly scene. "They might know where the others are."
Though he gave no overt indication he had heard, Sam knew he had. Moving as silently as the shadows which hid them, Teal'c stepped out of the forest scrub into the clearing. Sam remained hidden – alert, ready to cover him as he moved closer to the carnage.
"You will cease this butchery and surrender immediately."
The look of surprise in response to Teal'c's command might have been comedic had the expressions on the men's faces not been camouflaged by the blood of their victims.
Sam moved quickly from the gloom, her weapon poised for action. "Drop your weapons and raise your hands," she ordered in a voice which did little to mask her anger and revulsion.
The taller of the two natives cast a sideways glance of disbelief at his companion, muttering in undecipherable, guttural grunts. Before the other man could respond, the native's bearded face melded into a savage snarl. Raising a gory blade, he charged toward Sam. Calmly, she raised the P-90, sighted along it and squeezed off a single shot. The man spun with a shriek and dropped to the ground, clutching his arm.
"You were directed to raise your hands," Teal'c remarked dryly. "I suggest you do so immediately."
Making no move to aid his wounded companion, the shorter of the two allowed his weapon to fall, his dark eyes expressing a perfect combination of hatred and fear as he stared at Sam.
"Move away from the bodies," she ordered coldly, gesturing the direction with the barrel of her weapon. "You, too!" she snapped at the man moaning on the ground. "Get over there by your buddy. Quick, before I change my mind and shoot you again."
There was grim satisfaction when the man clambered clumsily to his feet and staggered to his cohort's side. Bright red blood wept around his tightly clamped fingers, soaking his sleeve and turning the tan cloth the color of burnt sumac. It might have been alarming had it not paled next to the blood splatters decorating the man's tunic and face like a careless artist in the throws of a creating a macabre masterpiece.
His staff weapon pointed at the men, Teal'c fairly radiated his desire to blow a hole through one or both of them. Like a cobra mesmerizing its prey, he held their eyes while he kicked the stained machetes into the brush.
"Watch them, Teal'c. I'm going to try and ID the bodies." Sam's hardened expression never changed, though her eyes betrayed her to her teammate and friend. He shared a single glance of strength, understanding and support before turning his full attention to their prisoners, but it was enough. Suppressing the nausea burning the back of her throat, Sam steeled herself and moved to the bodies.
A veteran of numerous battles, a front-line combat officer, Sam was no stranger to death; however, the scene greeting her would doubtless take center stage in her nightmares for a long time to come. The man and woman were lying side by side as if they had dozed off after a romantic picnic lunch in the forest glade. But there, the stolen trice ended. The man's hands were not gently caressing his lover's soft skin; his arms did not hold her in a tender embrace. He had been dismembered, and the woman's head had been severed from her body. Tossed to the ground a few feet away, the blonde-haired head stared back at the gory scene, the blood-smeared face forever frozen in an anguished, airless scream.
Sam was stunned by the violence, by the barbarity of the senseless act. "Why?" Her voice shook. "These people weren't even soldiers. They wouldn't have harmed you. They were just here to learn."
"Our job," the shorter man surprised her by answering. "We take the dead ones out and cut them into pieces. Little pieces. Many, many."
"Damn good job we do," the other added with obvious pride. "No one better."
"It's your job to mutilate your victims' bodies?" Sam realized she was perilously close to losing control of the tide of emotions washing over her, but she could no more stop herself from asking the question than a child could stop the waves from washing away his sandcastle.
The men nodded in unison. "Our job," the wounded man repeated as if she were too dense to have comprehended it the first time.
"Later, we get better job."
"After we prove we do this good."
Sam looked at Teal'c, who shook his head slightly. It was obvious the Jaffa had never encountered people such as these. "You'll get a better job?" Sam asked carefully. "Better than mutilating bodies?"
Both men nodded, clearly relieved she finally understood. "We get in on killing prisoners," the smaller man ventured.
"However, you are now the prisoner, are you not?" Teal'c interjected, allowing the unspoken threat to hang in the air. Both men's eyes widened as if just realizing their fate.
While their prisoners gnawed on the bare bones of Teal'c's declaration as if it were their last meal, Sam reached down and removed the tags of Daniel's dead teammates. Shoving the pieces of metal safely in her pocket, she walked over to Teal'c. "The way I see it we have two options. We can either tie these two up, try to get them to tell us where our people are being held, and attempt to rescue our people alone; or we can take them back to the gate and hope that by now the SGC has realized what's happening and has sent reinforcements. Personally, I'm betting on General O'Neill sending help. Where would you put your money, Teal'c?"
"The odds of two warriors successfully effecting a rescue against an unknown number of natives is slim."
"That's what I figured," Sam agreed softly.
"My money is also on O'Neill sending the necessary aid."
Sam nodded grimly. "Good enough for me. Let's get these men back to the gate."
* * * * *
Jack grimaced and hissed softly as he pressed the damp dressing against the tender knot on the back of his head. He was taking a breather on a convenient rock, or maybe, just maybe, he was resting his laurels on one of Daniel's artifacts. Dammit, why wasn't Daniel here to chew him out, the indignation of the righteous archaeologist spewing forth from every outraged pore over Jack's butt's blasphemy?
Jack watched his people weaving among the wounded and dead. They were good people, good soldiers – the best there was at their jobs. So were the civilians for that matter. This shouldn't have happened. It was wrong. With a bottomless sigh borne of the weight of command, he took a long drink from the canteen. He was hoping to wash away the rotting taste cloying the air, eager to cleanse himself and his uniform of the smell of death.
"Jack?" The voice was soft, nearly apologetic. Elliot Singer was barely recognizable as the same pompous officer who had stepped through the gate a few scant hours ago after bullying his way onto the mission. Pale, his uniform smeared with someone else's blood, he stopped a few feet from Jack and waited. When O'Neill ignored him, he hesitantly cleared his throat and silently held out his hand. The tangle of stained tags waved gently in the hot breeze.
His eyes on his men as they set up a temporary camp, Jack capped the canteen and let it drop. The soft slosh from within sounded loud against the stillness of death surrounding them. "How many?"
"Ten – the eight that were dead when we got here and one from SG-23."
The hard lines of leadership etched deeper into Jack's face. It never got any easier. "The tenth?"
"One of the civilians Harper took back through the gate didn't make it." When Jack simply nodded, Singer gestured toward the bloody gauze. "You okay? Maybe you ought to head back to..."
"General, need I remind you, periodical dictates that given the obvious volatility of the situation we're facing here, as senior officer, you should remove yourself behind–"
"Do I need to remind you of my promise if you interfered in the slightest?" Jack glared wearily at the man.
"No." Singer broke eye contact. He stared at the bloody collection of metal tags in his hand as if he were seeing them for the first time, his nose wrinkling in distaste at the grimy half-moons of filth residing under each of his manicured nails. Slowly, his eyes met Jack's. "No, sir," he repeated quietly.
Pushing himself unsteadily to his feet, Jack shoved the bloody dressing deep into his pocket without a glance. He hid his surprise at Singer's unexpected show of respect. He stooped to retrieve the canteen, his brow puckered against the stab of pain impeding his usual grace. Gritting his teeth, he snatched it up, his fingers twisting the nylon strap as if it were the neck of an invisible enemy. "Let's go," he growled.
They had reached the edge of the makeshift camp when an aide trotted towards them. "General, we just received a radio transmission from Colonel Carter. She asks permission to enter base camp with two prisoners."
"Any word on Teal'c?"
"Accompanying Colonel Carter, sir."
Jack felt the knot in his gut loosen slightly. "Permission granted, Lieutenant." Without waiting for the man to acknowledge the order, he strode around the perimeter of the temporary base stopping at each checkpoint for a brief word with the sentries, while Singer followed on his heels like a trained carriage dog. By the time they had made the circuit, Jack could see Teal'c prodding two bearded men across the battlefield. Carter marched behind, her P-90 fixed on the prisoners' grungy backs. She lifted the barrel of the weapon, acknowledging him. Jack's taut features relaxed, if only temporarily, as he returned the greeting with a slight nod.
The prisoners were marched into the hastily erected tent serving as headquarters. Jack stepped out of the brutal sun and into the dubious comfort of the interior of the tent. He was grateful for the meager respite. Teal'c had already secured the men's hands and had forced them to sit. They wore twin expressions of silent fury.
