Angels and Mazes
Part One: Into the Labyrinth
"The gods are sparrows, I am a falcon."
Inanna, Sumerian goddess of love, war, fertility and infinite variety
I: Cheyenne Mountain
O'Neill bent and picked up one of the pieces of replicator still scattered across the corridors like something from a children's game. Nothing could have looked more harmless, little pieces of metal all interlocking perfectly to make mechanical spiders. Almost indistinguishable from the other toys in the room in which that piece of machinery which thought and acted like a human child had been living. Except human children didn't generally work only as long as their computer disks were installed, and they almost never created killer bugs they then unleashed upon an unsuspecting galaxy. Nor did they wreak havoc on the SGC.
How many times was it now that they'd been bitten in the ass by something they'd brought home because Daniel wanted to communicate with it or Carter wanted to take it apart and find out how it worked? Or, if he was honest, because he and Hammond hoped that this time they might have found the weapon that would wipe out the Goa'uld?
He stepped over to the 'contaminated waste' buckets set up everywhere in which the broken pieces of replicator were being dropped to land with a comforting 'plink' on those other pieces of metal. He peered into the depths for a minute, waiting to see if any of those pieces started twitching, trying to reform themselves, the way he'd seen them do in the past – but no, not a movement out of them this time. Without the robot controlling them they couldn't function. They'd been right on the point of breaking free from its control when it had been stopped and so had they. Now they were just pieces of metal with no ability to turn themselves back into replicators without their creator. That was Carter's theory anyway, and although Carter was as capable as any of them of getting it spectacularly wrong on occasion, this time he thought he believed her.
O'Neill reached into the bucket and prodded at the pieces. None of them retaliated in any way. He believed her, yes, but he also believed in making sure.
He'd recommended to Hammond that Area 51 didn't even get a look in, they just gave these bits of metal to Siler and he put them straight in the boiler. Melt them down and turn them into lampstands. Just make sure they couldn't ever be made replicators again. As long as there were government agents out there who thought talking with the Goa'uld was a good idea, he thought the SGC should rely only on itself. Hammond had accused him of having a bunker mentality, which O'Neill hadn't argued. There were times he did think the only people they could trust were themselves. That went for their allies on this planet and elsewhere. Not that they had many allies left who hadn't been decimated, defeated or downright destroyed. Even Thor hadn't come when they needed him this time. If Thor had come, then…
He gave himself a mental shake. No one knew better than he did the futility of pining after might-have-beens. Thor hadn't come and the situation had been resolved his way instead. His way and not Daniel's….
O'Neill had to prepare himself to step into the infirmary. Quite apart from the disinfectant smell there were too many things in here he didn't want to deal with right now. First off were the badly injured airmen attacked by replicators within the SGC, something he had hoped would never happen. The hairs were standing up on the back of O'Neill's neck at how close they'd all come to having to complete the self-destruct to wipe out the terrifying metal pests. Two airmen were still sweeping the infirmary, collecting up every tiny piece of replicator they could find. O'Neill had told them to be thorough. In fact he might have yelled it. As he'd walked out of the 'gateroom he'd needed somewhere to direct his anger and those little pieces of bug had done just fine. If he could have jumped up and down on them without losing dignity he would have done.
The other thing he really didn't want to deal with right now was Daniel.
Fraiser had confined Daniel to bed at the far end of the infirmary, but, given the replicator injuries she was having to deal with, he wasn't getting a lot of attention.
O'Neill took his time talking to the wounded airmen and asking Fraiser for a progress report on the ones who were unconscious, giving praise where it was due, being the good CO. He knew Hammond had been in as well. He and Hammond had earned the loyalty they evoked in others. He knew they were both good COs and Hammond had proved he still remembered how to be a good soldier as well. The attack on the base had been a challenge and they'd all risen to it, dealt with it, survived it. He had no problem with any of the actions he'd taken. He knew he'd done all he could do under circumstances where the base was overrun, the countdown was marching irresistibly towards zero, he had an injured man in a potential hostage situation, and the thing controlling the enemy was at large and dangerous. He'd neutralized the enemy, averted the hostage situation, stopped the replicators, saved the base. All with one well-placed bullet.
He also feared he might have irretrievably broken something in Daniel's soul in the same instant.
He was out of beds to stand beside now. There were only three empty ones, then Daniel's. He couldn't stall any longer.
He approached the bed warily, like he might approach a snared animal he wanted to help but was afraid of getting bitten by, Daniel's frustrated rage and grief as he sat in the 'gateroom with tears running down his face still as fresh in his memory as an open wound.
Daniel looked up at him. "Hey."
There was no trace of the rage or grief there now. He just looked weary and distant. Not as if he was shutting O'Neill out, just as if he wasn't really here any more. He reminded O'Neill of someone, but he couldn't think who it was. There was the same grayness about him, as if he'd faded, shrunk a little, as if his body was still here but his mind was somewhere else.
That scared O'Neill more than the anger he'd been seared by earlier. He pulled up a chair. "How are you feeling?"
"How's the arm?"
Daniel turned his head to look at him in mild surprise. "Okay." As O'Neill evidently shifted impatiently, Daniel shrugged. Aloud he said, "It's just a broken wrist." His eyes also seemed to say: You didn't have to kill her for it.
He hadn't – he really hadn't – shot the robot because it had hurt Daniel. Twice. Deliberately. Could have cracked his skull like an egg the first time. Had broken his arm just like that, with one malicious twist of the fingers. He'd killed it because it was the only thing he could do under the circumstances that wouldn't have risked the life of everyone on the base, including Daniel.
"How's the head?"
O'Neill looked around for inspiration. "Looks like you might need to take a few days off. Maybe you'd like to come fishing…?"
He broke off as he saw Daniel's expression. It wasn't impatient, or angry, it was resigned, and weary, and somewhat sad. "I don't think so, Jack."
O'Neill set his jaw. "Daniel, I really think we need to talk, and this isn't the place – "
"No, it isn't." Daniel nodded. "But I don't think there's anything to say."
"Look, I did what I – "
"You did what you had to do. I know that." Daniel looked him in the eye without accusation this time, just that frightening resignation. "Now I need to do what I need to do."
O'Neill felt a chill go through him, much worse than that sharp stab of hurt when Daniel had called him a "stupid son of a bitch" in the 'gateroom. Daniel had been working so hard to get through to the robot and he'd almost succeeded. Almost found a way to keep the robot alive, stop the replicators, and save the base. Or not. They'd never know, because with an alien enemy that had already proven more than a match for the Asgard swarming all over Cheyenne Mountain and half its personnel, and the self-destruct counting down, O'Neill hadn't had any choice but to neutralize the enemy the second he got a clear shot.
"I was just…"
"I know, Jack." Daniel reached out with his good arm, and his fingers rested briefly on O'Neill's sleeve. O'Neill looked down at Daniel's hand in surprise. Daniel hardly ever touched him. Daniel hardly ever touched anyone. But there had been a time when O'Neill's hand on his arm had been enough to comfort him. Now, he didn't think anyone and anything was going to banish that look from Daniel's eyes. Daniel became aware of who he was touching and snatched his hand away, the way he always did for a reason O'Neill couldn't even guess at. One day he'd have to tell Daniel that actually tactile people liked to be touched too, they could also take comfort from a hand on the arm.
He'd come in here ready to defend himself, to explain, crisply and in a way even a mule-stubborn civilian couldn't fail to understand, just why he'd had to do what he'd done, then he'd been going to tell Daniel that he understood why he was so angry. That he knew Daniel was a communicator. That no one liked the way things had gone down but, with the safety of the base at stake, there had been no other responsible decision to make. That it wasn't and never had been about him not trusting Daniel to do his job, just that in a military base in a military situation, as second in command he had to take responsibility for the lives of those people in the SGC, and that included Daniel's life and… So many other things he'd been going to say to justify his actions and prove they hadn't been a reflection on Daniel in any way at all, that there was no reason for what had happened today to harm their friendship.
But Daniel seemed to have worked it all out for himself. Or perhaps he'd just read it in the way O'Neill walked across the room. They knew each other so well that was possible.
Unfortunately it was them knowing each other so well that was scaring O'Neill now, because looking at Daniel, he was seeing someone who although quiet and calm on the outside, was broken and wounded within. Worst of all, for the first time in a very long time, he was seeing someone who needed to be where Jack O'Neill wasn't.
He almost said: "Don't go", but thought in time how needy and pathetic it would sound – as if he was clutching at Daniel's sleeve. He stayed in his chair, looking at Daniel with his face as blank as he could make it. Daniel was lying right there in a bed a few feet from him, but O'Neill could feel him slipping through his fingers, knew that even while they were still talking he was losing him irrevocably.
Daniel must have seen how he really felt despite his best efforts to disguise it because he winced and said gently, "It's not you, Jack."
O'Neill gritted his teeth. "It's what I did."
"No." Daniel shook his head. "It's just the way it is."
O'Neill stayed where he was, frozen in silence, watching as the pain killers kicked in, as Daniel's eyelashes fluttered, watched him fight slumber then succumb to it, watched him sleep. And all the time he knew this time he'd lost him so completely that maybe this time he wouldn't be getting him back.
When the summons came to Hammond's office he knew this was it. Daniel was leaving. He didn't much care about the how and why. He just cared that it was happening and he couldn't stop it.
After two days slumped in depression waiting for the axe to fall, it was almost a relief. He decided attack was the best form of defense. If it had come to this, to the finishing line of a formal announcement, he had nothing to lose anyway.
He rocketed into Hammond's office on a propeller burst of attitude. The second he saw Hammond's unhappy face and Daniel's self-hugging body language, not to mention that crisp white letter lying on the table, he knew he'd read the situation right and should start yelling about it. Loudly.
"So, this is it? You don't like the way a mission goes down so you're going to sulk your way out of here?"
Hammond looked shocked. "Colonel O'Neill."
Daniel just sighed. "Jack…"
O'Neill shot him a look. He'd hoped to provoke some kind of angry reaction but Daniel was still looking resigned and long-suffering about it at all. And weary. Bone-deep weary. So like someone else. Someone from his past. Not military. His childhood. Damnit, it was on the edge of his memory. Looking at the shadows under Daniel's eyes, O'Neill felt all the anger get sucked straight out of him. So did the strength. He was sitting down even before Hammond pointed a finger at the chair.
He looked sideways at Daniel, not hiding the hurt. "You're going?"
"I need some time off."
That didn't sound so bad but Hammond's palpable distress suggested Daniel had asked for a lot more than a week's vacation. "How much time?"
"I don't know."
"Well, could you at least give me some kind of idea? I am your team leader."
"Not any more, Colonel." Hammond sounded like someone who needed to share the bad news to try and halve the pain of it.
"I never saw you as a quitter, Danny."
Daniel gave him a very straight look. "Don't pull the rally round the flag boys bullcrap with me, Jack. It won't work and it's beneath you." He didn't add 'And don't call me 'Danny' either' but O'Neill read it in his eyes. People had stopped calling Daniel 'Danny' in 1973 when his parents had died before his eyes. Calling him that was like stroking a cat – elicited a purr every time however much he might wish to hang onto his dignity. It was a name for emergencies and intimacies. It was also not something to be wielded like a weapon, used cynically for manipulation. That blunted its power. He read all that in Daniel's eyes as well. They were very expressive, and he and Daniel knew each other frighteningly well.
O'Neill pointed at the door. "You're ditching us because of a freakin' robot, Daniel! Why shouldn't I pull every low trick in the book?"
Daniel sighed wearily. "As I just explained to General Hammond, I'm leaving because I don't know who I am any more, and I'm no use to this facility until I find out."
"I know who you are." O'Neill put every ounce of intensity into he could find. "You're someone I want on my team. You're someone I need on my team."
There had been a time when that would have been enough to make Daniel melt. He could be seduced by kindness and affirmation back into friendship even when the links seemed to be entirely severed. But this time Daniel just looked even more weary. "Not like this. I'm no use to you like this."
O'Neill glared at him in baffled hurt because Daniel wasn't caving, which meant he was leaving, which meant he was going to be left. Again. By someone he had cared for, he had obviously somehow terribly failed. "Like what? With your arm in a sling or your head up your ass?"
Hammond was glaring at him accusingly. The general was probably joining all kinds of dots in his head, thinking this was the way his 2IC always spoke to their wayward but lovable civilian and if so no wonder he was quitting.
He just wanted Daniel to get mad at him again. In the 'gateroom no one else had existed. It had been the two of them and a dead robot. He'd been hurting so much for Daniel, the guy could have spat in his eye and he wouldn't have minded, and Daniel had been ripped open with grief and anger and frustration, but god he'd been focused on him. He'd been so there. They'd been the only people in their world for a second. Now Daniel was already in a different place from him, sidling out the door with an apologetic wave.
Daniel did look him right in the eye, that was something, but the terrible resignation was still there. The way people looked when they were exhausted with too much grief. All this for a machine? No. Stop fighting and use what you know, O'Neill, and you know him, better than you know yourself, better than he knows himself. It must be there in his eyes, it always is. O'Neill looked and read it right this time, slumping with defeat as he realized the truth. Not the robot then. All this for a principal. Somehow they'd frog-marched Daniel across a line he'd never wanted to cross and he had to get back on his own steam.
He saw Daniel see him get it too. There was that little nod again and the words were gentle. "I'm no use to you if I don't believe in what we're doing any more."
And now he remembered who Daniel had been reminding him of. Father O'Hanlon from the Church of the Sacred Heart. The one who'd left the priesthood after his faith had cracked like a broken bell.
He felt as if he was falling into a deep gray pit, this really was the future, and it really was unavoidable. Hammond's voice sounded as if it were coming from a long way off. "Doctor Jackson won't be leaving right away. He's putting out feelers to old colleagues but he's going to do some consultancy work for us until a place on a suitable archaeological site comes up. He'll still be here for a few more weeks."
"That's nice." O'Neill said it dully, looking down at the floor. Here in body, perhaps, but not in soul. His team was broken. It had just had lost its heart.
"Don't, Jack, please…"
He looked up to see misery in Daniel's eyes, wretched at having to witness what his leaving was doing to O'Neill. He should let him off the hook. Try to pretend this wasn't ripping his guts out, to lose him like this, to something he couldn't fight. But he couldn't. Everything hurt too much. He hurt too much and he didn't agree with it. He would never agree with anything that wrecked his team and cost him his friend. He glared at him resentfully, getting to his feet. "Go, if you have to go. But don't ask me to be a sport about it. I don't think it's right for you or for us."
He walked out before the guilt overwhelmed the anger and he had to start thinking about how much he might be to blame for this, and worst of all, whether or not Daniel might not, in fact, be right.
Daniel wearily massaged the back of his neck. He was at the stage where he just wanted to be gone. He wanted to be a member of SG-1 again, he wanted to feel he had something to contribute again, and while he was like this, he was just walking wounded. He'd tried to explain it to Jack a couple of times now, but it was hopeless. It always was when he was saying something Jack didn't want to hear. He suspected that in his heart Jack might know exactly what he was talking about, understand more completely even than Sam or Teal'c – who had lent a far more sympathetic ear and told him they would support him whatever he chose to do even though they would miss him. But he hadn't seen that same 'click' of comprehension he had seen in their eyes that he had seen in Jack's as the man looked at him in Hammond's office. He didn't think anyone knew better than Jack just how deeply recent events had damaged him. The trouble was, he didn't think anyone was more determined than Jack was that if the right answer to any question turned out to be Daniel leaving SG-1 then Jack would always maintain it was the wrong question being asked in the first place.
In some ways he thought he was still recovering from Shifu's dream. Sometimes he still woke up streaming with sweat thinking it was true, that he'd done those terrible things. That Teal'c was dead because of him. A million Russians were dead because of him. He loved Shifu and no doubt he'd needed the dream to stop them all making a dreadful mistake, but thanks to four years on a first contact team, not to mention the small matter of his wife having been taken by the Goa'uld, he'd already had a lot of weirdness swimming around in his brain and Shifu's little life lesson really hadn't helped.
He knew it had been a mistake to agree to try to kill the System Lords. The thing that frightened him most was that he had agreed to it. He had been so caught up in the how and why, so pressured by the knowledge that there was apparently no one else who could do what the Tok'ra felt it was necessary to be done, that he'd agreed to something he had realized mid-mission he found too morally repugnant to continue with.
Sarah's arrival had been timely in many ways. It was seeing her, a friend who had once loved him, or her outer casing at any rate, and knowing she was going to die if he completed his mission, that had brought it home to him exactly what he had signed up for here. What he was proposing to do to. That whatever hell they might be trapped in, he was still going to be the one who killed all these hosts along with the Goa'uld within them. The realization he had been in denial of, in a kind of moral fog, that by killing the other System Lords all he and Jacob would be doing would be handing power to a Goa'uld apparently bigger and badder than the rest – the scenario which in the past they had risked their lives and their liberty and willingly dived into 'hell' to avert – had meant that to continue with the mission was something that would do far more harm than good. The undoubted evil of Anubis had saved him from having to explain to Jacob why he couldn't go on with something he knew he should never have agreed to in the first place. Sarah had provided the excuse, but she had never truly been the whole reason.
Then there was Chaka. He didn't know now if he had done the right thing. He only knew that to leave those sentient beings enslaved by other sentient beings simply because one 'side' happened to be homo sapiens and the other 'side' didn't would have been wrong. That didn't mean that what Chaka and the other Unas might have ended up doing might not turn out to be equally wrong.
And then there was this latest episode. He had lied to a creature that trusted him. Tried to betray someone who had the mind, if not the body, of a human child. He had told Reese he would protect her, and he hadn't. He had failed to tell her what he had already known, that he didn't have the authority to protect anyone. He was part of a system that didn't work the way he worked, didn't necessarily even share his values. It was the communicator versus the protector all over again. Jack's first priority was always to protect, Daniel's to communicate. They'd been through this before. Did they talk to the entity or did they kill it? They'd talked and Jack had ended up having to kill a teammate. As far as Daniel was concerned, that didn't mean they had been wrong to try to communicate in the first place. One never could be wrong to try to talk to another sentient life form rather than to arbitrarily terminate its existence just because it could be dangerous. He wasn't sure about Jack. Jack might see that as a failure on his part, an error of judgment that had almost cost Sam her life. Sometimes Jack did think the ends justified the means, although Daniel did also believe that Jack believed there were immutable moral certainties that had to be clung onto, even by the tips of your bleeding fingers, whatever else was happening. It was just that Jack's moral certainties weren't always the same as his, and he was more fluid in his application of them than Daniel had at least used to be.
But Jack's moral certainties weren't the issue here. Daniel had never expected the military to think the same way he did. Well, okay, perhaps in the early days he had, but he thought there had also been a certain amount of cynicism on his part. Maybourne, the NID, Kinsey, even occasionally the President himself, had all shocked him in their time with how much lower they were willing to sink than he'd expected or how wrong-headed they might be in their approach, but he had gone into this with a certain amount of wariness. The Stargate program had been the only means for him to search for his wife, and the Stargate program had also turned out to be the ultimate adventure for any student of lost people and lost languages. The Stargate was the conduit to civilizations that had ceased to be on this world, yet thrived beyond the stars, a means to hear dead languages spoken for the first time in millennia. The need to find Sha're had been so overwhelming that it had overridden his other concerns. Yes, he had argued for the cultural aspects of the civilizations they encountered to be explored as assiduously as the technological capacity, and they had given him what he wanted, but he'd realized very quickly that it was considered a much lesser part of their exploration. He was on a military field unit, searching for weapons to help in a battle he wasn't sure they could win without doing something that would make them as bad as the people they fought. Oma Desala had tried to show him the way that road could lead twice now, and he had heard her and believed he understood and was in agreement. But he had still found himself standing in a chamber committed to a mission that was making him act not as a communicator or an archaeologist, but as an assassin. And not even an assassin who risked his own life with the knife or the gun, as he had fought the Goa'uld in the past, but someone who used a chemical that could not hurt him but would kill their friends and enemies alike if it was ever to fall into the wrong hands. In his heart he still believed a weapon that made brave men act like cowards was a weapon that should never be used.
The Tok'ra had been desperate, he acknowledged that. Their strength had been waning for a while. The System Lords pursued them ruthlessly and had all but wiped them out. He didn't blame the Tok'ra for trying such a method to destroy the Goa'uld. He did, however, blame himself for ever agreeing to be a part of it. That was a line he should never have crossed and now he wasn't sure who he was any more, or what he believed in.
He believed in Hammond, and Jack, and Sam, and Teal'c, and their integrity, their loyalty, and their courage, but he couldn't expect their priorities to always be his priorities, their morality, his. They had different objectives, different responsibilities. He could not expect them to keep his moral clock for him. That was his job, and recently the inner compass that told him whether something was wrong or right, or should be questioned, didn't seem to have been functioning as well as in the past. It was as if there was so much white noise in his head, he couldn't hear his conscience any more, had lost himself somewhere inside himself, a missing part of who Daniel Jackson was trapped in the middle of a labyrinth whose center he had yet to find.
Daniel grimaced as he realized his coffee was cold again. He was spending a lot of time staring into space that would have been better spent finishing up the thousand and one tasks he needed to do before he handed over to someone else. Jack had first told him he'd better clear out his office then, if he was going AWOL on them, then told him quietly and without meeting his eye that of course they would keep his name on the door, keep this office for him, keep his possessions.
"I kept your stuff while you were on Abydos, didn't I? You're only going to Egypt this time. Right?"
He'd looked up to see those familiar brown eyes clouded with rejection and unhappiness, and the guilt had twisted inside him. "Egypt or somewhere like it," he'd said firmly. "Just for a few months, Jack. Just until I…" Even to Jack he couldn't say 'Just until I find myself again'. It sounded too Born Again. He wasn't waiting to be saved. He just needed to find the center of that labyrinth and everything would fall back into place.
He poured his coffee down the sink before reaching across to check his email. He had sent out feelers to every friend he had left from the past, asking for something quiet, preferably in Egypt. He didn't want to find the lost treasures of some long dead Pharaoh. Didn't need to discover Troy. He was happy to help investigate post holes, excavate an ancient rubbish tip. Help with some translation. Just somewhere out in the field with nothing to think about but the past of this world.
He'd hoped he would have heard back from John Nelson by now. As soon as Daniel sent out word that he was looking for a site to retreat to for a few months, Nelson had said he would make enquiries. He'd admitted to being in Egypt but he'd been uncharacteristically cagey when Daniel had asked him about the dig he was working on. As the days had gone by and he'd heard nothing, Daniel had begun to think there was no possibility of being able to join him. He'd picked up the phone to call his father's old friend and Daniel's sort-of godfather, Alexis Spiros, a dozen times and then thought of the explanations he'd have to make and withdrawn his hand again. He loved Alexis dearly and hoped one day he'd find the Dudael he was looking for, in reality anyway although not, he trusted, in the afterlife. To spend one's life searching for the last known resting place of a fallen angel was a dream he could relate to. Alexis was the man who had taught him Hebrew, told him the story of the Dead Sea Scrolls, read to him – probably at far too young an age – the story of the rebel angels named in the Book of Enoch, those winged footnotes in disputed Apocrypha. But Alexis was a curious man who still thought of Daniel as a boy who needed guidance. He would want a detailed explanation of where Daniel had been for the past few years and what exactly he had been doing. There would be a lecture about the papers Daniel hadn't published, the tenure he'd lost. Alexis would want assurances that Daniel had no intention of ever returning to work for the Air Force…. No, much as he cared for his godfather, Alexis was not the right man to approach in this instance. Mentally sorting through his list of past acquaintances, he once again came to the conclusion that Nelson was the only one who wouldn't make him tell him what he'd been doing since they'd last seen each other.
He knew he could probably find another dig someplace. He still had some of his old contacts, enough that he could find their phone numbers and ask a favor, and he could work with strangers if he had to. Usually one formed a good working relationship with other archaeologists very quickly, all bonded together through mutual interest and mutual enthusiasm. But when the ties that bound him to Jack, Sam, Teal'c and Hammond were so strong and so very difficult to stretch – breaking them would be an impossibility, but even stretching them was painful enough – it helped to have someone he had known as long as John Nelson and knew he could rely on to never ask awkward questions offering him a gentle bridge back to the world of ruins, dust, and dreams.
Nelson was a British archaeologist who now divided his time between New Hampshire and Egypt. A gentle scholar who, to the tangible bewilderment of almost everyone, including Nelson himself, had somehow married an heiress of great beauty and even greater determination. A kind man who had been there to shepherd him through one of his first professional digs. The fact it had ended in disaster had certainly been no fault of Nelson's. Daniel wished he could be as certain that no blame attached to himself…. Nelson wrote infrequently but at great length when he did take the trouble to communicate and was someone who had tactfully made it known in many of the darkest periods of Daniel's life that he was around, and money or a place to stay was always available if it was needed. His hair had been receding for as long as Daniel could remember, a thin hard-working man who could light up like a roman candle when he talked about a subject he loved. Someone who still had his enthusiasm and his innocence. Daniel knew that was somewhere inside himself still also, it had just become a little buried over the last few years.
Best of all, Nelson had never asked difficult questions. When he didn't hear from Daniel for over a year he hadn't worried or grown resentful. That was just the way things were. When Daniel got back in touch, that was the way things were too. When Daniel told him he couldn't tell him what he was working on, Nelson had accepted that as well. Other people wondered how quiet, unremarkable Nelson had got a wife as beautiful as Mary Silverstein, if he really deserved a woman that lovely, that funny, that clever, that good, and that rich, those four adorable children, that beautiful home in New England. Daniel wondered if Mary knew how lucky she was to have a husband so gentle, so quietly brilliant, and so kind, who loved her so unreservedly. If those four adorable children knew what a huge difference there was between having a father who was often abroad but who one could visit simply by stepping on a plane, and having one who was dead and buried and never coming home.
The modem dialed and then dialed again. Connected. He had mail. Daniel swore if it was another internal memo he would scream….
When he clicked on his inbox, Nelson's name leapt out at him and for the first time in days his heart actually lifted.
Many apologies for the delay in getting back to you. The truth is I couldn't tell you about the dig I was working on straight away. Firstly, I had to get clearance to talk about it to anyone. And secondly, I wasn't sure that you should be told. But then Mary reminded me that you're a big boy now and it's your decision to make.
Hold onto something but we're excavating the Labyrinth again. It wasn't destroyed as we thought. I don't know why not. By rights there should be nothing left, but Daniel…it's not even dented. We've been clearing debris for the past eight months and now we're able to get back in and it doesn't seem to be scratched. No one can explain it. The damn thing went up like Vesuvius. It should be just a big hole in the ground. The pyrotechnics expert they brought in says there's some mineral in the rock that encourages combustion but inhibits corrosion. I don't think he has a clue either. All he seems to do is tap it a lot and shake his head. I know this place has some terrible associations for you but it's also the proof you were looking for thirteen years ago of the cross-pollination of ancient cultures. I know you haven't published in a while and the secrecy agreement about this place still stands, but even if you can't tell the world about it, wouldn't it be something to know you were right? There are more gods from more diverse civilizations mentioned here than on any other ancient monument. It's like a Who's Who of defunct deities….
