All the King's Horses
Colonel Jack O'Neill entered his superior's office and saluted. "You wanted to see me, General?"
The weight of his command shadowing his eyes, Hammond said, "SG-9 is overdue. We haven't had contact with them since they left three days ago."
"Major Blake is a good man," Jack observed, the slight reservation he felt toward the Army officer only audible to someone who knew him. "He follows orders without question."
"Which makes their silence doubly disturbing."
"You think something's happened to them?"
"I think that's obvious," Hammond impatiently returned, rising to his feet. "The question is, what do we do?"
Without hesitation, Jack offered, "SG-1 could go to P3 ..."
"...K-825," Hammond furnished.
"K-825," O'Neill repeated, "and find out what happened."
Hammond frowned. "You don't know what you could be walking into, Colonel."
"General," Jack said, "if it were SG-1 in trouble, I'd like to think SG-9 would be volunteering to come after us."
An air of isolation surrounding him, Hammond avoided O'Neill's eyes. "If you don't come back, I won't authorize another rescue mission."
"I wouldn't expect you to, sir."
"I'll give you twenty-four hours. Then, SG-1's and SG-9's transmitter codes will be locked out."
Nodding woodenly, Hammond turned back to his desk. "You'll leave at 0900."
"We'll be ready, sir." Jack saluted, understanding the burden of command lying so heavily on the older man's shoulders.
This time, when they entered the Stargate, Jack was determined to be first. Logically, it made no difference. They were all equally vulnerable in the first few seconds after they emerged, but as their commanding officer, he felt he should be the first to enter the lion's den.
He adjusted his helmet, already uncomfortable with the bulky headgear. He preferred his baseball cap, but considering the nature of their mission, he'd ordered combat gear for all of them.
The last chevron locked into place. The wormhole shot out toward him before settling back into the event horizon. Feeling a nervousness he rarely experienced, Jack walked to the top of the ramp. Without hesitation, he stepped though. He barely noticed the now familiar sensation of traveling across the universe at such an incredible speed. He was more concerned with being prepared for what he found on the other side. It was almost a disappointment when he discovered nothing unusual.
The landscape was similar to many of the other worlds they'd visited. There were no buildings or structures surrounding the Stargate, only tall trees. There was, however, a noticeable difference concerning the gate itself. Neither it, nor the DHD, showed the usual signs of wear associated with the centuries old devices. Both were clean and polished.
"Do you think whoever cleans this place would do my house?" Jack facetiously asked.
Kneeling on the soft ground a few yards away, Teal'c called, "I believe SG-9 went this way."
Despite his levity, Jack held his weapon in the approved method for combat readiness. "Then that's the way we're going. Everyone stay on your toes."
Teal'c led the way down the well manicured path, his eyes picking up the tracks the others might have missed. When the forest abruptly ended, he called, "O'Neill."
Closing the distance, Jack frowned as he stood at the Jaffa's side. A seemingly endless meadow stretched before them. The trail they were on continued through it, the only break in the acres of undulating plants. While it would make it easy for them to spot an enemy, it made it equally easy for an enemy to see them.
"Are you sure SG-9 came this way?" Jack pressed, nervously eyeing the exposed terrain.
Teal'c tilted his head. "I am certain."
"Okay," Jack reluctantly stepped onto the path cutting through the field, "we won't find them standing here."
Despite their color and height, the stalks resembled wheat. The tallest towered a foot above Jack's head. The reddish/gold plants swayed gently in the breeze. Their movement had a lulling effect. Nerves that had been on edge relaxed.
Jack turned on his heel, his weapon leveled, to see Daniel Jackson holding his left shoulder with his right hand. Blood oozed from between his fingers. Jack's eyes scanned the area looking for an assailant. "Where'd he go?"
"Who?" Daniel asked, looking around.
Taken aback by the reply, Jack snapped, "The person who attacked you."
"It wasn't a person," Daniel uneasily corrected, "it was one of these wheat things."
"You were attacked by a plant?" Jack straightened in disgust.
Pushing Daniel's fingers aside so she could examine the wound, Sam said, "It's pretty deep, Colonel."
"From a plant?"
Teal'c carefully approached one of the stalks and cut the transparent bulb. Handing it to O'Neill, he observed, "The petals are hard and sharp, almost the consistency of your aluminum."
"From a plant?" Jack repeated incredulously.
"I do not believe these stalks are harvested for food," Teal'c advised. "They appear to have a more pragmatic use."
Carefully examining the bulb, Jack asked, "Such as?"
"I am uncertain at this time."
"If you ever become certain," Jack requested, "will you let the rest of us in on it?"
"Colonel," Sam said, using scissors from her medical kit to cut away fabric that prevented her from getting a clear view of the wound on Daniel's shoulder, "this is going to need stitches. I think Daniel should go back."
Though he was loath to lose the archeologist's linguistic skills, Jack wasn't willing to endanger a member of his team. He knew he should order Daniel to return. Instead, he decided to leave the decision to the younger man. "How about it, Daniel?"
"I'm all right," Daniel said, a pensive shimmer in the shadow of his eyes belying the confidence of his words.
His need for the archaeologist's talents blinding him to his friend's injury, Jack waved a hand at Carter. "Patch it up, Captain, and let's get moving."
"Yes, sir," Sam unhappily agreed, digging into her supplies.
"One thing's for sure," Jack noted, scanning the area for any sign of trouble, "we won't be taking any shortcuts."
"Open it!" The order was emphasized by the sweeping gesture of a well-manicured hand.
His flesh visibly quivering over a prominent bone structure, the old man quickly complied. Hinges squealed in protest as the metal box's heavy door swung open. Her blond hair streaked with blood, a young woman hung suspended on the spikes piercing her body.
"She's dead, my Lord Seth," the old man nervously reported.
"I can see that, Timbus," his master roared. "You assured me this figure box of yours wouldn't kill her."
"It shouldn't have, Lord. The hours spent inside should've broken her resistance. It appears as though she drove the stakes through her body intentionally."
His anger evaporating in the wake of the intriguing disclosure, Seth clarified, "She killed herself?"
"Then she must've been very close to breaking."
A touch of relief tingeing his voice, the old man eagerly nodded, "I believe so, Lord. Perhaps my methods will be more effective on one of the other off-worlders?"
"You fool!" Seth growled, backhanding the cowering man. "Even if they did break, how would we know? She," he pointed to the pierced body, "was the only one who understood our language."
Footsteps clattering hurriedly down the stone stairs provided Timbus with a much needed reprieve.
"Lord!" Crimson spots mottling his translucent flesh, a guard breathlessly approached, "More off-worlders have been spotted coming though the fields."
"How many?" Seth demanded, his flushed face returning to a pasty white as his anger evaporated.
"Bring them to me."
Seth smiled in anticipation. These Earthers were proving to be formidable foes. But, he had no doubt he would win in the end. One of them would bend to his will. He had learned much from them since their arrival. His decision to treat them as friends at their initial meeting had revealed important information, including how to bargain with an old enemy. Now, Apophis would know Seth was a god to be reckoned with.
The calming effect Jack had experienced walking through the heart of the stalks disappeared with Daniel's injury. Now, he found them annoying. There was no variety in the landscape. Nothing to show how far they'd come or how far they had to go.
Teal'c's call reined in Jack's wandering thoughts. Realizing how dangerous his lack of concentration could be, he hurried to the Jaffa's side. "What is it?"
"Civilization," Teal'c pointed to where the top of a building could be seen rising above the blood-red field.
Joining the two men, Carter asked, "How do you want to play this, sir?"