"Good to see you, Carter. I see you brought some dinner guests."
The weary lines shadowing Sam's face lightened as she gave him a strained smile. "Yes, sir. These gentlemen didn't call ahead for reservations, but Teal'c and I thought you might be able to accommodate them."
Jack looked towards the stoic Jaffa. "Didn't I tell you word of mouth was always the way to go, T? Make the customer happy, and he'll keep coming back and bring his friends with him." Though the words were lighthearted, no one in the tent failed to recognize the serious demeanor behind the banter.
"Indeed." If it had not been beneath his dignity to do so, Teal'c would have no doubt rolled his eyes.
"General," Sam interrupted, "could I speak with you? Privately, sir," she added glancing towards the door.
"Teal'c, watch the kids." His sunglasses in place, Jack stepped back out into the sun, fighting the urge to cover his eyes against the harsh glare bent on drilling through his eyeballs to the throbbing knot on the back of his skull. Sam pushed aside the thick canvas and moved beside him, followed closely by Singer. Jack stopped and looked at the man. "I don't remember inviting you to this tete-a-tete, and unfortunately for you, it's by invitation only. Get back in there and help Teal'c guard the prisoners."
Singer's face reddened. "But I have a right–" Jack's hand dropped to his holster, and the Colonel took a hasty step backward. "Fine. I'll go...guard the prisoners, but I won't forget this, Jack," he said, his former hostility firmly in place. Singer flung open the tent and disappeared into the sanctity of the canvas structure.
"You're making an enemy, sir," Sam warned softly, concern creasing her brow.
Snorting, Jack shook his head. "No, just re-establishing a very old one. Trust me, Carter, he makes a better enemy than a friend. At least when he's against you, you know where you stand. But, forget Singer and give me an update. Any sign of Daniel or the others?"
Sam shook her head, her face grim. "No, sir. Teal'c and I attempted to contact Colonel Reynolds and his team immediately upon arrival, but they didn't respond. We left the rest of our team guarding the gate while we reconned the dig site. There was no sign of Daniel or SG-3; however, we did locate the body of Elena Jimenez, one of the civilians." She was watching his face carefully. When there was no reaction to her words, she asked cautiously, "You knew she was dead, sir?"
"We found her in front of the gate, along with several others. They'd been butchered. Most likely left as a warning."
For a moment, Sam looked as if she might lose her breakfast, but true to her nature, she fought back the nausea and hid her horror behind a mask of professionalism. "That confirms what Teal'c and I saw those two doing." She nodded towards the tent, her face grim.
Jack nodded. "Go on," he ordered.
"Gilbert radioed that they were under attack. We responded, but we were outnumbered. Probably as many as six or seven to one, but it was impossible to get an exact count. Teal'c and I were forced to retreat or risk capture. It was weird, sir. There were natives fighting alongside Jaffa."
"Yeah, I wondered about that, too. The Jaffa I saw were pretty damn scruffy. I always figured Junior took care of the dental bills, but I spotted one big guy who was a shoe-in for dental hygiene horror of the year. Did Teal'c say anything about the setup?"
"No, sir, other than to say it was highly unusual for Jaffa and indigenous persons to form a cohesive army." She hesitated. "Maybe the natives are conscripted into service like Darian's people were on Juna."
Jack nodded. "Maybe. In any event, where there's Jaffa, there's usually a Goa'uld."
"There is – or at least, there was. Teal'c managed to take her out."
Sam shrugged noncommittally. "That's when all hell broke loose, and Teal'c and I were forced to retreat."
"Ungrateful bunch, huh?"
"Yeah, the Jaffa I understand, but I would have expected a different reaction from enslaved people who're suddenly set free."
Jack reached up and lightly fingered the knot on his head. "So, Carter, how the hell did we miss the fact there was a Goa'uld here?"
Shaking her head, Sam frowned. "I don't know, sir. I suppose she could have been here all along, just laying low beyond the quadrant we scoped out. Teal'c and I followed the Jaffas' trail to a village about five clicks north of here, but I figured interrogating the prisoners was more of a priority than attempting a direct assault without more backup or intel." She hesitated, pain darkening her eyes as she added quietly, "They were using machetes on the bodies, sir."
"Could you ID them?"
"No, sir, not visually. The bodies were…." She held out her hand, letting the comment hang, dangling and twisting alongside the bloody dogtags . "I'm sorry, sir," she said softly, "by the time Teal'c and I arrived, it was too late to do anything to help them." Shoving the tags back into a pocket, she attempted to blink away her exhaustion. "They were civilians. Two more of Daniel's team."
Jack nodded grimly. "You did the right thing, Carter. Bringing in the prisoners may give us the edge we need, so we can find and rescue the rest of our people."
"Rescue, sir?" Her eyes betrayed her doubt. "From what those two said, it sounds like they have a death squad all set up, and it's considered an honor to be a part of it."
"Yes, I said rescue," Jack snapped. "Until we know otherwise, we proceed under the assumption our people are alive and this is a search and rescue mission. Is that clear?"
"All right then. Now, let's go advise those boys on the wisdom of singing like canaries in the Vienna Choir."
* * * * *
Abundantly aware all eyes were following him, Jack chose to ignore everyone. Instead, he walked to the folding table set up inside the tent and pulled over a laptop. He paid no heed to the technician who rose hastily, vacating a chair for the General's use. Without a word, Jack sat down and began pecking softly on the keyboard, apparently oblivious to the tension building within the tent. Several minutes passed. The only sounds were his quiet tapping and the occasional exasperated breath exploding from Singer's direction. Sam shot a puzzled look in his direction, but it was likewise disregarded. She ended up attempting to share her concern with Teal'c who, after a brief moment of eye contact, ignored her as effectively as Jack did. Clearly confused, but wise enough to keep her mouth shut, Sam stood silently waiting.
"Jack, what the hell are you playing at?" Singer hissed in a mock whisper as a few more minutes sped by in the anxious stillness. "Are you going to interrogate the prisoners, or not?"
Apparently, the Colonel wasn't the only one affected by the pressure in the uneasy quiet of the tent. The wounded native attempted to struggle to his feet. "I go now."
"You do not," Teal'c growled softly as he laid his staff weapon on the man's wounded arm and applied just enough pressure to encourage him to remain seated.
The man yelped, and bowed his head in shame as his companion gave him a scathing look of scorn. "You turn into a coward like those who run. Maybe you die like them. Maybe you no warrior at all. You not worthy."
Jack's eyes narrowed. It was time. Closing the game of Minesweeper he'd been playing, he pushed back his chair. Walking towards the pair, he stopped a scant foot in front of them, forcing the men to crane their necks uncomfortably to maintain eye contact.
"Gentlemen, my name is Jack O'Neill, and I've come for my people. Where are they?" The wounded man's mouth opened as if to answer, but a jab from his partner's elbow kept him quiet. His voice steady and calm, Jack looked at Teal'c. "If either of these men interferes again, shoot them both."
Teal'c activated his weapon, its unmistakable hum filling the tent like a hive of angry bees. "I would be most happy to do so, O'Neill."
"Jack?" Singer faltered.
"Teal'c, amend that order to include Colonel Singer on that list."
"Gladly," Teal'c answered. Singer's jaw snapped shut, and he retreated to the far corner of the tent.
"I asked you boys a question, and Mutt here," he nodded towards the wounded man, "seems to want to talk. Now, Jeff," Jack glanced at the other prisoner, "your job is to shut the hell up and not interfere until it's your turn to squeal. Got that?" When there was no response, Jack looked back at the man cradling his injured arm. "I want to know where my people are and if they've been harmed in any way."
Mutt swallowed, his Adam's apple bobbing on his scrawny, grimy neck. "I tell you, you let me go?"
"See? Like I say, you not worthy to be warrior for Demeter," his companion taunted. "Good you die, and not need Elusis. More for warriors. More for me."
"No," the man barked. "I am loyal always. Demeter knows. You see, too." Before Jack could tell the men to knock off the bickering, the injured man raised his bound hands smacking Jack's hand in the process. The studded wrist guard he wore scraped Jack's flesh, leaving a parallel row of shallow cuts across his palm and causing him to grunt, more in surprise than pain.