Daniel closed his eyes, trying and failing not to remember. He could recall the excitement when they'd prized back the stone blocking the entrance. Advancing down those stairs, ignoring the warnings from the diggers that it might not be stable, wide-eyed with the wonder of it, dumbstruck by the markings on each wall, glyphs, runes, pictograms, variants he'd never seen before, having to touch them to see if they were real. An Aladdin's cave of mysteries, which had been hidden here unseen by any human for thousands of years. They'd thought they'd found the first unlooted tomb since Howard Carter held up his candle to illuminate the 'wonderful things' interred with King Tut. Thought they'd found another resting place for the beloved sons of dead pharaohs. But it had been so much more. It had been everything. Beside it the Rosetta Stone was a pebble on the beach, the Dead Sea Scrolls a scrapbook of unfinished crossword puzzles.
…you would be a great asset, as I'm sure you know, and this is the biggest archaeological mystery on the planet as far as I'm concerned. Forget Mohenjo-Daro. Forget Atlantis. Forget the Sphinx. There is no temple or monument anywhere that has so many different texts in so many different languages. The sheer volume and complexity of these tablets makes the head spin. Variants of old myths I've never seen anywhere before. The missing parts of so many lost tales. And all those different forms of writing. You remember what it was like? A linguist's paradise…
Then there was heat – the blast throwing him into darkness. Then the quiet of the hospital bed in Cairo, sheets as crisp as paper unexpectedly heavy against his skin, a ceiling fan turning, a beige blur he woke up to before the rest came into focus. Nelson on a chair staring at him in disbelief, then shouting that he was awake, at last, he was awake. Mary crying over him, her tears in his hair. A doctor shining a light in his eyes. Daniel asking what had happened and everyone looking at everyone else before Nelson said, with undisguised hope: "You don't remember?"
He'd closed his eyes, trying to claw it back and just for a second something had shimmered in and out of focus, darkness, tunnels, dragged, everything distorted and smeared with his own terror, but through it all a voice talking in Sumerian, telling him the Babylonian myth of Inanna's descent into the Underworld, his own culpability in that crime. Cloth ripping, a knife blade gleaming. Paralyzing fear of what was to come next… Then Rajid wrapping that blanket around him, telling him he must hurry, he must run, back to the stars, out of the mouth of hell.
As he'd said the man's name he'd seen Nelson wince and heard Mary start crying again, and he'd known Rajid was dead. That brave old man who had known his parents and been one of his few remaining links to the past, was dead somehow because of him.
Later someone in a blue uniform with the name 'Thornton' on his chest, had shown him paper after paper in which he promised he would tell no one, publish nothing, sue no one, and told him that if he signed on the dotted line he wouldn't be blamed for the deaths or the destruction. As that was all he'd wanted, to escape what he couldn't remember, and leave behind his guilt, he'd signed and signed and signed….
It's really Alexis' dig, but he had to be airlifted to hospital after his appendix went bang. You know what that's like. He told me to tell you he blames you, he says if you wrote more often, it would never have happened. He'll be back in a few weeks but until he gets here I'm sort of in charge. He expects you to be here when he arrives so if you're planning to turn me down you'd better start working on your excuses.
There is another fly in the ointment. Given the Elamite texts, not to mention the other variants of cuneiform, I suppose it is inevitable that Darius is also here, despite everything, and as energetic, as arrogant, as absolute as ever. Apparently his medication is working although he is still convinced the US Air Force is the root of all evil. I find nodding politely makes the conversations pass so much faster than trying to reason with him these days. Mind you he has always seemed to charm the Egyptian Government into giving him anything he wants. I think they recognize that for all his faults he does care passionately about this country and this culture, and every artifact stolen from every tomb in the last four thousand years burrows under his skin like a weevil. I've seen him sit down and weep on reading accounts of objects being melted down, not because he cares about the gold but because that piece of the universal puzzle that is the past has been lost forever. That part of Darius is still intact and is still the one thing about him that reminds me of you.
Given what he did to you, I can well understand if you don't want to be here with him. I think he's safe. But I thought he was safe thirteen years ago. I really thought he was past all his old troubles although given how he came straight back to work after Anna's death I suppose we should have realized something was terribly wrong. He says he's been in therapy and knows who he is now but I don't think he remembers what he did. I know you always say you don't remember what he did either but given how close you came to… Well, anyway, he seems sane enough these days, and I hope he'll stay that way.
Mary sends you her love as always. She says you should visit more. Frankly, given that you are considerably younger and prettier than I am and even Mary is only mortal flesh and blood – although the closest thing to an angel in human form as I think you will agree – I'm very glad you stay away from Dover. What little hair I had the last time you saw me has now gone the way of the Sumerians so any 'slaphead' comments on our next meeting will be greeted with extreme hostility and resentment, especially if you still have that full head of hair I have been envying for the last ten years. Visited Rajid's grave today and it must be said Darius did him proud. It's really a tomb fit for the king of a man he was…
Daniel had to close his eyes as the grief swept through him, a chill in the blood. He'd hardly thought about Rajid for ten years. Or anything else that had happened back then. What was the point in thinking about events he didn't remember? In pining after a find that had been lost to him and everyone else in one night of horror, victim of a madman's delusions? But now he remembered Rajid fussing over him, worrying he'd been working too long, that he wasn't remembering to eat, and what would Daniel's mother say if she knew Rajid was letting him neglect himself like this…?
He was going to miss having people who worried about him. However annoying it sometimes was. He would miss that frown of concern from General Hammond, the way the man sometimes called him 'son' and Daniel felt warm all the way down to his toes. He was going to miss Sam being the over-anxious big sister, trying not to fuss, but unable to completely disguise her worry. He was going to miss the unbreachable safety that was Teal'c, and most of all he was going to miss maddening, impossible, overprotective Jack O'Neill. But if he stayed he might end up doing what he had done to Rajid: being the unwitting cause of their deaths. His judgment was faulty at the moment, instincts dulled by too many missions and not enough time to think. The same thing had happened in Egypt, when he'd allowed his reason to be blurred by a combination of curiosity, glamour and fear, by runes, and hieroglyphs, and the unquestioning certainties of someone who had turned out to be dangerously insane….
With an effort Daniel directed his attention back to Nelson's email.
…so, if you want to join us here there is a place for you and you must know how useful you would be in helping to unravel all the mysteries this place represents. You always liked a lot of questions to answer. Well, this labyrinth presents more questions than any man could find answers for in a lifetime. A linguist of your skill would be invaluable. But I can also understand if this is the last place on earth you want to be, and Darius the last man on earth you ever want to see again.
I just thought you should know this is the project I'm working on and this is the place I'd like you to be if you want to be here. If nothing else, I can promise you that if you come here you will be 'em kab hek-en-mess'.
Let me know either way.
Daniel couldn't help a bittersweet smile tugging at his mouth as he read that last phrase: em kab hek-en-mess – in the company of friends. He had that now. That was what he would be giving up in going to Egypt.
"So what did he do?"
Daniel jumped what he was sure had to be three feet straight up in the air. He hadn't heard anyone come in. Had been lost in the world Nelson represented, hearing his voice, imagining his expressions as he typed this out. He'd been halfway back to that world, would not have been surprised to look around and already find himself in Egypt.
He wheeled around to find Jack standing behind him looking unreachable, and felt momentarily terribly exposed. How long had Jack been there, reading over his shoulder? Had he seen the comments about Darius?
"What?" He stared at him in confusion, his heart pounding unnaturally fast as he recovered from the shock. He ran a hand through his hair. "Damnit, Jack. Don't you ever knock?"
Jack just looked at him unblinkingly. "No. What did he do?"
"This Darius character?"
Daniel tried not to flinch but he guessed his rigid immobility was probably just as much of a give away. He hadn't had the dreams in so many years even though for a while after it had happened they had pursued him relentlessly like angry furies. Darius's voice rising and falling, that majestic intonation, the way a lion would speak. No wonder at Cambridge they'd nicknamed him 'Aslan'. He looked like a prophet, a king. Richard Coeur de Lion with his mane of red gold hair. Daniel’s own voice, so unconvincing by comparison, trying to reason with someone incapable of understanding reason any more. Darius’s dragging him deeper into dizzying darkness…
No. That was where the memory stopped. That was the point past which it would never go. The maze lay ahead of him and at its center something too terrible to even contemplate. But he didn't remember what it was and he never would.
Daniel blinked his way back to the here and now, fighting the urge to shiver as the fragments of lost memories washed through him again. He'd almost managed to forget it had ever happened. So long ago it had practically happened to someone else.
"Nothing." He clicked off Nelson's email as he spoke so Jack couldn't read any more, pleased with how steady his voice sounded. "He didn't do anything."
He looked up to find Jack looking at him, not with the baffled anger he was expecting, but an unreadable face. Someone who wasn't baffled or angry or frustrated because he'd learned as much as he needed to know.
"Okay." Jack nodded. "See you around."
Then he was gone. As the door closed behind him, Daniel wrapped his arms around himself and shivered. So long ago, right? So long ago it didn't matter now. And he didn't remember it anyway. He doubted Darius did either. As the events of that night had been witnessed by only one person, and that one person was dead, that meant it had practically never happened. Maybe it was locked up somewhere in his subconscious. Maybe it had worn away like old lettering on sandstone. Either way it wasn't relevant because he wasn't that semi-culpable student any more. And Darius by all accounts was now more or less permanently sane.
He wondered if he would still find Darius unstable and brilliant and frightening and exciting. If the man's light still had the power to draw others to him, willing moths to his dangerous flame. If being near to him would be like standing near an active volcano and half wishing it would erupt, or if Darius on Librium was now just another middle-aged archaeology professor with yet another crackpot theory, looking for a book deal and a television tie-in.
Although he had no intention of ever telling Daniel, O'Neill did always knock on Carter's door. The difference being that if he wandered into Daniel's office to find the man adjusting his shorts it wouldn't bother either of them much, while if Carter was fiddling with her bra strap or something it would just be too disconcerting. Life was easier really if he saw Carter as genderless – not that easy with a beautiful young woman who looked and smelt as good as she did – someone who just was, in the way relatives were, a fixture who also happened to have a sex attached to them, but who wasn't defined by it. He'd tried to think of her like that in the past, then forgotten to for a while, a bad mistake that had made every one of his team, especially Carter, think the less of him and the less of her. It had certainly made him think a lot less of himself. Now Carter was back to being Carter again and he tried not to think about his period of thinking of her any other way. It was embarrassing to him and he suspected to her too. He was just relieved they could meet each other's eye again without cringing.
When she went on a date these days, he found himself less inclined to be jealous than he was to act in loco parentis, having to fight a tendency to want to know the guy's life history and particularly health records before being prepared to give his blessing. Daniel was only slightly less subtle than he was and although Carter was prepared to cut Daniel more slack than she was him, it wasn't that long since she'd given them that 'You're not my father, sir, and you're not my brother, Daniel, and if I want to date anyone I like I will do' lecture. Admittedly that had been in response to the lecture they'd given her after she'd insisted on shipping out on their cook-out to spend a weekend with a guy who in their defense had looked exactly like a Hells Angel.
Given the way guys had been dropping like flies around Carter and how emotionally raw it had left her, he and Daniel had felt they were entitled to be a little concerned. Or 'interfering' as Teal'c had called it when he'd told them that in his opinion to comment on the lawless appearance of the guy who turned up at O'Neill's house to take Carter away for the weekend would 'not be wise'.
They'd disagreed, and O'Neill had firmly beckoned Carter into his kitchen for a little talk with him and Daniel out of earshot of the tattooed and bearded gorilla on the motorbike.
Daniel had made a pretty good case for the dangers of rebound dating while still in the midst of the grieving process based on his own experiences. While O'Neill considered his own little interjection on the necessity of not getting involved with people with criminal records because of the negative impact it could have one one's promotion hopes in the Armed Forces had actually been delivered with no small degree of tact.
O'Neill had told himself afterwards that he thought the ensuing exchange was the proof that not only were he and Carter so over one another, but they had also managed to become better friends as a consequence. He figured only a friend would have bawled him out the way Carter had just done. When he stopped wincing from that rather unwarranted reminder about who the two members of SG-1 were who'd slept with the natives on missions and how it wasn't her or Teal'c, he'd probably be glad they'd managed to clear the air with that little chat. Well, that attempt at a little chat which had turned into Carter giving them the scary harpy treatment while he and Daniel flinched, tried to hide behind each other, and hoped she didn't head for the cutlery drawer.
They'd trailed after her back into his yard, chastened and subdued, to be told that quite apart from the fact they had no right to interfere in her private life whatsoever, the man on the motorbike was not in fact a Hell's Angels or a graduate of San Quentin. At which point, Teal'c looking very smug and superior, had observed that Doctor Harrison was ready to leave any time she was, Major Carter.
How were they supposed to know the guy was an astrophysicist who specialized in quantum theory? It hadn't said that anywhere on his Harley Davidson. Personally O'Neill thought astrophysicists had an obligation to look like astrophysicists and not like people called Hammer Boy Billy from Arkansas, but when he'd pointed that out, Carter had looked him and Daniel up and down in a very disconcerting way and said, "And how exactly do you think you two look?"
At the time they'd been sprawled defensively in lawn chairs in O'Neill's yard, nerve-frazzled from her lecture and needing to console themselves with beer. He'd been wearing jeans and a t-shirt and Daniel had been wearing a pair of cut offs and nothing else while his shirt dried after an accident with the beer cans O'Neill had accidentally shaken up not on purpose at all before handing them to Daniel to open. He'd got that there was probably a point Carter was making but he still wasn't sure exactly what it was. He could see that with his all over tan from that last mission to the Land of Light promoting cultural whatever it was, and endless length of leg which the somewhat skimpy nature of his cut-offs was accentuating, Daniel was looking a tad unscholarly to the uninformed observer, but Daniel had no idea how those clothes made him look and O'Neill sure as hell wasn't going to be the one to break it to him, and anyway Carter's sundress hadn't been exactly all-concealing either so she could hardly talk. And damnit, O'Neill was proud of the fact he could still get into the same jeans he'd been wearing ten years before and he didn't care if they were a little on the snug side.
He'd settled for a plaintive, "I'm off duty!"
Daniel had looked down at himself and said even more plaintively, "All archaeologists look like this."
Which had at least restored Carter's good humor. As she'd kissed Daniel on the top of the head in farewell she'd said dryly: "Daniel, if all archaeologists look the way you do right now, no sophomore without a seeing eye dog would ever major in anything else." Then she'd hugged Teal'c goodbye, pulled on a crash helmet, climbed on to the back of the Harley Davidson of the Quantum Theory Hells Angel and taken off in a roar of diesel.
So, yes, he definitely thought he and Carter were better friends these days than ever before, and the fact she felt comfortable enough with him these days to bring up every disastrous sexual encounter he'd had since she'd known him was probably a…bonding thing.
But still, wandering into her office to find her wearing only her underwear for some arcane feminine reason was not something to which he wanted to be exposed. So when he reached Carter's office, he knocked, said her name, gave her the grace of one second precisely to tell him not to come in if she didn't want him to, and then entered.
She was studying her computer screen with the kind of rapt attention Daniel usually reserved for artifacts. She was also muttering in a way disconcertingly similar to Daniel's and making rapid notes on a piece of paper.
"How can they keep things like this from…?"
At the sound of her voice she also did the guilty start he'd just witnessed from Daniel and made an ineffectual effort to block the screen with her body by swiveling around in her chair.
He gave her a long level look. "Carter…?"
She looked like a kid who'd been caught with her hand in the cookie jar and there was a definite note of resignation in her: "Sir?"
He decided to dispense with asking for an explanation and just leant over her shoulder to read what was on the screen. "You been surfing porn sites, Major?"
She rolled her eyes. "Yes, Colonel. I've been watching those all-male, all naked, Greco-Roman wrestling bouts again."
He stared at the graphs and tables she had been examining, and then looked at her sideways. "Well, you seem to have accidentally hacked into Area 51 while you were doing it."
"Oops." As he raised an eyebrow interrogatively she looked defensive. "They won't answer my requests to share data and there's no reason for them not to. We're working on the same project. I'm having to waste time repeating experiments they've already carried out…"
He held up his hands in surrender. "You don't need to yell at me about it."
"It's a waste of my time and the SGC's money for me to replicate work that's already been done when I can just…"
"Illegally obtain their data?" he prompted.
She darted him a look, trying to work out how disapproving he was, but he could do deadpan, and, unlike Daniel, she didn't know him well enough to read his mind. Which was probably just as well on occasion. "Well… Sometimes I also think we need to make sure they're not…"
"Planning anything else that might get one of us killed?"
Relief flickered across her face. "Exactly."
He shrugged. "I have no problem with that. Especially as I don't know about it. Because I never saw this and we never had this conversation."
She nodded. "Understood."
He tapped her monitor. "If you can hack into Area 51, I figure you can find out some information for me."
"Probably. What do you want to know?"
"It's about an archaeologist called Darius something, specializes in cuneiform. He was on a dig with Daniel about thirteen years ago someplace in Egypt. Also a guy called John Nelson. Also someone called…" Noticing her lack of activity, he looked at her in exasperation. "Why aren't you writing this down?"
Carter sat back in her chair and folded her arms. "Sir, can I speak frankly?"
"Daniel's made his decision and I think we should respect it. He feels he needs some time away from the SGC."
He glared at her. "So?"
She returned his gaze defiantly. "Well, with the greatest respect, sir, I'm not prepared to spy on him and I don't think you should either. Professional paranoia might be appropriate when dealing with NID, but these people are archaeologists. They're no danger to him and there's no reason for us to be going behind his back trespassing into his private life or anyone else's."
He picked up a pen from her desk. "Are you done?"
He pulled her notepad over and wrote down the details as he said them aloud. "Darius Someone, an archaeologist who specializes in cuneiform. John Nelson, another archaeologist. Currently working on some site in Egypt. Both of them worked with Daniel on the same dig which as far as I can make out isn't in Daniel's personnel file."
"Sir, did you hear anything I just said?"
"Carter, I have a good reason for asking for these checks."
She shook her head. "I'm sorry, sir, it's not enough. You're asking me to go behind Daniel's back and check up on his friends and I won't do it."
He drew a circle around the word 'Darius’s and stabbed it with his pen. "Thirteen years ago this guy did something which put Daniel in hospital, apparently for quite a long time. This guy is going to be on the dig that Daniel is going to be flying out to on Monday. I need to know that history isn't going to repeat itself or I would be failing in my duties as Daniel's CO and as his friend."
Indecision washed across her face, but when he saw the way her fingers were already reaching for the keyboard he knew he'd won her over. "Hospital?" she echoed faintly.
"For a 'long time' apparently."
"Specializes in cuneiform. On a dig with Daniel and this Nelson guy in Egypt thirteen years ago."
She was already typing. Over her shoulder she said, "I'll get right on it."
He patted her on the shoulder. "I knew I could count on you, Carter." When he left the room she was already calling up pictures and text. He just hoped she came up with something before Daniel's flight left for Egypt.
"Some puzzles for you to start solving, Dan. These are just some of the inscriptions that have got us all stumped. Alexis is convinced that the answer to the last resting place of Azazel lies in Chamber KL6 so he told me to tell you to start there… But as he's in Cairo and I'm the one emailing you I'm sure you'll agree with me that the half-obliterated inscription under the glyphs for Nekheny is much more interesting…."
Daniel unzipped the second batch of pictures Nelson had emailed him from the site. He had to skate on the surface of his memories not to find himself shuddering, flinching from some unremembered nightmare, but he was also filled with excitement, wanting another glimpse into the buried past, those lost texts revived and just waiting to be revealed. His curiosity had always been so much stronger than his fear. Even now, when a part of his subconscious was screaming at him that there was horror in that place, that danger awaited him there, he couldn't help the old fascination taking hold of him again. There had been so much magic in those low-ceilinged corridors: hieroglyphs, runes, cuneiform, pictographs, those worn fragments of Sumerian, Akkadian, Ugaritic, Proto-Canaanite, and Ancient Egyptian. The first six chambers they'd entered had contained inscriptions in five different ancient languages, and, for all the red flag frantically being waved at him by his sense of self-preservation, he was eager to see what Nelson had sent him.
He must have made the first important step into reclaiming his past, untainted by his present, to rediscovering pure archaeology as a search for the history of the lost civilizations of this world, because it was a shock on a par with a bucket of ice water being emptied down the back of his neck, to click on that third picture from Nelson and find himself staring at what were unmistakably Goa'uld symbols.
Clicking off the picture as though it was on fire, he snatched his hand away from the mouse. For an insane second he thought about pretending he hadn't seen it, that he didn't know. No one on the dig would be able to translate them, after all. Then five years of being a part of the SGC reasserted itself too strongly to ignore. He might be poised on the brink of returning to his old life as an archaeologist but at the moment he was still technically a member of this facility, and had been fighting this battle too long to just walk past.
The only way to win is to deny it battle….
Yes, but this wasn't just denying the battle, this was denying information to his friends which might be useful to them. What if he told no one, flew to Egypt, and the next day Sam, Teal'c or Jack were killed off world because he had failed to provide them with some information that might have saved them? What if there was information in the Labyrinth of Nekheny that might be recorded nowhere else which could help them in their battle against the Goa'uld?
He groaned inwardly. He wanted to leave this behind and become an Egyptologist again. But he couldn't because the Goa'uld hadn't just messed up his own life, they had also messed up the history of his whole world. And he was now not only an archaeologist but also someone committed to the fight against them, even if he did occasionally need a vacation from it. He couldn't stop being an unwilling foot soldier in that war even if he left the SGC.
Daniel clicked on the picture again and looked at the inscription. Then he sighed, printed it out, and walked slowly towards General Hammond's office.
As he knocked and entered Hammond's office, Daniel saw Hammond slowly replacing the phone. The older man looked far from happy, and when Daniel darted a glance to his left there was Jack with that buttoned-down look on his face, which also told him better than an internal memo that everything in the garden was far from lovely.
"Sit down, Doctor Jackson." There was gentle regret and more than a hint of apology in Hammond's face.
Looking at the general, Daniel felt another painful twinge of guilt. It was hurting Hammond to let him leave this place, he knew that. The guilt was made worse because the man had tried so very hard to accommodate him and, after listening to his initial explanation of why he felt it necessary to go, hadn't tried to reason him out of it, or offer a single word of reproach, he'd just done all he could to give him what he wanted.
Daniel sat down, still studying Hammond's face. "Is there a problem?"
"Things just got a little complicated." Jack sounded angry. The way he always did when he couldn't vent where he wanted to vent and the frustration was building up. He'd looked and sounded just like that when he'd left Daniel crying on the floor of the 'gateroom nursing his broken arm beside the body of the dead Reese.
"Because of the Goa'uld inscription?" Daniel looked between them. He knew Jack was looking for an excuse to stop him leaving, but he wasn't going to let this be it. "Why? We knew the Goa'uld used to be on this world. It's not so surprising we found some of their script on an ancient monument but that doesn't mean…"
"Because of the Air Force," Hammond admitted with a sigh.
Daniel blinked at him in confusion. "What?"
Jack shrugged, the anger still coming off him in waves. "Right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing kind of thing."
Daniel shook his head. "What?"
Hammond leant forward. "Doctor Jackson, it appears that the original excavation of this site was carried out under the supervision of the United States Air Force. As you know we have a good relationship with the Egyptian Government…"
He had a sudden flashback to Darius sitting in front of the campfire, swigging from a bottle of Coke heavily laced with whiskey, saying "Have you ever had resources like this available on a dig? All the equipment we need? All the time we need? And in return all we have to do is sell our souls to the US military…"
Nelson saying, "What does it matter who's funding it? We're not going to be uncovering any five thousand year old nuclear weapons the Air Force can use anyway. I seriously doubt there is anything in the labyrinth that could have any possible military use so, as that's the case, I'm all for some money that would otherwise be going to help the US Government kill people being used to further our knowledge of Predynastic Egyptian history…."
Daniel hadn't been sure where he stood on the matter but he was inclined to agree with Nelson. What did it matter where the money came from when by being used for archaeology it couldn't possibly end up having any military application? But, of course, if the USAF had known about the Goa'uld and their technology and believed the Labyrinth to have some connection to both then their funding made sense. Except they couldn't have known about the System Lords back then because no human being on Earth had known about the Goa'uld until he and Jack had stepped through the 'gate which took them to Abydos and first looked into the glowing eyes of Ra.
Daniel put a hand up to his head. "There were Goa'uld hieroglyphs on the outside of the doors. They were the first thing we saw when the coverstone was lifted. But how did the US Air Force…?"
"Naquada." Hammond sighed. "It seems that a part of the structure was exposed and preliminary mineral tests by the Egyptian Government revealed a previously unknown element. The assumption in their labs was that the stone from which the sample was taken could not be manmade after all but must be part of a meteorite. They asked for assistance from NASA on identifying the element…."
He knew enough about how these things worked now to imagine the chain of events. Everything NASA did was probably monitored by people who were aware of the SGC. SGC or at least NID scientists would have jumped on that mineral analysis in an instant as soon as they realized there was another structure in Egypt that matched the composition of the Stargate. Then the negotiations would begin. Money and weapons and no doubt considerable concessions of a diplomatic nature, and at the end of it the USAF had bought themselves the right to an archaeological dig on Egyptian soil which Egyptian archaeologists had already assessed and written off as a hoax site anyway.
Hammond nodded as if he were also a little ashamed of the way these things were done. "At the time we were unaware of the existence of the Goa'uld. We were only aware of the fact that the Stargate was constructed from an entirely new element and that this archaeological find was made from the same material. Now, of course, our Government considers it of even more vital importance that the dig takes place under the aegis of the United States Air Force."
So much for his great escape. His way back to archaeology was turning into another mission for the SGC. "I guess there's no such thing as a get out of Cheyenne Mountain free card."
"Hey, we didn't know."
Jack's vehemence made him start a little. He looked at him in surprise and saw that Jack was bubbling with suppressed anger.
"I never thought you did."
"There's nothing on your personnel file about this dig – which was my first clue something was a little strange about it. Hammond and I had no idea it wasn't kosher until you brought in those pictures and we did some checking."
Hammond nodded. "I'm still asking questions, but the evidence so far suggests the NID funded and monitored the previous excavation as well as this one. However, on the previous occasion the details of that excavation were never passed onto this facility."
The officer who had made him sign all those papers had seemed enormous to him back then, so military it was impossible to see the human-being underneath, just a shiny blue uniform, and the wings on his breast, those colored markings that were something to do with campaigns fought and probably won in someone else's backyard. "A man called Thornton from the US Air Force came to see me in the hospital. I thought it was because I was an American citizen or because the explosives might have come from a military installation."
Hammond continued evenly, "I think we should look on this as a good thing. It means our government has been on top of the situation from the start. Any information pertaining to the Stargate that might emerge as a result of this excavation will now come directly to this facility as well as to Area 51 and you will be able to take your sabbatical from Cheyenne Mountain on full pay as you will undoubtedly be assisting in the Stargate program."
No, it meant he wasn't taking a sabbatical at all. He was just being sent on another mission for the SGC. And getting the fun of having to return to archaeology under what were effectively false pretenses. What's more he didn't get to share the truth of his findings with the other members of his profession. Whoopee-doo.
"Nelson and the others know this is an Air Force sponsored gig, Daniel."
He'd forgotten Jack's ability to read his mind. He turned to see the man looking at him in a mixture of disapproval and pleading for him not to be difficult. But he was feeling difficult right now. He understood how Reese had felt, a five year old's mind trapped in an adult's body. Right now he knew exactly how it felt to want to throw someone at a wall.
Hammond nodded. "Yes. I presume Nelson would have told you on your arrival. This will save him having to break the news to you."