Jack knew what strategy he would've liked to have employed. Unfortunately, the razor sharp bulbs made it impossible for him to separate his forces. They could continue on, or turn back. There were no other options available. "We stay on our toes, Captain."
"Yes, sir," Carter said, adjusting her grip on her weapon.
"Let's go." Jack took the lead again. They no longer needed Teal'c's skills to follow SG-9's trail. There was nowhere they could've gone, except into the town. Jack was uncomfortable. He realized they were copying the previous team's actions. Would they meet the same fate? Whatever that fate may be. Cursing the plants that forced him onward, he slapped the safety off, readying his weapon. He heard Carter do the same. At least, they wouldn't be caught by surprise.
Figures melted from the fields surrounding them. Their staff weapons were lowered and charged.
Though Jack had anticipated an attack, he hadn't expected it to come until they'd entered the town. The soldiers were encased in some kind of molded transparent armor that was impervious to the razor sharp plants.
A man walked down the path toward them his staff raised. Older than the others, he seemed to be using it as a crutch. The translucent skin on his left cheek was discolored, almost matching the bulbs towering above his head. No one moved or said a word as he approached.
"Qu ya rm," the old man said, in a deep commanding voice.
"He wants us to drop our weapons," Daniel softly interpreted.
Her eyes focused on the men in front of her, Carter whispered, "Colonel?"
Preoccupied, Jack almost missed the Captain's question. The old man's gaze was fixed on Daniel with an eagerness that triggered alarms in Jack's head. "Do it, Captain."
"Didn't someone say something about living to fight another day?"
"Samuel Butler." Daniel quoted, "'For, those that fly, may fight again, which he can never do that's slain'."
Jack frowned. They didn't have the luxury of retreating. He wished they did. Slowly lowering his rifle to the ground, he flicked the safety back on. He didn't want his own weapon used against them.
As soon as he straightened, Jack saw the energy weapons had been deactivated. The old man turned, retracing his steps. The guards in front of Jack gestured for their captives to follow. The trail dipped sharply. At first, it looked as though they were going to walk off the edge of the world. After what had just happened, Jack felt it was a fitting analogy, though a somewhat gloomy one.
The gold/red fields finally gave way to a vast open area. Low slung buildings stretched along the sides of the valley. Even Jack could tell the architecture was ancient Egyptian. Of course, the pyramid towering above them was a clear indication. "Daniel, do you have any idea what this place is?"
"Only that it's early Egyptian, around 1300 B.C."
"Are we looking at good gods here, bad gods? Or no gods?"
"The pyramid suggests the presence of a god. I just don't know which one. But, we're not dead yet, that's a good sign."
Jack frowned. Sometimes, Daniel's optimism could be downright annoying. If there was one thing he'd learned since their first encounter with Ra to their subsequent dealings with Apophis, there was no such thing as a "good sign" with a Goa'uld.
Steep stairs led up to the entrance of the pyramid. To Jack's embarrassment, he was slightly out of breath by the time they reached the top. As he walked through the enormous doorway, cold wrapped around him like a shroud. At first, he welcomed it, feeling hot and sweaty after their long walk and the steep climb. All too soon, it started to seep under his skin, making him shiver uncontrollably.
The golden walls softly glowed, lighting the long, tunnel-like hallways. Jack quickly lost all sense of direction as the corridors twisted and turned, giving him the impression of a maze. "Anyone have any idea how we're going to get out of here?"
"Not a clue, sir," Carter unhappily admitted.
"If I had time to study them," Daniel said, "I think those engravings might tell us how."
"Call me crazy," Jack whispered, his voice hoarse with frustration, "but I doubt we're going to have time to read an instruction manual."
"I believe I can find the entrance," Teal'c revealed. The words were spoken as a statement of fact rather than a boast.
The old man turned. Pounding his staff on the floor, he growled, "Sdm mat."
"What did he say?" Jack demanded. Though his question was for Daniel, he kept his eyes on the old guard.
"He wants us to be quiet," Daniel translated. "Na u," he apologized.
Their captor's golden eyes shone brighter as they rested on Daniel. What could almost be called a smile appeared on the thin lips.
The alarm clanged louder. The guard's interest in Daniel had Jack worried. It obviously had something to do with the fact that Daniel could speak their language. From everything Jack had seen, this was a warrior race. What possible interest could they have in a linguist?
The old man tapped a symbol on the wall. A portion of it slid silently to the side, creating a triangular opening.
The alarms in Jack's head clanged so loud they were giving him a headache. Only a shove from a guard made him reluctantly follow their guide through the doorway. Inside, he stopped in open-mouthed wonder at the opulence. Precious metals and stones adorned every centimeter of the room, from floor to ceiling. Jack almost removed his shoes in deference to the embossed gold carpeting the floor.
At the apex of the triangular shaped room was the only furnishing, a throne. As he stared at it, Jack realized the precious stones embedded in the massive structure formed the shapes of animals. From where he stood, he could identify a pig, a crocodile and a hippopotamus. Awed, in spite of himself, he whispered, "Daniel, you got any idea who we might be facing?"
"The figures on the throne," Daniel said, licking his lips, "suggests it might be Seth, arch-enemy of Apophis."
O'Neill's features brightened. "That's good news. Right?"
"Seth was an associate of Ra's."
"Oops. Talk about walking from the frying pan into the fire."
Accustomed to his friend's comments, Daniel ignored him as he continued his explanation, "Seth was the God of Chaos and disorder. He embodied fury, violence, crime, and destruction."
"It just keeps getting better and better." Jack frowned. "What do you think he wants with us?"
His eyes studying the cartouches on the wall, Daniel admitted, "I have no idea." A frown furrowing his brow, he said, "Teal'c, keep your helmet on. If this is Seth, there's no telling what he'll do if he finds out you were once in the service of Apophis."
Adjusting his helmet to further hide the serpent emblem on his forehead, Teal'c nodded. "Your suggestion is sound, Daniel Jackson."
A chime echoed around the room. The old man immediately dropped to his knees.
Drawing attention to the action, Carter asked, "Daniel?"
"You draw more bees with honey," Daniel reminded, kneeling, "than with vinegar."
The tensing of his jaw betraying his deep frustration, Jack reluctantly followed suit. "Bees have stingers."
The chime rang again. The old man's forehead touched the floor.
Jack glared at Daniel. "There's a limit to how many bees I want to attract."
A red-haired man entered the room and crossed to the throne. He had ears that were so long and pointed, they couldn't be hidden behind his thick mane. His nose was flat and broad, resembling a pig's snout. Beneath the long robes, Jack caught a glimpse of what appeared to be a tail. Whoever this guy was, it was clear he wasn't altogether human.
"Wa ja?" Waving a bejeweled hand at SG-1, Seth addressed his prostrate guard, "Wa mou ta lee?"
"He wants to know who speaks their language," Daniel impassively interpreted for his companions.
The old man pointed to Daniel.
"Tak ohe wina," Seth ordered.
Guards pulled Jack, Sam and Teal'c to their feet.
A note of fear creeping into his voice, Jack demanded, "Daniel?"
"He wants you taken to the others," Daniel translated, shrugging his shoulders. "Whatever that means."
The guard tugged on Jack's arm, but he resisted. He was loath to leave a member of his team. Staff weapons lowered in his direction. What did they want with Daniel?
"Go, Jack," Daniel pleaded. "I'll be all right."
Daniel's description of Seth's character gave lie to his words of assurance. The staff weapons powered up. Jack glanced at Seth, one warrior assessing another. Pain flashed across the god's pale features. An arm lay protectively across his stomach. The fact that he was suffering didn't ease Jack's concerns. After a last glance at Daniel, he reluctantly allowed the guards to lead him from the room. He couldn't help Daniel if he was dead.