The reaction was immediate and potentially lethal. Multiple weapons pointed like the spokes of a bicycle tire ready to explode with deadly force. Jack took a single step backward and held up his bloody palm. "Hold it, kids. I'm fine. It's just a scratch. No need to go postal." If the truth were known, he found his people's protectiveness a bit embarrassing.
Sam stepped toward the medical kit. "Sir, I can bandage it for you."
"I said it was nothing, Carter," Jack snapped, wiping the offending palm on the leg of his uniform without a glance. "Really," he added, his tone softening.
"Yes, sir." Sam retreated to her post.
His eyes hardening into an unnerving, flint-like stare, Jack turned back to the natives. "Enough with the theatrics, gentlemen. Don't let my genial reputation fool you. I'm hot, I'm cranky, and I'm royally hacked off. Besides, I have my limits – which, by the way, have been surpassed ten-fold today." The men blinked in confusion. "So," Jack hissed slowly, "we're going to make this very simple. I'm going to ask you some questions, and you're going to answer them." He drew out his handgun. "Or, I'll spare Teal'c the trouble and shoot you myself. Is that clear?" The men shared a quick sideways glance, their jaws clamped firmly shut. The feud of only moments before was apparently shelved in deference to the more immediate threat to them both.
The air was thick with impending violence. Jack slowly lowered his weapon until it was even with the shorter man's face, forcing eye contact with the single, cyclops-like eye of the barrel. The man gulped. "Yes, understand plenty good."
"Good." Jack's eyes were as piercing as the waiting bullet. "The Goa'uld – er – your goddess, what was her name?"
"Demeter. We serve."
"Carter, Teal'c, any idea who we're dealing with?"
Teal'c's silence echoed Sam's answer. "None, sir. If Daniel were here…," the comment trailed off as Jack nodded impatiently. She hurriedly directed her attention to the native. "But, Demeter is dead. Don't you and your people realize you're free?" The barrel of the Jack's Berretta waved slowly, silently prodding for an answer to the question.
Hatred boiled within both men's eyes, and the wounded prisoner spat, "Demeter _not_ dead! Kratos say goddess cannot die." His voice trailing off along with his conviction, the man clutched his bleeding arm and murmured, "Demeter good. Give gift of Elusis to people. Make us strong."
"No more Elusis, our people die," the other added bitterly.
Jack glanced at Sam, who shrugged. Dammit, he needed Daniel to wade through this mess. Daniel could get information out of practically any natives they encountered. He thought briefly of the planet of singing, white, naked guys. Daniel had somehow managed to bridge the communication barrier even there. It should be Daniel asking the questions here…and therein lay the crux.
It was a freakin' sauna in this tent – too hot to think clearly. Wiping his beaded forehead, Jack bit back a curse as salty sweat stung the cuts on his hand. Just add the sting to the ever growing list of reasons he was pissed off today. "Where are my people being held? I need to locate a civilian named Daniel Jackson. He's about this high," Jack gestured vaguely. "Brownish hair, glasses. Talks a lot. Real fast. Dammit, Carter, describe Daniel."
Sam stepped forward. "Yes, sir. Roughly six-one; he has blue-eyes," she said, gesturing toward her own eyes, "and he's dressed like us. He probably had his hair covered with a–"
"He is warrior?" the shorter man interrupted, his eyes narrowing.
"Yes…well, no. No, he isn't, not really. He's here with his team to study and learn about your planet. He's in charge of–"
"If no warrior, he dead," the man stated with calm detachment. "Simple."
"You killed all the people who weren't warriors?" Jack snapped. Despite the oppressive heat, a cold, hard knot of fear grew in his stomach as he did a mental count of how many civilians he'd sent through the gate on this project.
"Only warriors worthy to survive." The man gave Jack a look which clearly stated this should be obvious. Jack's mind was a kaleidoscope of images: helpless civilians, Elena Jimenez's head nearly severed from her body, his people stacked like cordwood in front of the gate, Daniel...
"Sir, Daniel…," Sam prompted gently as if reading his thoughts.
A hate-filled smirk lit the face of the wounded prisoner as he ignored Jack and leaned tauntingly toward Sam. "He die like woman, screaming for mercy."
"We watch," his partner added, clearly buoyed by the expression of horror which flashed across Sam's face. "You no find now. Just little pieces left. We chop good."
A single shot reverberated through the tent, sending seasoned soldiers into crouched positions as they brought weapons to bear, searching for a target. Obviously confused, they were clearly determined to carry on the fight. Even Teal'c appeared startled at the unexpectedness of the gunshot. As one, all eyes turned to Jack who, his finger still on the trigger, stared expressionlessly at the blackened hole in the forehead of the lifeless body crumpled at his feet.
* * * * *
Despite using his clenched fists to muffle the sounds, Daniel couldn't block out the terrified screams of his colleagues – his friends. Knees drawn tightly against his chest, the rough hewn planks digging into his shoulders, at this point he wasn't sure if the screams were real or mere phantoms conjured by his guilt and helplessness.
"Doctor Jackson?" When Daniel didn't respond, Gary Reynolds shifted his knee, banging it gently against the archaeologist's hunched form. "Are you okay?"
"Am I okay?" Troubled eyes sought Reynolds' face. "How can any of us ever be okay after listening to that? After knowing what's going on out there?"
Reynolds looked away, staring instead at the fine coat of dust marring the shine of his boots. "You focus on the living and those things you can change."
Daniel smiled wearily. "You sound like Jack."
"I'll take that as a compliment."
"Sometimes it is," Daniel murmured, closing his eyes and leaning his head against the irregular wood.
The chuckle died in Reynolds' throat as the heavy door grated against its hinges and slowly opened. "Look alive, people," he growled softly, "we've got company."
Daniel tensed, unsure what to expect. Scooting back on his rear, he pressed himself firmly against the wall, prepared to get to his feet. The Colonel placed a forearm across his chest in a move that reminded Daniel of riding in the front seat of his parents' 1961 Chevy Impala with his mother.
"Wait," Reynolds quietly ordered. "Stay where you are. Don't draw attention to yourself."
Daniel held his breath as a gangly youth walked through the door carrying two heavy buckets. Liquid splashed, soaking the boy's pant legs and decorating the dusty floor with large, wet plops. It left little doubt that at least one bucket contained water. Unconsciously, Daniel licked his dry lips.
Despite the air of supreme confidence for which the boy strove, Daniel saw a fleeting look of longing cross the young face as an armed guard slammed the door shut and slid the bolt home, locking the boy inside with the prisoners. Daniel wondered briefly what kind of society would so de-value their own children, but then thinking of what he'd heard and witnessed from these people so far, he chided his own naiveté.
Every eye watched as the buckets were set down and the boy drew himself erect. "I bring food and drink for warriors now," he announced solemnly. Daniel cringed as the mutinous vocal chords of a boy trapped in pubescent hell betrayed him, revealing to all that the maturity he wore was a sham. The boy's cheeks flamed and his eyes focused on the floor.
Ignoring Colonel Reynolds' orders, Daniel inched his way to his feet. He took one step forward and stopped. "Hi, my name is Daniel Jackson and these are my friends." He made a sweeping gesture around their small prison.
"I bring food and drink for warriors now," the boy repeated. From the look of confused panic he gave Daniel, it was clear he had reached the end of his practiced speech.
"Thank you. We certainly appreciate that." Daniel smiled and took another step forward. "What's your name?"
Back-pedaling, the boy retreated to his weapon of choice. "I bring food…"
"Yes, I know," Daniel interrupted. "You bring food and water for the warriors now. That's great, but can you tell me your name?"
"Doctor Jackson," Colonel Reynolds hissed softly, "are you sure you know what you're doing?"
Daniel ignored the Marine. "Your name?"
"Glory of Zeus," Daniel murmured. Looking over his shoulder at the Colonel, he added, "It's ancient Greek."
"And that means what exactly?" Reynolds frowned.
"I have no idea, but it's something."
"If you say so," the Colonel muttered as Daniel turned back to the boy.