"Super." Daniel didn't even try to pretend that wasn't a false smile. This wasn't what he wanted in any way but it was also unavoidable. How could he not go when he was so obviously the best, if not the only, man for this job? Who else connected to the Stargate program could get a legitimate invitation to this dig that would raise no suspicions whatsoever? Who else could liaise with other archaeologists while ensuring NID didn't get to grab some new and terrifying weapon without having to tell anyone else about it?
"We don't like this any more than you do." Jack was still glaring at him as if it was somehow his fault, but, looking behind the surface anger, Daniel saw the anxiety and frustration there. The way Jack looked when Daniel was getting hurt by some means that he felt was avoidable.
Hammond shuffled some papers on his desk, not meeting Daniel's eye as he added, "Given the circumstances, I feel it would be in everyone's interests if there was a visible representative of the US Air Force on the site to keep an eye on things and to ensure that both the archaeologists and the NID share anything they learn with this facility."
And because last time I worked on this dig I ended up in a coma, and you know all about that now. You probably know more about it than I do, and even if you don't yet I just bet you'll find some means to uncover it…. It was an immediate consolation to realize that this time Hammond could pull every string and call in every favor he liked, but there was no way for him to uncover information that was locked in the inaccessible regions of Daniel's psyche.
Daniel turned his head to look at Jack. "You're going to be coming with me." It wasn't a question.
Jack returned his gaze. "Can you think of anyone better?"
And if he was honest he couldn't. He remembered the Air Force officer with the shiny buttons and the unreadable face behind his mirrored sunglasses having the kind of personality that paralyzed opposition, while Darius was of the same ilk. It was going to take someone with the hide of a rhinoceros and the determination of a bulldozer to make sure this project was kept secret and the information was funneled to the right people through the right channels. But that didn't alter the fact Jack had been looking for a way to either stop him going or to muscle in on this trip from the start and this had provided him with exactly the 'in' he was looking for. So, although Daniel might have to put up with it that didn't mean he was going to pretend to be happy about it.
Daniel got to his feet. "No I can't. I can see exactly why you're the best man for this job." He looked Jack in the eye. "But that doesn't mean I have to like it."
The smile Jack gave him was downright facetious but there was vulnerability behind the unreachable exterior. Jack had never taken rejection well. "What, you don't want my company?"
Daniel didn't want to hurt him but he wasn't going to lie. "No, Jack. Just this once, I don't. I want to get the hell away from you, from the SGC, and from the Goa'uld."
"Well, I want to go fishing, not babysitting grave-robbers in Egypt. So I guess no one's getting what he wants this time out." Despite the brittle defiance, there was still a flicker of hurt in those brown eyes.
Daniel looked across at Hammond, feeling sick inside as he realized he was never going to escape this damned life however hard he tried, and now he was going to have to face his old demons with Jack having a ringside seat. "Can I go, sir? If we're leaving tomorrow morning I've got a lot to get ready."
"Of course, son." Hammond's eyes were full of concern for him. Daniel knew the general was torn between calling him back and telling him he didn't have to do this, and knowing that Daniel was the best man for this job. Just as Jack was the best man to make sure he carried out that job. It just wasn't a job he wanted to do right now.
"I'll pick you up at six-thirty a.m. Make sure you're packed and ready to go." Jack's shout followed him out into the hallway but he didn't acknowledge it, just closing Hammond's door behind him, taking extra care to shut it carefully because the urge to slam it was so strong. The frustrated anger made him want to weep all over again and his arm began to throb in its sling just to remind how much life sucked. Even knowing it was unfair couldn't stop his resentment that somehow Jack had managed to hijack his escape plan. All this time and effort to get away from everything that Jack represented only to have Jack assigned to come along and hold his hand. Whether it was Jack's fault or not, Jack had got what he wanted, and Daniel very emphatically hadn't. Right now that seemed like reason enough to not like Jack very much.
It was a long flight from Colorado Springs to Cairo. Unnecessarily long in O'Neill's opinion although not as mind-numbingly nightmarish as Daniel had wanted in the first place. Daniel had been adamant that he wanted to travel to Egypt like a 'normal person'. O'Neill had pointed out that 'normal people' had to take a three hour flight from Colorado Springs to St Louis, before taking a three hour flight to JFK where they had the sheer joy of a six hour wait before the thrill of an eighteen hour flight to Cairo, before another four hour wait before catching a flight to Aswan in the hope that they might by then still have retained enough will to live to hope that someone had arrived to pick them up to take them to the middle of nowhere dig they were heading for. Whereupon Daniel had got seriously pissy with him and yelled that he didn't care, that was how he wanted to do it.
After O'Neill had pointed out, with what patience he had left, that this was nuts and his knees couldn't take all that hanging around even if Daniel's skinny little ass could, Daniel had said that no one was forcing him to come, so there. Well, he hadn't actually said 'so there' but O'Neill had been pretty sure he'd added it mentally. Rebelling internally but knowing it was pointless arguing with Daniel when he was like this, he'd handed over the travel arrangements to Hammond, mentioning Daniel's request that it should be as non-USAF as possible and that he thought Daniel deserved first class accommodation in whatever piece of crap domestic airplane they ended up flying but that if he had to spend more than two hours waiting for a flight to anywhere he was going to kill someone, probably Daniel.
Hammond had managed a tactful compromise, which still meant they'd had to spend eighteen hours on a tourist flight to Cairo, but had cut through the pissing about getting them from Colorado to JFK. An Air Force jet had flown them into the airport an hour before departure and they'd settled themselves into the first class department with minutes to spare.
He'd hoped Daniel might be feeling a little sheepish about his earlier outburst, but if he was grateful to have been spared all that hanging around in airports he was hiding it well and looked downright mutinous when shepherded onto the jet at Colorado Springs, snatching his bag away from O'Neill when he tried to carry it for him to spare his still recovering wrist. The way Daniel winced told O'Neill better than any rebuke from him that Daniel's action had been seriously dumb, but he still hung onto his bag like grim death, utterly refusing to allow O'Neill to put it in the overhead locker for him, whereupon O'Neill had thrown in the towel, let him do what was probably permanent injury to his wrist bone if that was what he wanted, and asked the flight attendant for the biggest whiskey available.
The eighteen-hour flight to Cairo was not made any shorter by the way he and Daniel were being so polite to one another. It felt…odd to be unwanted by Daniel. It wasn't a feeling he was used to. Taken for granted, yes, resented, no. He did sympathize. Daniel had been all psyched up to get away from them for a while. He'd been planning to miss them and send them postcards, to worry about them fighting the Goa'uld without him…and then to gradually forget about them. Not completely, of course, but just the way one did on a vacation. The ordinary life receded, problems which had seemed so pressing back home just faded into the distance. That was why people went away, to escape from all that everyday stuff. At some point O'Neill had become part of the everyday stuff that Daniel needed to escape from, and here he was tagging along for the ride like an unpaid electricity bill or a leaking roof tile insisting on sunning itself on the beach right next to him.
So perhaps it was no wonder they had sat beside each other on the plane, politely passing menus back and forth, politely moving their legs aside so the other one could get out to use the bathroom, politely apologizing if they encroached upon each other's space. That was why O'Neill had insisted they were flown first class. He felt the USAF could afford it and he also felt Daniel needed to have particularly gentle handling on this trip. He was wounded, resentful, unhappy, and probably more than a little nervous about going back to a place that had damned near killed him on the last trip out. O'Neill was also going to be invading Daniel's world in a place where Daniel presumably felt most vulnerable, a walking piece of culture shock. All things about which O'Neill had been forced to remind himself with some emphasis several times on the flight over when Daniel was being so annoyingly distant to him and taking such care that even their elbows shouldn't accidentally touch.
Daniel kept himself absorbed reading through the mass of paperwork Nelson had sent him. Paperwork he conspicuously hadn't offered to have copied for O'Neill even though this was now an official SGC mission. O'Neill retaliated by reading his official briefing documents with grim determination, even though Daniel could probably have told him everything that was in them far more palatably and in half the time.
Carter hadn't been able to find out much about Darius Golding or the other archaeologists on the dig as yet, except the information that was readily available about his professional life. O'Neill had read the hastily compiled dossier she'd given him on Daniel's work colleagues on the plane only when Daniel was asleep. Although it wasn't something he necessarily wanted Daniel to know, part of being a team leader did mean being able to absorb all relevant information in a short a time as possible. So, yes, he read the mission briefings. He was just selective about the parts of them he read, and just as he knew damned well Daniel skipped everything relating to the topography of the planet and what this might mean from a military perspective, he tended to junk the science or the anthropological aspects which he didn't need to know and Carter or Daniel could give him the short version of later. Even Sherlock Holmes had been careful not to fill his mind up with information he didn't need so as to leave more room for the information he did and O'Neill felt he was just following the great man's example.
This time, however, even though Daniel had the wherewithal to give him a wonderfully in-depth briefing on all his work colleagues, he hadn't asked for it. He had a feeling Daniel's version was going to leave too much out, especially all the information that O'Neill most wanted to know. So he soldiered through it on his own, with the net result that he now knew that the British guy, John Nelson, was an expert on something called the Early Dynastic Period, while Darius Golding, the American, was a world expert on all variants of cuneiform. A Norwegian archaeologist called Inga Stark specialized in runes. Sanjay Zaheer was an expert on Indian mythology, and Hélène Bouldieu was a French-Canadian Egyptologist. Alexis Spiros, the Greek specialist on Ancient Hebrew and author of some book on the 'Atlas of the Apocrypha' which had sent O'Neill into a coma within the first two paragraphs, had been taken ill with acute intestinal problems and had to be flown to Cairo for an emergency operation. Suspicious as he was of the NID, even O'Neill wasn't didn't believe they had spiked some poor old grave robber's soup with ground up leopard whiskers or something just to leave room on the dig for one of the few archaeologists in the world who knew how to translate even more dead languages than Spiros. But it wasn't because he didn't think NID were capable of casually injuring someone just to further their own ends, but because he knew damned well no one from the NID had been telling him to put a bullet in that robot, and that was the main reason why Daniel was available for this dig.
What Carter had managed to come up with on Darius Golding so far was only the inquest report on his wife's death, papers published, lectures given, letters in archaeological periodicals printed, and a long list of professional qualifications, but O'Neill had brought along his laptop and intended to be sending her regular reminders until she got him the info he'd asked for. He also asked Hammond to pull some strings, pointing out that what might previously have been considered an unwarranted intrusion into Daniel's personal life, was now essential information that might be of vital importance in a mission to recover possible Goa'uld technology. The fact that as Daniel's friend it was just plain driving him nuts not to know how Daniel had ended up in hospital and if it was likely to happen again was neither here nor there.
When he looked at a photograph of Golding from some dig near Iraq in the eighties, the man couldn't have looked saner. He was imposing-looking, even magnificent in the way he stood there bare-chested in the sunlight, biceps and pectorals gleaming, holding up an inscribed slate in triumph, like Moses with the Ten Commandments. His head was thrown back, mane of red-gold hair rippling around his shoulders, a fine dusting of sand in his beard, chest hair, and on his sweat-sheened skin. Six foot four according to his file, and famous for being able to move great blocks of stone by himself. The native workers apparently revered him almost as a god. After their recent experience with K'tano, O'Neill wasn't in the mood to be impressed by that, it just rang his warning bells. But, looking at Golding, he could see not a single trace of insanity on his face, just the kind of self-confidence that bordered upon arrogance. Someone who knew his stuff and didn't suffer fools gladly, O'Neill would have said from a first glance, and he could relate to that. There was nothing there to suggest this was a man who would go frighteningly loco after the death of his wife, only that the force of his personality might be overwhelming in a small room. Golding didn't look like a bad guy, he had to admit. If anything he looked all too much like a hero. It was only when O'Neill thought about Daniel as he must have been thirteen years ago, of how vulnerable he must have been back then, physically and emotionally, how innocent and how brilliant, how knowledgeable about everything old and dusty and decayed, and how ignorant about some of the darker parts of human nature that he felt a stir of misgiving.
He remembered the long-haired Daniel of Abydos stumbling into that Goa'uld-blasted room in search of a wife who had ended up being lost forever, saying "This is all my fault…" Then he took off almost a decade of experience. Then he looked back into the eyes of a Golding who was gazing straight into the camera, holding that inscription triumphantly aloft and realized who it was that Golding reminded him of: Hercules, the demi-god of mythology. Not a bad guy, maybe, but not someone he would have handed a twenty-three year old Daniel over to for safe-keeping either.
Daniel had told Teal'c the story of Hercules one night around the campfire on some distant world, explaining all the reasons why the show Teal'c had apparently watched that night was wrong, wrong, wrong in so many of its depictions of the mythological superhero. O'Neill had been tuning a lot of it out but he did remember that despite Hercules' fifty sons, according to Daniel, Hercules and Iolaus were definitely a lot more than good friends, and Hercules had apparently spent most of his life doing good-looking young men and then mourning their passing when they were abducted by watery tarts or whatever. The other thing which had stuck vividly in his mind was Daniel telling Teal'c that Hercules had killed his own wife and sons in a fit of madness, yet he was still considered one of the good guys despite being responsible for the death of his own children. He and Daniel had exchanged a glance across the sparking fire and Daniel had faltered and changed the subject. Carter had chipped in complaining that some woman out of mythology who'd done the same thing was always regarded as a villain, but Hercules was still regarded as a hero and why was that…? O'Neill had gone for a walk around the moonlit perimeter, trying to blot out the echo of that gunshot and all the time aware of Daniel watching him with sorrowful and guilty eyes.
Wincing at the memory, O'Neill shoved the photograph of Golding back into the folder and pushed it into his briefcase. He wasn't a briefcase kind of guy, too close to using bullet-points for his comfort, but this trip out he was the one the Air Force had wanted carrying a briefcase. Looking at Golding's physique he just hoped that by the end of the trip he wasn't wishing that he were carrying a P90 instead.
As they touched down in Cairo, O'Neill risked a look at Daniel's pale, closed-off face and realized that whether Daniel intended it or not, he was going to end up feeling very excluded on this trip. O'Neill was someone Daniel didn't want to be with right now, and he wasn't going to be in the mood to include an Air Force colonel, even one he had literally been through hell with, in archaeological conversations when he was already resentful of being effectively turned into an Air Force spy. He had problems of his own to do with coming back to this place, and these people, which, judging by the way his knuckles were white on his luggage handles, were taking up most of his thoughts. O'Neill was more unwanted by Daniel on this trip than he had ever been before, and even though he'd thought he was prepared for it, O'Neill had to admit, it really hurt.
They arrived in Cairo at four-thirty in the afternoon. He'd thought Daniel might relax when he was back in his beloved Egypt but he just seemed more tense and quiet. So much so that it wasn't really an effort to overlook his annoying behavior. It stung a little that Daniel didn't want him here, certainly, but this wasn't Daniel 'acting out', Daniel was going into a situation that seemed to be jangling every nerve in his body and he didn't want any witnesses to it. O'Neill wished that Daniel could have found his presence comforting, but for some reasons O'Neill wasn't too sure about, O'Neill being with him was apparently just making everything worse.
He suggested they had a quick look around the city while they killed the four hours before their EgyptAir flight left for Aswan, but Daniel shook his head. "You go if you want to."
Despite the 'go away and leave me alone' body language Daniel kept consciously or unconsciously throwing in his direction, O'Neill knew him too well to be able to ignore the scared, help me, help me, body language behind it, so he stuck around, dozing fitfully in an uncomfortable airport chair, while trying to keep an eye on Daniel without appearing to do so.
The EgyptAir plane was small and felt disconcertingly light as the wind buffeted across the sands but at least this was almost the final leg of this journey from hell and both he and his knees were grateful for that. He knew that he was passing over places of great mystery and significance to Daniel. The Memphis that had nothing to do with Elvis. The Fayyum Daniel was prone to bang on about incessantly if not stopped or distracted. Thebes. Karnak and Luxor. The Valley of the Kings. They were all around here somewhere. Daniel could probably have spent a happy lifetime digging around in these old ruins now invisible in the darkness beneath them, their mournful silence drowned out by the engine noise of the plane, but the Goa'uld had found him out. He'd stumbled on the clues they'd left which other lesser archaeologists hadn't seen, and been drawn from one Abydos to another by his own curiosity and the apparently inexorable will of destiny. For all they knew the coverstone that had killed Daniel's parents had been carved to honor some departed Goa'uld. No wonder he felt he was never going to escape from the System Lords. Some days it must seem to Daniel that his life had been as distorted and disfigured by their influence as Teal'c's.
Daniel had the window seat but there was nothing to see out there in the blackness. All the same he kept his face pressed to the glass, gazing out into the nothingness with quiet desperation, as if he was searching for something he knew he was never going to find. O'Neill found it hurt to look at him, so turned away and studied the other occupants of the plane instead. Even feeling over-sized, over-fed and decidedly foreign was better than seeing that look in Daniel's eyes and feeling for the first time in a very long time that Daniel not only was taking no comfort from his presence, he didn't even know he was there.
They staggered out into the airport at Aswan at ten o'clock in the evening, punch-drunk from too many hours of traveling, inhaling dust and sand they could taste but couldn't see, the heat evaporated, just leaving a trace in the exhausted feel to the air.
O'Neill wished he'd insisted they both stayed in the Hotel Cataract like he'd wanted to, because he was beat and Daniel looked as wiped as he felt. But Daniel had insisted he just wanted to 'get there', even though that meant they would be driving through the night. Knowing there was a luxurious hotel right here in this city that he could be heading for even now and instead he was going to have to rattle through the desert for hours was making him grit his teeth in irritation. When he had to endure hardship he endured it, if not uncomplainingly, at least without too much bitching, but this felt self-inflicted to him. They could have made this journey in easy stages and even if Daniel was determined to wear a hair shirt for the duration he didn't see why he had to. O'Neill mentally resolved that even if he had to chloroform Daniel to do it, they were both going home on an Air Force jet.
He was in Daniel's territory now and he waited for Daniel to take charge the way he had on Abydos, the way he did on new worlds where they spoke old tongues that only he could understand. But Daniel looked as dazed as he felt and sick with exhaustion. Even though this place must have been more familiar to him than it was to O'Neill, Daniel looked around the airport as though he'd never seen it before, and had no idea how he came to be here.
O'Neill had his mouth open to say, "You don't have to do this" when he realized that if he said it, Daniel would bite his head off. There was nothing worse, when every nerve in your body was clearly jangling like a cymbal, than having someone else pointing out that not only had they noticed, they were going to be tactless enough to tell you they had. He closed his mouth and realized that if ever there was a mission when Daniel needed handling with kid gloves this was it, and if ever there was a time when he needed to think not once, not twice, but probably thrice, before he opened his mouth, then this was also it.
He thought it was probably a relief to both of them when that quiet but undoubtedly affectionate, "Dan…?" made them both turn around.
He'd seen Nelson's picture so he knew who this guy was. He had less hair than in the photograph, the top of his head entirely bald now, with hair only in thin half moons at the side of his head above each ear. He wore something shapeless and beige and was very thin, the outline of his skull clearly visible, but his eyes were very kind, and full of warmth as his gaze rested on Daniel.
"John…" Daniel's face crinkled into the kind of smile O'Neill hadn't seen enough of over the past five years.
"Good to see you again." Nelson reached out and shook his hand vigorously, then after a slightly embarrassed shrug, gave him a tentative hug, patting him on the shoulder awkwardly as they disengaged.
O'Neill wondered if all Brits were as crap at self-expression as this guy was or if it was just an archaeologist thing. Nelson and Daniel were staring at each other like long lost brothers, radiating happiness to see one another again, and the best they could manage was a stumbling mention of the other's name and an incredibly awkward hug. Daniel hadn't really responded to Nelson's embrace, but O'Neill knew from experience he never did. He liked being patted and hugged the way children did, seemed to take comfort from the physical contact, but it never occurred to him that he could reciprocate in any way. When Daniel had been even two years younger O'Neill hadn't felt embarrassed about grabbing him and hugging him until his ribs creaked, or ruffling his hair, and patting him on the back. There had been something childlike about Daniel that stopped it seeming an invasion of his personal space, but too much life experience had eroded his innocence and he was less…huggable now, too unmistakably an adult. Daniel had erected an invisible barrier around himself, as if he needed a force field to shelter behind while he thought far too much about far too many things. All the same, O'Neill liked to think that however prickly and grown up Daniel might become, if he hadn't seen him for ten years he would just grab him and squeeze the breath straight out of him, not pat him awkwardly on the arm while shaking his hand.
Nelson noticed O'Neill at last and held out a hand, while darting a curious look in Daniel's direction. "John Nelson. How do you do, Mister…?"
"Colonel Jack O'Neill." Daniel introduced him in a neutral tone O'Neill didn't much care for. "He's representing the United States Air Force." And nothing to do with me, seemed to be the unspoken rider.
Nelson shook his hand anyway, and his eyes were still warm. "Pleased to meet you."
"You too." O'Neill made the effort to be civil. After all Nelson was definitely one of the good guys here. "Any friend of Daniel's is a friend of mine."
Daniel darted him a quick look to see if he was being facetious, but O'Neill wasn't and Daniel knew him well enough to know that. He gave O'Neill an apologetic wince then turned back to Nelson. "Colonel O'Neill and I work together sometimes."
Colonel O'Neill? As he and Daniel followed Nelson out to the jeep, O'Neill felt himself bristle at that use of his title in a way that surprised him. There had been missions when he'd have preferred it if Daniel could be bothered to remember his rank, especially when they were trying to impress some alien culture with really big weapons. But he hadn’t realized how much he took it for granted that he was 'Jack' to Daniel, what a little spot of warmth the way Daniel said his name always gave him, until he'd stopped saying it. Daniel was now the only person left in his life who called him 'Jack'. Not hearing it again was going to hurt. 'Jack' meant a whole lot of things to him, it especially meant that Daniel saw him as someone human, vulnerable, his friend, when to others he was 'O'Neill' or 'Colonel' or 'Colonel O'Neill'. There was a lot of power in names and as an anthropologist he knew Daniel knew that.
He looked at Daniel sideways. "How very formal, Doctor Jackson."
Daniel darted him a begging look he didn't at all understand. It was the standard 'Don't make a scene. Don't show me up' look he had used to get from his wife at parties on a regular basis, but with a wraparound of desperation that he couldn't really equate to the current situation. Daniel definitely seemed to want him to hide something from the other archaeologists, even Nelson, and as far as he could make out, that seemed to be the fact they were friends. That hurt so much it practically took his breath away and he was determined that the first time they were alone he was going to have this out with Daniel. After five years of watching each other's backs on missions he didn't appreciate having to pretend they were just nodding acquaintances.
Nelson was directing them towards his jeep, apologizing for the suspension, or lack of it, in advance. O'Neill heard him murmur to Daniel, "Darius wanted to come, but I told him I thought it was better if he didn't…"
Daniel's response was inaudible but O'Neill saw him flinch. The wind was unexpectedly chilly, whipping at his blue shirt, the stars very low and bright. Daniel still sounded strained as he asked: "How's Alexis?"
"Still in hospital but recovering well. Raring to get back here, and looking forward to seeing you again. Scary when it happened though. The projectile vomiting had to be seen to be believed…"
O'Neill tossed his suitcase into the back, then loaded the other bags which contained all the equipment with which the Air Force had entrusted him, but when he automatically went to take Daniel's hold-all from him Daniel hung onto it as though it was the Ark of the Covenant. "What is up with you?" O'Neill hissed at him, giving the bag a firm tug.
"Nothing." Daniel let go of the handle quickly.
O'Neill winced as his shoulder was almost pulled out of its socket. "Jesus, Daniel, how many books have you got in here?"
"I told you I could handle it." Daniel darted an anxious look at Nelson.
"I'm not saying I can't handle it. I'm saying you always pack too many books." O'Neill tossed Daniel's bag into the back along with his. "Did you bring your laptop or just your entire library?"
"Yes," Daniel said in near-desperation, giving him a full-on begging look as he did so.
Realizing that this was Daniel's most blatant Shut up! Shut up! Shut up! expression, O'Neill shut up, although this time not without a shake of the head he couldn't suppress.
It was a long and bumpy drive across the desert road, but he was almost glad of the time span. He needed this journey to adjust to being this unwanted piece of luggage Daniel was having to drag along with him. However, he did intend to reverse that process as soon as it was humanly possible, when Daniel got over his current neurosis about being associated with him, or possibly with the uniform he wore. He still wasn't quite sure what Daniel's problem was with him at the moment. He also thought this was his best, and possibly only chance, to demonstrate to Daniel that he could, in fact, learn to play nice with others, even others who were archaeologists. As he had a more than sneaking suspicion he and Darius Golding were not going to hit it off, he also thought trying to prove to the much more amenable Nelson what an all around okay guy he was might not be a bad idea. Especially as he apparently wasn't going to have Daniel as an ally once they reached the site, and might well need one when faced with a matched set of grave robbers.
He had long since learned with Daniel that the fastest way to mollify him if he was angry or win his gratitude if he wasn't angry was to ask for information from him and actually listen to the whole answer, if at all possible asking intelligent questions in the process. He didn't like to do it too often in case Daniel started to expect it of him and reverted to doing what he used to do in the old days – bouncing into O'Neill's office at any time of the day and night like Tigger on speed, bubbling over with enthusiasm about something that was to any rational person totally boring, insignificant or just plain incomprehensible. But, O'Neill could when he had to, absorb new information and respond to it with polite attention, he just chose not to most of the time.
He leant forward and said to Nelson, "So, can you tell me a little about this dig?"
Nelson gave him an amused look. "Well, as you're the official Air Force rep you're probably the only person I can talk to about it. Which is something of a relief, I have to tell you, as I'm bursting to tell someone."
"Can you fill me in on the background to the area first?"
He just knew Daniel was giving him a look of total disbelief but it was dark enough in the jeep for him to pretend he didn't know that. Nelson smiled the smile of a Jehovah's Witness finding someone who actually wanted to buy The Watchtower and plunged straight into a history lesson O'Neill didn't want but had to admit, just for once, he really needed.
"The Labyrinth is situated west of and partially underneath Kom el-Ahmar or Hierakonpolis, site of ancient Nekhen. So called because this was the site of the worship of an extremely ancient falcon god, Nekheny, about which very little is still known." Nelson tossed the words to O'Neill over his shoulder, shouting above the sound of the engine, effortlessly going into lecture mode in a way already familiar to him after five years of working with Daniel. "Although Horus was worshipped there later as well, Nekheny was an entirely separate Predynastic entity who just happened to be represented by a falcon on a site where Horus later gained ascendancy. I think the inscription on the Boston Falcon from Amunhotpe III's temple at Soleb describing Amunhotpe as being 'Beloved of Nekheny' proves that he was once a significant god or else why would a Predynastic deity still be getting a mention in the Eighteenth Dynasty?"
Seeing Nelson looking at him expectantly, O'Neill said gravely, "Why indeed?"
Apparently satisfied, Nelson nodded. "Have you seen the Boston Falcon, Colonel?"
"I'm more of a Chicago Blackhawks kind of guy…" Seeing Daniel's expression O'Neill coughed quickly. "I mean… No. Not yet."
"Well, it's fairly spectacular, I can tell you. They really did a marvelous restoration job and you can't see the join. Of course nothing could be done about the second cartouche which was lost at the time of the Atenist defacements. Damned Akenhaten and his monotheistic vandalism! But I think it's got people thinking about Nekheny again. This was clearly a significant deity in the Predynastic Egyptian pantheon and yet what do we know about him? Perhaps many of the other old falcon gods subsumed into Horus cults were originally variants of Nekheny? I think these are the kinds of questions the Labyrinth could answer, along with all the ones Daniel is interested in about – " Nelson waved a hand. "What was your thesis title again, Dan? I remember you had some very interesting things to say about the cross-pollination of ancient cultures and the age of the pyramids. I liked it anyway. I thought you made some good points."
