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Death's Imminent Face

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“So tell me, Daniel,” Jack said, suppressing a yawn, “what exactly is the point of all this?”

The two men were in the main chamber of what Daniel believed to be an ancient temple, the walls of which were covered with carved markings. On first seeing them, Daniel’s enthusiasm levels had quadrupled and he had babbled excitedly about the Ancients before quickly losing himself in the translation. That had been two hours ago, and Jack was beginning to get rather bored.

With the temple only providing occupation for Daniel, Sam and Teal’c had requested permission to scout further afield. Sam wanted to collect soil samples and was confident that there would be naquadah deposits on a planet that showed evidence of habitation by the builders of the Stargate system.

Jack had opted to stay behind, deciding it would be better for someone to keep an eye on Daniel. Their archaeologist had an uncanny ability to get into trouble, even in the most innocuous surroundings and especially when he was engrossed in his work. However, after two hours of watching Daniel studying the walls of the chamber and scribbling frantically in his tiny notebook, Jack’s patience with the whole translation project had run out.

Receiving no response to his question, he crossed over to his team-mate and stood just behind him. “Daniel!” he barked, then grinned wickedly as the shout caused the younger man to start violently.

Daniel spun round. “Jesus, Jack!” he exclaimed. “What is it?”

Jack gestured expansively round the room. “Do we have a translation anywhere in our future?” he asked. “And, if so, is it even remotely useful?”

Jack’s heart sank as Daniel’s eyes lit up and he took a deep breath. “This whole place is fascinating…” Daniel began, but was immediately forestalled by Jack holding up a finger in front of his face.

“Ah!” Jack interrupted. “I didn’t say ‘fascinating’, I said useful! Useful, Daniel. It means ‘of use’.”

“Well, if you’d give me a chance to explain,” Daniel replied, testily.

Jack gestured for him to continue, stipulating, “Briefly, and in words of less than four syllables, if you please.”

“This is a warehouse. There’s a door somewhere in here. The writing on the walls explains how to open it.” The words came out in an exasperated rush and then Daniel stood with his arms wrapped around himself, glaring at Jack, his mouth clamped shut in a thin line.

It took a moment for Jack to realise that he wasn’t going to say anything else. For once, Daniel had actually followed his instructions, albeit in a rather childish manner. After a brief silence, Jack finally absorbed the information he had been given and he gave a snort of laughter. “That’s it? This whole room basically just says – the door’s over here?”

Daniel’s shoulders tensed and his expression darkened. “Obviously there’s a lot more to it than that but, basically, yes.”

Jack slapped him on the back in delight. “Well, Dr Jackson, by all means open the door!”

Still glaring at his friend, Daniel strode across to the far wall and ran his fingers carefully over its surface. After a few moments he found what he was looking for and pressed several parts of the stone in quick succession. With a great groan, a previously hidden doorway was revealed as a huge section of the wall slid slowly up into the ceiling.

Jack flipped on his radio. “Carter, Teal’c, what’s your location?”

Sam’s voice responded immediately. “We’re on our way back, sir, but we’re still some distance away.”

“Find anything interesting?” Jack wanted to know.

“There’s an old naquadah mine off to the south, sir, but it looks as though it’s been pretty well stripped.”

“Daniel’s opened the door to some kind of storage facility and we’re heading in to investigate,” Jack informed her.

“Roger that, sir,” Sam confirmed. “We’ll come and join you. Carter out.”

Looking round, Jack was unsurprised to discover that Daniel had already disappeared through the doorway. Muttering, “Dammit, Daniel,” under his breath, Jack went after him. A short corridor led into another chamber, much like the first, with similar writings covering the walls. In addition, though, there were several stone containers of varying sizes stacked in the centre of the room. Daniel was standing with his back to the doorway, already engrossed in the new set of writings.

Not willing to spend the next two hours waiting for Daniel to decide that this room said something along the lines of, “Here is the loot,” Jack crossed to the nearest of the boxes. It was about two feet square. Running his fingers around the edges of the lid, Jack found a small catch.

“Let’s see what goodies the Ancients have left us,” he remarked to no-one in particular and released the lid of the box.

Hearing his comment, Daniel immediately spun round from his study of the wall and, seeing what Jack was about to do, cried out, “Jack, no!”