Smiling seemed to confuse the boy and heighten his anxiety. Daniel was quick to pick up on the youngster's increased nervousness. This wasn't the first culture he'd encountered with that anomaly. Allowing his smile to melt into neutrality, Daniel gestured towards the buckets. "Diokles, you honor us with your gift of food and drink. Thank you."
The relief on the boy's solemn features was immediate. "Demeter cares for all warriors. Good food. Good drink," he stammered.
"Demeter?" Daniel frowned, his mind paging through the vast volumes of history he carried with him. "Demeter was the goddess of corn and fertility. She was seduced by a mortal called Iasion. Infuriated, Zeus killed Iasion with a thunderbolt and made love to Demeter himself. The result of this union was a daughter, Persephone, who married Hades...which I suppose is neither here nor there, but it's intriguing nonetheless."
"Doctor Jackson?" Reynolds interrupted carefully.
"What? Oh, right." Daniel's brow puckered. "The Elusinian Mysteries were held annually in honor of Demeter and Persephone. They were the most sacred and revered of all ritual celebrations of ancient Greece. They were instituted in the city of Elusis–"
"Yes!" Daniel's lecture was interrupted by Diokles' excitement. "Elusis! You know goddess's good gift?"
Startled by the boy's outburst, Daniel's mind raced. "Elusis? Is that what you mean by 'good gift'?"
The boy's excitement grew. "Yes. Yes. Elusis good gift for warriors only. Soon, my turn to serve, to earn gift."
"When is that, Diokles?"
"During washing in sacred rivers. When warriors receive first gift."
"The first gift?" Daniel felt as if they were talking in circles. Frantically, he searched through the pieces of information the boy had shared for the answers he needed. "What exactly is that gift?"
Dark eyes blinked owlishly and Diokles cocked his head, apparently trying to decide if Daniel was jesting. "You are warriors. You know this." The boy's expression tightened with suspicion.
"But, I'm not a–"
"That's right," Reynolds barked as he stepped in front of the archaeologist, "we're warriors." Daniel wondered vaguely how the man had risen so quickly and why he felt it was necessary to lie to the boy. Sweat and tension beaded off the Marine's inflexible features as he drew himself up, towering over both Daniel and the boy. "We're _all_ warriors. Isn't that right, Doctor Jackson?" He nudged Daniel with his shoulder.
Still confused over the metamorphism of Reynolds' threatening posture, Daniel managed to stammer, "What? Um, yes, that's right. Warriors. All of us."
Relaxing, the boy gestured toward the buckets. "You eat, rest. If lucky, you serve Demeter, too. We serve together. Plenty good gift." Before Daniel could pose another question, the door opened and Diokles scampered toward the exit. Looking over his shoulder, he added with reverent conviction, "Elusis for warriors only. Others not worthy. Others die."
There was silence as the prisoners listened for the bolt to slide home. When it did, confirming they were once again locked in, Reynolds resumed his place on the floor. "Demeter was the Goa'uld?" he guessed, his face and voice harsh.
"I assume so. It would make sense." Daniel continued to stare at the door through which the boy had exited. "He couldn't wait to serve – to do her bidding. I don't think he knows his goddess is dead. "
"Damn good thing." Reynolds gazed at the others around the room. The wounded were being tended by their teammates. "There's not a hell of a lot we can do if that kid's big brothers decide to come in here and finish the job like they were...," his voice trailed off awkwardly.
"Like they were killing the civilians – the non-combatants." Pain-filled comprehension pooled beneath the surface of Daniel's eyes.
"Those that didn't fight." Reynolds nodded grimly.
Daniel sank to the floor, sickened by the flood of understanding that swept over him. "I didn't...I couldn't understand why I'd been spared." He'd just reacted at the first sign of danger. He didn't even remember making a conscious decision; he'd simply found himself running toward the fighting. Bile burned his throat as he thought of the others, the ones who'd responded as any normal, sane civilian would – the ones who hadn't served alongside Jack O'Neill on a frontline unit for the past eight years. Slowly, Daniel opened his clenched fist, staring blindly at Elena Jimenez's barrette resting in the palm of his hand.
* * * * *
Teal'c stood guard over the remaining prisoner. The body of his dead companion had been swiftly removed, but not before the man's death had permeated the hot confines of the tent, stamping itself in their memories like a brand. The heinous act left behind a bitter aftertaste and a sense of foreboding that laid testimony against his commanding officer. Teal'c glanced toward the opposite corner of the tent at the small cluster of Tau'ri gathered there. He did not understand his friend's behavior, and from the hushed tones and concerned glances passing between Colonel Carter and the other SG personnel, it was obvious the feeling was shared. Despite the fact O'Neill had been undeniably provoked by the deaths of his people, it was not like him to give in to the prisoners' baiting of Colonel Carter.
"O'Neill most good warrior," the prisoner whispered in awe. When Teal'c glanced down at him, the native gave a ragged smile. "He earn good share of Elusis. Kratos be much pleased." Teal'c cocked his head in an effort to assimilate the strange meaning behind the childlike words. "Kratos," the man repeated, as if to clarify. "Kratos serve Goddess Demeter."
He stared at the native. This society was like a planet orbiting a sun. In order for the planet's surface to be warm enough to sustain life, the source of that heat – the sun – must be searing. In order for an entire society to show such coldness and cruelty, the source of such behavior must be pure evil. He was pleased he had killed the Goa'uld Demeter.
"I do not wish to speak of this," he said, and turning to once again observe his team members, he considered the strange feeling which had settled like a dead symbiote deep within in his abdomen. It was fear. Not the sort one feels in battle, but fear for O'Neill. Not only would there be serious consequences for his brother's strange behavior, Teal'c was certain only something equally serious could cause his friend to act in such a fashion.
"Who chop body of Ajax into little pieces?" Frowning, Teal'c glared down at his captive. "I chop good. Damn good job."
When the man smiled, Teal'c blinked. This man – not much more than a child – was asking permission to hack his own companion's lifeless body into bits? Slowly, he forced down the urge to follow in his friend's footsteps and end this parody of a human life.
Tentatively, the young native raised his bound hands then lowered them back to his lap. "You let loose, you see. I chop good."
"Say no more!" Teal'c shouted.
As a group, the other occupants of the tent swung around to stare at him.
He sighed. He would need to resort to the old habit of kelno'reem in order to rid himself of the negative thoughts disturbing him. Glancing at Colonel Carter, Teal'c forced a serenity he did not feel into his voice. "I will be fine," he assured her, despite the fact he wondered if it would ever be true.
Giving him an abbreviated smile, Colonel Carter turned back to her discussion, and Teal'c took a deep, calming breath.
"Get better job soon," the prisoner mumbled softly.
Teal'c's grip on the staff weapon tightened reflexively.
* * * * *
"What's your name?"
When there was no immediate response to his question, his pulse quickened. His head was pounding so hard he could hear the blood sloshing through the veins in his temples. The sound provided an annoying, non-ending backdrop, and he shook his head to clear his hearing. The movement caused the rhythm of the sloshing to increase which only worsened the pounding and the irritation. Ribbons of light undulated across his vision, blurring the stranger's face and making him nauseous. Frowning, Jack pressed his fingers into the corners of his eyes, blinking away a shower of stars which nearly blinded him.
Turning his head toward the voice, he frowned at the young woman standing by his left elbow and waited for the brilliant points of light to settle. She was saying something, but the acoustics in the canvas room sucked and her voice resonated nastily – Goa'uld-like. He flinched when she reached for his wrist for the second time in as many minutes. Then he remembered – she was a medic. One of his people.
"How do you feel, sir?"
Jack wondered what her name was, then immediately forgot her when he glanced at the man sitting on the ground a few feet in front of him. The guy's wrists were bound together with plastic ties. The prisoner was young, innocent looking. He vaguely reminded Jack of Skaara, and because of that alone he was tempted to cut through the bonds. Only a sudden flash of pure rage stopped him.
Frowning, Jack glanced around, wondering where they were and why everyone seemed to be staring at him – waiting on him. He opened his mouth to tell them all to fuck off and find someone else to admire when he suddenly remembered every single thing that had happened before and after coming through the gate. He shook off the hand on his wrist.
Not to be deterred, the young woman smiled. "General, I think maybe we should get you back to the SGC. You seem to be a little..."
"A little what?" he snapped. "Irritable? Irked? Pissed?"