O'Neill suspected there was a wealth of unspoken loyalty in those words and a lot of arguments held over the years with other archaeologists that Nelson didn't want Daniel to ever know about.
Daniel turned his head to look at Nelson with a flicker of his rare fond smile. "You've been out of academic circles too long. I thought everyone knew Doctor Daniel Jackson's thesis was 'Why SpaceAliens From the Planet No'Ten'Ure Built the Pyramids and Why Everything You Other Academics Thought You Knew About Ancient Egypt is Wrong Wrong Wrong, So There'."
Nelson grinned back at him. "Ah yes, how could I forget? What I don't get is how come Erik Von Daniken, Zecharia Sitchin and Graham Hancock are all coining it in and you're still wearing the same shoes you had in nineteen eighty-nine. You either need a more way out theory or a better agent. You at least need to get yourself a Forbidden Archaeology website with some fancy graphics."
"I'm working on it," Daniel assured him.
O'Neill said quietly, "How do you really feel about Daniel's theories, Doctor Nelson?"
Nelson looked over his shoulder at him before raising his chin with a hint of defiance. "Well, despite what Daniel just implied, Colonel, there was nothing unscholarly about his thesis – or his theories. All he proposed was that the pyramids were a great deal older than we had previously believed. It was those closed-minds in academia who decided Daniel was talking about little green aliens from outer space…."
O'Neill swallowed the observation that in his experience little aliens from outer space actually tended to be gray.
Nelson seemed to take his silence as criticism of Daniel's thesis because he sounded more than a little defensive as he continued: "I think what people forget is that we're all detectives in our way and we all have to follow the clues the past leaves us wherever they happen to lead us, and we shouldn't stop following them just because they lead us somewhere that runs the risk of making us look foolish. The entire history of our particular field of study is based on men of vision following hunches, and sometimes those who seemed to get it spectacularly wrong at the time have been vindicated by history. Daniel followed a set of clues and they led him to conclude that the pyramids were a lot older than the rest of us thought. Alexis has followed a set of clues and they've led him to suspect that the leader of the fallen angels mentioned in the Book of Enoch might be buried in the Labyrinth rather than Al Uli in Saudi Arabia. I've followed a set of clues and they've led me to conclude that an obscure falcon god about whom there isn't as far as I have been able to discern, a single surviving piece of mythology, was terribly significant five thousand years ago. Who's to say which of us is right? Maybe we all are. Either way, I have a great deal of respect for Daniel's integrity as an archaeologist and as a human being, and while I may not agree with his theory about the age of the pyramids I respect his right to hold it and I would defend to the death his right to express it."
When O'Neill looked at Daniel for his reaction he saw the man more upset by Nelson's loyalty than cheered by it, his emotions too raw after recent events to cope with any kind of affirmation or perhaps even basic human kindness. He managed a smile and then turned his head away, but his voice sounded suspiciously muffled as he said, "I've missed you, John."
Nelson reached out and tentatively patted his shoulder. "I've missed you too. So have the others. We're none of us convinced the Air Force really deserves you. Your gain was our loss, Colonel."
"I doubt Jack would – "
"Yes, I would agree." O'Neill interrupted Daniel firmly. "We do appreciate what we have, Nelson, even if sometimes we don't always remember to say so."
The silence stretched for a moment and then Daniel said, "You were telling Jack about the Labyrinth..."
Nelson nodded. "Of course. Well, we've only excavated a small portion of the site so far but our findings on this dig and on the dig in '89 suggest that it's big. Not as big as Hierakonpolis perhaps, but still a site of substantial size and significance. Possibly the most significant site…Well, anyway that remains to be seen but we're pretty excited about it I can tell you."
"Significant how?" O'Neill pressed. He knew why the USAF was excited about it. It had Goa'uld writing on the walls, and where there was Goa'uld writing on the walls there could be Goa'uld technology. But he somehow doubted that was what Nelson was so hyped up about.
"Well, to put the site in context you have to think about the roots of Ancient Egyptian civilization itself. According to Manetho…"
"Manetho, a Graeco-Egyptian priest from Sebennytos from around 300 BC, who, along with Herodotus of Helicarnassus, the Greek historian, is one of our prime sources for ancient Egyptian history. According to him, Egyptian civilization began with the Unification of the Two Lands, namely Upper and Lower Egypt, under one king. Now the date we usually have for this is 3100 BC but there is some debate as to who this first king was. Some people argue for…"
"The Scorpion King?" He'd been determined not to be facetious, too. But having recently been dragged off to see "The Mummy Returns" by Daniel, and knowing full well before he ever got there that Daniel was going to ruin it for him in the same way he had with the first movie by complaining constantly about liberties that had been taken with Egyptian history, O'Neill just couldn't resist getting a little of his own back.
Nelson turned around to look at him in delighted surprise. "Yes. Absolutely. I had no idea you were also a scholar of Ancient Egyptian. No wonder the Air Force assigned you, Colonel. How pleasant to have someone who actually cares about this culture overseeing the dig for the spooks in Washington."
Seeing the way Nelson had lit up, O'Neill's conscience got him in a vicious armlock and ruthlessly applied pressure. He desperately hoped Daniel wouldn't drop him in it and said quickly, "I've just spent a lot of time with Daniel over the past five years. More of his enthusiasm must have rubbed off on me than I realized."
"You're absolutely right, Colonel. However, if you examine the 'Scorpion' mace head and look at the headdress for the Scorpion King you'll see he's wearing only the hedjet or White Crown of Upper Egypt, whereas if he was indeed King of a Unified Egypt then he should also have been wearing the Red Crown of Lower Egypt as well. Of course some people have argued that the missing side of the mace head might have depicted him wearing that crown but I go with the theory that Narmer was in fact the first true King although he could also have been…"
"Jack really likes the short version." It was the most human Daniel had sounded in a while. He said it without reproach, just a little anxiety. "He doesn't need to know the history of the whole Early Dynastic period. He really just needs the relevant data. And he's going to have a lot to analyze on this mi- trip."
On any other day O'Neill would have said 'Well, how come you never give me the short version then?' but then realized that for years now Daniel must have thought that he was. That the long boring version he was giving O'Neill was evidently the summary as far as Daniel was concerned.
Daniel turned to Nelson. "Just tell him about the Labyrinth."
Nelson returned his look in surprise. "I thought you would have done that."
Daniel looked away into the darkness of the desert stretching out each side of them. Despite the sound of the engine, O'Neill was briefly aware of a silence behind it of ominous intensity, malevolent with too much age, and too much history. He imagined he could feel the same starlight that had illuminated the building of the sphinx sending cold slivers of illumination to chill the back of his neck.
"No, I…I don't remember what's…" O'Neill saw the movement of his throat as Daniel swallowed quickly, his neck palely vulnerable in the darkness. "I don't remember what's real."
O'Neill felt an overpowering urge to scoop Daniel up and take them both back to Cheyenne Mountain. To somewhere safe and modern where the sands of time couldn't bury them alive.
Nelson said quickly, "It'll come back to you when you see it, Dan. It's an incredible place. I think it asks more questions than we will find answers for in a lifetime, but such wonderful questions. It turns so much of what we know about Ancient Egyptian history on its head and for all we know it'll end up proving you right after all. There are certainly overlaps there between cults that as far as we know have never been found co-existing in anywhere else.…"
His enthusiasm should have been contagious. O'Neill just knew Nelson's kind brown eyes were shining with it. Perhaps Daniel would be swept along with it in time but tonight he was just cold, and tired, and…something else, an apprehension or nervousness that was very unlike him. O'Neill couldn't do much about the apprehension or the exhaustion, but he busied himself searching for Daniel's bag, a shabby hold-all whose straps were looking threadbare, and felt inside it carefully for the rough material of his coat. His fingers found the hard edges of books, the texture of paper, the scent of leather reached him even above the petrol stink of the engine, then found the sheer plastic sheen of Daniel's laptop. Apart from that there was only thin cotton, briefs, socks, t-shirts, pants, a pair of sandals and one towel. No coat. It was at once exasperating and reassuring to realize that Daniel had managed to come out with every textbook in his library and totally inadequate clothing. He didn't even seem to have packed a sweater. The Air Force had obviously been doing his packing for too long, he'd lost the knack. No, he'd probably just always traveled with these priorities, because space was limited and if it came down to being able to translate a cartouche or avoid pneumonia, the cartouche would win out every time. Damn, but he knew that boy so well sometimes.
O'Neill unzipped his own bag and found his jacket on top. Down at the bottom he'd packed an extra sweater to lend Daniel and Daniel's camo gear in case they unlocked the vault of an ancient Goa'uld or something and they needed to go into action, he just hadn't anticipated Daniel needing the warm clothing this quickly. He'd used his and Daniel's clothes to pack the edges of one of the pieces of very expensive equipment Hammond had told him the cost of which would be docked from his wages if he lost, broke or bent it. And he'd brought his camos because they were what he was going to be wearing. His dress blues were for the initial contact. Just to let everyone know who he was and why he was here, after that they went into the suitcase and stayed there and he wore clothes he felt comfortable in. He shook out the camo jacket and draped it around Daniel's shoulders, making him jump. "It's cold."
"Jack…" It was a breathed protest, Daniel darting him a look he couldn't quite categorize. He supposed it was tactless to literally wrap him in the smothering folds of the Air Force he was trying to escape. On a symbolic and metaphorical level that had probably been what Mackenzie would call a supremely passive-aggressive action, but given the way Daniel was sitting there shivering in an open-topped jeep after a too-long flight and too-little sleep he thought that on a practical level it was a pretty good idea.
O'Neill held his gaze, not backing down on this, pulling out the hardass colonel mode that could sometimes still work on the remnants of the person Daniel had once been. "Just put it on before you get pneumonia."
Daniel pushed his arms into the sleeves reluctantly, eyes sending out This is exactly why I didn’t want you to come with me reproaches, but he still did it. O'Neill's fingers twitched to zip it up for him but he felt instinctively Daniel would never forgive him if he did. All brains and no sense. Daniel should have had a grandmother like O'Neill's to feed him up, scold, and fuss over him. Instead he'd had a grandfather who wouldn't take him in because it was too much trouble having to take care of an eight-year-old boy who'd just lost his parents when there were so many matters of more pressing interest out there to be investigated than the comfort of own flesh and blood. Given the way it had robbed him of his family, O'Neill supposed it was just another proof of how forgiving Daniel was that he didn't hate archaeology. Either that or it was in his blood so completely he hadn't been able to escape its lure.
Nelson looked over his shoulder at O'Neill, giving him a conspiratorial smile and a thumbs up. O'Neill was too disconcerted by being liked to respond. On the whole people didn't like him on first meetings. They tended to think he was an arrogant prick, an impression he had to admit he sometimes did a lot to encourage. Thor had liked him, but he was an alien, and Daniel had done, of course, but then Daniel didn't follow any normal rules and everyone liked Daniel so perhaps he just liked them back out of habit. The same Carter who hadn't been able to stick O'Neill at any price had gone all goopy over Daniel in ten seconds flat. Although he would only have admitted it under torture, he'd rather liked Daniel himself. There had been something very endearing about the way he just wandered into the middle of that facility and solved a puzzle those eggheads had been wrestling with for years with a mixture of apology, vagueness, and blithe self-confidence that had really tickled him. Then it occurred to him that he also liked people who liked Daniel. If people were kind to Daniel he would forgive them an awful lot. Perhaps that was the same criterion by which Nelson was judging him. He might be an unwanted spook from the Air Force but he knew a little about Egyptology and he didn't want Daniel catching pneumonia. That might be all Nelson needed to know to make the entirely erroneous assumption that O'Neill was an okay guy.
O'Neill darted another look at Daniel who wasn't zipping the jacket up the way O'Neill would have liked, but also hadn’t taken it off and thrown it at him in a rejection of both O'Neill and the military he represented. He was hovering in between in a kind of mutinous semi-acceptance with serious reservations, and as that was how Daniel had been in relation to the Air Force for the past five years, O'Neill was willing to accept that as both normal and moderately reassuring.
Ignoring Daniel he said to Nelson, "Tell me about this Hierakonpolis place. What's so significant about this Labyrinth?" Apart from the fact it seems to have driven one guy nuts and something happened to Daniel in it so terrible he refuses to remember it.
"Well, you have to understand they're two different things. God help you if you mix up our site with Hierakonpolis. The Friends of Nekhen would lynch you. Hierakonpolis 'proper', or Nekhen, as it was once called, is the largest Predynastic site still extant and still accessible, and more importantly still preserved as a unit. There are cemeteries, houses, temples, administrative buildings, rubbish dumps. Everything an archaeologist could wish for. And it's been a settlement of one kind of another for a long time. This is the place where the Narmer palette was found."
As Nelson looked at him hopefully, O'Neill grimaced. "I don't know what that is."
"Oh, well, it's an incredibly significant find, as were the Scorpion and Narmer mace heads, which were also found in the main deposit there. I can show you a picture when we get to the boarding house…"
"Boarding house?" Daniel looked up. "I thought we were staying at the site?"
"After all that traveling I thought you'd probably want a good night's sleep tonight so I've asked a friend to put you up in Isna. I didn't know you'd be bringing Colonel O'Neill though so I don't know if there's going to be enough room…" His voice trailed off as he looked between the impeccable gleam of O'Neill's buttons, the defensive rigidity of Daniel's shoulders.
O'Neill shrugged. "We can share. We've shared before."
The agonized How could you? look Daniel shot in his direction took O'Neill aback and he glared back at him defensively. "What?"
"Nothing." Daniel turned away.
"That's fine then." Nelson smiled in relief.
O'Neill gave Daniel another glare, even though he knew it was wasted on the back of his head. But this was ridiculous, for crying out loud. They'd been going on missions together for five years. They'd shared tents and bedrolls and slept standing up wedged against one another in freezing Goa'uld dungeons in their time. They'd seen each other naked, vomiting, incoherently drunk, unreasonably angry, and sobbing inconsolably. They knew the location of every mole, birthmark, and scar on the other man's body. Now suddenly they were supposed to act all coy and as if they'd just met? If he and Daniel had been having secret liaisons behind the storage closets then he could have understood Daniel's sudden neurotic desire for discretion but they had nothing to be discreet about. This was like some woman he'd never had an affair with asking him not to tell her husband about them and it was driving him nuts.
Nelson was telling him about the history of Hierakonpolis again but he couldn't take it all in, not after all those hours of traveling, and with the hurt and indignation at Daniel's unreasonable behavior still ruffling his temper like surf against a shore.
"…So you see it actually contains archaeological evidence which ranges from the Middle Paleolithic to the Roman period…"
The desert looked like the ocean by night, the breeze scudding across the sand to make it lap like waves, a thin mist veiling the stars. It was no wonder flight navigators had been deceived by that in the past, bailing out onto what looked like the soft embrace of the sea to smash themselves to powder on the unyielding cruelty of the sands. He was cold too, he realized, but his overcoat was in the bottom of his suitcase underneath the satellite phone and he couldn't be bothered to search for it.
"…Hierakonpolis alone, because of its unique properties, gives us wonderful glimpses into the Badarian culture, the Early Dynastic Period, the Naqada II and Naqada III culture, not to mention the foundations of Horus worship as an evolution of Nekheny cultism, always bearing in mind that Nekheny came first and…"
He was aware of Daniel twanging like a guitar string in counter time to the rhythmic bass of the engine. He felt unreachable as a stranger and yet unfortunately was so familiar to O'Neill that he was also broadcasting his feelings on a frequency O'Neill couldn't avoid picking up, a bone-deep misery that made him wonder if they had come halfway across the world on a wild goose chase for Daniel to find himself again, when what he really needed was a prescription for Prozac and some soothing music. He doubted clinical depression was going to be solved by this return to the land of Daniel's childhood, which he had already found then lost again on Abydos. Daniel was trapped in the kind of relentless unhappiness which felt like a bereavement, the sort one carried around inside when even pacing rooms provided no escape, a solid lump of misery he was slowly choking on. Perhaps Daniel's flight mechanism had been engaged to escape from himself, not O'Neill, or the SGC, and if that was the case he was carrying all his problems with him, in just as unwieldy a baggage as that hold-all filled with reference books.
"…but the Labyrinth doesn't conform to any of the earlier Hierakonpolis finds or known chronology. The Friends of Nekhen won't accept it as part of the same site and it's far enough outside the previously established perimeters of the dig that I can understand why they dispute it. From our point of view, of course, that means we can continue without interference, but it does make the Labyrinth of Nekheny the bastard changeling of Hierakonpolis that no one will acknowledge. Unfortunately, from the point of view of establishing a legitimacy for our site, as was pointed out thirteen years ago when the dig was first uncovered, there have been no finds in the 'official' site that in any way correspond to the writings in the Labyrinth…."
Nelson's voice rose and fell, occasionally drowned out by the engine sound, more often rising above it like a violin solo struggling above the morass of an unsuccessful concerto. He was talking about runes now, and cuneiform, and all the other kinds of annoying squiggly writing Daniel liked to pore over with his face too close to the page long after most of the SGC had quietly packed up for the night and gone home. O'Neill didn't need to be an archaeologist to know one didn't generally find that kind of stuff carved into the walls of Egyptian tombs.
"…I don't care what the scientists say, there has to be something in the rock that's affecting the data as I can't believe the labyrinth builders could have come up with something so architecturally ambitious two and half thousand years before Imhotep's construction of the Step pyramid. But I can't believe that our labyrinth wasn't the inspiration for Amenemhet's Labyrinth which was, after all, described as the greatest wonder of the ancient world and was a huge tourist attraction in the Graeco-Roman period. For all we know Amenemhet may have insisted all references to our labyrinth were expunged from the records so that his would appear to be the greatest and the first…."
O'Neill let it trickle in one ear and out of the other. This was irrelevant data, he was almost certain, and he also believed that if anything of vital importance did get mentioned, his brain would be able to separate it from all this chaff. He did get that the place was too old for the stuff inside it and the answer to that was the theory that had got Daniel laughed out of academia. The answer they'd all got much too up close and personal with over the past half a decade dodging zat blasts and staff weapon fire, not to mention the ever-present threat of a snake in the head.
"…But I don't know why they're resisting it so strongly when if you compare this to the pyramid temples of Djoser at Saqqara you see an instant correlation. Just as if you look at HK29A on the Hierakonpolis site you can't help thinking that this has to be the great shrine of the Upper Egypt crown which was later recreated at Saqqara in the 'House of the South'. The dimensions are so similar, even down to the off-center door. Now, obviously it's been recognized since Lauer that Hierakonpolis provided a tradition in which Djoser's pyramid has its roots, but what if the influence was circular? What if the 'Labyrinth' mentioned by Herodotus as the pyramid temple of Amenemhet III and which undoubtedly does follow Djoser was in fact influenced by our labyrinth at Hierakonpolis which was in itself…"
After Daniel's impassioned lecture on the way home from the movie theater he knew enough to be able to differentiate between the bald-headed bad guy in "The Mummy" called Imhotep, the architect of that wonky-looking structure Daniel had told him was called the 'Step Pyramid' who Nelson was obviously talking about here, and the Goa'uld who had suckered all those runaway Jaffa and damned near killed Teal'c a month back who was now pushing up daisies on another planet. He also knew that all the carefully worked out chronology of Egyptologists wasn't worth diddly-squat according to Daniel because the Goa'uld had screwed up all their timelines when they'd turned up to 'harvest' hosts and pretended to be gods while they were doing it.
Nelson continued blithely. "Now Hélène's theory is that the Labyrinth could be the same Men-netjeret described on the Palermo Stone, which was probably built during the reign of Nebka. Which would give us a date of somewhere between 2686-2667 BC for the Labyrinth. But I don't agree with her there. I think 'Men-netjeret' is Gisr el-Mudir at North Saqqara, which was never finished. However, I do freely admit the Men-netjeret mention on the Palermo Stone does give us a provenance for a large stone structure possibly predating Djoser's Step Pyramid, so I'm perfectly prepared to find out that I'm wrong in thinking…"
So everything about this labyrinth was probably going to be wrong. Bad chronologically. Bad archaeologically. Just generally bad Egyptology. And archaeologists like Nelson were going to scratch their heads over it for the rest of their lives, trying to make sense of a puzzle that didn't make sense at all if you tried to fit it into the accepted but inaccurate idea of who had built all the pyramids and why, and when. Basically the Goa'uld had made it all meaningless.
Looking across at Daniel, hunched and silent in the passenger seat, O'Neill wondered if that was part of the problem here. Because if it was he had absolutely no means to fix it. He decided to rest his eyes and his brain for a little and get some of the shuteye he seriously needed. Perhaps when he woke up the desert would be more welcoming, the stars and Daniel less distant, and the problems which had driven his friend to this mysterious maze beneath the shifting sands miraculously resolved.
"Jack, we're here…"
O'Neill opened his eyes with a jolt to find the jeep steaming quietly in the darkness of a narrow street. His neck was aching painfully, and the smell of his own armpits was filling his nostrils. Nelson was struggling in through a lighted doorway ahead of him, carrying the equipment that would be docked from O'Neill's wages if it were dropped.
He rubbed his neck irritably. "Where?"
An oblong of golden light spilled out of a doorway, closely followed by a fug of cigarette smoke, chatter, laughter, and the scent of hot food that made O'Neill realize he was ravenous. It was ridiculously late and he was exhausted, but the pulse from that room was full of energy, a multi-colored cloud of it swirling out to envelop them in a spice and tobacco-scented embrace.
He swung down from the back of the jeep, knees protesting as he did so. Daniel grabbed the hold-all before he could stop him and O'Neill saw him wince as his wrist was jarred again. He wondered if it had knitted properly, that damned robot had certainly done a good job of snapping it. He felt befuddled with tiredness. All he wanted to do was be shown to a soft bed and go to sleep on it, but it sounded like a party in there.
"Nelson! Have you collected the Prodigal…?"
O'Neill was aware of strangers on the periphery of his vision, people with glasses, mugs, or half-eaten food in their hands, gesturing enthusiastically for them to come inside, all welcoming, all apparently brimming over with energy, a cacophony of different languages being spoken that Daniel could no doubt identify, but were just sounds to him. He'd known some Arabic once but it had faded from his memory like the print on old newspaper. Too long ago and too many bad associations. He couldn't remember a word now.
"Are you okay?"
Although he was glad of Daniel's concern, he couldn't help noticing Daniel had waited until Nelson was out of earshot before asking him the question.
"Fine. Are you?" As they moved towards the open doorway and the eagerly welcoming strangers he saw Daniel in the light for the first time in hours and was shocked by how unwell he looked. He seemed to have shed ten pounds since they'd left Colorado, and there was a grayish tinge to his skin. "Daniel…?"
"I'm okay." Daniel gave him a nervous smile, but there was something that looked like incipient panic in his eyes. That worried him even more than his behavior. Daniel had been fearless the whole time he'd known him, sometimes terrifyingly so. There was almost no enemy so frightening it could keep Daniel's mind from straying towards the where, how, and why, even while his life was being threatened. This was the way Daniel had looked on the video camera when Reese's pet replicator had been moving towards him.
O'Neill touched his arm. "It's late. You don't have to meet these people now."
Daniel gave him another flickering 'don't-hit-me' smile that went nowhere near the fear in his eyes. "Yes. I do."
Then he was being drawn into the warmth and clutter of the narrow building, the hold-all banging against the doorway as he went in. O'Neill saw him smiling while people patted him on the shoulder. O'Neill tripped on the uneven paving, stumbling across the threshold and into the lighted room. He felt Daniel's hand touch his arm to steady him, and then snatch it away as though O'Neill's sleeve had just burnt his fingers.
He could hear Daniel introducing him to people but the names were going in one ear and out the other, a slender Egyptian woman who smelt pleasantly of jasmine seemed to be their hostess, a middle-aged woman with short iron-gray hair and brown eyes, wearing an over-sized man's jacket with bulging pockets, who spoke English with a Nordic accent and who he recognized from her photographs as Inga Stark greeted Daniel kindly. There were others, but they were a blur. In the midst of the introductions, Nelson pointed to a cupboard that didn't close. "Your other luggage is in there, Colonel. It'll be perfectly safe."
Before O'Neill could protest that he needed to have that stuff with him, not shoved into an unlocked cupboard with the mops and buckets, Nelson had moved on.
O'Neill turned to see the archaeologist swept into an embrace by a cheerful British woman in her forties.
"Tell me you've come back to Hierakonpolis and not to that joke site of John's?" She was grinning as she said it, but her eyes were kind.
Nelson waved a hand at her. "You wait. The Labyrinth is going to turn everything we know about Ancient Egypt upside down."
An older Englishman shook his head. "It would have to turn everything upside down, inside out and back to front…if it were genuine, but it isn't."
"The carbon dating results…"
"Were inconclusive, John, and you know as well as I do the things you're finding there make no sense. It has to be a hoax…"
A small elderly Indian gentleman said, "To quote my learned colleague, Jonathan Nelson, Barbara: 'Yah phooey'. You're just eaten alive with envy because we have representations of half the core mythologies of the world in our site…"
"Your site is a fake, Sanjay! It bears no resemblance to any other archaeological site ever found anywhere and it has as much to do with Predynastic Egypt as Pop Tarts do with food…"
O'Neill tried to blot out the sound of fifteen archaeologists all talking at once in a room twelve foot by twelve foot. Someone was asking Daniel where he'd been for the past five years. Someone else was trying to tell him something that sounded totally incomprehensible about what sounded like 'pan grave' culture. Attempting to dismiss mental images of a place where woks went to die, O'Neill tried to absorb the mood of the place: cheerful, argumentative, but good-humoredly so. Energetic. Intelligent. Ideas bouncing off the walls. Above all, enthusiastic. Everyone trying to tell Daniel about what they'd been doing and why it was more interesting than what the next guy had been doing. O'Neill took in that there were two opposing teams here, the Hierakonpolis archaeologists, who evidently knew Daniel from the past and wanted him to come and sift through their apparently very exciting rubbish dumps with them, and the Labyrinth archaeologists, who also knew him from the past and wanted to bring him up to speed on all their interesting discoveries so far.
All he wanted to do was find a nice soft bed and go to sleep on it but he was a little reluctant to just butt out and leave Daniel alone with these people. Still, Daniel seemed to be happy enough. He still looked a little pale but he was smiling at people. These archaeologists were being nothing other than welcoming and kind to him and…
That was when he looked across the room and saw Darius Golding and all the hairs stood up on the back of his neck like a dog that had just seen a ghost.
The man was now fifty-four instead of forty-one, his waist was thicker than in those photographs of him standing bare-chested in a hole in the desert somewhere, smiling triumphantly at the camera. The mane of red-gold hair was streaked with gray, as was the beard. He looked like an old Hercules now, grizzled from too many combats. With only the width of a room between them there was no disguising that he was even taller than O'Neill and his shoulders were broader, his chest massive. A giant of a man, still imposing, even magnificent, yet now subtly going to seed. Even his long grayish old coat with its flapping pockets and unidentifiable stains looked like the robes of some exiled monarch.
O'Neill looked the man in the eyes and felt the crackle of hostility pass between them, like pure electricity. He tried to make his face neutral but he couldn't help it. He didn't like this guy, and, going by the expression on Golding's face, he definitely didn't like O'Neill.