As he watched his friends being escorted out, Daniel had to fight the urge to run after them. He remembered having the same feeling when his foster parents left him his first day of school. What he faced now was far more terrifying than a room full of five-year-olds. Burying his fear, he pointed to himself, "Daniel Jackson."
"You speak our language?" Seth asked, his eyes studying the younger man.
A sharp stab of mental pain made Daniel flinch. In the months since Sha're's abduction, he'd yet to become accustomed to her absence. Any reminder caused the same reaction. "I learned it from my wife," Daniel admitted.
"Then you should have no difficulty understanding what I want."
"We're more than willing to share information," Daniel cautiously agreed, "if we can."
Rising from his throne, Seth towered over Daniel, "What are your transmitter codes?"
"I can't tell you that," Daniel warily protested, barely able to hide his surprise. Seth was apparently more aware of present day Earth than he'd first suspected.
A fist connected with the side of his head throwing him against the opposite wall. Leaning on it for support, Daniel blinked trying to dispel the stars dancing in front of his eyes.
"You dare defy me!" Seth roared.
Massaging his swelling jaw, Daniel stubbornly asserted, "You're asking me for the one thing I can't give you."
Daniel braced himself as the angry god advanced.
"My Lord Seth." Still kneeling in front of the throne, the old guard raised his voice to gain his master's attention, "Perhaps if we show him the first, he will be more cooperative."
Seth's steps slowed. "Your suggestion has surprising merit, Timbus." The scowling face lightened into a smile. "We will do as you suggest."
Exiting through the door behind the throne, Seth led the way from the room. His confidence in his power so complete he didn't look back to make sure they were following.
Though he welcomed the reprieve that had saved him from a beating, Daniel was certain it was only momentary. Seth wasn't the type of man, or rather god, to take no for an answer. He'd killed his own brother, Osiris, to usurp the throne. He wouldn't let a mere human stop him from retaking it. Daniel idly wondered if Seth had been relegated to this backwater world before Ra's death, or after. For once, he reined in his curiosity. It was better if Seth didn't find out he had the two men responsible for Ra's demise in his hands.
A staff weapon pressed against his back, Daniel descended a series of steep staircases in his captor's wake. He stumbled once, almost sending himself and those in front of him, to the bottom in an unceremonious heap.
His legs were trembling and he was out of breath by the time they reached their destination. Part of his condition, he attributed to fear. He had no delusions concerning Seth's character.
Though he thought he'd prepared himself for anything, Daniel soon discovered he was mistaken when they entered a large room. He was led past a table with a peculiar wheel. Further along, two chains hung from the ceiling. The transparent cuffs at the ends were stained with blood. Daniel shuddered as he carefully side-stepped the gruesome ornamentation. He was led to the far corner to an odd-shaped metal box. A few inches taller than he was himself, it was wide at the top and bottom, but narrow in the middle. Daniel realized the shape was reminiscent of what the Spanish Inquisition called a Virgin Mary, and medieval Germany, a Jungfernkuss.
Hinges squealed as the door was thrown open. Daniel's heart dropped when he saw the bowed blond head. Becky Armature had been SG-9's archeologist/linguist. He'd recruited her for the position himself. They'd gone to school together. She'd been one of the few who hadn't ridiculed his theories concerning cultural cross-pollination. Though, until she joined the SGC, she hadn't believed them herself. Tears welled in his eyes. She'd been a friend at a time when he hadn't been able to use that word very often.
"She killed herself," Seth gleefully informed him. "She chose death, rather than be subjected to further torture."
Daniel dropped his eyes and averted his gaze. He didn't need to look any longer. The image was burned into his brain and would be with him until the day he died.
"Why don't you make it easy on yourself and give me the transmitter codes? I promise you a quick and easy death."
Eyes blazing, Daniel lifted his chin. He was afraid to speak. Afraid to give his fear voice. Though it took all the courage he had, he finally whispered, "No."
At a nod from Seth, Daniel was roughly divested of his glasses, vest, backpack, jacket, and boots. Thrown onto the table with the strange wheel, his arms were pulled above his head. Bindings that appeared to have been fashioned from the plants they'd encountered on their walk from the Stargate were secured around his wrists and ankles.
With what Daniel thought was a look of regret, Timbus stood beside the wheel. At an imperious wave from his master, he put his hand on the mechanism. Avoiding Daniel's gaze, he turned the wheel.
Daniel licked dry lips and tried to control his breathing. Tensing would only increase his discomfort. At first, the straps pulled gently on his limbs. The gears clacked as they meshed. Daniel focused on the sound. The straps dug into his flesh with the burning pain he remembered from his earlier encounter with the plant. Warm blood trickled down his arms, soaking his shirt and coating his chilled flesh. Muscles protested as they were stretched to their limits and beyond. Daniel bit his lip to contain the cries of agony fighting for release. But he couldn't suppress a groan from deep inside his throat.
The wheel turned. The bindings dug further into his skin until they reached bone. His left shoulder popped out of its socket with a loud snap. The bandage Carter had placed on the cut on his shoulder became saturated with blood from the reopened wound. Daniel closed his eyes trying to trap the tears blinding him.
"Give me the transmitter codes."
Even if he'd wanted to comply with the request, Daniel was in too much agony to speak. It was a state he was strangely grateful for. He wasn't altogether certain he wouldn't have obeyed the command.
Even as he fretted over Daniel's situation, Jack's concerns for himself, Teal'c, and Carter grew. Were they being led to their execution? They apparently had nothing Seth wanted. Though he knew the guards couldn't understand him, Jack kept his voice low as he asked, "Teal'c, can you speak their language?"
"I can," the Jaffa acknowledged. "It's ancient Egyptian with the same variations Daniel Jackson found on Abydos."
"Which would connect Seth with Ra."
"I believe so."
Her jaw clenched, Sam's eyes narrowed in confusion. "How did Seth end up here?"
"After Ra's death," Teal'c said, "Ap--"
"Don't say his name," Jack warned, glancing at the guards to be sure they hadn't caught the slip.
"My former master," Teal'c substituted, "said he hadn't been this happy since Ra banished Set."
Jack's brow drew downward in a frown. "What does that have to do with Seth? Did Daniel get the name wrong?"
"Depending on the culture, Seth was also known as Set, Setekh, Setesh, Saty and Sutekh."
"No wonder he was known as the God of Chaos," Jack muttered.
A small smile lifted Carter's lips. Satisfaction filled Jack when he noted her expression. As her superior officer, he was responsible for her physical and mental well-being. Under present circumstances, he could do nothing about the former, but at least he'd been successful with the latter.
By the time they reached the bottom of the last series in a long flight of stairs, Jack was as breathless as when they'd first climbed them. When they got back -- not if -- he was going to have to start working out on a Stairmaster. "What is it with the pyramid shape that makes it so attractive to the Goa'uld?" he gasped. "Couldn't they have been just as happy in a split-level?"
At the bottom of the stairs, they followed their guards down a long narrow corridor. It was even colder down here than it had been on the upper floors. The sweat that had beaded on Jack's brow and trickled down between his shoulder blades felt like ice chips against his skin. He stuck his hands in his pockets seeking any warmth. The action reminded him of Daniel. The scientist had a habit of putting his hands in his pockets when he felt lost. It was an unusual tendency for a man who talked with his hands. Jack briefly wondered if Daniel realized how vulnerable it made him appear. Did he have his hands in his pockets now?
The corridor came to what appeared to be a dead-end. A guard touched a raised symbol causing a triangular panel to slide back. The height of the opening only reached Jack's chest. The same guard gestured for them to enter the narrow opening.