Accustomed to dealing with people at their worst, the medic maintained her calm smile. "That, too, sir."
Jack leaned toward her, his face bare inches from hers. "You know, it's really weird, but seeing my people slaughtered like so much cattle always does that to me."
For the first time, the woman faltered, blinking and relinquishing her stubborn gaze. "I realize that, General, but with all due respect, you're not acting...." Wisely allowing the thought to trail away unspoken, she forced a tight, meager smile. "Your pupils are dilated and you're flushed, sir. Your breathing is shallow and your pulse rate is high. I'd like to–"
"No." He straightened and grimacing, he tried to focus on the vulnerable, harmless-looking killer seated at his feet.
"I really think we should–"
"And, I really think you should can it, Lieutenant." He didn't even bother to look at her, effectively dismissing her presence. Instead, he focused his attention on the prisoner and ignored the fact he saw the medic exchange a concerned glance with someone standing out of his line of sight. "Now," crossing his arms, Jack squinted down at the fuzzy outline of the native, "either give me your name or a finger."
The man's protruding Adam's apple bobbed nervously, but it was the only response. Jack glanced at Teal'c who had approached from behind and jerked his head harshly toward the prisoner. Without further direction, Teal'c roughly hauled the man to his feet then remained beside him, a massive hand wrapped around the native's right bicep. Unsnapping the sheath on his belt, Jack pulled his knife free and casually tossed it to the Jaffa.
"Start with the thumb," he simply said. "It'll be a little hard for him to wrap his hand around a machete without it. We'll see how many people he hacks apart from now on." Jack started to turn away, needing to sit down, when a shout stopped him.
He turned back to the prisoner, his gaze immediately dropping to the jagged edge of metal which was pressed ominously against the first joint of the man's thumb. His heart thudding uncomfortably against his breastbone, Jack blinked and looked into the scared eyes. "What?"
"Peneus. My name."
Jack wiped away a layer of sweat that had suddenly formed on his upper lip. Frowning, he stared down at his hand, which was visibly trembling. To be honest, he didn't feel so great. He felt shaky. Itchy – on the inside. His vision was fading in and out, and his head hurt. Bad.
Startled, he looked at Teal'c. His friend was staring back at him, closely studying him while maintaining a tight grip on the arm of a young stranger. Jack cocked his head at the sight of his own knife in Teal'c's large fist. "T?"
Teal'c scowled and Jack saw the knife waver uncertainly.
Jack grinned. "What's going on?"
Quickly glancing past him, Teal'c's eyes returned to Jack's. "You were interrogating the prisoner."
"I–," and he suddenly remembered. Everything. His people dead. The asshole Singer. The mutiliation – the desecration. Daniel and the others missing, perhaps dead. Refocusing on the task at hand, Jack glared at the native and took a step closer. "Where are my people being held?"
The young man stared back defiantly then gasped when the knife blade bit into his flesh. "I show you!" He struggled, trying unsuccessfully to loosen the Jaffa's hold on him. With his eyes, he threw a desperate plea at Jack. "We go now, yes?"
Jack smirked then nodded. "Yes." Shaking his head at the pitiful creature cowering in front of him, he wanted nothing less than to let Teal'c demonstrate a little Jaffa justice. "Carter!" he barked.
"Sir." The blonde colonel stepped in front of him, momentarily blocking him from a clear view of his enemy, but not from the thought of wrapping his hands around the bastard's throat. This was one of the men who'd beheaded the dead plant lady. Who'd slaughtered his people, then needlessly butchered their dead bodies. Why shouldn't he do the same to this man? "General?" Carter's soft voice roused him, and he looked at her. "Is something wrong?"
Sweat re-formed on his lip and beaded on his forehead and the back of his neck. Jack struggled to ignore the droplets forming a ticklish streak along his spine. He wiped his brow with the back of his trembling hand. "No. Nothing's wrong." He had to think. There was something they needed to do. They needed to – "Find our people."
"We have to find our people," he said, pushing her to the side and nodding his chin at the bound man. "And, Penis here is going to help us do it."
* * * * *
Sweat stung fiercely as it trickled from her brow and into Sam's eyes. She pressed her lips together and blinked to clear her vision, but she refused to release her tense grip on her weapon. The so-called path upon which Peneus led them snaked through thick woods, the perfect atmosphere for an ambush if she'd ever seen one. But, at least the native was headed in the general direction of the village she and Teal'c had spotted earlier. Despite his capitulation and apparent willingness to act as guide, she couldn't forget the man's easy dismissal of his own comrade's death. The casual disregard these people had for the most basics of humanity nauseated her.
Sam bit her lip when she recalled the General's nickname for the man, but any hint of amusement died as she thought of the cold-blooded murder she had stood by and watched her commanding officer commit. Something was wrong. Things didn't add up. Even considering the savage, senseless debauchery they'd all borne witness to on this planet, it was uncharacteristic of O'Neill to act as judge, jury and executioner. Not that she doubted he was capable of such an act. She remembered far too well his order to close the iris, she heard the thud as Alar followed them, and she saw the look on O'Neill's face as he silently dared her to question his decision. Oh no, Sam was no longer naïve enough to believe the General was incapable of murder, but the unexpected brutality of the deed had shocked her. Sam's gut instinct was screaming with sickening voracity that something was seriously wrong.
Even as she watched, O'Neill stumbled. He would have gone down in an ungainly heap had he not reached out blindly and out of sheer good luck wrapped his arms around the trunk of a young tree. She quickly moved next to him noting how his fingernails fought for purchase on the rough bark, as if it was the only thing keeping him vertical. "General, are you alright?"
Although her voice was purposefully low, Jack winced. "Keep it down, Carter." He closed his eyes, tightened his grip on the tree and swallowed convulsively. "I only hope I can."
Lowering her voice, Sam murmured, "Sir, you look terrible. What's going on?"
O'Neill was sweating profusely. Even given the humid climate and taking into account her own damp uniform, the man looked as if he'd just completed the Boston Marathon…barely. Beneath his normal tan, his face was alarmingly flushed, his skin mottled. Scanning the woods, Sam realized Teal'c and the others were out of visual range. Disturbed by her CO's appearance and behavior, which seemed to be deteriorating rapidly since leaving base camp, she grabbed her radio.
"Teal'c, hold up. Something's going on with the General. Stay put until I check him out."
"Understood," the radio crackled. "We will await your instructions, Colonel Carter."
"Belay that…order, Carter," Jack panted, his voice coming out in a harsh gasp. "I'm fine."
"Sorry, sir, but you'd be a bit more convincing if you weren't currently involved in a romantic tryst with a tree." She smiled and ignored his weak, one-eyed glare as she reached out to check his pulse.
"Colonel…I gave you…an order."
"Yes, sir," she answered automatically. "Now please be quiet, I'm counting." Her lips twitched in wry humor as he grumbled something inarticulate under his breath, but sullenly complied. Fingers pressed against his clammy skin, Sam studied the second hand on her watch and frowned. Maybe she'd miscounted. She blinked sweat from her eyes, tightened her grip on his bony wrist and tried again. Her frown deepened. Given the other symptoms…. She reached for the radio. "Teal'c, get back to our position, ASAP. We need to get the General back home."
"We are on our way." A wave of relief flooded through her at Teal'c's calm response.
"Carter." The stark whisper startled her, making her jump. "Give me a hand. The old fingers…don't follow orders…any better than you do."
Despite his light-hearted words, Sam detected poorly camouflaged fear in his flushed features. It was that fear – along with the rabid look in his feverish eyes – that rattled her, bothering her far more than the obvious physical signs that the General was in trouble. Striving for a neutral expression, she clinched her jaw and ground her teeth. Dammit, what else? First Daniel, now this. Wrapping a supportive arm around O'Neill's waist, Sam reached over and gently pried his fingers from their death grip on the tree. As the fingers gave, so did Jack's knees. She grunted, unexpectedly finding herself bearing his full weight. Using her hip, Sam managed to ease him to the ground.
He lay there panting softly, his eyes screwed shut. "You'll grind your teeth flat…if you don't learn to relax, Colonel. It'll screw up all the calculations…when Daniel's descendants examine your bones…a thousand years from now."