"So, the wanderer returns…"
It was a voice that carried, rich and deep. He saw Daniel jump in response then go rigid, twanging like a tortured violin string being played with a piece of broken glass. When he turned his head he did it slowly, the way kids checked out their closet to see if there really was a bogeyman inside.
"Darius…" The smile Daniel forced was wary and neutral, going nowhere near his voice.
O'Neill admired the way Daniel was trying so hard not to look as if he was freaked out to Jupiter and back, but it was still very obvious to him that Daniel was freaked out, and going by Golding's expression it was obvious to him too. He didn't seem either satisfied or sorry that Daniel was reacting to him so much, just that it was no more than he'd expected.
Golding came over to where they were standing, a stately progress during which O'Neill was painfully aware of Daniel trying and failing not to look like a rabbit being hypnotized by a snake. The other conversations didn't stop but O'Neill heard them falter, people glancing in their direction then determinedly pushing on with what they were saying even though everyone was now more interested in the interplay between Daniel and Golding than they were in their own words. Nelson's voice increased in volume, doggedly plugging on with his defense of the Labyrinth's authenticity in a determined effort, O'Neill felt, not to give Golding the awestruck silence he was hoping for, but O'Neill also caught that anxious glance he darted in Daniel's direction.
Perhaps it was difficult not to loom when you were six foot four, but O'Neill found Teal'c managed not to be intimidating to them on an everyday basis. If he thought about it logically, yes, Teal'c could put him on his ass any time he liked, and he could kill Daniel with a twist of his fingers, but it wasn't something he ever thought about because Teal'c never used his size and strength for effect. Golding was looming however. O'Neill really resented having to look up to make eye contact, not to mention the way the guy's shoulders were so much broader than his were. Fine, the guy wanted to loom, let him. As someone who had killed men with his bare hands before now, it took more than superior height and breadth to intimidate him. He returned Golding's gaze steadily as the man looked him up and down.
However confident Golding might appear, O'Neill knew the hostility towards him must also be masking some uncertainty and confusion. He didn't like the part of the equation O'Neill represented. Given the way he glanced between them, he especially didn't like the suggestion that O'Neill was connected in some way to Daniel.
Looking at O'Neill, Golding said, "Friend of yours, Daniel?"
Daniel's voice sounded a little strained. "This is Colonel Jack O'Neill of the United States Air Force."
Golding did look at Daniel then, very leonine with that slow turn of the head, his mane ruffling a little as a breeze blew in from the open door. "That isn't what I asked."
O'Neill stuck a hand out. "Darius Golding, I presume?"
Golding ignored his outstretched hand, still staring unblinkingly at Daniel who looked away first, muttering, "Colonel O'Neill is a work colleague."
The betrayal he felt at Daniel effectively denying him went right through him like a stab wound. He couldn't help that swift angry look of accusation as he pulled his hand back.
Daniel gave him a helpless look in return, begging and apologizing and excusing himself in one anguished glance. Shut up. Don't contradict what I just said. I'm sorry. I have to.
No, you don't, damnit! He had to bite down his first three retorts, but that smile of satisfaction from Golding made him feel sick as the proverbial pig.
"I thought he must be your bodyguard."
Daniel met Golding's gaze steadily, although he still looked a little pale. "Why would I need one of the those, Darius?"
Instead of answering, Golding reached out flicked Daniel's shorn hair dismissively. "Well, I suppose I can't call you 'Goldilocks' any more. What happened to the hair?"
"I decided I preferred it short."
"Any other preferences you've discovered since we last met?"
Daniel grimaced. "I'm tired from the journey. I'm going to turn in now." He managed a weak smile for the rest of the room. "Good to see you all again."
Nelson had obviously just been waiting for his cue because he was there in a second. "Good idea, Daniel. I'll show you and Colonel O'Neill where you're sleeping tonight. Tomorrow I think you should take a look around the…"
Golding's voice reached them before they were halfway to the stairs. "Where exactly is 'Colonel O'Neill' sleeping tonight?"
O'Neill saw Daniel flinch again and jumped in himself this time, giving Golding his best false smile over his shoulder. "I'm sharing with Daniel."
That did go home very satisfyingly. Golding looked like thunder but then he rallied with spite. "Don't you have regulations against that sort of thing, Colonel?"
Daniel said quickly, "It's not like that, Darius."
O'Neill resisted the urge to smack Daniel around the back of the head only with difficulty. He glared at him. Daniel gave him a Don't start look back.
Nelson said rapidly, "Well, good night, all. See you in the morning. Enjoy your rubbish tips, Barbara. Meanwhile the rest of us will be unearthing new information about Nekheny which will make you all sick with envy."
"In your dreams, John…"
As Nelson ushered them towards the narrow staircase, O'Neill muttered, "What is with you, Daniel?"
"What's with you?" Daniel retorted under his breath.
"Stop acting like we're not friends."
"Stop acting like we're married."
"Here you go."
He rather admired the way Nelson was determinedly refusing to notice any of the undercurrents going on. He wasn't going to get involved or even acknowledge that they existed, briskly turning the handle of the door and revealing a small room lit by a soft lamp and a mattress on the floor. The resolutely UnEgyptian double duvet had Spiderman on the cover. "It's not the Ritz but it's more comfortable than sleeping in a tent. The bathroom's right next door. Do you have toothpaste…?"
O'Neill let the questions wash over him, just nodding curtly, still holding Daniel's gaze. Daniel had recoiled from the sight of the mattress they were going to be sharing, even though it was plenty big enough for two, before looking at him with a mixture of defiance and apology. O'Neill rolled his eyes in disbelief. "Oh for crying out loud…" He walked into the room and tossed his bag onto the floor, saying loudly, "So, Daniel…do you want the left side of the bed or the right?"
Daniel darted a hasty look over his shoulder, muttered a thank you and good night to Nelson, then practically shoved him out of the room so he could close the door and lean against it.
O'Neill let Daniel see that he was hurt and he was disappointed, that he always thought Daniel had more guts than this, that he was the last person on Earth he would expect to care what some guy thought about their relationship, especially as their relationship was pure as the freakin' driven snow and it wasn't as if they had anything to hide anyway.
Daniel said wearily, "You don't understand."
O'Neill unbuttoned his jacket. "So explain it to me."
"I can't." Daniel slumped wearily against the door. "It's too late and I'm too tired and you wouldn't get it anyway. And…I need to pee."
Damnit, that's my line. O'Neill shook his head in annoyance as Daniel slipped out of the room. He heard him futzing around in the bathroom, taking the exact amount of time it needed for O'Neill to get undressed and get into bed before he came back in again, sidling into the room warily.
O'Neill said conversationally, "As your friend and as your CO, I just think I should let you know you're handling Golding all wrong and you're pissing me off big time."
Daniel wordlessly undressed down to his t-shirt and boxers then got under the covers. The lamp was on his side and he switched off the light. Moonlight shone through the thin curtains, turning the room blue and silver with puddles of impenetrable blackness. O'Neill was abruptly too aware of the sound of the conversations going on in the room beneath them. Nelson and the other guy were still disagreeing about the merits of the carbon dating results from the Labyrinth. A woman who sounded like Inga Stark was saying something about the inscription on the west wall of one of the inner chambers.
O'Neill looked at Daniel sideways. He had become such a stranger. In the blue-lit gloom he could see the line of his temple, his cheekbone, the unnecessary thickness of his eyelashes. He didn't really look like Daniel, just some of Daniel's component parts. It was like being stuck with a Daniel from a different dimension. Only instead of the AU Carter who had wanted things from him he couldn't give, this AU Daniel wanted only to be left alone. Except this wasn't an AU Daniel, damnit, this was the guy he'd been working with for the past five years. This was the guy who was supposed to be his friend.
He tried to get back to their usual relationship, saying lightly, "Pity it's not a proper bed with springs."
Daniel clearly had to drag his thoughts back from a great distance before turning his head then blinking at him in confusion. "Why?"
"I could bounce up and down on it so it squeaked suggestively."
He'd really thought Daniel would laugh, and he needed to hear Daniel laugh, but all he said was, "That isn't funny."
"Oh, lighten up, Daniel! When did you turn into such an uptight little…?" The word 'prick' was barely swallowed down in time. "Person." When Daniel didn't answer, he shook his head in disbelief. "You've never given a rat's ass what people think about you, or me, or our friendship until now. So what's so different?"
And Daniel didn't answer, he tried again. "Is it because I killed the robot?"
Daniel went still and then shook his head. "No."
"Is it because we're in Egypt? Because you're ashamed of the fact you've been working for the Air Force for the past five years? Because you think you sold out to the military? Because…"
"You don't know what Darius is like."
Daniel sounded so white-knuckle stressed O'Neill wasn't quite sure how to proceed. He looked around the room for inspiration but the furniture was unhelpful, a chest of drawers with an old porcelain bowl on it, a mirror, a wall hanging, thin curtains which twitched restlessly in the night air. They had always been careful about each other's personal lives, and that rocket Carter had given him about interfering was still fresh in his memory. He'd been tactful about not asking Daniel about Sarah-now-Osiris unless the younger man brought her up first. He'd tried not to talk about Sha're unless Daniel mentioned her. He'd never gone prying into his personal life or asking about his ex-lovers or current lovers unless they were impacting on the SGC, but this time he really thought he needed to know what he was in the middle of. If there was a history between Daniel and any of the people here he needed to know about it, and as Daniel wasn't volunteering anything he needed to take the bull by the horns and ask. One thing about Daniel being an anthropologist meant that he was unlikely to be offended by a question that would probably have earned him a punch on the nose if he'd ever asked it of say…Makepeace, but it was still crossing a line he didn't usually cross. Being careful not to look at Daniel he said quietly, "If you used to be in a…relationship with Golding then I think that's something I need to know."
Daniel jerked his head round to give him a look of wounded betrayal that wouldn't have put an operatic heroine to shame.
O'Neill held up his hands, speaking rapidly: "Okay, not a relationship, but hey, we all do things in our twenties we maybe wouldn't do…later. You go to a party, you have too much to drink – sometimes you wake up in the wrong bed. Christ, I did things when I was twenty-one that…" Seeing Daniel was now looking dazed as well as hurt and betrayed, and realizing he was moving rapidly towards the 'TMI' end of the conversational spectrum, he swallowed the end of his sentence. "I'm just saying he seems very…possessive." When Daniel just kept right on looking tragic, O'Neill rolled his eyes. "Look, I don't have a problem with you having slept with him, if you did. I just need to know." Another ominous silence. If there was any way Daniel could have made this more difficult, he couldn't think of it right now. O'Neill gritted his teeth. "So, did you?"
Daniel turned away, presenting him with a t-shirt clad back. "I don't know."
He felt a surge of irritation at the way Daniel was already making an embarrassing situation worse. Perhaps Daniel felt this was none of his business, but he was wrong. Sometimes there was no such thing as 'personal' and this was one of them, and he wasn't having the success of a mission compromised by Daniel going coy on him over a regrettable experiment. This was a conversation he wanted to get in and out of as swiftly as possible, a bloodless retrieval where he obtained the information he needed with the minimum of discussion or fuss. "Oh, come on, Daniel, even you aren't that absent minded. Yes or no will do."
When O'Neill touched his shoulder for emphasis, Daniel flinched so violently that he snatched his hand away, torn between annoyance and concern. He swore under his breath, acutely uncomfortable with the situation on every level. He could now understand Daniel not wanting to share a mattress with him if seeing Darius again was reminding him of some horrible drunken mistake he'd made when younger. O'Neill could definitely relate to that. It was instinctive to pat him on the arm or something to reassure him, but physical contact was clearly not a good idea under the circumstances. Daniel was already unhappy enough about them sharing a bed. He ran a hand through his hair instead, trying not to curse out loud. The last thing he really wanted to be doing right now was sitting here discussing a friend's past sex life, especially as that friend was clearly extremely unwilling to offer any information, but, given that they were on a mission and Golding was a factor in the success or failure of that mission, he needed to have all important information available to him, and if that meant appearing crass or insensitive he was sorry. "Look, Daniel…" he tried to sound soothing rather that impatient. "Just tell me what happened."
"It was in the Labyrinth." Daniel turned his head to look at him, blue eyes bleak with misery. " I don't remember what happened."
It was O'Neill's turn to blink in confusion. He couldn't imagine any point in Daniel's life where he would have gotten drunk in the middle of a dig. He began to feel less irritated and more concerned.
"I was naked when Rajid found me. He wrapped me in a blanket. I don't know how I got like that and Rajid didn't have time to… He had a heart attack right after the explosion. I don't know what happened. I only know Darius was there too. We may have… I don't know what we did. I don't know why he took me there. I don't know what I agreed to. I don't remember."
O'Neill felt his concern ratchet up several notches. He reached out tentatively and this time did touch Daniel's shoulder but when Daniel flinched away from him a second time, he held up his hands in supplication. "Okay. Spell it out for me here. What do you think happened?"
"I don't know. I don't remember."
"Well, tell me what you do remember?"
Daniel shook his head. "I don't want to talk about it."
"Christ, Daniel," O'Neill breathed in frustration.
"I didn't ask you to come on this trip." Daniel sounded as difficult as a teenager and O'Neill had another reminder he was going to have to tread very warily.
O'Neill mentally counted to ten then said as reasonably as he could manage when the urge to shake Daniel was almost overwhelming, "I know you didn't, but I'm here now and it would be better if I knew as much as – "
"I'm tired. I'm going to sleep." Daniel turned away from him again. He pulled up the duvet and closed his eyes.
"Daniel…!" O'Neill stared at him for a moment in disbelief then banged his head down on his own pillow. After a few minutes he heard Daniel's breathing slow and become deep and even as he obviously slipped into sleep.
He realized he could still smell the food downstairs and it was still making him feel hungry. He was also so exhausted from the traveling every muscle in his body was aching, his knees twanging with particularly malicious resentment. His stomach wanted him to get up and demand sustenance while his common sense wanted nothing to do with another encounter with Golding when he was tired, out of his ground, and out of his depth. All his body wanted him to do was switch off and sleep for eight hours straight. But his mind was the winner, reserving the right to keep going round and round over what Daniel had said like a lighthouse slowly circling, as he tried and failed with each revolution of his thoughts to come up with a good reason why Daniel should ever have been found naked in a tomb with a madman.
Daedalus was constructing the maze, stone after stone fitting together so seamlessly it was impossible to see any blocks, just a smooth wall of glassy blackness. Daniel inched closer, silently, looking at the knots in the old man's spine, the way he moved so swiftly laying stone upon stone. In seconds the wall was up to his waist, then up to his shoulders, then high over Daniel's head, Daedalus throwing each block up onto the other so that they stuck together without a single crack between them. Daniel inched closer and closer, trying to look over his shoulder to see the plan he was working from, a white fluttering of lines and numbers. He saw the outline of a building that extended far into the distance but in the center was a square and a minotaur, not drawn, but real, shifting restlessly, waiting for the door of the inner chamber to open. In its hand was a blood-stained knife. As Daniel leaned closer, trying to see the way out, Daedalus abruptly crumpled the plan in his hand. He darted a glance over his shoulder at Daniel, eyes bright with malevolence, then tossed the parchment into the flame of a torch and tapped his temple to tell Daniel the plans were all in his head. The paper flared to a blue circle then to a fall of ash. Daedalus whispered, "You'll never get out." He snatched up the torch and ran with it, stealing the light. As Daniel tried to run after him, the walls grated and moved. The doorway vanished. Blackness descended like a curtain on an empty stage.
Alone in the darkness he began to feel his way along the walls. There were glyphs under his fingers, then runes, then cuneiform, those busy scratchings so dense against his fingertips. Although his heart was beating too fast, the panic beginning to rise, he told himself there must be an exit, the same way he'd come in. He could retrace his steps back to the daylight, back through the maze of corridors beyond which the sun and Ariadne were waiting for him. There was the doorway he had come in by and there was Ariadne holding up a ball of twine. Not Ariadne. Sha're. He saw Sha're standing in a blood-stained golden dress, her skin white with death. She said: "Go back". Behind her, flame billowed, a roar of red and gold, the heat blast unbearable. The walls grated again, a stone door dropping like a guillotine to cut off the flare of raging fire. He was alone in the darkness. Alone in the…
As the panic began to take hold, he heard the sound of someone else's breathing, someone else's heartbeat. He heard the sound of bipedal footsteps approaching, but not human feet, a great weight upon two cloven hooves. He felt the heat of another's body, heard the snort of eager breath, hunger and madness tangible in the blackness. He turned because he could do nothing else, golden eyes glowed and the knife blade flashed as it was raised then plunged towards his heart –
Daniel gasped his way into wakefulness, sitting bolt upright, heart slamming against his chest, body streaming with sweat. He groped blindly for the lamp that sat beside his bed, panic increasing as his fingers found nothing, then, as his eyes adjusted to the blue-lit gloom he remembered where he was. Not at home. Egypt. A few hours from the Labyrinth. He closed his eyes and his mind was filled with a kaleidoscope of confusion: Rajid's hand on his wrist as he was tugged towards the light, Darius holding a hand across his mouth to make him swallow that small white pill, the smell of jasmine, a knife… He flinched and the image was gone, rejected by his conscious mind so fast it had dived back into the darkness of his forgotten memories before he could snatch it back. A bloodstain on the floor. Was that a real memory or something he'd imagined? He remembered staring at it dully, a puddle of red while Rajid shouted: "What did you do?" He didn't remember what he'd done. God, what had he done…?
Jack's question jolted him into the realization that he wasn't alone, that there was the warmth of another body only a few inches from his. He was out of bed in an instant, needing to be away from that male person beside him, acutely uncomfortable with such close proximity.
Jack was running a hand through his hair blearily, blinking the sleep from his eyes. "What's the matter? Are you okay?"
"I'm fine, Jack." He headed for the door. He heard Jack ask him again what was wrong but pretended not to hear, slipping from the room into the bathroom next door. The window was open, faint sounds blowing in from the town, the language making his heart constrict with loneliness, missing the parents who had been with him when he was a child in this land. The sink had a crack across it, a discoloration of the enamel around the edges of the crack like an old scar. He flinched from a sound in his ears like a bone cracking, a flash of blade and blood. Perhaps he was going insane again. Perhaps this wasn't a repressed memory breaking free from its moorings like a weighted corpse in the silt of the seabed after all. Perhaps this was just psychosis pure and simple. The drug had been real, he was sure of that. He could remember details. Darius had given him an acid tablet in his tent one night and he'd had a bad trip, demons coming to life in the darkness. He'd read LSD could close off parts of the mind forever, create a form of schizophrenia in the mind. Take you from Good Vibrations to a blank-eyed half-life, the flame of genius extinguished forever. Perhaps some latent drug-induced insanity was just starting to emerge. Perhaps he was going to crack up spectacularly once again and find his way back to that padded cell.
He remembered men with more muscles than compassion holding him down, the footsteps still advancing, closer and closer, the fear reaching a point where the mind locked up completely…
"Are you okay in there?"
Daniel grimaced. So now he couldn't even go to the bathroom without an SGC escort? Darius would think they were a couple if Jack kept carrying on like this. Darius always thought everyone was screwing someone. He had such an overactive libido himself that the concept of celibacy was meaningless to him, and he'd never really worked out what friendship was either. He had colleagues whom he tolerated, he had people he had sex with, sometimes he combined the two but friendship never entered into it. He thought all men were permanently in a state of readiness for intercourse and divided the human race into those who were fuckable and those who fucked. He had always placed Daniel contemptuously in the first category, and Jack wasn't exactly helping the situation by his alpha male display of over-protectiveness downstairs. Daniel could deal with unwanted advances. They weren't a problem. He was all grown up these days and even if Jack – and to a lesser extent Sam and Teal'c – would persist in treating him as if he was twelve and unfit to be let out without a keeper, he knew how to say 'no' politely but firmly to people of either gender. But Darius had never taken rejection well and a polite refusal was going to annoy him a lot more if he thought Jack was getting something he wasn't. Jack probably thought his heterosexuality shone out like the beacon of the Pharos of Alexandria, but Darius thought gender-preference was a myth. As far as he was concerned, men screwed women when they were available and other men when they weren't, and anyone who maintained otherwise was either gay or lying. In Darius's philosophy real men not only didn't eat quiche, they didn't turn down sex when it was available unless there was something seriously lacking in their red blood count.
"I'm fine, Jack. Go back to bed." He tried to keep his voice level, to sound as unlike a man still pouring cold sweat from the aftermath of a nightmare as possible. Right now all he cared about was not having an audience to his condition of abject funk.
As he began to run water into the sink, he noticed his hand was shaking. Why? Nightmares didn't usually leave him sweating and shaking but when he plucked at his t-shirt it was sticking to his skin. What had he almost remembered? And why was he remembering it now? He'd been back to Egypt dozens of times since this dig had ended in such ignominious failure so it couldn't be the drift of the sand dunes or the cries of the faithful. Was it seeing Darius again that had triggered this…?
Like some horror movie monster, even thinking the man's name seemed to be enough to summon him. Daniel heard a door opening and prayed that it was Nelson, but the heavy tread upon the old floorboards told him all he needed to know. He was already wincing in anticipation before Darius's disdainful, "Lover's tiff?" reached him through the gap under the bathroom door. He hoped neither of them was naked. The thought of Jack and Darius standing out there in the altogether scowling at one another through a haze of testosterone while surreptitiously comparing penis size hardly bore contemplation. He made a point of splashing water on his face as loudly as possible to blot out Jack's response, but it was like listening to opera in a language he didn't understand, even through the water splashing one got the gist of it, baritone sarcasm from Jack, basso profundo innuendo from Darius. God, why hadn't Sam come with him instead? Darius would have been much too busy trying and failing to get her into bed to bother who or what Daniel was getting naked with these days.
He waited until they'd both gone back to their own rooms before he cautiously emerged from the bathroom. He couldn't deal with Darius right now. If the truth were told, he couldn't even deal with Jack right now. He kept getting millisecond flashbacks. Images that made no sense: a crocodile-headed Sobek, eyes glowing gold in the darkness, Inanna of Babylonian mythology shedding her clothing right in front of him, the sound of a shirt tearing, the scattering of buttons on a stone floor, the flash of an upraised knife. It was all too fast, too confused, and he instinctively flinched from each image before he could collect himself and snatch it back.
When he closed his mind he saw a wall, hastily assembled by his conscious mind to protect him from the past, except thirteen years of neglect had done terrible things to the mortar, and where it was starting to disintegrate, old memories were leaking through the cracks.
"Are you okay?" Jack was waiting for him in the bed, trying not to look anxious and failing. He'd switched the lamp on and there was no escaping how small the room was, how garish were the colors of the duvet.
Daniel realized that he really didn't want to share a bed with him. He didn't want to be that close to any other human being right now. If he could have done it without Jack making a big deal out of it he would have gone and slept in the bath.
"I'm fine." Not looking at him, Daniel got under the duvet. "Can you switch the light off? I want to go to sleep." He could imagine the man was giving him a less than friendly look but still refused to make eye contact.
Jack's clipped "Sure," was sharp with hurt. He switched off the lamp.
The panic flared instinctively. Now he was alone in the dark with someone else's breathing, someone else's heartbeat, with his nightmare too fresh in his mind. To stop the panic getting worse, he had to tell himself firmly that he knew it was Jack there and no one else. Was that what the minotaur represented? A friend you couldn't trust because insanity might be sleeping in him somewhere?
"Why don't you tell me what's going on between you and Golding?"
Daniel swallowed. "Go to sleep, Jack." To soften the rejection he added a quiet "Please?" but he suspected it wasn't enough to take off the feeling of hurt, confirmation coming in the way Jack turned over without another word, his back to Daniel, the silence like a lake between them. He had to remind himself again that this was his friend, a man who had saved his life countless times, but as Daniel closed his eyes, all he could hear was another man's heart beating, another man's breathing, and when he imagined that spreading pool of silence between them it came in the color of blood.
The next morning they drove to the dig in silence. There were different qualities to their silence of which Daniel was all too painfully aware. Nelson's was of the tactful variety, pretending to be absorbed in the beauty of the desert as the sun came up so as not to have to notice the way his two companions were so pointedly not talking to one another. Jack's was wounded, on his dignity because Daniel kept rejecting him and he didn't know why. Daniel's silence was because with every mile they drew closer to the Labyrinth he could feel a fear spreading through him that was so paralyzing he didn't think he could have gotten his voice to work even if he'd wanted to.
It seemed futile to try to explain to Jack that the nearer they drew to the Labyrinth, the more intense and suffocating grew his sense of claustrophobia. This morning he had woken up feeling as if he was traveling to his own premature burial, to be nailed alive in a coffin in the darkness, and the sense of impending dread was only growing stronger with each mile taking him closer and closer to the site of the Labyrinth. Going hand in hand with the horror of having to step into that maze again was the anxiety about seeing Darius Golding again, and with it the acute embarrassment of having to confront his own behavior from a decade before.
Daniel gripped the edge of the jeep tightly enough to make his fingers hurt, his wrist shrieking a protest, needing to get back to the here and now, even though the here and now was being driven towards a place that filled him with irrational terror. It was instinctive to look around for Jack, now looking even more familiar in his BDU, and to be comforted by the sight of him but then he was flinching from his own reaction. This was what Darius had always said, that he would end up emotionally dependent on some older guy he could hero-worship to make up for the gap his dead father had left in his life. Except he didn't hero-worship Jack, damnit. They were equals and friends. And Jack wasn't a father figure. Quite apart from the fact the age gap between them was less then a decade, there were times when Jack had all the emotional maturity of an eight-year-old so how could he be? They shared information, they also tuned out information. It wasn't a case of him hanging on Jack's every word and being impressed by the fact he carried a big gun….
But it would look that way to Darius because that would be the way Darius would want to see it. Not for the first time, Daniel wished he'd insisted Sam had come along for this trip instead. She would have been a better choice in almost every way. Not least because Darius would have tried to seduce her and it would have been satisfying on so many levels to watch him fail.
Daniel darted another glance at Jack and saw that he was still hurt. Even though he was wearing his sunglasses in a resolutely 'Don't screw with me, world, I'm scary' way, Daniel could pick up the little signs of wounded feelings as well because Daniel had denied their friendship in public then denied it again in private when he wouldn't tell him what was wrong. He knew he wasn't treating him well. Jack could seem overbearing sometimes but right now the man was just worried about him and exasperated by him and probably torn between wishing he could swat him and comfort him, the way Jack often was. What Jack really wanted right now from him was an explanation, and that was something Daniel couldn't give him, because there was too much confusion in his own mind for him to be able to extract any reasonable motives.
By the time they had stumbled into that crowded room filled with heat, spices, the scent of cooking food, and too many blasts from his past, he had been hyperventilating to the point where it was taking all his self-control not to throw up or pass out. Seeing Darius again had been the final straw. He'd thought he was prepared for the meeting, but when their eyes had met his mind had abruptly filled with darkness, like being smothered in black velvet. He'd known he was terribly afraid of him but he had no idea why. The room had grayed out for a moment, like stepping inside his own migraine, white noise, zig-zagging colors fading into monochrome. After a few moments, the relative normality of the conversation had restored him, but he'd been trembling by the time Darius approached, feeling suddenly exposed by the presence of Jack by his elbow. Seeing Darius deliberately jumping to wrong conclusions had summoned a hundred contemptuous words back to sting him, and with them had come acute anxiety. He'd felt simultaneously enraged by Jack and frightened for him. The anger had won out because if Jack had just stayed in Cheyenne Mountain the way he should have done, there would have been no danger.