As Jack looked up in alarm, everything seemed to shift into slow motion. The lid fell away from the box, Daniel launched himself towards Jack, a laser beam shot out from the corner of the room and struck the younger man full in the back. Daniel fell heavily against Jack, propelling them both to the floor. Then there was a blinding flash of light and the last thing Jack noticed before everything went black was the smell of scorched flesh.

* * * * *

Jack awoke to the warmth and comfort of a soft bed. For a brief moment, he luxuriated in the give of the mattress underneath him and the wonderful feel of the quilt that covered him. Then a rapid series of memories shot through his mind – Ancients, laser beam, Daniel…

Jack’s eyes shot open and he sat upright with a start to discover that his view of his surroundings was severely restricted. He appeared to be in a huge, four-poster bed with thick velvet curtains that effectively closed him off from the room beyond. He was still wearing his olive fatigues, but all his equipment and weaponry had been removed. He felt slightly light-headed but otherwise normal.

Listening carefully for any signs of movement from outside the curtains, Jack thought he could make out the faint sounds of distant music, but didn’t sense the presence of anyone nearby. He reached for the join in the curtains, inched them slowly apart and peered out warily. Bright sunlight streamed in through several small windows in the grey stone walls of a circular chamber. The bed on which Jack was sitting stood in the centre of the floor, which was covered by a rich, embroidered rug, and the spaces between the windows were taken up by ornate pieces of wooden furniture. These included a wardrobe, a desk, a trunk and a chest of drawers, all sturdy but beautifully crafted with carved patterns on their legs and edges.

There was no sign of Daniel or whoever had deposited Jack here, but an iron-bound door provided an obvious exit. Cautiously, Jack pulled the curtains fully open and swung his legs down to the floor. As he did so, he noticed the incredible softness of the velvet beneath his fingers and the amazing texture of the thick pile rug, which could be felt even through his socks. The colours of both fabrics were extremely vivid, and the strains of ethereal music emanating from elsewhere in the building were beautiful in their complexity. In fact, everything around Jack seemed of almost dreamlike perfection and intensity, as if all his senses had been somehow heightened.

He found his boots neatly placed by the side of the bed and quickly put them on before proceeding to one of the windows. The view revealed that the room was at the very top of a tall tower, the uppermost part of an extensive castle of the medieval fairy tale variety. Lush grassland stretched out from the building in all directions, interspersed with majestic clusters of giant trees and developing into rolling hills in the distance.

Moving to the door, Jack discovered that, despite its solid and imposing appearance, the latch opened easily, allowing access to a winding spiral staircase. After several complete revolutions of the tower, he came to another door. The music was much louder now and seemed to be coming from behind it. Figuring that it was his only option in the circumstances, and hoping that the comfort of the room he had woken up in reflected the intentions of whoever lived there, Jack took a deep breath and pushed the door open.

The room beyond was similarly plush, this time furnished as a lounge, with a collection of overstuffed chairs and several delicate tables. A woman sat on a small stool in the midst of the furniture, her eyes closed and her fingers caressing the strings of an ornate harp. She looked to be in her mid-twenties, with waist-length, auburn curls and a heart-shaped face. She was dressed in an elaborate green gown, with a plunging bodice and full, floor-length skirt. She continued to play, seemingly oblivious to Jack’s entrance into the room.

Despite his confusion over the situation and his concern for what had befallen Daniel, Jack felt strangely reluctant to disturb her. However, the need for information soon overcame this reservation and he discreetly cleared his throat, causing the woman’s hands to fall still and her eyes to snap open at the unexpected sound. Upon seeing her visitor, the woman’s face split into a charming smile and she beckoned him from the doorway, gesturing to one of the chairs. “Welcome, traveller,” she said, her voice soft and lilting. “Come rest yourself.”

Deciding that compliance was the best option, Jack obliged by seating himself opposite her before beginning with the first of many questions that sprang into his mind. “What is this place?”

“It is where we are,” the woman replied enigmatically, setting the harp to one side and folding her hands delicately in her lap.

“Right.” Jack cleared his throat again, wondering if this unhelpful opening was indicative of how the rest of the conversation was going to go. He persevered with the next most pressing question. “Where’s the other man who was with me?”