Chuckling softly, Sam knelt in the dead leaves beside him. "Yes, sir."
"They'll think you survived on whole grains…instead of that yogurt crap you're always eating. Not that…not that there's anything wrong with that," he mumbled. A gut-wrenching groan undid his efforts to masquerade his pain, proof positive that everything was far from SOP.
"Teal'c and the medic will be here in a couple of minutes, sir. Just hang on." Blood-shot eyes stared malevolently up at her. Sam smiled, hoping he wouldn't see her nervousness, but knowing there wasn't a snowball's chance in hell she was fooling him. If copious blinking was any indication, he was having definite issues with blurred vision. Add that to the rapidly growing list of symptoms. However, she was profoundly grateful for his off-kilter vision when, with only a guttural growl to alert her, he lunged.
She could only thank her instincts and his weakened condition for the fact she survived the initial attack. Sam fell back as the knife sliced a breeze in front of her face. How the hell had he removed it from its sheath without her knowing? Scrambling backwards in an awkward crab walk, desperate to put distance between them, Sam cursed her own stupidity for letting down her guard. Concerned over his physical symptoms, she'd laid aside her gut feeling that something was going on with him mentally. She knew better. She should have recognized the danger. Special Forces trained, O'Neill was not to be under-estimated no matter how incapacitated he appeared. And at the moment, wielding a knife, his incapacity was somewhere around zero to nil on a scale of one to ten.
Pushing herself to her feet, she was unprepared when a heavy boot whipped out, knocking her into a rotting tree trunk with bruising force. The fragile trunk shattered and Sam grunted as the wooden shards splintered, gouging her shoulder. Too stunned by the suddenness of the attack to feel any real pain, she was filled instead with a heady combination of adrenaline and rage. "Sir, what the hell are you trying to do? Put that thing away!" He ignored the order and crawled toward her. "General O'Neill, stop!"
Jack fought his way as far as his knees. Swaying and panting heavily, he shifted his weight to his heels. Glazed eyes watched her with the intensity of a mad dog. He transferred the knife to his left hand. Although the movement lacked his customary grace, Sam wondered how he'd accomplished the task at all considering his current condition. Without warning, he lunged a second time, and she kicked out as hard as she could straight into his solar plexus. Rolling away, she prayed the blow had incapacitated him.
His heavy grunt and solid weight hit her simultaneously. Fighting furiously, but not wanting to inflict a serious injury on her commanding officer and friend, Sam raised the palm of her hand in line with his nose. She had serious doubts whether a broken nose would stop him, but with enough force she could stun him, maybe even temporarily blind him. Above the desperate sounds of their struggle, she heard the tearing of cloth. Setting aside her hesitation, Sam used her training to turn fear into strength as she struck.
She was laying on her back staring up at the flecks of blue sky she could see through the umbrella of trees when the others returned. "Hi, Teal'c." She smiled tiredly. "We had a little problem here."
The Jaffa frowned as he knelt beside her, concern unmasked for those who knew him. "Colonel Carter, you are injured."
Sam shook her head, "No, I'm fine. Just a little shaky."
"You are not fine."
Forcing herself to sit up, Sam followed his gaze. Splatters of blood contrasted brightly against the dead leaves littered around her. "Damn, where did that come from?" She answered her own question with a loud hiss as pain won the race against adrenaline. Strong arms caught her and gently lowered her to the ground.
"Ma'am, lie still so I can examine you."
Blinking up at the medic, trying to clear away the confusion suddenly slowing her thinking, Sam found herself savoring the solid support of the ground as her limbs began to tremble. Hands stripped away her flak vest and lifted the hem of her t-shirt. "General O'Neill..."
"The General will be fine. Teal'c's taking care of him. You have a knife wound, Colonel. It doesn't look too serious. It probably hit the bottom of your vest and slid along the edge of it, grazing you. You can see where it tore through the material. Still, the wound's going to take some stitches to close, and you're going to be sore as hell for awhile."
Sam shifted her weight, grunting softly as pain flared across her waist and abdomen. Give the medic a cigar. "Ow. Guess you got that one right. Can you stick a bandage on it until we get Daniel and the others back?"
"No, ma'am," the woman stated with a finality that did Janet Fraiser proud. "We need to get both you and the General back to the SGC."
Silently cursing the turn of events, Sam twisted her head. O'Neill was lying where she'd left him, still unconscious and with his hands firmly bound behind his back. Bloody drool trickled from the corner of his mouth and a dark bruise was forming where she'd slugged him. Exhausted, she wondered vaguely, but without any real curiosity, if she was responsible for his unconscious state or if his overtaxed system had simply shut down.
Allowing her head to fall back to the bed of dry leaves, Sam sighed heavily. "Well, it isn't every day you get to cold-cock a general, is it?" The medic snorted softly as she applied a gauze strip.
The sky darkened as Teal'c stood over her, his bulk blocking her view. "Colonel Carter, do not concern yourself. We will retrieve Daniel Jackson and the others."
She gave him a weak smile. "I know you will, Teal'c. Just be careful."
"Indeed we shall."
She watched him nod to Peneus before melting into the forest shadows, leaving behind her and the General, Singer, the medic and a handful of men to get them home. "Be careful," she repeated softly.
* * * * *
"Home. There. I go now?"
Teal'c spared the native man a single glance laden with disdain as he scanned the village spread out before them. "You do not."
He ignored the man's contemptible whimpering as Captain Dorechka inched forward twisting the barrel of his weapon firmly against Peneus's side. "Looks pretty quiet, sir."
"Too much so," Teal'c agreed. His habitually sober expression cloaked the sense of dread he felt deep within his soul. In times past, his symbiote would have lent support to that feeling, telegraphing its uneasiness while seconding his own. But, he no longer required a symbiote. He no longer needed it to know this was a place of deception and death. The very air reeked of an oppression he could only equate with the misery perpetuated by the false gods.
"Think they've abandoned the village for some reason?"
He glanced at the young captain. "It is possible, or perhaps they are amassing an army in preparation for battle."
"It true?" Peneus had grown very still, seeming to shrink into his own pitiable shell in terrapin-like fashion. "Demeter gone? You kill?"
"Then Kratos lead people to Aion." Peneus's fear seemed to evaporate in the heat of this place, and his hitherto expressive voice was flat with weary acceptance.
"What is this Aion?" Teal'c demanded.
But before Peneus could answer, he was interrupted by the squelch of Teal'c's radio. "Teal'c, this is Connors, we've scouted the perimeter. It looks like the natives have bugged out. We didn't see any of our people. In fact, there's no sign of any human life, just some livestock and scraggly-looking chickens wandering around loose."
"We are free to begin our search then, Colonel Connors?"
"Yeah, Teal'c, go for it. We'll rendezvous south of the village and proceed from there."
Teal'c tilted his head and sniffed, attempting to catch the fickle breeze. "There is smoke coming from the village."
"Affirmative. My men spotted a small building on fire, but there wasn't anybody around so we figured a campfire had gotten out of control. It's burning pretty good, but it's fairly isolated. The rest of the village should be safe."
A sickening sense of dread filled Teal'c then he was sprinting toward the village.
The fire had engulfed three sides of the small building as well as most of the roof. The thick planks seemed to feed the ravenous flames' appetite. Against the crackling of the inferno and pounding of his boots against the sun-baked dirt, Teal'c could barely hear the weak shouts and frantic attempts to break through the walls of the death trap. Still, the meager signs of life brought him much comfort. He was also aware of Colonel Connors' men racing toward the building from the far side of the village.
"Daniel Jackson?" Teal'c bellowed.
"Teal'c, in here! Get the door open."
"Stand clear," Teal'c ordered. Without further warning, he fired his staff weapon twice, gnawing away the lock. Ignoring the bite of flames, Teal'c stepped forward and with a heavy kick, splintered the remains of the door.
Colonel Reynolds stood in the center of the small room, his arms spread out protectively in front of the cluster of bedraggled prisoners and a look of impotent frustration on his face. "Teal'c, thank God. Woeste, let's get these people out of here. Jackson, you're first."