Memories had swirled uncomfortably, odd phrases, exchanges, that hideously awkward misunderstanding that he'd banished quickly once the tent flap had closed behind Darius once again. His head had been hurting so much by this point he'd just wanted to be unconscious. He'd stumbled towards the staircase acutely aware of both Darius observing them and the bad habit Jack had got into of treating Daniel like an extension of himself, just assuming he'd be there by his left shoulder to be chivvied and chaperoned and taken for granted. At some point while they'd been out exploring the galaxy and saving the universe he and Jack had somehow slipped into a kind of humdrum domesticity that wouldn’t have seemed out of place in the suburbs. Given the grandiose and heroic nature of their work, that seemed a little unfair to him. And analyzing artifacts for lost civilizations lost some of its glamour when one of your teammates kept coming into your office because he was bored and wanted the newspaper your artifacts were wrapped in so he could attempt to do the crossword. There were couples out there with two kids, a dog, and a school run, who probably acted less married than him and Jack. It was also acutely embarrassing under the gaze of someone like Darius who wanted to join a lot of dots that did not in fact exist. Darius had never taken Daniel seriously, or if he had done, he'd hidden it well. Alexis' theory had always been that Darius felt threatened because he'd been a prodigy himself and yet Daniel's reputation had already been so impressive it had threatened to put Darius’s in the shade. That he'd used any means he could to undermine Daniel's confidence in his own abilities to try prevent Daniel from overtaking him professionally. But although Daniel would have loved to believe that was true, he didn't find it very convincing.
In the letters of introduction sent by his college professor, Jordan had made what was probably the mistake of using the word 'genius' about Daniel, then when Daniel had arrived he had made the mistake of correcting a translation of Darius’s and to add insult to injury being right. When dealing with someone with an ego like Darius’s that had probably been a bad idea. But Darius had never gone in for the kind of petty vindictive point-scoring colleagues like Stephen had a few years later, sitting there seething with jealousy because Professor Jordan thought Daniel was going to end up rewriting the history books but he only said that Stephen would make a living. Darius had even seemed proud of him on occasion, but he had been patronizing and his mood swings could be frightening. He could be fond and good-humored one day and then viciously scathing the next.
No one had ever said anything about the way Daniel looked until he'd arrived on that dig, but Darius hadn't been able to leave it alone. Full of sneering semi-compliments, semi-dismissals about how if their funding ran out they could always sell Goldilocks Jackson to a rich Arab. The man was as unpredictable as he was magnetic. Daniel knew that he'd been fascinated by him and Darius had told him he'd had a crush. He'd said he didn't mind, he was even flattered by it although, of course, there was nothing doing, but there was no point in Daniel denying it because that was definitely what it was. Daniel had denied it all the same and later Darius had amateur psycho-analyzed him around the campfire while sipping single malt from a Coke bottle that was fooling no one. Getting drunker and nastier as the sparks hissed into the air like angry fireflies. Pointing out that what Daniel really craved in his life was a replacement father-figure, someone with authority Daniel could rely on to protect him, comfort him, give him personal and professional affirmation through praise, and oh yes, by the way, fuck him up the ass.
Alexis, always over-protective of his dead friend's son, had pretty much gone ballistic. Hélène Bouldieu, the usually soft-spoken French-Canadian, had told Darius vehemently that he seemed to be the one with the repressed hang-ups, not Daniel, and that if Daniel were female this would be blatant sexual harassment. The others had agreed with Hélène, telling Darius in various ways and various languages to pack it in, stop embarrassing Daniel and them, and cut down on his drinking before he became too obnoxious to work with. Even the ever-tolerant Inga had lost patience with Darius that time.
Daniel had been too seared with shame to move from his place of exposure in front of the campfire heating his burning face. The trouble with Darius was that ninety percent of the time he was right. Everyone agreed on that. Nelson insisted that this didn't make any difference to the ten percent where he was wildly, occasionally even derangedly, wrong. But Daniel had been worried that someone who was ninety percent right ninety percent of the time must occasionally be a hundred percent right as well. He had argued with Darius without backing down an inch about hieroglyphs, politics, and the age of the site, but anything to do with himself, the nebulous half-formed still-evolving twenty-three year-old Daniel Jackson, was a subject of which he felt far less certain than Predynastic Egypt. Over the weeks of Darius repeatedly asserting it to be true, Daniel had come to at least half-believe that perhaps it was half-true that he had a crush on the older archaeologist. That he, along with all those women who willingly helped Darius to cheat on his long-suffering wife over the years, had succumbed to the magnetism of his personality, the sheer physical presence of the man.
He looked up to find Nelson looking at him anxiously. "Yes?"
He'd somehow missed seeing their approach to it. The largest Predynastic site still accessible to archaeologists, 144 square miles of dig, and he would have sat there lost in his own thoughts while they drove past the corner of it. As the jeep kicked up the dust in a stream behind them, he gazed at the huge site in disbelief. They'd made so much progress since he'd been there last. Nelson handed him field glasses so he could look at the site in all its glory as they drove past, raising his voice to shout over the sound of the engine.
"They've restored Djehuty's inscription, thank goodness. They managed to recover a lot of the painted decoration inside the tomb as well. Had they uncovered the funerary banquet decoration in Hormeni's tomb when you were here…?"
He'd forgotten quite how magical this place was. It was as if the same fate which had so arbitrarily destroyed whole libraries, temples, and tombs, and allowed a thousand grave sites to be ransacked across the centuries had decided to make amends here. To preserve every strata of Ancient Egyptian history on one site for archaeologists to find, to heap upon them here not the fabulous riches of Tutankhamun's tomb, but something more revealing even than Howard Carter's glittering triumph. Here there were no golden deathmasks, but there were the oldest mummies ever found in Egypt, the earliest preserved house in Egypt was here, the earliest Egyptian temple, the first industrial breweries, the first stone-cut tomb, the earliest preserved royal palace, the oldest known cult image in existence, the only tomb of the Predynastic period with painted decoration along its plastered walls, even, bizarrely, the only known elephant burial.
"Did you know Hierakonpolis has been added to the list of hundred most endangered sites? It's the fort of Khasekhemwy that's suffering the most erosion…"
He let Nelson's update wash over him, thinking about the site they were driving past. He was aware of Jack in the seat behind him, could imagine what he was seeing, an expanse of dug over desert with only a few mounds and remains of buildings to relieve the monotony. To Jack this probably looked like nothing at all. He would have no conception that to an Egyptologist it was a bona fide wonder of the ancient world on a par with the pyramids themselves.
From the palette of Narmer in the Main Deposit, once believed to be the oldest political document in history, to the Sixth Dynasty obsidian-eyed golden falcon head found in the Temple of Horus, from late Predynastic petroglyphs to the New Kingdom tombs of Djehuty, Hormeni, and Hormose, Hierakonpolis had everything an Egyptologist could ever want or dream about – except for the hieroglyphic inscriptions Daniel had excelled at translating, and it was the lack of them which had caused his professor to suggest he joined the Labyrinth dig instead.
It was too much of a waste, his tutor had said, for someone who could read Egyptian hieroglyphs with such ease and fluidity as Daniel to spend a year of his life on a site with so few written records. The value of the work the Hierakonpolis archaeologists were doing in sifting through those layers of the past to build up the fascinating history of, not just Hierakonpolis, but Ancient Egypt itself could not be overstated, but Daniel's skills would be underused there. The Labyrinth was rich in the written word, with hieroglyphs both familiar and strange, runes never seen before, cuneiform of many kinds, a meeting place of Babylonian, Egyptian, Indian and Icelandic mythology unlike any other, uniquely suited to someone who specialized in the study of the cross-pollination of ancient cultures and who could read a dozen ancient languages with the ease and skill most Americans only knew in their own tongue.
Much later, when Daniel had been lying in that hospital bed, waiting for the doctors to tell him he could leave, he had found himself wondering if the Labyrinth was a trap designed deliberately to capture curious people like him. A set of clues any archaeologist worth his salt just had to solve, the center of the maze calling to him, challenging him to find the way there, to the place where the Minotaur was waiting.
When he happened to glance at Jack he saw he was watching him anxiously. He'd taken off his sunglasses to polish them and the concern in his eyes was undisguised. Daniel thought about his behavior since they'd left Cheyenne Mountain and could understand why Jack was worried. He managed a watery smile and handed him the field glasses, pointing to the low red mound east of the endangered Fort. "The oldest brewery in the world. It was producing three hundred gallons a day five and half thousand years ago."
"My kind of place."
Daniel tried to let him see that he was sorry for being so neurotic, distant, and strange the day before but now the sun was shining and everything was fine. Given the half-hearted smile that was the best Jack could manage, he guessed he wasn't being too convincing.
Nelson was pointing things out to Jack. Still apparently laboring under the delusion the Air Force officer was an amateur Egyptologist and found such things interesting. "This is the most incredible site, Colonel. Well, except for the Labyrinth itself, which is more incredible again, but really this place contains evidence from almost every strata of the history of Ancient Egypt. Well before the construction of the pyramids it was one of the largest urban centers along the Nile…."
Daniel opened his mouth to point out that at least some of the pyramids were far older than Nelson thought, definitely older than anything yet found at Hierakonpolis, then closed his mouth again with a sigh. He was surprised and not a little touched to see that glance of sympathy from Jack. He was never sure if Jack even remembered it was his theory about the age of the pyramids that had seen him laughed out of academia in the first place but apparently he did.
"Over there is the tomb of Ny-ankh-Pepy, which was a tourist attraction in the New Kingdom era – you can still see the scribbles the tourists left on the walls – but it was originally an Old Kingdom tomb for an official called Itjefy. However in the Middle Kingdom era Ny-ankh-Pepy came along, decided to have the tomb for himself and had it extensively repainted. Next to it is the tomb of Horemkhawef, the chief priest of Horus of Hierakonpolis. His funerary stele describes a visit to fetch a new cult image of Horus and of Isis…"
Daniel was sure Jack must have glazed over a long time ago. He was trying not to feel a sharp pang of loss for the life he hadn't lived. He supposed that was what this trip was about. Trying to go back to his past and undo the wrong turnings he'd taken. He'd always hated that saying about ignorance being bliss. How could anyone choose not to know when there were so many questions that could be asked, so many answers that could be found?
He'd wished so many times that he could share what he'd discovered through traveling through the Stargate with his colleagues. Tell Alexis, who had spent so much of his adult life exploring the palaces at Knossos, Phaistos, Mallia and Zakros, about the Land of Light, about the way the Minoan culture had developed on another world. Tell Inga about Cimmeria. Tell Nelson that on Abydos Ancient Egyptian was still a living, breathing, spoken language. For five years he'd been thinking no archaeologist could have a better job than him. But for the first time he could see the benefits of ignorance. Nelson didn't know about the Goa'uld, so none of these sites on earth was tainted for him by the shadow of the System Lords. He was going to spend his life looking for answers here and perhaps find a few of them while Daniel traveled to distant worlds finding answers of his own, or perhaps only finding more questions. At the end of their discoveries, Nelson could write a book on Predynastic Egypt everyone could read whereas Daniel's discoveries were going to remain classified forever. What was the point of gaining knowledge you couldn't share? What was it Ernest had said to him all those years ago, when he'd been so dazzled by the thought of that universal language he hadn't been able to think of anything else? No prize is worth attaining if you can never share it. He had to believe that, one day, the information they were gaining about their own pasts, and the development of those parallel cultures was going to be made public. That the knowledge would be shared. That some good would come of it. That something as incredible as the Stargate program, the means to travel from one part of the galaxy to one another, to touch the fingers of other humans like themselves whose ancestors had come from a common beginning yet diverged in such fascinating ways, would produce tangible good.
But in the meantime they were fighting a war against the System Lords which the rest of the planet couldn't know about, even though the threat, if it couldn't be averted in time, would kill them too.
"Now, the 'Fort' of Khasekhemwy itself is absolutely fascinating…"
Daniel knew all Jack could see was a few low dusty walls near to a small ruined building. To Nelson, Daniel, and the archaeologists who had made Hierakonpolis their life's work it was just one of the many things that made this place so incredible. To Jack it was a boring irrelevance that was doing nothing to keep Nelson and people like him safe from the Goa'uld.
As they drove nearer to the labyrinth site, Daniel could feel his tension growing. He kept trying to take deep breaths but failing, feeling increasingly nauseated as his stress levels rose, and he felt more and more breathless.
"We're working from the western side now. There are even more of those weird hieroglyphs we're hoping you may be able to translate, runes not quite like anything Inga's ever seen before, and a lot of cuneiform, mostly Sumerian but there are some inscriptions which seem to have Proto-Elamite characteristics…."
How was it possible to be so frightened of something he couldn't remember? He was aware of the sunlight on his back, the landscape they were passing, the dusty ribbon of the road, the disturbed appearance of the desert where sebakh and antiquities diggers had been at work for centuries. But it was all peripheral to his realization that he could see the Labyrinth now, the low hump of it barely disturbing the surface of the desert. No surprise that it had at first been assumed it must be an Old Kingdom mastaba extending still further the boundaries of Kom el-Ahmar. He remembered his own wonder as he shone his flashlight on those first hieroglyphic inscriptions proclaiming the majesty of Ra. Then shining his flashlight on the next panel and seeing not the hieroglyphic inscription he was expecting but a runic futhark which had even less place in an Egyptian structure than the baffling wall of Sumerian cuneiform which had formed the next panel.
When he thought about that aspect of the labyrinth, it was okay. Daniel snatched a quick breath, opening his eyes to remind himself that the sun was shining, the aching desert skies streaked blue above red sands shifting gently with each gust of wind, eternal and unchanging, and that however it had come about, the labyrinth was a fascinating archaeological enigma. There may not be some tomb of a dead pharaoh to uncover, but there could be practical information about the Goa'uld which would be valuable. And either way it was filled with the kind of puzzles he had always loved to solve. There was no need to be afraid of this place. No need at all. Whatever had almost been done to him in that place, Rajid or a return of Darius’s sanity had intervened in time. The force of the explosion might have rendered him unconscious for a few weeks, but Darius’s intent had foundered somewhere before it became action. That had to be true because the doctors’ reports had all confirmed it. Whatever he might have threatened, Darius hadn't actually done him any harm, temporary or permanent. Daniel's fear was therefore irrational.
Unfortunately his fear didn't seem to know that and it was threatening to choke him with every foot they drew closer to the Labyrinth.
He was too aware of that anxious look Nelson darted in his direction as he put on the handbrake, making it obvious Daniel wasn't hiding his fear very well. He felt the way he had when that replicator had chirruped and climbed onto Reese's arm: paralyzing terror. The silence after the roar of the engine was dizzying. He could see the tents laid out in the same pattern as before, the cleared area where they had evidently been having their nightly campfires.
He climbed out of the jeep with difficulty, feeling gray sweat trickling down his spine, the ground not quite where he'd expected, landing flat-footed with a jolt. Absurd to be this frightened so he wasn't going to be, damn it. His tongue felt numb and there wasn't enough air left in the world, his own breathing sounded much too loud in the stillness.
He felt Jack's hand on his elbow. "You okay?"
It took a full minute for him to realize a question had been asked that required an answer then Daniel nodded, not looking at him. He didn't want anyone, even Jack, seeing the depths of his terror. It was just an archaeological site. That was all.
"The entrance is here. It's all been cleared away now and inside there's really no damage at all…"
He nodded again, saying 'Yes' whenever Nelson or Jack said anything, knowing the time it would take for the meaning of what they were saying to permeate was much too long for a reasonable conversation. He made sure he walked carefully down the slope to the entrance, following in Nelson's footsteps, his booted feet sinking into the sand in exactly the same place. Someone trying to track them wouldn't even know he'd been here.
"Daniel…" He caught a glimpse of Inga by the entrance, pushing her hair back from her face and leaving a faint streak of dust across her forehead from her grubby fingers. She must have been touching the runes, feeling the thin spikes of them against her skin. "Why don't you come and sit down first? Have some coffee? I've just made a pot…"
He hoped he smiled at her. He intended to, but he walked past her without a word all the same. What was there to say? If he couldn't do this he may as well go home now. The light was shuttering now with each pace as the entrance to the Labyrinth loomed up, the sun above it dazzling his eyes, then the structure cutting off the sky. Now he was in shadow, Jack was so close he could feel his breath against his cheek. There was lighting rigged up inside, not bright but enough to prevent the Labyrinth seeming like the mouth of hell. Just an archaeological site. His heart was slamming against his chest and there was no air at all now. His shirt was sticking to his skin, the lights seemed to be getting dimmer.
As he walked into the entrance hall he saw the figure of Ra painted on one panel, hieroglyphs danced at him, very early glyphs, almost pictograms, crude yet brightly colored, praising the great god of the sun. They could have been painted by the people of Abydos. For all he knew they had been once. The other panel was cryptographic, written by priests, they would probably never be able to decode that one although that wouldn't stop him trying. More hieroglyphs…no, Goa'uld glyphs. And how great was the difference a decade made. These were translatable now.
He snatched another breath. The air was being sucked into the labyrinth past him, it was like standing on a subway station as the train approached, a strange wind effect he'd forgotten about until now. They'd never understood why it gusted like that, the noise it made, the way it snatched at one’s clothing like a ghost. He turned his head and saw the panel of cuneiform underneath the wall carving, and abruptly the last of the air disappeared and the lights dimmed faster and faster. The tale of the Descent of Inanna inscribed in Sumerian cuneiform with illustrations of the Lady of Heaven shedding her clothes as she descended into the darkness.
He didn't know if Darius was translating the words now or only in his memory, but suddenly all he could hear was the man's sonorous voice and the rushing of the wind in his ears.
"To Ganzir, land of no return, Inanna daughter of Nanna was determined to go,
To the dark palace, which those who enter cannot leave,
To the house where those who enter are deprived of light,
Where dust is their food, clay their bread.
They see no light, they dwell in darkness,
They are thirsty and naked in the darkness…"
He flinched from the memories, flashes so fast they were almost subliminal: a knife blade, cloth tearing, cord biting into his wrists, the sting of a slap across his face, and through it all the fear, like cold glue filling his body with paralysis, insanity a black cloth wrapped across his eyes, a whisper in his ear, a gag in his mouth, and all the time being dragged nearer and nearer to the center of the labyrinth, the heart of absolute darkness from which there could be no escape….
He was heaving before he could stop himself. He ran for the exit and the sunlight, a hand clasped across his mouth, barely making it outside before he vomited his breakfast into the sand, heaving and heaving until there was nothing to expel but a thin white bile.
He leant against the wall of the labyrinth, still feeling the burn in his throat, the stench of his own vomit filling his nostrils, eyes watering, the world spinning a little too fast for him. He became suddenly aware that there was no hand tentatively patting his back. When he lifted his head the world gave another lurch and he saw Jack looking at him with his most closed-off expression, grimacing then gritting his teeth, robbed of his role as a comforter by Daniel's Greta Garbo act, afraid of making things worse and his impotence setting the frustrated anger bubbling.
Daniel had to turn his head carefully to focus on the blur that had loomed up on his other side. When Darius came into focus he flinched automatically, but the man was just offering a bottle of Coke.
"I don't have brandy."
Daniel hesitated then reached out and took the bottle. He risked meeting Darius’s eye as he put the bottle to his lips and for once the man wasn't gloating, he even looked a little regretful, but there was still a hint of mockery in his voice as he said: "Cheers."
Daniel drank down the whiskey-spiked coca-cola in rapid swallows, grateful to have it overlaying the bile burn at the back of his throat, the sugar and alcohol hitting him hard where he needed it. His flashbacks had already faded in the sunlight, like over-exposed photographs.
He wiped his mouth and handed back the bottle, not backing down this time, looking Darius right in the eye with all the defiance he could muster. "Cheers."
Darius wiped the top of the bottle, gaze holding his, unreadable. Impossible to say if he was full of mockery, compassion, hostility or regret as he said, "Welcome back to the Labyrinth, Daniel."
The last thing he'd expected to feel on this trip was wanted. O'Neill had expected to be perceived by everyone, including Daniel, as an unpleasant necessity, like drains, definitely not as someone who was welcome. With the exception of Golding though, he'd discovered that archaeologists were a friendly bunch. Every one of the people on the dig was a little like Daniel, had a fragment of the enthusiasm and childlike interest in really uninteresting things that he found equally exasperating and endearing. He still had reservations. It was sweet when your kid wanted to stare into a muddy puddle in the ground for half the afternoon because there might be a frog in it, or wanted to dig up the flower borders to look for buried treasure that only existed in the form of broken pottery. He wasn't quite so convinced that it was a reasonable way for adults to behave. But as forms of adult behavior went, he had to admit that the ways of archaeologists was less irritating and certainly less destructive than that of many other kinds of people. And then there was the fact they'd all been so darned nice to him.
Except for Golding, of course. Golding really couldn't stand him, but O'Neill wasn't losing too much sleep over that. The feeling was entirely mutual.
He didn't doubt the guy was brilliant. He'd watched him translate a panel of little wedge-shaped signs in the wall that even Daniel had stumbled over, finger moving down the columns of writing, arrogantly throwing words over his shoulder for Daniel to catch and write down. But he had serious doubts about his sanity. Everyone else seemed to think that irrational mood swings, obsession with Daniel's sleeping arrangements, and heavy dependence on whiskey were just what made Golding…Golding, but O'Neill thought he looked like someone heading for a crash.
The first day, he'd had to play fifth wheel while Golding threw his weight around. He didn't know the lie of the land well enough to interfere, but he spent the day information-gathering, trying to get his bearings on the first few chambers and corridors of the labyrinth place, how the camp was set up, where the water was, the names of the other archaeologists and enough about them to try to make them allies.
He'd got them pretty much straight in his head now. Nelson was always discussing ancient Egypt with him, and although it was annoying and boring, it was also kind of amusing too. Through a weird series of coincidences and misunderstandings O'Neill had either said the right thing at the right time or said the wrong thing but had it misinterpreted as another point of view rather than the basic ignorance it was, with the result that with no attempt made on his part to fool anyone, Nelson had it firmly fixed in his head that O'Neill was some kind of amateur enthusiast. He was the most openly protective of Daniel while making the most inept attempts to hide his anxiety but he was always gentlemanly towards and tolerant of Golding, which annoyed O'Neill who wished just for once the archaeologists would stop being so nice to the guy and just deck him. (He'd heard that the absent Alexis Spiros had decked Golding once, and was awaiting his return impatiently on that score alone.)
Sanjay Zaheer was a gentle, elderly, and very soft-spoken scholar of something to do with Indian mythology who seemed to spend most of the day staring dreamily at pictures of what looked to O'Neill suspiciously like snakes. He had beckoned O'Neill into the chamber he was investigating with the quiet pride of someone who has found something unexpectedly wonderful in the twilight of his life. He showed O'Neill a painted wall showing serpents coiling and uncoiling around the earth, and beside it on the next wall a script which he said was a very early form of some alphabet brought back from Mesopotamia by traders. In the whisper in which he habitually spoke he said that he thought this wall panel could possibly be the missing link between cuneiform and Nagari.
"Or not." His smile was infectious. He was a berry brown man, hair gray, tiny, and frail as a leaf in fall. O'Neill could have picked him up with one arm. He tried not to loom over him but Doctor Zaheer was sweetly unafraid of him despite the uniform he wore, trusting that as he was a friend of Daniel's he could only be a force for good. At times as he walked among them with a gun in his sock O'Neill was less sure than the elderly Hindu that he really was a force for good.
There was a younger French-Canadian woman called Hélène Bouldieu who described herself as still in recovery over the fate of some moldering necropolis in Alexandria that had been crushed beneath the weight of a new highway, taking its secrets with it. She had the body of a child, no hips and no breasts, and had short jet black hair she cut herself one-handed with nail scissors while using the other hand to gesticulate for emphasis. She talked about the lost necropolis with the obsession of a woman over an ex-husband, admitting he was gone in one breath yet unable to move on and talk about anything else. O'Neill might have found her pining over a place full of dead bodies annoying if she hadn't been doing so in an accent he had to admit he found pretty sexy. She described crawling through half submerged, tiny passageways barely large enough for a human body to enter, with no way of knowing if there was any way of turning around or if the exit would have to be made backwards, all to excavate an old burial site in which dried corpses were left in niches in the walls. O'Neill had told her that was his idea of hell on earth. She'd shrugged in a way far more French than Canadian and said to her it was heaven and if he were very good she would perhaps let him see her sketches.
He'd given her a look of suspicion. "Would I want to see them?"
"They are special," she promised him. He'd walked away from that conversation not sure whether or not he'd just been propositioned but deciding after a few minutes with some regret that he didn't think he had after all. It seemed to be a sad truth about archaeologists that when they wanted to show you their etchings it really was so you could marvel at the pigment.
Alexis Spiros was due back in a few days, once his doctors allowed him to leave the hospital. Alexis phoned every evening from his hospital bed, speaking very rapidly and in a combination of languages as the other archaeologists passed the phone from person to person while he asked for progress reports, suggested priorities, coaxed and encouraged and praised. It annoyed O'Neill to realize that he hadn't taken in that the absent Spiros was the leader of the excavation. Galling though it was to admit it, he'd assumed the one in charge was Golding. He, along with everyone else, had clearly been swept along by the man's spurious air of authority and it needled him considerably.
Last, but by no means least, there was Inga Stark. He had introduced himself to her in the first few minutes while Daniel was still recovering from losing his breakfast. She'd said at once that he looked like a man who loved helping old ladies with their runes. Evidently seeing the panic in his eyes, she'd laughed and then confessed that her back ached if she had to keep bending down and she could really do with an assistant. He'd promised to help out later and had gained himself a dazzling smile of gratitude. She was very calm, very methodical, would appear to be completely bound up in her own work and paying no attention to the conversation then would drop a few words into the middle that showed she'd been following everything even while translating rune-writing.
Nelson showed him a lot of chambers of different sizes which were apparently dedicated to different ancient Egyptian gods, brilliantly colored paintings of the adored deities and hymns of praise to them in hieroglyphics daubed on every wall. Nelson talked constantly about how wonderful the Labyrinth was, like a local priest eulogizing about the Sistine Chapel. O'Neill found the place oppressive and had grown increasingly annoyed by the sound of the generator fuelling the miles of electric cable which powered the weak lemon-yellow lights. It was a little weird to be amongst all these learned types, earnestly telling him things he knew weren't true as they struggled to make sense of a crossword puzzle from which someone had removed all the essential clues. If he hadn't liked them, if they'd been arrogant about what they were telling him, he could have enjoyed his knowledge, but they were all so full of enthusiasm, and hope, wanting to know and telling him about their tentative assessments, the things that made them believe this could signify this which unfortunately for that theory was contradicted by this. They were as happy as amateur detectives with a new Agatha Christie to unravel, and to tell them about the Goa'uld, even if it hadn't been against all military protocol, would have seemed as unkind as telling them who had done it and why. And how it hadn't taken place in the drawing room with the candlestick, after all, and that map of who had been where at the time of the crime and whether or not the French windows had been locked wasn't relevant, because actually the crime had taken place in another galaxy far, far away and the body had just been dumped there down the chimney afterwards.
In the first few hours he'd been telling himself he mustn't give way to the temptation to give them clues, that it would be as dangerous to them to learn the truth as it might have been to that journalist who'd died with O'Neill's blood on his hands. By the end of the day he wasn't even thinking about the secrecy of the Stargate Program any more, he just didn't want to be the one to walk upon their dreams.