The woman’s smile faded and a slight frown marred her brow. “He is not here,” she announced, “though he may arrive later.”

“He is alright, though?” Jack wanted to know, remembering how Daniel had thrown himself in front of the weapon that Jack had accidentally triggered.

“That is not for you to discover at this time, Jack O’Neill,” the woman said, startling him out of his reverie by the unexpected use of his name.

“How do you know who I am?” he asked in surprise.

The smile returned to the woman’s face; it had an indulgent quality about it, as if she were humouring a small child. “All in this place know your identity.”

“Okay.” The whole situation was beginning to feel decidedly unreal, so Jack tried to focus on the basics. “So how do I find Daniel and get back to the rest of my team? I’m not a prisoner here or anything, am I?”

The woman fixed him with a steady gaze, her eyes suddenly wary. “You may move about the castle at will, or even leave it if you so wish, but Daniel Jackson will not be returned to you without the approval of the Master.”

“So I have to talk to this Master guy? Where’s he?” Jack was beginning to feel like he was getting nowhere fast, but he was not about to give up.

“The Master will reveal himself to you only when the time is right,” the woman declared. Then she reached for the harp and, closing her eyes, began to play once more.

Jack somehow knew that he wouldn’t be able to get anything more out of her, so he stood up and made his way to the door in the far wall of the room. The whole situation had him off balance but he decided there had to be someone here who would tell him what he needed to know. If necessary, he would simply search the entire building until he got some answers.

* * * * *

Half an hour and countless identical corridors later, Jack had most definitely lost his patience with the surreal charm of the castle. After leaving the tower, he had failed to find any other people, encountering only blank walls or locked doors as he passed through the hallways. He decided to return to the woman with the harp and confront her more aggressively, since she was the only potential source of information he had found. However, when he attempted to retrace his steps he found to his horror that he was completely lost. He knew he had been keeping extremely careful track of his route so the only conclusion he could reach was that the layout of the castle itself was somehow being altered as he explored it.

Eventually Jack became so exasperated by his total lack of progress that he stopped altogether. Leaning against the wall, he slid slowly down into a sitting position and rested his arms on his knees. The he looked up at the ceiling and gave an exaggerated sigh.

“Okay, that’s it!” he announced to the empty air. “I’ve had enough! I don’t see the point in me carrying on if the castle just goes on and on forever. Whatever game you’ve got going, I’m not playing any more.”

“Aww, you’re no fun!” a voice announced by his left ear. Jack snapped his head round and suddenly there was a young boy standing next to him. He was olive-skinned with an unruly mop of blue-black curls, and appeared to be about nine or ten years old. He wore a petulant frown and had his arms folded defiantly across his thin chest.

Jack stared at him. “Where did you come from?” he asked.

The child’s face split into a mischievous grin. “Nowhere,” he replied teasingly. “Will you play with me?”

“Sorry, kid, I haven’t got time to play. I have something really important I have to do,” Jack told him. “Say, you don’t happen to know where I can find a guy called the Master, do you?”

The frown returned. “You don’t want to talk to him,” the child declared, importantly. “He won’t give you back your friend – he’s mean. Besides, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy!” Turning his back, the boy started to walk away.

Jack pushed himself to his feet again. “Hey, come back!” he called.

At his shout, the child looked back over his shoulder. “If you can catch me, I’ll tell you where the Master is,” he said cheekily. Then he stuck his tongue out and sprinted away down the corridor.

“Oh, for crying out loud,” Jack muttered. “I’m getting too old for this kind of thing.”

He set off after the boy, who was remarkably fleet of foot for one so small and easily evaded capture. However, as Jack tired, the child also seemed to slow down, always remaining in sight but, predictably, maintaining a sizeable lead. After a few more minutes, though, he skidded unexpectedly to a halt just before a junction in the corridor. Before Jack could catch up to him, a section of the left hand wall suddenly vanished. With a single backward glance, the child stepped into the opening and the stone immediately reappeared. Jack reached the section of wall, but it was as if the opening had never been there. He pounded on the stone in frustration, now thoroughly exasperated.