Bending down, Jack cautiously traversed the tunnel. His back was beginning to protest his position when he finally stumbled into a large room. A hand on his aching back, he started to straighten, only to be confronted by Major Blake and two of the other members of SG-9, Captain Hauger and Lieutenant Fukuda.
"Welcome to Antaeopolis," the Army major sarcastically greeted them.
"Anti - what?" Jack questioned.
"It's what Armature called this place," Blake explained. "She said it was the name of a town in Egypt associated with Seth."
His gaze sweeping the bare room, Jack gave an impatient shrug. "Where is Armature?"
"We haven't seen her since we were brought down here," Blake admitted, his voice rough with anxiety.
"Colonel," Carter croaked in a suffocated whisper, "if Seth has Becky to act as interpreter, what does he need with Daniel?"
Long lashes slowly lifted, revealing blue eyes dulled by pain. When Seth's deformed features filled his vision, Daniel trapped the groan in his throat, refusing to give his tormentors the satisfaction of giving it voice.
"Now will you tell me the transmitter codes?"
"Why," Daniel licked dry lips and tasted blood, "so important?"
Eyes glowed dimly. "I will gain the prize Apophis so greatly desires."
"Prize?" Daniel's brows drew together in an agonized expression. "Earth?"
Pain twisted Seth's pale features. "Release him," he gasped, holding his arm across his chest. "We will try something else when I return."
Daniel's eyes followed the stumbling god, puzzled by his abrupt departure. As the straps were cut from his scored wrists and ankles, pain almost overwhelmed him but didn't dampen his curiosity. Gritting his teeth against the assaulting waves, he asked, "What's wrong with Seth?"
A fearful gaze rested on the closed door for a full minute before shifting to the two guards standing impassively at the end of the table. "His host is dying."
"I'm not surprised," Daniel gasped, fighting to remain conscious, "flesh and bone isn't designed to last three thousand years."
"He needs a new host."
A different fear filled Daniel. "Why doesn't he just take one of your people?"
"He says we're not compatible."
Remembering the snout and tail, Daniel realized human DNA wouldn't be compatible either. "Why doesn't he go back to the planet where he got the host he has now?"
"Apophis rules that world."
Awareness of Seth's intentions made the bile rise in Daniel's throat. "Oh my God. He wants to trade Earth for that planet."
"Yes." Timbus' compassionate tone disappeared as Seth re-entered the room, "You would be wise to give my Lord what he wants."
Though it caused him pain, Daniel shook his head. "I can't."
Bowing to his master, Timbus asked, "What is your wish, my Lord?"
Daniel was dragged off the table and over to the chains hanging from the ceiling. As his right arm was raised and placed in the metal cuff, he saw pieces of the plastic-like substance were embedded in the gash circling his wrist. The white of exposed bone contrasted sharply with the scarlet of his blood.
A scream escaped his lips as his left arm was lifted. The bones of the dislocated shoulder ground together, almost making him pass out.
"Do you wish to do the honor, Lord?"
Timbus held a flagellum with thongs that appeared to be made of the same substance as the bindings. Fear filled Daniel. Not for his life, it no longer seemed important. He was scared he might break. That he might give them the transmission codes just to end his suffering.
Scrupulously avoiding the fresh blood staining the table, Seth sat down and wearily shook his head. "You do it, Timbus."
Daniel tried not to tense his muscles. He knew it would only increase his pain, but his mind no longer seemed to be in control of his body. The first lash criss-crossed the wound on his left shoulder, ran across his back to his right hip, leaving a blazing fire in its wake. Daniel didn't even try to suppress the scream that was made up of equal parts agony and anger. He'd barely filled empty lungs, when a second lash trod the same path as the first. Two more followed in quick succession, before Timbus shifted position. Daniel bit a lip already shredded by sharp teeth. This time, the strap ran from his right shoulder to his left side. He could imagine the bloody X that had once been tender flesh. What would Jack say if he saw it? X marks the spot? A giggle bubbled out of his lips, accompanied by frothy red spittle. Satisfaction filled Daniel when a puzzled look flashed across Seth's face.
"This isn't working," the god raged, rising from his ringside seat. "Think of something else."
"My Lord," Timbus bowed, trembling. "I fear he will die. Maybe it's time to torture his mind, instead of his body."
Intrigued, Seth pressed, "What do you have in mind?"
"If he won't talk to save himself," the old man hesitantly offered, "perhaps, he will talk to save another?"
Seth's eyes glowed. "Of course, he is the voice. He must not die. But the others are expendable."
"No!" Daniel's croaked protest was barely audible. It had been difficult enough to endure the indignities inflicted on his own body. To watch as it was repeated on Jack, Sam, or Teal'c would be intolerable. "No!"
"Which one do you suggest?" Seth inquired, addressing the old guard. "The woman?"
Ignoring Daniel's pleading gaze, Timbus shook his head. "The male who lingered. They seem to have a special bond."
"Fetch the light-skinned male," Seth ordered the two guards.
A sound that was part despair and part laughter traveled up Daniel's raw throat. He wanted to protest. There was no bond. Jack was his commanding officer. What Timbus saw as concern for a friend was only a leader feeling responsible for a subordinate. Daniel had no illusions about their relationship. To Jack, he was merely an annoying scientist. Daniel only wished he felt the same about O'Neill. Watching his friend tortured, would be worse than being tortured himself.
Jack restlessly paced the narrow room, careful to avoid tripping on the outstretched legs of his companions. The words Daniel had used to describe Seth kept playing in his head. What did the god of disorder and violence want with the humans? Would he live up to his title? What did they need Daniel for if they had Becky? There was one answer that made sense, but he shied away from it. It wasn't an acceptable solution.
He came to the end of the room. About to turn around and retrace his steps, he kicked the wall in an attempt to release his frustration. All he did was hurt his foot. Limping slightly, he resumed his pacing.
"Tiring yourself," Teal'c calmly pointed out, "will not make Daniel Jackson appear."
"I know that."
"Then why do you persist in this activity?"
"Because I have to." Jack turned away. How could he justify his actions to the Jaffa? There was no logic in his perception, but he felt like he'd deserted Daniel.
His eyes on the floor and his thoughts on his missing friend, Jack didn't see two guards enter their prison. The first he knew of their existence was when he almost bumped into them. "Whoa," he cried, trying to hide his surprise. "Ya wanna try knocking next time?"
The shortest of the pair kept his staff weapon trained on the other prisoners, while the taller one used his to motion O'Neill into the tunnel. When his silent order wasn't obeyed, he pressed it into Jack's back and pushed -- hard.
Catching the lip of the tunnel, Jack barely kept himself from falling flat on his face. The sound of feet scraping across the dirt floor told him his companions were preparing to come to his assistance. "At ease," he ordered, afraid someone would get hurt.
"It appears as though the guards want you to go with them," Teal'c interpreted.
Keeping her voice non-threatening, Carter asked, "Do you want us to try to take them, Colonel?"
"Negative," Jack anxiously replied. "We don't know what's happened to Daniel or Becky yet. However, if I'm not back in two hours and another opportunity presents itself, I want you to take it. In less than four hours, they'll be locking out our transmitter codes. Don't come looking for us. Return to Earth."
"Do not pass go," Sam muttered. "Do not collect two hundred dollars."
"And don't stop to buy any utilities," Jack continued in the same vein, crouching to enter the low tunnel.
"Good luck, sir."
Pressure from the staff weapon in his back guided Jack through the tunnel and down a long corridor. Grateful they weren't ascending or descending any stairs, he tried to memorize the twists and turns of their route. The pyramid was a vast maze, putting him and his companions at a disadvantage.