Golding had seen to it that Daniel was working with him inside a narrow chamber. He'd said they had to get past this point if they were going to work together, Daniel needed to get back on the horse and so on. O'Neill hadn't disagreed in theory but the satisfaction on Golding's face hadn't gone unnoticed by him, nor had the continuing pallor of Daniel's skin long after he'd lost his breakfast in the sand.
O'Neill had made sure he was in an adjoining chamber where he could keep at least an ear on Golding and Daniel, and had turned out to be of genuine use to Inga, whose bad back made it difficult for her to bend down. She'd found strangely smooth rune-stones scattered throughout the Labyrinth, some with markings, others without, and O'Neill had volunteered for the task of finding and collecting the stones and helping her to collate them. He had an ulterior motive or six, of course. He felt she was someone he wanted on his side, he genuinely liked her, his back was bad enough on winter days now that he could sympathize with a fellow sufferer, but most of all, he recognized the stones at once for Asgard runes, very similar to the ones Thor had bade him use on the Belisker to activate the control panel. He felt it was definitely in the best interests of the SGC for these stones to be collected up and confiscated just in case some Asgard technology that they could activate should turn up. In the meantime he had allotted himself the task of finding the Asgard control panel which he was sure had to be hidden in these confusing corridors somewhere.
Inga had become familiar and comforting within a couple of hours. She reminded him of Katherine and was probably around the same age, although her hair was still salt and pepper, cut short and tending to stick up in endearing spikes when she absently brushed it from her forehead with the back of one dusty hand. Her oversized man's coat looked as if it had long since seen better days. It seemed to have come from the same GrungeCoats-R-Us outfitters as Golding's, and like his shapeless garment it also seemed to have pockets of bottomless depth, currently very pushed out of shape by the rune stones she kept dropping in there absently.
She was the Viking expert, someone who studied the gods the Asgard had pretended to be, or perhaps the gods who people had created for themselves from the Asgard who had visited them. It was a chicken and the egg situation he'd never really been able to unravel but, unlike Daniel, he didn't really care which had come first and didn't intend to waste any sleep over it. But the fact that she liked the Asgard, studied their myths, could understand the runes they had left upon the walls in mystical alien graffiti, made him feel warm to her from the outset. Egyptologists seemed to him to be siding with the enemy, adopting the language of the Goa'uld. Vikingologists were on the side of the good guys, even though they didn't know it. He felt more comfortable with her because of that. Even after she'd told him there was no such thing as a Vikingologist.
He liked the calm way she took him for granted, treating him as if he was a young boy rather than a grown man. There weren't very many people left these days older than him to the point where they would take that kind of resigned responsibility for him. Hammond was important to him for that as much as for his skill as a leader. There were times when even protectors needed to feel protected, when even leaders of men needed to feel the comforting glow of someone else's benevolent tyranny.
She told him with almost too much emphasis, as if she expected him to argue the point, that she was unmarried and had no children, and he'd realized that technically so was he. When he told her he was in the same position she gave him an unexpectedly searching look, as if she could read his past in his eyes, and then said, "There are worse things than being single, Colonel."
"I had a wife once. I had a son once, too. Now I don't."
She did look sorry for him but there was still reservation there. She turned back to the runes, saying quietly. "I'm sorry. You and Darius have more in common than I realized."
He'd bristled at that. Not wanting to be put into the same category as a man he already actively disliked despite the briefness of their acquaintance. "I doubt that."
"He also had a wife and son once and now he has neither." Her gaze was reproachful, a hint of disappointment there. It hung unspoken between them: You're not the only one here to suffer losses.
He realized she thought he was prone to bouts of self-pity about his single state and, after a moment's reflection, he realized she was right. There were times when he knew it made him impatient with the losses of others. He'd lost his son, damnit, and his wife had walked out on him. He carried a hole inside himself all the time, a cavern of losses filled with the echoes of old baseball games, the angry stirrings of forgotten arguments, the tentative first steps of a toddler, the lost warmth of sunlight on a woman's hair.
Daniel had lost just about everyone he'd ever known and ever loved, and was still suffering losses, attracting them like iron filings to a magnet. Dead parents, dead wife, absent grandfather who had in any case never been around for him when he was living on the same planet, and now the loss of his wife's son whom Daniel loved but could never see and who carried inside him the memories of the creature that had taken his wife's body and raped it to give this child life. He was dependent on the whims of a glowing alien whether he ever saw that boy again. Carter had lost her mother to a car accident just at the age when she needed her most, and her father had been changed into a different species right in front of her eyes. She could never have another conversation with him without Selmac listening in. She carried the memories of a dead Tok'ra inside her, her blood was no longer entirely human, and biologically he supposed, neither was she. Teal'c's father had been murdered by Cronos, he'd been brought up in exile, physically altered forever to accommodate a system which had left him a slave to the creatures which had orphaned him. Because of the Goa'uld he had abandoned his wife, become separated from his son, been forced to kill, been forced to die.
So, yes, beside the sufferings of himself and that small group which he now thought of as an extension of himself, the misery of others did sometimes seem trivial, and perhaps he was dismissive, impatient, uncaring. But if he let himself be as receptive as Daniel was to the sufferings of strangers he could end up too scarred from other people's wounds to be able to keep going into combat. And yes, his wounds were realer to him than Golding's but that was because with each piece of scar tissue he remembered the knife going in.
"So, dubsar tur, what have you been doing with yourself these past few years? Except for acquiring mysterious Air Force bodyguards and a new haircut, that is…?"
Golding's voice from the next chamber made his hackles rise in automatic response. The Labyrinth had no echo although it felt as if it should do. Although it was technically underground, it was also technically a Goa'uld constructed piece of machinery, and walls of naquada evidently had no truck with echoes.
He didn't wait to hear Daniel's mild and untruthful response, immediately turning to Inga. "What did he just call Daniel?"
She was sketching the runes on the wall panel, meticulous in her drawing even though the panel and the surrounding walls had already been videotaped, but the swiftness of her answer told him that she too was listening in on Daniel and Golding. "It means 'junior scribe' in Babylonian. It's what Darius used to call Daniel."
He looked up at her in surprise. "You were here before?"
She seemed surprised by his surprise. "We all were. Didn't you know? I think I've dreamed of this place at least once a month every year since we were forced to leave. It's unlike anything I've ever seen."
He watched her sketch another rune sign, not a tremor in her fingers, reproducing the carving on the panel in front of her perfectly. He asked curiously, "What do you think of it?"
She looked around at the chamber. "Everyone keeps asking me that. I think the truth is, it is wrong in almost every way. It looks authentic and yet it feels utterly fake."
"Fake in what way?" he pressed.
She shook her head. "I don't know. Perhaps it's just too perfect. Or just too bizarre." She darted him a sideways look. "These runes are perfect. No anachronistic signs of any kind. No one has used the wrong kind of old Swedish or anything close to it. But it's too long an inscription and what it seems to say makes absolutely no sense. And anyway it can't be here."
"Here in the Labyrinth?" He polished another stone on his jacket.
She held out her hands. "Here in Egypt. Here where the Vikings didn't come. Who can carry news of a god except the people who worship him? Deities don't have an independent existence. They need belief and believers or else they don't exist."
O'Neill shrugged. "Hey, the panel could have been carved in Iceland or wherever, couldn't it? Then some Viking sold it and it was brought over here."
She sketched another rune carefully before laying down her pencil. "The carbon dating analysis on this site makes it thousands of years older than the Viking civilization but this panel speaks of Thor. Actually it seems to speak for Thor…."
His knees were starting to seize up but he didn't mind the boredom of helping Inga. The runes reminded him of Thor and he associated Thor with the hope of possible victory. And anyway he was just fond of the little guy.
"Your flyboy colonel doesn't look like the intellectual type to me."
Golding's voice interrupting his and Inga's pleasant tête à tête again made him grimace in annoyance.
Daniel's voice carried the hint of a tremor in it as he tried to sound unfazed and failed. "Jack's a lot smarter than he likes people to know, and anyway he has other qualities."
"Oh I bet he has. And I bet even though he never did Classical Studies in his community college he can still recognize a kinaidos when one is offering him everything on a plate."
The contempt and bitterness in Golding's voice made O'Neill half rise to his feet but Inga shook her head at him.
"It's not like that," Daniel said quietly.
O'Neill darted Inga a sideways look. "What did he just call him?"
"It's not an easy word to translate."
"I'm not a Greek scholar."
"I suppose 'catamite' is the nearest local equivalent but it's really to do with male hypocrisy. Even the Greeks didn't think it was acceptable for anyone to enjoy going underneath, and those that were reputed to do so were insulted and looked down upon."
O'Neill didn't need to be a Greek scholar either to work out that Golding wasn't telling Daniel he was someone who liked taking it up the ass as a compliment. "Remind me again why we have to put up with that S.O.B?" he hissed at her.
She regarded him levelly. "Because he is a brilliant archaeologist and the foremost expert on cuneiform and Babylonian mythology in the world."
"The fact he's crazier than a sackful of snakes being only a mild wrinkle presumably?"
Inga drew another rune, her pencil making a perfectly straight downward line. "We prefer to think of him as eccentric."
O'Neill lowered his voice to hiss, "So, what happened back then? Did none of you notice he was going nuts?"
Inga turned and looked him in the eye for a moment. "His wife had just killed herself, Colonel. Under those circumstances people tend to cut a man a little slack."
He felt momentarily deflated. He didn't want to feel sorry for Golding. "Why did she kill herself?"
"Who can know that except Anna herself? Perhaps because he had been unfaithful one too many times. Perhaps because she wanted his attention? Because she wanted to punish him? Because she'd realized they were never going to have any more children now and she had sacrificed everything for a man who habitually cheated on her and spent most of his life on a different continent." Inga drew another rune. "Perhaps because she woke up one morning and the sun wasn't shining. Who knows why the mentally ill do the things they do?" After a pause, she added with less hostility, "It was the anniversary of the death of their child from cot death. It may have been one bad day too many. We'll never know."
O'Neill polished another rune stone carefully, using the cloth she'd given him to get the dust out of the carving. Exactly like the ones on Thor's ship. Moving carved stones around on that panel while Thor died on his dais and engine plans flashed up in front of him, incomprehensible and tedious. He'd once been the one with the loaded gun in his hand, imagining the taste of the barrel in his mouth, how easy it would be to summon oblivion and an end to this perpetual misery with one swift squeeze of the trigger. That was what he was trying not to think about – that he did know it felt to look into that particular abyss. "So, he cheated on her?"
"Constantly." Inga said the word crisply, without judgment.
"You feel sorry for him?" He couldn't help the accusation leaching in.
"Yes." Her glance at him was defiant, defending her right to pity him. "He was undoubtedly grief-stricken at her death. In his own way I think he loved her far more than either of them ever realized. He did sleep around all the time but it really was meaningless. There was never any threat to that central relationship although people sometimes fooled themselves they would be the one to win him away from her but Anna's position was inviolate. And, of course, by killing herself she ensured that it remained so for eternity. Perhaps that was the idea. It certainly gave her the last word."
For a moment he could make no sense of the coldness in her voice, the lack of sympathy for the wronged wife from a woman who could even find compassion for Golding, and then he realized what she was telling him. "You slept with Golding?"
She paused for a moment and then nodded. "Yes. A long time ago we had an affair. I mistook intensity of desire for the proof that we were meant to be together forever. I was thirty-five. He was already married. Reality caught up with both of us in the way it generally does in these things." A shadow passed over her face, an old fire never quite extinguished, a sad puff of spent smoke, and then his evident astonishment moved her to humor and she laughed. "You needn't look so amazed, Colonel. I was quite attractive when I was younger and there is only eight years between us. The same gap as there was between Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry the Second. At least that's what I always tell myself. It sounds so much better than 'cradle-snatcher'."
"You still are very attractive. I just can't believe you'd fall for a phony like him."
"Oh, but I did," she assured him, mocking herself but with sadness behind it. "Hook, line, and the proverbial sinker. Everyone did. Darius was irresistible and no one tried very hard to resist him. But he isn't a phony. He is brilliant and he can be charming. And he has…other attributes."
He gritted his teeth. "Original good time had by all, was he?"
"Before Anna died there was a capacity for joy inside him that was very attractive. His enthusiasm was…incredible. He could make a cylinder seal appear to be the most exciting thing in the world. He loved his work and he lived life to the full. He drank too much. He took too many uppers and downers and for all I know other things as well. But he was a remarkable person. Then when she killed herself…" She shrugged. "Bitterness is a very unattractive trait. I try not to give way to it."
"Is he the reason you never married?" What a waste, he thought. What a pointless waste of a life, waiting for a man who had always loved his wife and now always would, and who anyway you've now come to despise. Or have you? Do you still love him even now? Even after what he did? What he is?
"Part of it, perhaps." She gave him an unexpectedly flirtatious smile. "But I haven't been a lonely old spinster, Colonel, I promise you."
He felt warmed by her smile, grateful to her for lightening the mood. "I believe you."
He and Daniel had ended up sharing a tent despite Daniel's protests. In fact he'd rather insisted on it. He and Daniel always shared tents on missions and why the heck should they change the habits of the last few years just because of Golding's weird obsessions? But Daniel hadn't liked it. He'd muttered and shuffled about, wrapped his arms around himself to keep out the imaginary chill and looked around for some other possibility until O'Neill had told him in no uncertain terms that it was the only tent they had, it was plenty big enough for two, and they were sharing it. Anyone who had a problem with that could take it up with his therapist but it was no problem of theirs. Daniel had reluctantly given in but spent the first hour sighing, and looking tragic and generally wronged until O'Neill had wanted to throw his boots at him.
"I don't care." He hissed it at him with positive venom.
Daniel flinched and looked even more tragic. "You don't understand."
"No, I don't. I don't understand for one minute why the delusions of some guy you haven't seen for thirteen years are suddenly more important than five years of friendship."
In the blue-lit darkness with the rustling flutter of the tent rippling against the ropes like a trapped dove, Daniel looked positively stricken. "It isn't like that."
"Well then, what is it like?" He was past exasperated. Fed up with being snubbed and denied while Golding was pandered to and indulged. He was fed up with Daniel tip-toeing past Golding and turning the other cheek whenever the guy made another unsubtle crack, then snapping at him if he dared to try make light of what the guy was suggesting.
"I'm afraid for you."
The admission made no sense although it obviously cost Daniel something to say it. O'Neill shook his head in disbelief while Daniel turned his head to look at him, eyes pleading for him to be understanding. O'Neill moistened his lips. "I have a gun. And in case you haven't noticed I take an awful lot of killing."
"You don't know what Darius is like."
O'Neill stabbed a finger at him. "Hey, I'm the one who keeps telling you he isn’t stable in the upper story. You're the one who keeps insisting he's a genius and we should all make allowances."
"He is a genius." Daniel propped himself up. "It would have taken me a week to translate what Darius translated this morning in a couple of hours. I'd forgotten just how good he is."
O'Neill felt the exasperation bubbling up again. He was so sick of hearing how clever Golding was. "Cuneiform isn't your specialty. Hieroglyphs are."
"Darius can translate Eblaite and Elamite cuneiform. There are only about twelve men alive today who can do that and I'm not one of them."
O'Neill exhaled. "Yes, and he can't translate Goa'uld and you can. Stop letting him undermine you."
Daniel went to sleep then, apparently to avoid continuing the conversation. He seemed to have developed the ability to drop into unconsciousness like a sloth falling off a branch. One minute he was arguing, the next he was sleeping with his mouth open, with no apparent transition between the two. O'Neill recognized the symptoms as someone living on the edge of stress, exhaustion a constant companion which could be succumbed to at any moment. He threw up his hands in defeat and went to sleep himself, dreaming of Hathor for the first time in years, breathing in her mind-altering mist, feeling her fingers on his skin, the pain as she cut a womb inside him, a rape of his body as degrading in its own way as the one she'd inflicted on Daniel, using them both for her own ends, shaping them to suit her, to breed her offspring and to carry them, modeling them both like human clay.
He'd been poised on the brink of a realization of great significance when his alarm radar went off, telling him that somewhere close by something was terribly wrong and that if he didn't wake up and fix it right now, someone was going to die.
The first night after a long unsettled day spent far too much in the company of Darius, Daniel dreamed of Rajid. In the dream Rajid came to him, ghost-gray and a little out of focus to stand at the foot of his sleeping bag and look as sorrowful as a winter sea. His breath made a white mist in the darkness even though the dead were cold inside as well as out.
Rajid wept when he looked at Daniel and Daniel tried to tell him that he was sorry. He knew Rajid was speaking of his mother, whom Rajid had loved, and of how he had promised her that he would always keep her son as safe as Rajid guarded his own daughter. Of how he had tried to tell the authorities in America to let Daniel come to them, that he would be safer with them, but they hadn't listened to an old man and Daniel had been lost amongst strangers.
Then the harmattan of the Sahara, the red wind that sweeps the sand into clouds, engulfed Rajid. When the thunder and the lightning came, the rains seemed to be raining blood. Even though Daniel knew it was the red wind turned to a red rain, he still shrank from the blood-colored liquid, but it spattered all across him, hot and wet, staining his skin. When he turned his head, Rajid's white robes were red with Daniel's blood and it wasn't dust and sand that Daniel could taste, but sharp iron and salt in his mouth.
Then he was running. He could still see Rajid but he was growing fainter, and the Labyrinth was beginning to swallow him. Rajid held up a sword and a ball of twine so Daniel could find his way back from the center but Daniel couldn't reach him, the harmattan was too strong, it blew him into the darkness in a hot red mist. He knew the minotaur was waiting for him in the Labyrinth and that, without a sword, it would kill him, without his life-twine he would never find his way out again. All this time he'd hoped he might be Theseus but now he knew he was just one of the sacrificial victims, the ones without names who died screaming in the darkness from deaths too horrible to be recorded. He shivered, his limbs aching with fear, wondering why they'd had to be virgins. If all the minotaur did was eat them, those seven youths and seven maidens, why did it care if they were untouched and pure?
He was being dragged into the Labyrinth by a hand around his wrist. He tried to break the grip but it was too strong for him. He tried to reason but his voice was carried off as a captive to be swallowed by the blue-black walls. He could see strange symbols of obscure Egyptian gods he could barely recognize, the glow of arcane hieroglyphs, early and altered and strange, glowing gold, yet apparently telling his captor the right way to go.
His captor spoke in a different tongue, in the language of Sumeria, cursing the whore of Babylon, sobbing for his own sins, reciting the story of Inanna's descent. The walls watched in approval. The knife gleamed. Daniel took off his clothes, crying because reason had failed, he had no ball of twine to find his way back again, but he was also crying because he was young and afraid, and his captor had told him that he must go naked into the center of the labyrinth to receive the punishment that he deserved.
Then he was buried alive in liquid darkness, it filled his throat, it filled his eyes, he was seared and frozen and there was a blade hanging over him like the sword of Damocles. A blow smashed down onto his chest. He woke up screaming on the inside of the coffin, hammering on the top, begging them to let him out, please god let him out….
"Daniel! Wake up!"
He woke, gasping, to the creak of canvas, and to Jack shaking him by the shoulders and saying his name. He was shaken again, much too hard, jolting his eyes open, which he hadn't known were closed. He was overcome by the brightness of the stars, blinding with focus then smeared like rain, blue light poured in through the flapping opening to the tent. His eyes were stinging with salt and the loneliness was devastating. He felt as if he was being held underwater a thousand light years from home. There was a rushing sound in his ears. His chest hurt almost as much as in the dream. Something was wrong, badly wrong.
"Breathe, Daniel. Breathe!"
He gasped and inhaled, oxygen hitting him as hard as alcohol on an empty stomach. Then he was snatching breaths desperately, realizing his lungs were starved. He coughed and gasped then stared at Jack who was staring back at him, looking scared.
Jack was holding him awkwardly at arm's length, as if he was a bomb that might go off any second. He looked ready to shake him again if he had to.
"What happened?" Daniel gasped. Now he was waking up, the dream was slipping away from him, like a winding sheet from which he was fighting his way free, but where it had touched him it left a chill that went through every layer of his skin. He wrapped his arms around himself, trying to get warm, missing Rajid like a physical pain, wanting him back, wanting them all back, his mother, his father, Sha're, everyone who had ever comforted him and made him feel safe, and who was now dead and cold.
"You stopped breathing." Only Jack could say that with accusation, as though Daniel had done it on purpose just to scare him.
Now that he wasn't having to gasp for breath he could hear the sound of Jack's heartbeat again, the way it was hammering too fast. Daniel obviously had scared him good and proper. The pain in his chest was still there and he winced from it. He put his fingers to his chest, tentatively touching a decidedly physical ache.
Jack grimaced in apology. "You stopped breathing." An explanation this time. Later the bruise would blossom there in purple and gold where Jack's fist had thumped him back into life.
"Lucky you heard me."
"I was well-trained by Charlie." Jack looked around the tent as if seeking inspiration. "Do you think it was your allergies?"
"I don't know." Daniel also examined the inside of the tent but it was just silvery-lit nylon, like the tents they used on missions. This was like too many other confused wakings. Him and Jack whispering to each other in the starlight of an alien night so as not to disturb the others, befuddled by a nightmare or awoken by one of the other's wounds calling to them in the darkness, embarrassed by their own intimacy after the moment was passed, finding themselves in too close proximity when neither of them were good at being close to others any more. Extra embarrassed because they'd been that way for minutes and neither of them had noticed until now. Determinedly not meeting Jack's eye Daniel said, "I think I may have scared myself into asphyxia."
The last time he'd been here everything had been different. Not only his hair, but also his body. He had muscles now it hadn't had then, there was a strength in his arms he hadn't had before, although he suspected that even now he would never be able to lift the lid of that nightmare coffin. It was an unpleasant shock to realize he was missing the weight of that holster strapped to his thigh. He'd become used to carrying a gun, he felt more vulnerable without it, which meant he must have become dependent on the protection it offered. The possibility of killing another to stop them from killing him. When had that happened? How had he allowed that to happen? Who was he now anyway?
"Scared yourself with what?"
He saw Rajid's face in the dream. The man looked so sorrowful and so reproachful. He'd sacrificed himself for Daniel. Then the dream faded and the past stepped into its place. He was shuddering in the dawn light wrapped in a blanket, like someone plucked from the sea, saved from drowning but still dazed from the depths. Rajid trying to communicate with him, holding his shoulders just like Jack was holding him now, giving him a little shake to get his full attention, snapping Daniel back into reality with a gasp of shock and fear.
Rajid had reached out to stroke his hair back from his face, his kind old eyes full of unshed tears, and Daniel knew he'd hurt him irretrievably. Looking at Rajid he'd been looking at a broken man, Daniel had gone into the darkness with Darius and come out changed forever and somehow in that process he had snapped something in Rajid's soul. Looking into Rajid's eyes, the shame had seared him, his skin felt soiled and when he pulled the blanket closer to hide his nakedness his fingers had touched tacky smears of drying blood. Afterwards in the hospital as he lay there in the sanctuary of his coma, when the nurses had sponged his grubby body clean they'd wiped off the blood and found nothing underneath it, not even the hint of a wound. The blood had belonged to someone else, someone Daniel had been standing so close to at the time their veins had spurted that he'd been covered in their lifeblood. They'd told him later that no one was missing, no child or even dog unaccounted for, but he still believed someone had died in the red night of Golding's madness. Someone no one had even looked for, or if they'd looked for, never found.
Looking into Rajid's sorrowing eyes Daniel had said desperately, "I'm sorry."
Rajid had touched his hair again, so gently and with such regret, the gnarled old fingers like velvet against his skin, then he'd leant across and touched his lips to Daniel's forehead, granting absolution for the crime that had broken Rajid's soul. He whispered softly in Egyptian, "Forgive me…"
And then he'd gone back into the Labyrinth to rescue Darius, leaving Daniel rocking in the dirt, cold and filthy and full of shame, skin prickling away from the trails of someone else's congealing blood, seeing those tears glistening forever in Rajid's disappointed eyes.
Abruptly, to his embarrassment and shock Daniel began to cry. The tears came without warning, a hot rush of salt adding extra humiliation to his misery.
"What is it? Daniel, what's wrong…?"
"Nothing. I don't know why I…" He couldn't stop the tears coming, reaction, he guessed, the flow of them hot and salt and shaming. He closed his eyes so he wouldn't have to see the bafflement and anxiety on Jack's blue-lit face, his face averted while the losses continued to cover him in cold waves.
Jack put a hand on the back of his head, guiding him into his shoulder, putting an arm around him awkwardly, embarrassed and angry and protective, what he needed right now.
Jack's voice was unexpectedly gentle. "You don't have to stay here. What do you want to do?"
"I want to go home." Daniel felt another wave of tears well up as he said it. He didn't know if he was drowning in genuine grief for people he'd loved or just abject self-pity because he'd been so scared. He was afraid he might be having a nervous breakdown.
"Where's home?" Jack pressed.
"Nowhere. There isn't any home."
Daniel felt Jack increase his grip but he couldn't tell if it was because he was fighting not to shake him again. He could feel Jack's unshaven jaw against his cheekbone where he'd ducked his head, the collar of Jack's jacket brushed against his mouth, the material faintly flavored with engine oil. His mother had been the cool palm on a fevered brow, the quiet voice in a noisy world, the one place of safety he could always come to. Sha're had been soft and warm and soothing and sensual. Jack was all hard edges and angry corners, but he was alive and he cared and Daniel felt pathetically grateful for both of those things.
Jack whispered it hoarsely, concern and exasperation wrapped around the words in equal measure. "If you don't tell me what you want I can't help you."
Daniel pulled loose from his grip, less frightened and more embarrassed now. He wiped his eyes angrily. "I want no one to have died because of me. I want Rajid not to be dead because of me."
As the blue light was blotted out by a man-sized shadow, he ducked instinctively. Jack moved between Daniel and the shadow, voice cool as he said, "Can I help you?"
Darius looked massive in the darkness, his shoulders filling the tent flap. Just for a second Daniel saw ordinary concern in his eyes as he gazed up at him, but then his dream came back with a rush and the fear made him shudder. Darius’s eyes went cold as the starlight glittering in his hair.
"I thought you might be helping yourself, Colonel. Going by the crying, I assumed you were making it a little rougher than even our Daniel likes."
"And yet they say chivalry is dead."
Daniel felt the crackle of their hostility go over his head, venomous and pointless, blotting out the good in both of them, roughening Jack's voice so he sounded the way he had on their first mission through the 'gate, the same guy who'd said Daniel was full of shit, who would have used the bomb. And Darius was sneering now when a second before there had been anxiety in his eyes, come to comfort, not to damage.
Daniel realized he needed Darius not to hate him or blame him for what had happened in the past, which meant Darius must need that too. Perhaps they both needed absolution from the other one. But how could he forgive what he couldn't remember? He gazed up at the man hopefully but Jack and Golding were locked in enmity, daring one another to make the next move. He felt a sudden rush of impatience that made him feel a lot more like himself. Annoyed at the way he'd gibbered with fear and then cried like a child, he wiped his eyes.
"I had a bad dream," he said it almost angrily, going by the way they both jumped, startling both of them. They appeared to have forgotten he might have an opinion, reducing him to some kind of disputed territory. "Now the show's over I'd really like to get some sleep. If you two want to paw the ground could you go and do it somewhere else?"
He saw that flicker of surprise, even respect from Darius, that look of disbelieving hurt from Jack because that was all the thanks he got for comforting him and defending him?
Daniel winced and put a hand up to his head. Not looking at either of them he said as quietly and as rationally as he could manage it, " I just had a bad dream, Darius. Go back to bed."