“Anger won’t help you here.” The words were spoken gruffly and came from further down the corridor. Spinning round, Jack was confronted by a man in elaborate armour. He was holding a pike and stood guard by the side of a large wooden door. Jack could have sworn neither the man nor the door had been there the moment before, but he had given up trying to predict what might happen in this place.

Calming himself with effort, Jack walked up and addressed the guard. “So what’s through there?” he asked nonchalantly, gesturing towards the door. What he wanted to do was pin the guy up against the wall and demand some answers, but he had the distinct impression that such a direct approach would be unlikely to yield results.

The man shrugged. “You got me,” he responded, conversationally. “They just told me to stand here and not let anyone through. Grunts like me never get told what’s going on. You know how it is – you get your orders and you’re just expected to follow them.”

“I don’t work that way,” Jack told him. “I like explanations with my orders. How are you supposed to be committed to your job if you don’t know what you’re guarding?”

The man snorted. “The Master don’t take kindly to people asking questions. I just do as I’m told – it’s safer that way. It don’t make no odds to me, anyway – I gotta stand here either way, and I think I’m probably better off not knowing. There’s strange things that go on round here, things I don’t want nothing to do with.” He leaned forward conspiratorially. “If you want my advice, I’d leave well alone if I was you. Messing with the Master ain’t a good idea.”

“Unfortunately, I don’t have a choice in the matter,” Jack said firmly. “He’s holding one of my team and I have to get him back. I don’t care what it takes – I’m not leaving here without Daniel, Master or no Master.”

The guard’s eyebrows shot up towards his hairline. “Well, in that case, who am I to stand in your way? You’ve got balls, I’ll give you that…” Shouldering his pike, he gave Jack a friendly grin and clanked slowly off down the corridor.

Jack looked after him in amazement, then decided that figuring out what was going on with this place was probably a waste of energy. The door was no longer guarded and the fact that the Master had wanted it protected suggested that whatever was behind it might be worth investigating. Admittedly, the guard’s attitude and actions were baffling, but Jack wasn’t about to question the cause of his sudden progress. Taking a deep breath, he lifted the heavy latch and pushed the door open.

* * * * *

The room stretched out in front of and above him, massive stone pillars supporting an incredible arched roof. Light flowed through exquisite stained glass windows all along the walls, casting multi-coloured patterns across the rows of pews that lined the vast hall. Jack gazed about him in awe, overwhelmed by the grandeur of the cathedral, its stern authority pressing down on him. He made his way down the central aisle with unaccustomed reverence until the sight of what lay at the far end drove all higher feelings immediately from his mind, replacing them with the baser emotions of rage and fear.

On the back wall, behind an impressive stone altar, there was a giant wooden cross and, hanging spreadeagled from it, heavy ropes lashing his wrists securely to the crossbeam, was Daniel. His legs dangled helplessly several feet from the ground and his head lolled forward, though in unconsciousness or death Jack couldn’t tell. Jack broke into a run but was brought up short just in front of the altar by an invisible forcefield that stood in his way.

“Daniel!” he cried, pounding on the barrier that separated him from his friend, but he received no response.

A small door opened off to one side and a figure appeared, walking slowly to stand directly in front of Jack, on the other side of the forcefield. Enveloped from head to toe in a heavy brown robe, the figure also wore a carved wooden mask and had its hands folded carefully in its sleeves, making it impossible to determine gender or even species. Even so, the quiet aura of authority suggested to Jack that this was the Master.

“Let him go!” Jack demanded angrily.

“His imprisonment is of his own making,” the Master intoned in a deep resounding voice, “and the determination of his fate rests with you.”

“Let him go!” Jack repeated, the words coming out in a low growl. He was most definitely not in the mood for verbal sparring.

“You must wait for all to be made clear before making your judgement,” the Master announced. “We present you with an important choice – whether to save your friend or prolong his suffering.”

“Of course I choose to save him!” Jack interrupted exasperatedly. “What kind of dumbass choice is that?”

“You do not yet understand, Jack O’Neill. The image before you represents the ultimate fate of Daniel Jackson. We would spare him by releasing him from mortal life now. We ask you to allow us to save him from future suffering rather than prolonging an existence that will eventually lead to this.”

Jack’s mind was reeling as he tried to grasp what the figure was saying. “You’re telling me that sometime in the future Daniel is going to be crucified?”