His concentration was so focused he almost walked into a wall. One hand reached out to finger the raised symbols as he waited for the poke telling him what direction to take. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the tall guard touch the wall on his right. The symbols slid silently away from Jack's fingers. He drew back in surprise, only to have the weapon in his back reverse his heading. Pushed through the partial opening, the first thing Jack saw was Daniel's bloody body suspended from the ceiling. A sharp pain stabbed his heart as tears welled up in his eyes. He started to go to his friend, but a guard blocked his path. Though he didn't expect an answer, Jack whispered, "Daniel?"
The hoarse reply surprised O'Neill, momentarily robbing him of his ability to speak. As they circled the mutilated body heading for a strange looking table, Jack tried not to let his shock show when his eyes rested on the bruised face of his friend.
"I'm sorry, Jack."
A frown creasing his brow at the unexpected apology, Jack asked, "What for?"
"For what," blood trickled from the corner of Daniel's mouth, "they're about to do."
Experienced eyes assessed the old man and the two guards. "What's going on, Daniel?"
"They want the transmitter codes to open Earth's iris. They're going to torture you to make me talk."
"They obviously don't know you very well if they think that'll work."
Daniel raised his bowed head and rested it on his good shoulder. "Maybe not."
"You didn't break to save yourself," Jack said, the set of his chin showing his stubborn streak. "Don't sell your soul for me."
Pain filled blue eyes met Jack's brown ones, "I don't know if I have that kind of strength."
"I know you do."
The staff weapon poked Jack in the back. Suppressed anger at what had been done to his friend made him lash out, knocking the firearm away. Caught by surprise, the guard fell back, off balance. Out of the corner of his eye, Jack saw Daniel kick the old man into the other guard. Grabbing the end of the first guard's weapon, Jack brought the toe of his boot up to connect with the man's chin. Unprepared for the attack, the guard's head snapped back with a satisfying crack. The weapon fell from limp hands. Jack swept it up. Using it as a club, he jabbed one end into the other guard's stomach, before cracking him over the head with the other end. Another kick to the old man's stomach incapacitated him long enough for Jack to swing the weapon around. The force of his momentum threw the slumped figure into the wall. Unconscious, he crumpled to the floor.
His breaths coming in short hard gasps, Jack spun around prepared for another attack. All three of his adversaries lay motionless on the ground. He checked them before leaning the staff weapon against the table and crossing to Daniel's side.
"Don't waste your time with me, Jack," Daniel pleaded, "run."
"I won't leave you behind."
"Not alive, no," Daniel calmly agreed.
Hands that had been reaching to release the cuffs froze. A shiver that had nothing to do with the cold traveled up Jack's spine. "If you think I'm going to kill you, you can think again."
"I'll only slow you down."
Shaking hands fumbled with the blood-stained manacles. Putting an arm around Daniel's waist, Jack flinched when he realized no matter where he touched his friend, it was sure to cause pain. When he freed the right hand, the useless arm dropped to Daniel's side. Straining under Daniel's dead weight, Jack groped one-handed for the remaining restraint. Just when he thought his back would break, the binding snapped. Jack heard bones grinding together. Daniel screamed in agony. Fury bubbling inside him, Jack lowered his injured friend to the floor. Grabbing one of the staff weapons, he pointed it at the old man slumped against the wall. He'd never killed in cold blood before, only in the heat of battle. His conscience made no protest as he thumbed the weapon on.
"Jack, no," Daniel feebly protested.
His teeth clenched so tightly his jaw ached, Jack growled, "Give me one good reason why I shouldn't?"
"Because you'll be hurting yourself more than you will him."
Jack raised the weapon. "Don't be so sure."
"He's a slave." Blue eyes clouded by pain trapped Jack's in a beseeching web. "He had no choice."
His finger hovering over the switch, Jack decided that he could live with the guilt his actions might incur. But he knew Daniel couldn't. For his friend's sake, he deactivated the staff.
"Thank you," Daniel whispered.
"I'm doing it for you," Jack informed him, a touch of anger in his voice. "Not because I think he deserves to live."
As he walked over to collect the other guard's weapon, Jack silently disagreed. It was doubtful Daniel had ever felt angry enough to kill another human being. He tended to look for the good in people and only saw the bad when it was all there was to see. Sometimes, Jack envied his friend's outlook on life. This wasn't one of those times.
With both staff weapons in hand, Jack returned to Daniel's side. "Do you think you can walk?"
"I don't want to be responsible for your death, Jack. Please, leave."
"You can't seriously think I'd do that?"
"No," a sad smile on his lips, Daniel admitted, "I guess not."
Balancing both weapons in one hand, Jack reached down with the other to pull Daniel to his feet. The injured man teetered dangerously, until Jack wrapped his arm around the narrow waist. His action elicited a stifled cry. Realizing there was nowhere he could touch the mangled body without causing pain, Jack steeled himself against the soft moans. This time, he was the cause. He was inflicting the pain. Was he being fair? Was he fighting so hard to save Daniel for the scientist's sake or his own?
Cautiously glancing outside, Jack half-carried, half-dragged Daniel down the corridors he'd traversed only minutes before. With his mind focused on reversing the complex route, Jack could sometimes forget the pain he was inadvertently inflicting. Sometimes. In trying to save Daniel's life, he was administering another form of torture. Would it have been more merciful to have done as Daniel asked, and killed him? Maybe. The answer was academic. Even with the soft moans filing his ears, he couldn't kill Daniel. Not even to end his suffering. Jack didn't want to contemplate a life without his friend in it.
"Not much further," Jack encouraged.
A tongue whipped out to lick dry, shredded lips. Daniel's only response was a shiver. The remnants of his black t-shirt were no protection against the biting cold.
When the body next to his shuddered again, Jack cursed himself. He should've removed his coat and covered the half-naked body. It was an oversight he would rectify as soon as they reached their destination.
Rounding a corner, Jack was surprised and relieved to find the symbols denoting the cell where the other members of his team and SG-9 were incarcerated. There were no guards evident, but he didn't expect that to last long. Easing Daniel to the floor, Jack removed his jacket and draped it over the shivering body. In seconds, the cold penetrated Jack's exposed flesh, raising Goosebumps on his arms.
Fingers lightly traced the raised symbols seeking the one that would open the cell door. Jack's swearing switched to include the designer of the intricate system. When a door suddenly flew open, he jumped back in surprise. He didn't know what he'd touched, he was just relieved that he had managed to open it.
He spared a glance for Daniel, who sat with his head resting against the wall and his eyes closed, before bending to enter the low tunnel. He felt slightly claustrophobic by the time he stumbled through the opening into the cell. Sweat beaded on his brow as he thought about the millions of tons of stone above his head.
"Colonel!" Carter excitedly rose.
In his best Cagney imitation, Jack said, "I'm bustin' ya out." Handing one of the staff weapons to Teal'c, he ordered, "Let's go."
Taking a deep breath, Jack re-entered the tunnel. Despite the cold, his shirt was damp by the time he emerged on the other side. Daniel was exactly as he had left him. Jack's stomach twisted in knots. Had Daniel stop fighting and yielded to his body's demand to rest -- permanently?
"Daniel?" Kneeling, Jack laid his fingers on the chilled flesh over the carotid artery. There was a pulse, though it was weak and erratic.
"Colonel?" Tears glistened on Sam's eyelashes, as her gaze rested on the mutilated ankles and wrists. "What happened?"
"I'll tell ya later. We don't have much time before Seth realizes his toys are gone." Jack reached out to lift Daniel to his feet. A hand circled his forearm stopping him.