Teal'c was gratified to see Daniel Jackson wrap his arm around a young lieutenant who appeared to be wounded but mobile, and follow the orders without question. "You are well, Daniel Jackson?" he inquired as he moved forward to assist in gently lowering the wounded woman to the ground. Daniel bent over, his hands clutching his knees for support as he rode out a coughing fit. His clothing was pockmarked with tiny, blackened holes, a grim testament to how close he and the others had come to perishing in the fire.
Daniel held up a placating hand. "Give me a minute here, and I'll be fine. The others?"
Teal'c scanned the scene around them. "They are well. Colonel Connors and his men have successfully aided the last person."
"That's good," Daniel choked out. Forcing himself upright, he stared mutely into the pyre. The shed was completely engulfed, the flames greedily devouring the meal.
"Drink," Teal'c ordered gently.
Daniel nodded his thanks as a canteen was pressed into his hands. Teal'c watched protectively as his friend swallowed several mouthfuls and passed it on. "Thanks." Daniel took a few experimental deep breaths, gave a relieved sigh and relaxed. "That was close."
"It was indeed." With the exception of a few minor burns, all the injuries appeared to have been procured in the earlier battle. Colonels Connors and Reynolds had the situation well in hand.
Daniel frowned as he glanced around, obviously looking for someone. "Sam?"
"Colonel Carter will be fine," Teal'c assured him, "as will O'Neill."
"Jack was here, too? Wait…what do you mean they _will_ be fine?"
"I go to Aion now. Join my people." Teal'c's frown deepened at the sound of the demanding whine. Captain Dorechka had led the remainder of the rescue team into the village and in the process brought along that annoyance of a so-called man. "I go to Aion now," the native repeated.
Teal'c tightened his grip on his staff weapon, determined to end the miserable life if the man so much as looked like he was going to stomp his foot. Even at half this man's age, Ry'ak had not acted in such a juvenile manner. O'Neill had often referred to such behavior as brattiness. If that was the case, Peneus was most certainly a brat.
"I'm sorry, sir, he just keeps saying the same thing over and over," Dorechka said.
Teal'c stepped closer to the prisoner, hefting his staff weapon threateningly. "Be silent and cease this unseemly behavior. If you are the warrior you claim to be, refrain from such childish mannerisms. If this Aion is your people's version of cal mah, you are not likely to achieve it."
"No, Teal'c, hold on a minute," Daniel interrupted. "He's not asking for sanctuary. Aion – it's the power of life and death."
"Yes, yes," Peneus nodded. "I join my people."
"Aion is a place?"
Desperate, the man forced his darting eyes to focus on Daniel. "Kratos lead Demeter's people there. Demeter gone, there not be Elusis. Her people go to Aion."
"Demeter?" Daniel's brow puckered. "Teal'c, from what I pieced together earlier, I think he and his people worship a Goa'uld by that name."
"That is correct."
"I'm a little fuzzy on what this Elusis is. Diokles referred to it as a good gift for the warriors."
"Yes. Elusis good gift. Give warriors strength." Peneus drew himself up and gave a weak attempt at superiority which trickled away under Teal'c's glare. "No Elusis, Demeter say we die."
"So," Daniel waded through the information slowly, "Demeter provides your people–"
"Warriors," the native interrupted with pride.
"Provides your warriors," Daniel amended, "with something called Elusis, and now that she's no longer here to give it to you, your people will die?" Peneus nodded sorrowfully. "Teal'c, it almost has the earmarks of a suicide pact."
"That would not be unheard of. A Goa'uld would not hesitate to order his Jaffa to commit such an act as a means of ultimate control even from the afterlife."
"But an entire society?" Daniel paled. "Women, children..." Teal'c's grim expression was his answer.
"Kamikaze pilots were revered as heroes," Colonel Connors interjected.
"Sounds more like Jim Jones to me," Reynolds added with disgust as he approached the small group, one hand toying with the fresh bandage wrapped around his right arm.
Daniel nodded absently then, seeing Teal'c raise an inquiring eyebrow, he quickly rattled off the horrific basics. "Nine hundred members of the People's Temple committed suicide in Guyana in 1978. The Reverend Jim Jones urged his disciples to drink cyanide-laced grape punch. Parents gave it to their own children before drinking it themselves." There was silence as the men digested the repulsion of the event. "If that's what's happening here, we have to stop them." Turing to the native, he asked urgently, "Can you show us Aion?"
"I show. You take Peneus." He shuffled fearfully a few inches away from Teal'c and toward Daniel. "Not him."
"Connors, you and Teal'c take Doctor Jackson and your team to this Aion place. See what you can find, but don't engage them if you don't have to," Reynolds ordered. "Edwards and I will search the rest of the village, and start getting the wounded back to the Stargate. Somebody pass me a radio, and stay in contact. We'll rendezvous at the gate." Firelight cast a ruddy glow on his skin. "Let's get away from this damn campfire," he spat in disgust. "I'm beginning to feel like a Boy Scout."
Teal'c feared the consequences if they arrived too late to prevent the death of these people. Not for himself. He had borne witness to a great many atrocities propagated in the names of the false gods. Warriors, men such as he and O'Neill, quickly learned to bury their memories of the carnage of war if they were to survive. However, men such as Daniel Jackson did not. Such unnecessary bloodshed would eat at him, make him doubt his own abilities, and eventually devour a piece of who he was. Teal'c had seen this happen too many times over the years not to recognize the pattern.
Daniel Jackson was not the same man who had stood amidst the rabble in a prison on Chulak and, with the innocence of a child, dared question Apophis. The change in Daniel Jackson was not a bad thing – nothing in life should remain stationary – it was simply a fact. They had all changed, but none more so than his young friend who was racing to prevent tragedy from befalling a people he saw as victims rather than enemies.
They found the villagers near the river, a place where Peneus claimed Demeter had first shared the gift. The air stank of acceptance and resignation. Women, children and the elderly sat huddled together, isolated from the men, a caste society even in this place of death. A heavily muscled man bearing a tattoo on his forehead stood between the two groups, his scarred arms raised in supplication as he wailed.
"That Kratos," Peneus whispered with palpable admiration. "First prime of Goddess Demeter."
"He is not," Teal'c stated firmly.
Daniel tore his eyes away from the scene with a puzzled frown. "What do you mean?"
"These people are not true Jaffa, Daniel Jackson. They carry no symbiote."
Teal'c nodded. "As were the people of P3R-636."
Daniel thought a moment before swallowing uncomfortably. "Shyla's planet." Teal'c gave a neutral gaze of confirmation. "But, those people were perpetuating a hoax in order to mine naquadah and fool the Goa'uld. They were trying to keep their planet from being destroyed."
"No doubt these people have their own reasons. Perhaps they serve out of loyalty. Or, more likely, out of fear."
"Demeter gives gift," Peneus whimpered. "No more gift. Now her people die."
"Elusis," Daniel automatically inserted. His face lit slowly as if he were the hound suddenly catching a whiff of an elusive prey. "The people die without it." There was excitement in his voice as he turned and faced Teal'c. "Is it possible this Elusis is similar to Tretonin?"
"It is possible." The keening from the riverbank reached a desperate pitch as more voices joined the pseudo-Jaffa. People were on their feet, their features twisted with maniacal passion. A boy who had been sitting just outside the circle of warriors near Kratos's feet suddenly stood with an unintelligible shout. He held a small knife aloft, threw back his head and plunged the cruel blade towards his thin chest.
The knife faltered as the boy looked at Daniel with a glazed expression. "Diokles, worthy to be warrior." Then the knife plunged into pale flesh. Eyes darkened with pain sought Daniel's and thin lips twisted into a smile as he crumpled.
Daniel ran toward the fallen boy, and the others followed his lead. Teal'c held his staff weapon aloft as he stepped from his hiding place, the planet's sun reflecting off his forehead – off the symbol of his former life. "You will stop this atrocity immediately!" His voice washed over the people, stunning them into inaction.
He stepped into their midst, surveying them with no hint of his inner anguish. "I served as First Prime to the false god Apophis." He stopped in front of the man called Kratos, and when he spoke, the aura of his authority slowly extinguished the flames of fanaticism. "I tell you now, like Apophis, Demeter was no god. She used your people for her own means. The time has come to embrace freedom, not in fear, but as warriors and leaders. The time has come to break your bonds and step from the shadow of your oppressor. A new day has dawned."