“That is merely a symbol with which to represent his fate in terms that have significance for you,” the Master explained. “He will suffer great pain and untimely death by sacrificing himself to save countless others.”

“And you want to spare him that by killing him now instead?” Jack spluttered. “That’s nuts! Let him go!”

The Master remained implacable in the face of Jack’s emotion. “Explain to us why we should release him to you.”

“Because he’s a good man and he doesn’t deserve to die,” Jack said. He was feeling slightly out of his depth. It seemed ironic that he should be arguing Daniel’s right to survival when he had been the cause of Daniel’s death more than once. It struck him that the fate described by the Master certainly sounded like Daniel, who had now sacrificed himself to save Jack twice – once on Ra’s ship and once earlier that very day in the Ancients’ store room.

Unfortunately, the Master was not about to be swayed by such a simple statement. “His goodness is not in dispute. It is in fact the very quality that prompts our desire to save him. Surely it is better for him to die painlessly now than in great agony later.”

“No!” Jack maintained. “How can you say that it’s better for him to lose even a moment of being alive?” A sudden thought struck him. “The future can’t be set in stone or you wouldn’t be able to change it by killing Daniel now. What gives you the right to take away whatever time he has left?”

“We do not see how the intervening time will be of benefit to him,” the Master said, still apparently unconvinced. “His life is filled only with misery and pain and we would spare him this also. What right do you have to decide that he must continue to suffer?”

“I don’t have the right to decide any such thing,” Jack admitted. “But Daniel does. If he’s as unhappy as you say, why is he still alive? There must be something he sees as worthwhile about life or he would have ended it himself by now. And even if this horrible death you’re talking about is inevitable, it sounds like that’s his choice too. Why don’t you ask him what he wants? I can tell you right now that he’ll choose to go on living until he’s presented with a situation where his death is the only means of continued survival for someone else. That’s who he is, and if you take him now, you won’t be saving him, you’ll be destroying him.”

The Master was silent for a while, the only sound in the vast cathedral that of Jack’s harsh breathing as he waited for a response to his impassioned plea. Finally, the figure before him spoke. “Very well. You have made your case.” With that, he began to turn away, but Jack wasn’t finished.

“Who the hell are you anyway?” he wanted to know.

The Master paused, then turned back to face Jack and slowly reached up to remove his mask. As it dropped away, Jack gasped in shock and confusion as his own face looked back at him from the other side of the forcefield. Then there was a sudden blinding flash of light and everything went black.

* * * * *

“Roger that, sir,” Sam confirmed. “We’ll come and join you. Carter out.”

Jack stared, uncomprehending, at the radio in his hand. He was back in the entrance chamber of the Ancients’ warehouse. Disoriented and thoroughly confused, he looked wildly around and caught sight of the doorway Daniel had opened what seemed like hours before.

“Daniel!” Jack called out and ran through the opening. As before, a short corridor led him through to the inner chamber and he skidded to a halt at the sight of Daniel calmly studying the carvings on the wall. “Daniel!” he cried again, unsure that what he was seeing was actually real.

The younger man looked round at him, his expression distracted. “What’s the matter, Jack?” he muttered, his mind clearly on other things.

Jack crossed over to him and laid a hand on his shoulder, squeezing it slightly just to make sure Daniel was really there. “Are you okay?” he asked, anxiously.

Daniel met his gaze, his eyebrows drawn downwards but a bemused smile playing across his lips. “I’m fine, Jack,” he replied. “What’s gotten into you?”

Jack released his grip on Daniel’s shoulder. “Uh, nothing…” he said hesitantly. “Everything’s fine.” He gestured at the walls of the chamber to cover his confusion. “So, what’s all this about then?”

Luckily, it was easy to turn Daniel’s attention back to the carvings. “I’m not sure yet,” he said, “but I wouldn’t touch those boxes if I were you. I think they might be protected somehow. Give me some time and I’ll try and figure it out.”

Jack backed away rapidly, retreating to the doorway, his hands spread face down in front of him. “Nope, not going anywhere near the boxes. Don’t have to tell me twice. See? Me and the boxes – nowhere near each other!”

Daniel shook his head in bewilderment at Jack’s antics, and went back to his translation.

The End