"What about Armature?" Blake demanded. "We can't leave her behind."
In his concern for Daniel, Jack realized he'd forgotten the SG-9 archeologist. "I don't know . . ."
"Becky's dead." Bruised eyelids lifted to reveal tortured blue eyes.
Disbelief flashed across the Army officer's chiseled features. "Are you sure?"
"I'm sure." The breathy words were barely loud enough to be heard.
Handing his staff weapon to Blake, Jack put an arm around Daniel's waist. As gently as he could, he lifted the quiescent body. "All right, Teal'c," he said, "it's time to show off your bloodhound abilities."
"What is a bloodhound?" Teal'c tilted his head inquiringly.
"I'll tell ya later," Jack impatiently promised. "Can we just get out of here?"
The Jaffa didn't appear to make one wrong turn as he led them through the maze of corridors. Jack wasn't surprised, but he was grateful. Daniel's dead weight lay heavy in his arms. The dislocated shoulder made it impossible for anyone to assist him, without causing the scientist excruciating pain. Hauger and Fukuda had offered to relieve him, but Jack shook off their help. They wouldn't be as considerate of the fragility of the man they carried. They didn't know how special he was.
A bell clanged, almost deafening O'Neill. "What the hell is that?"
Teal'c and Blake took up defensive positions as muffled voices accompanied hurried footsteps. In their rush to obey the summons, no one seemed to notice the strangers lurking in the shadows of the pyramid's entrance.
"What's going on?" Fukuda nervously whispered.
"Seth is calling his people," Daniel explained, wincing when one of the scurrying figures bumped against his arm.
When the crowd finally thinned, Jack asked, "Do ya think we might be the topic of his conversation?"
"That would be my guess."
"Then I suggest we pick up the pace here, people."
His staff weapon energized, Teal'c led the way out of the pyramid and down the long flight of stairs.
With other worries occupying his thoughts, Jack barely noticed the torturous descent.
The ragged stones tore at Daniel's feet leaving a bloody trail. Jack would've gladly given up his own boots, but his friend's ankles had swollen to such an extent that even Teal'c's boots wouldn't fit.
With the Jaffa leading the way and Blake guarding their backs, they hurried through the deserted village to the path leading back to the Stargate. As the golden red stalks surrounded them, Daniel shuddered. Jack's grip on the younger man's waist tightened. The wind picked up, making the dangerous bulbs wave wildly. Carter cried out as a razor sharp petal sliced into her arm. Though his tired muscles protested, Jack ordered, "Walk single file and pick up the pace."
Despite their best efforts to avoid the menacing plants, bloody wounds soon scored their bodies. Jack took a nasty swipe across the chest trying to protect Daniel. The cut felt like it was on fire. Jack gasped as he tried to bank the burning flames with his mind. Is this what Daniel had experienced when he'd received his shoulder wound? Jack's respect for the anthropologist grew. The stinging finally subsided to a bearable level. What was it like for Daniel? Pieces of the plant were imbedded in the gashes around his wrists and ankles. Were they raging fires, impossible to extinguish?
When they reached the edge of the woods, Jack began to breathe a little easier. There was no sign of pursuit. Hopefully, the God of Chaos was living up to his name, and they would be long gone by the time Seth organized his troops.
Forms melted from the plants and trees. Jack's grip on Daniel unconsciously tightened. Through the transparent armor, he identified the old man who had tortured his friend and lived only because of his victim's intervention.
"We aren't surrendering this time," Jack proclaimed, using his own body to shield Daniel's.
"Colonel," Carter stood next to Teal'c, her expression blank, amazed and obviously shaken, "they aren't carrying weapons."
"His arms open in submission Timbus spoke, "Sdm rati."
"He says he's sorry," Daniel gruffly translated.
"It's a little late for that," growled Jack, his mouth thinning with displeasure.
Though he couldn't have understood the words, Timbus obviously recognized the tone. "Nb m idy."
"He says Seth is dying," Daniel's voice cracked, as he tried to focus on the dialogue and not his pain.
"Hr se pri na . . ."
"After centuries under his dominance . . ."
"Sdma qu na y ntraw . . ."
"They've decided to risk the wrath of the other gods . . ."
"Sn tui pty."
"And let him die."
"Sdma pty, sdma pty d."
"If they die, too, they will die free."
His arms quivering with the strain of supporting his friend, Jack felt no sympathy toward the beleaguered people. "It's too little, too late."
Daniel's plea fell on deaf ears. Turning his attention to his former tormentor, Daniel said, "Ddi hss r ntrm xt cuk."
"What did you tell them?" Jack suspiciously demanded, his dark eyebrows slanted into a frown.
"I told him to bury the gate." Daniel licked his lips and closed his eyes against a wave of pain. "Maybe the other gods will forget their existence."
"What the hell!"
Blake's protest drowned out Jack's feeble censure.
"You're helping the enemy," the major accused.
Damp tendrils of hair curling across his forehead, Daniel exhaustedly denied, "They're not our enemy."
"They killed Armature." Blake fired up the staff weapon he was carrying. "That makes them an enemy in my book."
Though he agreed with the Army officer's sentiment, Jack couldn't allow the slaughter of unarmed soldiers, no matter how he felt about them personally. "Stand down, Major."
"Colonel O'Neill!" A shaking thumb remained poised over the staff weapon's control switch.
"I said at ease." Even as he issued the command, Jack understood what the other man was feeling. If they had killed Daniel, nothing, not even a superior's order, would've stopped him from firing on the guard.
The energy banked when the metal jaws closed as Blake reluctantly complied with the order.
Two more guards materialized from the field. Teal'c swung around to cover them. Instead of weapons, they were carrying a shrouded body. It was encased in the same transparent material as its bearers. They crossed to Daniel and laid their burden at his feet.
Tears he had not shed for himself coursed down Daniel's cheeks.
Jack could almost feel the younger man's mental anguish. It was time to end the suffering. "Let's go home, people."
As Jack turned Daniel down the path to the Stargate, Fukuda and Hauger picked up their fallen comrade. Carter ran ahead to open the wormhole. However, she waited until O'Neill's foot wearily hit the bottom step, before sending the transmission code. Jack appreciated her caution.
Jack's tired muscles were barely able to control their passage as they stepped onto the ramp in the Embarkation room. He stumbled a safe distance from the event horizon before carefully lowering Daniel. Trembling legs that could no longer support his aching body forced him to slump down beside his friend. Resting an arm on his knee, he lifted a hand to prop up his head, "We need a medical team, now."
"One's already on its way, Colonel," Hammond soothed, putting a comforting hand on his subordinate's shoulder.
"Daniel's hurt, sir."
"I can see that." Hammond moved aside to make room for the corpsmen. "We'll take care of him. Well done, Colonel."
Bile rose in Jack's throat at his superior's praise. Armature was dead. And Daniel? He turned his gaze and watched with sympathy as the medical team tried to help their patient without hurting him. Jack knew it was an impossible task. Still, it wasn't the physical injuries that worried him. He knew from experience torture could be as damaging to the mind as it was to the body. After all that had happened, would Daniel have the strength -- the desire -- to fight the demons that were sure to visit him?
Hands. They were hurting him again. Daniel cringed, trying to escape their grip. There were so many. When he pulled away from one, another replaced it. His brain begged him to surrender, but his heart refused to listen. He wouldn't divulge the transmitter codes. He couldn't betray his friends. His world.
"Dr. Jackson, please stop fighting. We're only trying to help."
The voice was familiar. Could it be one of Seth's tricks? If he really believed Dr. Fraiser was here, he would relax. He trusted the young physician. She wouldn't hurt him. Yet, someone was. He fought harder.