* * * * *
It was one of those rare days, so perfect even the most incurable workaholic would be unable to resist the Siren's Song. Daniel sat on the park bench relishing the unmarred perfection of an azure sky which reminded him of the Aegean Sea. Some experts said the sea had been named for Aegeus, the father of Theseus, who had drowned himself in the sea when he thought his son had died.
Suddenly, despite the warm caress of a Colorado sun, he shuddered.
"You okay?" Sam's blue eyes rivaled the sky, clouded only by her concern for him. She laid a comforting hand on his forearm.
"Yeah, fine," he mumbled automatically then snorted sheepishly at her skeptical expression. "It's just…," he hesitated, "I keep thinking of the people we lost, the friends who are gone." His fingers curled around Elena's barrette, tangible proof she had existed. Proof that she wasn't simply an extension of the ancient mysteries she had studied with such passion.
He missed her. He missed her brilliant mind, her obvious love for her family, her gentle sense of humor, her spirit. "What an incredible waste."
"Did you read the lab report? They analyzed the General's blood and were able to isolate the drug."
"Elusis – that's what they called it. The good gift." He snorted bitterly.
"Yeah," Sam agreed, "some gift. It was similar to PCP, phencyclidine. It's incredibly addictive. A veterinary anesthetic. Of course, illegally, it's a hallucinogen for humans. It explains the natives' aggression and delusions. If Demeter used the drug to control their behavior–"
"And, at the same time, convinced them it was an honor to become a warrior," Daniel added.
"Right. She could have convinced them to kill their own mothers."
"Which they almost did out of fear and ignorance." Daniel thought of the children – the young boys like Diokles – the mothers, the fathers, an entire village waiting to die because their goddess had convinced them they couldn't survive without her. Corrosive hatred for the Goa'uld ate at him. "They're going to be okay," he reminded himself, not realizing he was speaking aloud until Sam answered.
"Yeah, they are. The General's already gotten the President's approval for intervention and medical assistance. He and Teal'c have set up talks with the leaders. Between their respect for Teal'c and General O'Neill's personal testimony, the people will get through their withdrawal and start building a new life." They sat silently, each lost in the events of the past days. "I heard they found a few of the scientists alive?"
"Yeah, Colonel Reynolds found them locked up in another part of the village. They were shaken, naturally, but otherwise they were okay."
"The natives hadn't tried to kill them before they bugged out. Isn't that sort of inconsistent?"
Daniel looked decidedly nonplussed. "Yeah, well apparently, when Kratos gave the word to head for Aion, they considered it a waste of time to kill the remaining people."
"But, I don't get it," Sam said. "The report said they took time to make sure you and the military personnel would die in the fire."
"A final sacrifice to their goddess."
"Their dead goddess," Sam added smugly.
Daniel shrugged. "Their rules. Apparently, only warriors were worthy to be sacrificed." He flushed, still uncomfortable he'd been included in that category. He was grateful when Sam made no comment. "They simply abandoned the others to their fate and left them to starve." Sam shivered, and Daniel felt vaguely nauseous. Attempting to change the subject and lighten the mood, he forced a grin. "I hear Jack's reunion was interesting. Sorry I missed it."
Sam laughed. "Even in restraints, the General convinced Singer he was going to kick his ass if he wasn't out of the SGC by the time he was out of detox. The good Colonel grabbed his entourage and bugged out without even taking time to shower."
Daniel snorted. "I'm surprised Jack was satisfied with simply evicting him from the SGC and not the entire state of Colorado. He must be getting soft." Noticing Sam's amusement, he gulped and quickly added, "Please don't tell him I said that. He'd feel duty-bound to prove me wrong."
"Well, he was pretty ill at the time so…." Sam left the statement hanging with a smirk.
"True," Daniel chuckled. "So, Singer and Jack never worked out their differences?"
"You're talking about General O'Neill."
"Right," he answered sheepishly. "Retract that question."
"Consider it retracted," Sam snickered as she dug her elbow into his ribs. "I think Colonel Singer learned a lot of things he didn't know about the General. Maybe he won't be so hasty to judge an officer's style of leadership from now on. Let's just say his perimeters have been expanded considerably."
Sam sighed and leaned back, soaking up the sun's rays. "How's the boy doing?"
"Diokles? Doctor Brightman says he'll be okay."
"He's only a few years younger than Cassie. Thank God you and Teal'c were there. If you hadn't been…," she faltered thinking of the others who would have followed his lead.
"Fervor to prove he was worthy pushed him past the brink of reason – the ultimate peer pressure. Kratos explained it to Teal'c. Demeter rewarded aggressive behavior. The more brutal behavior was rewarded with more of the drug, which produced more violent behavior. Talk about a vicious cycle."
"And, in no time, you have an entire society of psychopathic drug addicts."
"Apparently, there was a time when Demeter felt the need to prove her hold. She simply withheld the 'good gift.' The men quickly started experiencing nasty withdrawal symptoms. A couple even went into comas and died. After that, I don't suppose she had much trouble convincing them who was in charge. It's hard to believe Jack was affected that strongly by just a scratch."
Sam rolled her eyes. "Oh, trust me, he was affected. Big time."
"There had to have been a progressive build-up in the body. That might explain why withdrawal hit Jack so hard and didn't affect the natives as quickly. It would probably have taken more and more of it over time to get the effects the Goa'uld was looking for. The older warriors' arms and torsos were littered with scars where they'd scored their skin to inject the drugs. Some even had scars on their faces. It was pitiful."
"And then some."
"So, how are you doing? Still sore?"
"Not bad," Sam shrugged. "It'll probably take the General longer to get over it than me."
"No small thanks to your hand-to-hand skills," Daniel snickered, taking advantage of a prime opportunity to tease her. "Knowing Jack, I'll bet he's feeling pretty guilty over the whole thing."
"Are you kidding?" Sam spat with exasperation. "I've lost count of how many off-handed apologies he's made, and I'm really getting sick of him keeping an eye on me so I don't 'overdo it.'"
Daniel couldn't help but laugh at her obvious disgust. "Maybe you could cash in on the whole guilt thing and con him out of a steak dinner at O'Malley's. Or, better yet, maybe you can increase your lab budget."
"I don't think he's feeling that guilty."
"Yeah, you're probably right," Daniel chortled.
"You're enjoying this, aren't you?" Sam glared. "Forget it. Let's go grab some lunch."
"Sounds good. By the way, it's your turn to buy," Daniel grinned, as he stood and stretched. "Did you ride your bike?"
Sam stuck her hands in her jeans. "It's not exactly in running order yet."
"Really? I'm surprised. Have you figured out how to fix it?"
"Uh-huh," Sam laughed. "I had Jody pick it up and take it to his garage. It'll be done by the weekend."
"I thought so." Sam nudged him, nodding in the direction of the playground. A toddler was digging in the sandbox. "An archaeologist in the making."
Before he could respond, a woman walked toward the child, grinning. "Hey, baby, are you having fun? Oh, sweetie," the women knelt next to the toddler, "you’re such a mess."
Daniel stiffened as he stared at the child. He could see the tiny, pink tip of her tongue sticking out as she concentrated on her excavation. Sam was right – a miniature archaeologist in the making. Or, perhaps a paleoethnobotanist. Dark hair fell around the child's face, and Daniel was suddenly fighting back tears.
The woman tucked the dark locks behind tiny ears then brushed sand from the bright yellow jumper. "Time to go, sugar. You can dig some more tomorrow, okay?" Grasping the toddler's hand, the woman helped her to her unsteady feet. As the pair walked slowly past him, the little girl looked at Daniel and gave him a toothy grin.
The clasp of a silver barrette bit into his palm as Daniel squeezed it, but aware of Sam's unspoken concern, he forced himself to relax. Taking a deep breath, he relaxed his grip and gave the mother and child the smile Elena had loved – the one that dimpled his cheeks, wrinkled his nose and crinkled the corners of his eyes.
"Bye-bye," the baby called, and she waved a chubby hand in Daniel's direction.
"Bye-bye," he answered. He watched as the two made their way to a dark blue SUV then shoved the barrette into a pocket of his jeans and glanced over at Sam, who was watching him. "Jack's right, you know. Sometimes, all you can do is move on."
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