"Daniel, please," the voice broke around a sob. "We don't want to hurt you."
Recognition whispered through Daniel's lips. "Sam?" For a moment, he relaxed into the hands. Sam was his friend. She was strong. She couldn't be corrupted by the God of Chaos.
A soft urging encouraged Carter to continue. "We're back on Earth, Daniel. Do you remember Colonel O'Neill carrying you through the Stargate?"
The memory was like an out of focus picture. "Jack?"
"I'm here, Daniel."
A hand touched his. Panic filled him. He pulled away. Would they hurt Jack to make him talk? Is that why his pain was going away? "Oh, God, Jack, I'm sorry."
The familiar voice sounded gruffer than usual. "You have nothing to be sorry about."
"They're going to hurt you."
"No," Jack quickly soothed, "Seth is dead. He isn't going to torture anyone ever again."
"Goa'ulds don't die."
"This one did." Jack's tone dropped a few octaves, becoming barely more than a whisper, "Daniel, you have to relax so the sedative can take effect. Believe me, you don't want to be awake when Dr. Fraiser starts stitching you up."
Heavy eyelids closed trustingly over disoriented blue eyes. "Seth can't hurt you?"
"Or you," Jack confirmed.
"Be careful of the hands," Daniel warned. "They hurt."
His words echoing as though they'd been spoken in a deep well, Jack acknowledged, "I'll be careful."
Relieved, Daniel sighed. Jack was here. He would protect him. Muscles that had been screaming in protest finally relaxed.
Jack paused outside the infirmary to marshal his emotions. It'd been a week since their return from P3K-825. In that time, Daniel had made significant progress in his physical recovery. But nothing Jack or anyone else did could free the younger man from the mental prison he'd locked himself into. Though Jack had expected this reaction, it didn't mean he knew how to deal with it. His first instinct had been to avoid the infirmary and its melancholy occupant. Guilt had instantly swamped him at his selfishness. He hadn't abandoned Daniel on P3K-825; he certainly wasn't going to do it here.
Taking a deep breath, Jack forced a smile to his lips and put his shoulder to the door. An unexpected sound greeted him. Laughter? More specifically, Daniel's laughter. Stepping further into the room, Jack saw Teal'c standing at the side of the bed. A light seemed to glow on the serene face. The Jaffa had managed to do something none of the rest of them had. Lying on his stomach, Daniel's position made it impossible for Jack to see his expression. An unexpected wave of jealousy washed over him. His lips frozen in a smile, he quickly circled the bed and joined Teal'c. "What's so funny?"
Though it was an innocent question, the sun seemed to vanish behind a dark cloud. Animation disappeared from Daniel's face. An expressionless mask that Jack had come to dread was left in its wake. This wasn't his Daniel. There were times when Jack wanted to shake this stranger and demand that he release his friend.
"Colonel," Fraiser entered the room, accompanied by two corpsmen. "I'm glad you're here."
"I'm glad somebody is," Jack facetiously muttered.
Dismissing her young aides, Fraiser explained, "The swelling has sufficiently abated in Dr. Jackson's ankles to allow him to get a little exercise."
Jack immediately understood why the physician was grateful for his presence. Though it wasn't as blatant as when they'd first tried to treat Daniel's injuries, the younger man still had an aversion to being touched. The only hands he didn't pull away from were O'Neill's. This, Jack decided, was even more special than making his friend laugh. Hoping Daniel couldn't hear the nervousness in his voice, Jack asked, "Are you ready to cut a rug, Daniel?"
No answer was forthcoming, but Jack hadn't expected one. Daniel hadn't put more than two words together since their return. Jack actually longed for the days when the archeologist spoke in considerable detail about the subject he loved.
Flipping back the bed covers, Jack gently swung Daniel's legs over the side of the bed. Clasping the uninjured shoulder, he slowly lifted him to a sitting position. "All right?"
A slight nod was the only response to his question.
"I think you might need these," Fraiser said, kneeling and putting slippers on the swollen feet. "This place has the coldest floors."
Appalled by the sight of the stained bandages and discolored flesh disappearing under the hospital gown, Jack averted his gaze. How could Dr. Fraiser think those mangled limbs could support a man's body? Even one that had lost a considerable amount of weight. Reproachful brown eyes sought hers.
Rising, Fraiser stepped away. "Are you ready, Dr. Jackson?"
A hesitant nod was again the only answer to an inquiry.
His grip tightening, Jack gently lifted Daniel off the bed. The abused legs trembled, threatening to collapse, before stabilizing. Nonetheless, Jack kept a firm grip on a bony arm with one hand, while the other circled the thin waist.
"Just to the door and back," Fraiser instructed, keeping step with her patient, careful not to touch him. "If all goes well, we'll do it again this afternoon."
The distance the physician had recommended appeared incredibly short to Jack. But by the time they turned around to return to the bed, Daniel was trembling. Sweat dampened his hair and was rolling down his brow. Jack ached to end this new torture quickly by carrying his friend back to the welcoming comfort of his bed. He reined in his impulse with difficulty. He wouldn't be doing his friend any favors by coddling him. They had to do this if Daniel was ever to get strong again.
Daniel shuffled slowly down the corridor keeping close to the wall, partly because he might need its support, but mostly because he couldn't walk as fast as the other base personnel. He hid in the shadows where he couldn't see their faces. He didn't need or want their pity.
Dressed in the familiar green fatigues, he felt almost human once more. Though he was still forced to wear slippers, the swelling in his ankles and wrists had all but disappeared. The bruising was fading, tainting his skin an ugly yellowish brown. Someone who didn't know his recent medical history would wonder if he was jaundiced.
"Hi, Daniel." Sam fell into step beside him. "Are you on your way to the conference room? Do you mind if I walk with you?"
Daniel winced. The young woman's cheerfulness grated on his nerves like nails on a chalkboard. That was the way it was with everyone these days. Even his friends didn't know how to act around him. They all treated him like he was made of eggshells. He was getting tired of playing Humpty Dumpty. "I don't know. With two of us going this slow, we could become a speed bump."
Her laughter was too loud and too long. Daniel fought a desire to escape. His shoulders lifted, and he ducked his head.
"I'm sorry." Sam's voice cracked, as tears filled her eyes. "I've made you uncomfortable."
Once, Daniel would have lied to keep from hurting her, but that was the old Daniel. The one he'd lost on P3K-825. "Yes."
Her hand reached out to touch his arm, but was quickly pulled back before it could complete its journey. "I've missed you, Daniel."
No, Daniel wanted to protest you miss the person I was. He didn't think she'd like the person he'd become. That was all right. He wasn't particularly fond of this new Daniel, either. Forcing a smile, he decided to try to be the old Daniel, though it no longer sat so tranquilly on his shoulders, "So, what do you think General Hammond wants to see us about?"
"I don't know." Disappointment was visible on her face.
The remainder of their passage was made in an uncomfortable silence. Daniel sighed. He missed Sam and the closeness they'd once shared. Would they ever be friends again?
By the time he reached the top step of the steep staircase leading to the briefing room, Daniel felt like he'd climbed Mount Everest. Slipping into the first empty seat, he wiped the sweat from his brow and tried to control his breathing.
"Now that we're all here," Hammond said, sitting at the head of the table, "we'll get started."
Glancing at the clock, Daniel saw that despite his best efforts, he was five minutes late. "It was my fault we were late, sir."
"Perfectly all right, Doctor."
Daniel bit his lip and averted his eyes. Even the commanding officer of the SGC didn't know how to put him back together again. Was he fighting a losing battle? Should he just give up?
"The reason I called you all here," Hammond paused and glanced down the table at SG-1 and the remaining members of SG-9, "is to inform you that the scientists at MIT are very excited about that transparent plastic-like substance you brought back from P3K-825."
Daniel shuddered and ducked his head again. The "sample" they'd brought back was the tomb Becky Armature's body had been encased in.
"Apparently," Hammond continued, unaware of the discomfort he'd caused in at least one of his listeners, "it's impervious to bullets. It can even absorb energy from a staff weapon. My superiors want to know if this plant could be grown on Earth."
"Probably," Blake replied.
"Considering what happened to Doctor Jackson, would it be safe to return?" asked Hammond.
"Your question is academic, sir."
The Army officer's angry eyes rested on Daniel. "Doctor Jackson told them to bury their gate, sir. In my opinion, that's aiding and abetting the enemy. If he was in the military, he'd be court-martialed."
"After centuries of subjugation they had finally found the courage to defy their god," Daniel softly defended himself. "If they left the gate open, they were taking the chance of being enslaved again."
"After what they did to Armature, they deserve it."
"You don't punish the slave for the master's crime."
"Gentlemen!" Hammond held up a hand. Both men immediately obeyed the silent command. Turning his attention to the officer on his right, the General asked, "Colonel O'Neill, if the gate is still open do you think it's safe to send a team through?"
Jack hesitated only a second before replying. "Yes, sir, I do."
As he voiced his opinion, Jack studied the man sitting across from him. The two weeks of healing had made a vast difference physically, but there had been little change mentally. The man was still a stranger. This Daniel never initiated a conversation and only answered questions, never asked. To his surprise, Jack longed for the days when Daniel eagerly shared his vast wealth of knowledge, whether it was requested or not. Despite losing Sha're, that Daniel had been happy. This one wasn't.
"If the gate to P3K-825 is still open," Hammond said, "we'll send a team through to determine the viability of transplanting this substance to Earth."
"And if it's closed?" Blake pressed, his angry gaze resting on Daniel.
"Then we won't go through," Hammond drawled, with distinct mockery. "That will be all. Dismissed."
Jack pushed back his chair. When he heard Hammond softly request that Daniel remain seated, he pulled forward again, even though he knew he could be courting his superior's wrath. Leaning back in his chair, Jack folded his hands across his stomach. He wasn't surprised when Carter and Teal'c copied his actions. Blake hesitated, before reluctantly following his men from the room.
Ignoring the other three members of SG-1, Hammond opened the file lying on the table in front of him. "I have a list of people qualified to replace Armature. I'll need your recommendation, Dr. Jackson, before I can pass it on to security." Hammond pushed the report across the desk.
"No!" Daniel stood up so suddenly, his chair flew back and crashed into the wall. Legs, not yet ready for such violent activity shook uncontrollably. Only Teal'c's quick support saved him from a fall.
Surprised, Hammond rose to lend assistance. "Dr. Jackson?"
All vestige of color leached from Daniel's face, as he pulled away. "Don't touch me!"
"Easy, Daniel." Jack slowly rose. His eyes beseeching the others to leave, he waited until they were gone before unhurriedly rounding the table. Taking minute steps, he approached his friend. "It's all right."
"No, it's not all right," Daniel backed away with a choked cry. "I killed Becky Armature and now they want me to choose another sacrificial lamb."
Finally understanding what had been torturing the younger man all this time, Jack stopped short in dismay. He often forgot Daniel wasn't military. He hadn't been trained to take death in stride. To learn from it, so it wouldn't happen again, and then move on. "Daniel, you didn't kill Becky."
"I recruited her for the Stargate program." His trembling legs no longer able to support him, Daniel leaned against the wall. Wrapping his arms around his stomach, he sank to the floor. "She never would've died if it weren't for me. I recommended her."
The room was washed in a blue light as the wormhole activated. Turning his head, Jack watched as SG-7 walked calmly onto the ramp. Though they looked tired, there was a quiet excitement on the four faces. Jack knew he had the same look when he returned from a successful mission. He longed to see that expression on Daniel's features again.
Kneeling in front of his friend, Jack asked, "Do you think Becky would've been happier doing something else?"
"She'd be alive." Daniel hugged his knees to his chest.
"Would she?" The wormhole disengaged. A blue haze continued to dance in front of Jack's eyes. "How do you know she wouldn't have died in a car crash? Or some other kind of accident?"
"Anything would've been better than driving stakes through her own body."
"Then you think Becky was stupid and a coward."
"No!" Daniel fiercely protested, making eye contact with Jack for the first time since their return from P3K-825.
"She knew the risks before she joined the program," Jack ruthlessly pointed out. "Doesn't that make her pretty stupid for applying anyway?"
Shaking his head, Daniel cried, "She thought it was the chance of a lifetime to actually visit civilizations we'd only been able to study in books."
"Okay," Jack conceded, hiding a triumphant smile. "She wasn't stupid. But, she must've been a coward to kill herself to avoid more torture."
Daniel shuddered. Interlocking his fingers to hide their trembling, he whispered, "She probably thought killing herself was the only way to be sure Seth didn't get the transmission codes."
"So she gave her life to save Earth?"
"So, she's a hero?"
"A dead hero," Daniel qualified.
"Does that diminish her accomplishments?"
A shaking hand pushed a lock of hair off a damp brow. "No, of course not."
Pressing both hands over his eyes, as if they burned, Daniel hoarsely asserted, "There's nothing you can say Jack, that will make me believe I'm not responsible for her death."
"Then you learn to live with it," Jack brutally informed him. "If I can, you can."
Daniel's startled gaze lifted to meet O'Neill's.
A soft note creeping into his voice, Jack put a hand on Daniel's knee. "We can't be liable for what other people do, only for ourselves. And if you can't accept that, you might as well eat a bullet."
"Is that what you were going to do when Charlie died?"
"What stopped you?"
The fingers gripping Daniel's knee spasmed. Jack stared unseeing at his hand, before finally raising his eyes to Daniel's. "You."
Jack almost laughed at the shocked expression on the younger man's face. At least it was a step up from the whipped puppy dog look that Daniel had been wearing since their return. "That first time on Abydos, you told me you didn't want to die. Yet, you had already died to save me, even though you knew I was on a suicide mission. When I thought you were dead, I wanted to live for you."
"And when Ra's sarcophagus brought me back to life?"
"Skaara and those boys risked their lives for us. That's when I wanted to live for me."
"You started to forgive yourself?" Daniel sniffled.
"No, I'll never do that. But I did realize I wasn't God." Jack leaned forward. "We can't see into the future, Daniel. There's no way we can predict what ramifications our actions will have. Right now, you have three options: You can eat that bullet, continue to punish yourself as you've been doing, or accept what happened and get on with your life."
Indecision was visible on the vulnerable features. When Daniel buried his head in his arms, Jack's heart missed a beat. He'd failed. What had made him think he could play psychiatrist? Had he destroyed Daniel's fragile thread linking him to his friends?
The voice was so low, Jack wasn't sure he'd heard correctly. "W-what?"
"Ben Myers." The tone was stronger as it repeated the name. Daniel's head lifted. There were tear stains on the pale cheeks. "Tell General Hammond I recommend Ben Myers for SG-9."
A proud smile on his lips, Jack asked, "Is there any particular reason why?"
"Ben finished third in his class at Harvard. Right now he's working with NASA's Global Hydrology and Climate Center in Huntsville." A sheepish grin on his face, Daniel admitted, "And, he's an asshole."
Biting his lip, Jack gasped. "Sounds like the kind of person Blake deserves."
"My thoughts exactly."
Blinking back tears, Jack swallowed the lump in his throat. "Welcome home, Daniel."