When Darius had gone he said, "I'm sorry I woke you, Jack."
"You remembered something." There was no mistaking the accusation in Jack's voice.
"I don't remember anything." He said the lie evenly, without the trace of a tremor.
"Don't lie to me."
"I'm tired. I have to sleep." He lay down in his sleeping bag.
Jack was radiating righteous indignation in the moonlight. Daniel could practically see it emanating from him in a silvery-blue haze. He was so tired he couldn't keep his eyes open even though he wanted to. He felt as if he was sinking through the floor into the sand beneath. Perhaps it was the Labyrinth sucking him back down into its center to be swallowed whole.
"Daniel, I swear to god…"
"I'm sorry." He meant it but he was abruptly too exhausted to stay awake a moment later. As he fell asleep Jack was still telling him all the reasons why they needed to talk. The words drifted into his dreams like wisps of smoke or flickers of candlelight in the darkness before the fire was extinguished, the candles snuffed, and he was alone in his coffin once again.
IV: The Labyrinth
Sometimes it was so quiet in the Labyrinth Daniel thought he could hear the walls remembering, a faint purr beneath the rock face of satisfied reflection. At times they felt dry and inorganic, like the inside of a microwave. In other sections where the blast had left faint scorchmarks upon the otherwise unbroken surface, the Labyrinth felt fallible, vulnerable. Then he could almost like it, when it was hollow and dripping like the inside of a well and the odd subterranean breeze ruffled his hair in a resigned caress.
Fear had become the constant background noise he wasn't going to listen to. He knew part of the power of the memory he wouldn't remember was the fact he wouldn't remember it. Anything, however horrific, when confronted, usually lost much of its horror. But the way that memory could near-paralyze him with a glimpse, a whisper, sometimes even a scent, made him fear that perhaps what had happened in the Labyrinth was something so terrible that it would be the exception that proved the rule. It could be that his mind had walled it up where it couldn't be found and then installed all those 'Danger!' 'Warning!' signs to stop him venturing there for a very good reason. Or it could be that in nineteen eighty-nine that was the worse thing which had ever happened to him, but a dozen worse things had happened since besides which that past event would pale into insignificance. It could be what had been done to him in the labyrinth (he hoped it was something done to him rather than something he had done) would seem like very small beer now if he looked it straight in the metaphorical eye. Or it could be that it could wreck his sanity and the life he had now if it ever came to the surface and he had to confront it. Reminding himself that he'd been found with barely a bruise, that he hadn't been hurt at all, whatever he'd been afraid of, didn't help when the terror was bubbling beneath the thinnest crust of repressed memory, like lava beneath a thin black concealment of cooler rock.
As someone who had lost his sanity once he didn't feel prepared to risk it. If being returned to a padded cell to gibber with terror could be avoided he was in favor of avoiding it. In the meantime there were strategies to deal with the fear – avoidance and concentration on other things. He turned down the volume of his panic as far as he could and then cranked up everything else to mask it.
In the morning he woke before everyone else. In the cool bell tower of the day, the still quiet before sunrise, he was briefly able to see everything. That was when he would remember the Egypt of his childhood. The bustle of the bazaars, the constant dust, the narrow uneven streets, the charm of cream paint flaking from a wall, old shutters faded by the burning desert heat to the grayish silver of a shipwreck. The scent of spices in his nostrils and on his tongue the aftermath of strange journeys of the tastebuds eagerly undertaken as he was offered enticing spoonfuls at stall after stall.
Egyptian cotton, so rich, cool and slippery fine, sweeter than bandages on a new graze against the skin. His parents were always with him in his memories, he remembered the waist of his mother's patterned dress, the curious-familiar feel of his father's calluses against his own soft palm. He'd coveted those calluses like the sons of soldiers reveled in their scar tissue, the caterpillar trails of old war wounds.
And then suddenly his mind would leap back to the present and he would find himself thinking of Charlie tracing the ridged cicatrices of Jack's scars with a stubby forefinger, asking Jack to tell him how it had happened and when and, inevitably, why. Children didn't understand 'that's classified'. There must have been tears before bedtime, or perhaps just colorful lies.
Or sometimes Jack's breathing would permeate his past, reminding him that his parents were dead, his childhood over, he was here with an USAF colonel who had bizarrely become his best friend, and he was no longer what his father had been. He was nothing like the child he had once been, or even much like the Daniel Jackson who had once been dragged into the dark core of this place. Only Egypt remained eternally unscathed and unchanged. Except the labyrinth was trying to poison that as well, a piece of naquada shrapnel buried in its ancient heart which Nelson and the others were mistaking for a genuine artifact. Once upon a time he'd made that mistake as well. But even then the inconsistencies had screamed at him, insisting that he didn't deny them or try to rationalize them. He had to embrace them to understand them, not keep discarding them because with the accepted knowledge of Ancient Egypt they made no sense. This place had been the first clue that there might be a huge piece missing in their understanding of the history of Egypt. That perhaps it wasn't these clues that were wrong, it was the accepted knowledge that needed re-examination. This Labyrinth had been the first step which had led him away from that glittering future his tutors had wished for him towards derision and ignominy and standing with his suitcases on a street corner in the pouring rain.
But where did he stop? Did he blame it for driving him out of academia and not thank it for pushing him down a road that had led to Sha're? He wished he'd had so much more time with his wife but he didn't regret the time he'd had. He wouldn't have wanted to never meet her just to spare himself the pain of having lost her. He wouldn't have wanted to give up the SCG either. He was trying the experiment now, after all, and he was miserable with it. He was also still a little taken aback by how far Jack moved out of his ground just to come with him. He was spending his days talking archaeology and wandering the subterranean caverns of a maze even though he could have asked for Davis to get this assignment instead, or some other officer from the Pentagon who could have endured the boredom of conversations he didn't understand. But Jack had chosen to volunteer himself for this assignment instead. Exasperated as he had been by Jack muscling in on this mission, Daniel was also touched by it, and in the middle of the night when the terror awoke him from another nightmare and instead of darkness and silence he woke to someone saying his name with kindness and telling him it had just been a bad dream, he was grateful too.
Daniel knew – had known for a long time now – that there was something about him that appealed to Jack's protective instincts. And that was fine. He wasn't averse to being protected. What he didn't think Jack had ever grasped was how protective Daniel felt about him. He'd seen the man at his most vulnerable too many times not to know that Jack wasn't Superman. Bullets didn't bounce off him. Nor did staff blasts or silver arrows. If you cut him, he bled, kicked him he bruised, hurt him, he felt the pain and mentioned it, usually loudly.
There were times when Jack was a dead-eyed black ops soldier who could kill men with his bare hands and who could still, even now, cause Daniel the occasional twinge of fear. But there were a lot more times when he was just his friend, a guy with bad knees and a bad back, whose ankles made a painful-sounding clicking noise if he turned too fast, a friend Daniel needed around and who, being a decade older than him, probably wouldn't be around forever. He wanted to keep Jack safe just as much as Jack wanted to keep him safe. The main difference was that Jack was a lot more confident about his abilities to do so than Daniel was, especially against a guy who was four inches taller and a good sixty pounds heavier.
When he thought about what might happen if Golding went insane again, he'd find himself back in that initial paralysis, terrified of something his mind refused to allow him to remember. That was when he worked hard at his avoidance techniques. Luckily the Labyrinth made this strategy possible, as it was nothing if not full of distractions.
The place was vast. A maze of passageways leading into unexpected chambers in which there would be more panels of writing, more pictures on the walls, so much to be deciphered and as yet very little sense to be made from any of it. Not helped by the way only the first few chambers seemed to remain the same. After that came the maze that led to the unreachable center and it was deliberately baffling. He wasn't even convinced it was consistent. The passageways were like a series of crossroads at which gremlins regularly spun all the signposts so they would point in different directions. Whatever the cause he knew that when he moved beyond the last chamber of inscriptions to the criss-cross of corridors he would immediately lose his sense of direction. When he endeavored to go west he would end up pointing south, attempted to retrace his steps of the day before, looking for the same pictures to guide him and would hit yet another dead-end, but never the same dead-end of the day before. He had tried repeatedly to reach the center but had been thwarted every time, deposited back in some chamber he'd already explored or in a passageway with glyphs on the wall he'd never seen before. He couldn't decide if he was disappointed or relieved to have made so little progress in reaching the place he most feared.
What never altered was the sense of how vast the place was, although even that couldn't be proved as the data was inconclusive, as was the carbon dating, the thermal resonating, the mineral analysis, the everything that had been tried so far to pin down the extent of this site, who had made it and out of what. The stone out of which it had been made was a slate-blue-black color, oddly warm to the touch, as though it carried energy inside it. There was certainly naquada present, but there seemed to be other minerals as well, at least some of which were new even to the SGC scientists.
He was waiting impatiently for Sam to return from the mission on which she was accompanying SG-5 so she could give them her opinion on the labyrinth's composition. Hammond had assured them other SGC scientists were analyzing it already but he didn't trust their conclusions. He wanted Sam's. If he was honest he wanted Sam here and Teal'c as well. Yes, the tattoo would be difficult to explain, but they could get around it. This wasn't an archaeological puzzle based on this world and their history. This was something to do with the Goa'uld, and Sam's mineral analysis and Teal'c's specialist knowledge would have been invaluable. There was also the little matter of him missing them. He was embarrassed to admit it, but that was the truth. He'd been away from the SGC for one week and he was missing his friends. He wanted to go and knock on Teal'c's door and meditate with him. Sit there in the quiet of the candlelight and let the strains of the day seep out slowly through the soles of his feet the way Bra'tac had taught Teal'c and Teal'c had taught him. In those times recently he'd tried to empty his mind of everything except the memory of those Zen cones on the wall of the temple in Kheb, to try to reach that state of enlightenment and peace Teal'c was also striving for but which Daniel suspected he was a lot less likely than Teal'c to ever reach.
He wanted to call up Sam and compare notes on what they'd learned on the last mission. Tell her about his latest theories and know that she would listen even if she didn't fully understand, then return the favor as she dazzled him with astrophysics. He wanted to bitch about Jack and have her defend him, then have her bitch about Jack so that he could defend him. It was just one of many rituals that they shared and it soothed them both. These people had become his family and he missed their affection, their protection and their company.
In the past, as a confused twenty-three year old, he had struggled in vain to make sense of the place. Why were there panels telling the stories of different gods in different ancient languages, some of which have never before been found on the same continent and rarely within the same time frame? The earliest runes ever found had come from about 200 AD. The latest known hieroglyphic inscriptions dated from 394 AD. That gave a crossover at the most of less than two hundred years. There was only a tiny window in the history of linguistics in which both could co-exist, and no evidence that he knew of showing any Viking journey to North Africa to explain their presence there.
Now he knew the expansion of the Vikings had nothing to do with these runes. They were Asgard writing and they hadn't needed a longboat to get to Egypt from the icy north, just as some of these strange hieroglyphs weren't cryptographic inscriptions but the language of the Goa'uld.
Three branching corridors and two inner chambers away Daniel knew Nelson was puzzling away at an inscription about Nekheny, more informative than anything ever yet found on that elusive deity, at the same time wondering why the ruler who served under him wasn't listed on any surviving king-list and why someone who was citing Nekhen as his deity had his name within an anachronistic cartouche instead of a simple early serekh.
The other inscriptions about Nekheny had been covered up, many of them were half-erased and Hélène Bouldieu spent most of her part of the nightly phonecalls to Alexis trying to persuade him to send off for equipment that would help them see the faded writing underneath. There had been a long debate over the merits of what ultraviolet could reveal when compared with the damage it might do, a one-sided conversation in which Alexis was represented only by a vague murmur of non-conviction and caution on the other side of the phone. Daniel imagined him sitting up in his hospital bed scribbling notes while he argued with her good-naturedly before making enquiries. Hélène rhapsodized about the wonders of ultraviolet very fast in French. Just a babble of sound to Jack, Daniel knew, and even he having some trouble keeping up with her as she explained to the resolutely unscientific Alexis the difference between harmful ultraviolet radiation and the benefits of using fluorescent ultraviolet tubes to uncover what appeared to have disappeared.
"It brings back pictures that seem to have faded completely. It would be perfect for John and his half-erased inscriptions. And what century have you been living in, not to use it until now anyway?"
Daniel couldn't hear Alexis answer but he heard Hélène's laughter. "Even you have to step out of the Old Testament Age sometimes. Just tell the Air Force we can't possibly manage without them and get them to send us some at once. Not only will you be advancing the cause of archaeology, you will be making a valuable contribution to saving what remains of John's hair.…"
It came as no surprise to Daniel, who knew just how persuasive Hélène could be, that even safe in a hospital bed in Cairo, Alexis had ended up giving in
While they waited for the UV lights to arrive, Nelson had continued to work on the one inscription that was still intact, defiant and untouched, its paintwork gleaming. Nelson had told Daniel he'd dreamt about these unfamiliar hieroglyphs for years. Wondering if the story of that forgotten god was told there, in panels he had copied, in glyphs he had touched, if his life's work could be vindicated or dismissed in one blinding flash of revelation. Even when working on other digs he would keep the pictures of it handy. The Air Force had made them turn in everything, insisting all their notes counted as 'classified' but hadn't seem to realize that most of them had kept copies so they could take out the contradictions and questions of the Labyrinth from time to time and worry at them like crossword puzzle clues.
"…I'm sure this is the sign for 'Nekheny', Dan. It's similar enough that it has to be. I think this is 'hear and attend' and here I think it's saying that he has come or arrived here, something about day and night. I think it may be a boast of some kind. The people here insisting their god was mightier than all other gods, but I can't make out enough of the words…. I've been through every inscription I can find on other tombs elsewhere and there's nothing quite like this form of hieroglyphs and hardly any other mentions of Nekehny except for that one at Soleb. So either he was very local to Hierakonpolis or he was expunged from the records when some other god – probably Ra or Horus – gained ascendancy…."
How could he tell Nelson that when he talked about another god gaining ascendancy it had probably happened on another world somewhere, in battles fought by men of flesh and blood with the coiled malevolence of sleeping symbiotes in their guts? Infant Goa'uld driving them on to endure greater pain, and greater hardship because the creatures who had enslaved them could fuse their broken bones and renew their seared flesh. That those obscured inscriptions in these shadowy corridors were probably the culmination of a hundred wars of fire raining from motherships and the scream of crashing death gliders cutting through the blood-soaked air like a scythe.
He was also having to avoid too many conversations with the gentle Zaheer, who was wrestling with colored snakes in beautifully painted panels he kept wanting Daniel to look at. Zaheer had told him Daniel he believed these paintings depicted a new variation of the myths of Vasuki and Takshaka, Snake King and Queen of the nagas whose progeny contained a sacred jewel within their hoods. As Daniel now believed the panel to be the proof that much of the Vedic literature Zaheer held so dear was really an account of the enslavement of mankind by aliens with glowing eyes, he was trying to keep his distance.
At times the fascination of the place was so overwhelming that he could forget it was a Goa'uld building in which something terrible had once happened to him in which he was probably as guilty as the madman who had done it, which had caused the death of a gentle man he thought of as a surrogate father, and left him covered in someone else's blood.
One of the things making it harder to forget was Darius. The man was unraveling in front of his eyes in a way all too scarily reminiscent of the past, but even as he was heading for the crash, his brilliance still came in electrifying bursts. And when he was inspired he was just as dazzling as Daniel remembered. He would translate with astonishing speed and lucidity while Daniel stumbled after him, physically and intellectually, struggling to write as fast as Darius could read. The man would snap at him, urge him to keep up, damnit, he couldn't do this for long. For that hour of frenzied activity he would be as arrogant as an ancient monarch, tossing words to Daniel over his shoulder like bones to a dog, demanding to know how Daniel didn't know this when it was so obvious, for fuck's sake, what the hell had Daniel been doing with his life for the past five years to not be able to see that of course this meant what Darius was telling him it meant, was he blind as well as stupid?
His finger stabbed imperiously at the wall, while behind him his filthy old coat flapped like the wings of a giant roc. " 'Ne-khen-ya-us, sunki ir-sá-ir-ra sunki sunki-ip-in-na sunki…' Translate it, Daniel! You know these signs. Don't tell me you can't read Elamite. I taught you Elamite. Here, if that's too hard for you try this one here: 'inanna nin-a-ni Ne-ken sar kissati é-a-ni mu-na-dù...'
Daniel would stumble in his wake, tracing wedges with his finger that weren't quite Elamite, Sumerian or Babylonian but a combination of the three. As he tried to decipher the texts with Darius’s impatient exhortations burning his ears he would be uncomfortably reminded of the old Babylonian system of teaching where so much of the instruction and discipline of the apprentices was left to an elder student. This student, a kind of 'big brother' figure, fluctuated between a friend and a bully, and had to be propitiated with gifts and flattery if regular beatings were to be avoided. Darius didn't actually hit him – although his hand had twitched impatiently more than once – but his tongue could strip skin and Daniel often staggered out of those frenzied sessions of translation with his self-esteem somewhere down around his ankles. But there would also be the exultation at having been forced to the very limits of his comprehension and beyond by someone who was in his chosen field an undoubted genius, feeling his mind racing to keep pace with Darius and making those leaps Darius wanted him to make, jumping from sign to sign that he recognized and gradually filling in with those wild guesses Darius demanded. Daniel had often been described as 'intuitive' by his tutors but Darius jumped without a parachute, pole-vaulted ravines, had turned inspired guesswork into a kind of glider flight which Daniel found as scary as it was exhilarating.
He couldn't explain to Golding that while such intuitive leaps were suitable for the kind of intellectual exercises archaeologists indulged in, five years on a military field unit where a wrong translation from him might lead to the death of living, breathing human beings had put a bit of a crimp in his willingness to just go ahead and guess.
Nor could he explain to an often furious Jack – who had been eavesdropping on the sessions and had taken umbrage at Darius's way of talking to Daniel – that he didn't mind being metaphorically smacked upsides the head and yelled at by Darius. It was just Darius's way, and however crushed it might leave his self-confidence, the next day he would find he could read parts of the text which had been incomprehensible to him the day before.
"It's just the way he does things," he shrugged.
Jack glared at him in exasperation. "No one has the right to talk to you like that. Even I don't talk to you like that."
"I don't mind."
"Well, you should mind!"
He'd sigh in defeat and go off to work with Nelson for a while, who was gentle and polite, and always said 'Well, that's certainly an interesting interpretation of that cartouche but I wonder if in this context it might rather be saying…' to even the most dunderheaded students however far off beam they might be.
Working with Nelson was soothing and quiet. They would sketch the panels together and translate the hieroglyphs while Nelson tried to fit what they were translating into his existing view of ancient Egyptian history and Daniel tried to work out just what the System Lords had been up to when they'd built this place. But eventually the guilt at not being able to share what he was learning would get to him, as would Nelson's increasing frustration and bewilderment at everything that didn't add up about the texts they were translating.
And through it all, Jack was being exactly what Daniel had feared that he would be – a link back to the SGC, an anchor holding him to reality, a comfort it was all too easy to rely on always being there, come rain, come shine, come Goa'uld invasion. He'd thought he wanted to cut loose from that dependence entirely, but with Darius constantly trying to undermine his confidence in himself and make him think of himself as some callow twenty-something, it was reassuring to have Jack there as a reminder that he was now thirty-six and a valued member of the SGC. Jack was also the only person with whom he could discuss his findings in any detail because he was the only one who knew about that vital missing piece called the Goa'uld. Each night they held whispered consultations by furtive flashlight, Daniel showing Jack the translations he'd done so far which he couldn't share while Jack told him about the rune-stones and his continuing search to find the panel they activated.
"So, what did you find out today?" Jack always said it with a mixture of curiosity and resignation. Half wanting to hear, half afraid of being bored.
Daniel sighed. "The names of more gods. I think things were added at different times. There are old inscriptions under the later panels. Those earlier ones are consistent as far as I can tell but they've been erased in so many places it's difficult to be certain."
"What do they say? The older panels you can read?"
"Some of them are in some kind of proto-Hebrew that Alexis might be able to translate but I can't, and the others are in an early form of Goa'uld which I'm not very familiar with. I could really do with Teal'c here." He made that plea at regular intervals.
"He's on a mission with Carter. Should be back in a few days. What do you think they say?"
"They all seem to be by a Goa'uld called Nekheny basically sticking up two fingers to the other Goa'uld. I think he may have tried to defy Ra and the others and in retaliation they've put their panels over the top of his, writing him out of history."
Jack kept playing with the rune stones he'd found in the Labyrinth. Laying them out in lines, occasionally building houses with them. Daniel wasn't even sure he knew he was doing it. He clearly should have told Inga what he and Sam had learned years ago – that one never left a valuable artifact or piece of equipment anywhere Jack could get his hands on it. Jack seemed to be doing some miniature dry-stone walling with today's batch of rune stones. "Which Goa'uld have you found references to so far?"
He appreciated the look of total disgust Jack got on his face when anyone mentioned Hathor's name but didn't want him to start sounding off in case anyone heard. He continued quickly.
"Wadjet. She was a serpent goddess. So was Mertseger. I found a reference to her as well. Likewise Nehebkaw and Nehebka. They each have a panel which seems to have been written by people, not by Goa'uld. They're painted, not inscribed. And they're written in variant forms of Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. Also, there are mentions of the sacred serpent goddesses who formed the Ogdoad along with Nun, Amun, Kuk and Huh. They're commended as all wise, all powerful, terrible and magnificent but some of the references to their great victories aren't the same as in standard Egyptian mythology."
"So you think they're talking about the Goa'uld who took those identities, not the gods from those…Egyptian folktales?"
Daniel decided to let the 'folktales' comment go as Jack was right in other ways. "Yes. Also in Egyptian mythology the four primeval goddess of the Ogdoad are Hauhet, Kauket, Naunet and…Amaunet." He made himself say the word although it was impossible to speak the name of that goddess now without seeing his wife burning a light into his brain in the last seconds before Teal'c killed her. "They're often mentioned in the same texts, but here Naunet, Hauhet and Kauket are mentioned on separate panels as if they have no connection with one another and there's no mention of Amaunet."
Daniel ran a hand through his hair. "Well, as far as I can tell the only major Egyptian deities associated with serpents who aren't mentioned in this place are Apophis and Amaunet. From which I presume they'd already been exiled because of their opposition to Ra."
"Yeah, Ra never struck me as the type to forgive and forget."
"And he must have had a lot of influence. Apophis was still trying to buy his way back into the favor of the System Lords by avenging him two years after Ra was dead."
Jack waved a hand in the direction of the Labyrinth. "So, what's it all mean?"
"I don't know. Sanjay's found some new stories about two Indian serpent gods, Vasuki and Takshaka, which he says aren't in any text he's come across before so I guess they must have been Goa'uld as well. Then there's a long inscription in Ugaritic cuneiform which Darius translated yesterday about Baal and his sister-wife Anat which bears no resemblance to any myth I've ever come across on earth. All about them transporting their adoring people from the misery of life under some unnamed tyrant to a place of plenty and safety."
"Yeah right." Jack's wrinkle-nosed disgust exactly matched Daniel's feelings on the subject. He scratched his jaw thoughtfully. "So these panels weren't written by the Goa'uld?"
"No, although I think they ordered them to be written. I think they were written by people from various diverse earth cultures transplanted to other worlds – which would explain the variants in the languages."
Jack raised an eyebrow. "Set essays for the adoring slaves?"
Daniel nodded. " 'Why I Love My Wonderful God…Insert Name of Choice.' There's at least a dozen different gods mentioned here. My guess is they were the System Lords at the time Nekheny was around."
"Where do the Asgard come in?"
"I don't know." Daniel furtively began to put the rune-stones back into the bag in which they were meant to be kept, hoping Jack wouldn't notice the destruction of his wall. "They're difficult to read and Inga is having problems with them."
"What kind of problems?"
"Most runic inscriptions say things like 'Kali Olvissonr cut these runes on this stone in memory of his father Gunnleifr' or 'Óláfr met his death in Sweden on a Viking exploit'. They don't tend to be detailed legal documents, which is what this seems to be. She's translated that there are references to Thor and that he's referred to as 'Thor of the Asgard' instead of the more usual 'the god Thor' or 'wigiponar' 'Hallowed Thor'."
" 'Hallowed Thor'? You have got to teach me how to say that in Asgard. Really impress the little guy next time I see him."
Daniel looked at him sideways. "He's captain of the Asgard fleet. Somehow I think it would take more than you knowing one word of Norse to impress him. But I think there's a transliteration in a very obscure old form of Goa'uld. I can't be sure yet because I haven't translated enough of it, but I've definitely found some words that correspond. If Teal'c were here to help me I could probably translate it in a couple of hours."
"Well, he isn't," Jack returned with no discernible patience. "You've got me so you'd better make the best of it."
"No offence, Jack, but you don't speak Goa'uld."
"I make a mean cup of coffee and I can polish a rune-stone when I'm handed one. Now stop bitchin' and get some sleep.…"
It sounded suspicious, he knew – he and Jack murmuring to each other in the darkness each night before they slept. Darius had not been backward about voicing his theory of how they spent that last hour before the nightmares began. Every morning he would mention it again. How Daniel had better stand up to translate today because Darius doubted he'd be wanting to sit down, and what would his flower power parents think if they knew just how up close and personal he was with the military these days? Jack was being provocative, effectively giving Darius the finger by not dismissing the possibility, refusing to do as Daniel did and hurry to slam the door on that conjecture. But Jack had never had Darius come to his tent by moonlight to tell him what he would do to a guy who ever got what he hadn't….
No point in remembering that. Darius had been drunk, that was all, and drugged. He probably didn’t even remember it and it would be better if Daniel forgot it too. He was trying to work with Darius despite the way the man triggered all his flight instincts. He felt they both needed this. They had to prove to the others and to themselves that they were fellow archaeologists who could work together. Otherwise what were they except doomed to be madman and victim forever?
It was ironic to remember that he'd always been better at managing the man than anyone else. He could make him laugh his way out of a temper, coax him into sitting back around the fire when he'd had some furious disagreement with Alexis or even the mild Nelson about the Labyrinth. He'd never taken being argued with well but he'd taken it better from Daniel than almost anyone else.
And he'd been so damned brilliant, making those intellectual leaps that left Daniel gasping in his wake, trailing after him trying to keep up as Darius said 'This was the King's chamber. Close your eyes, Goldilocks. It's all stored in the walls. Alexis is way off beam. This place was built for a specific purpose and we're so close to finding it."
"But why runes and cuneiform and hieroglyphs?"
Darius had given him a glance of fond exasperation before reaching out to ruffle his hair, a thumb straying across his cheek as he said, "When we know that, dubsar tur, we'll know everything." Then he turned back to the panel of cuneiform, beckoning Daniel closer. "Read it to me."
Daniel shook his head. "I can't. I don't know enough of the signs."
"Yes, you do." Darius taking his hand, holding Daniel's forefinger between his and stroking it down the wedge-shaped signs. "Close your eyes and feel the words. You're a scribe from five thousand years ago and you're writing it to the dictation of your lord and master. What is he telling you? Don't just read the words. Listen for his voice."
Daniel remembered the blackness inside his own eyelids, the warmth of Darius’s hand holding his, the rough scrape of the stone against his fingertip, waiting for an image to come that didn't come, a voice he couldn't hear, the silence deafening as he smelt his own perspiration and a strange aroma, a combination of musky bitterness and jasmine. The sudden realization that he could smell the perfume of Rajid's daughter had jolted every other thought straight out of his head. Even as he looked over his shoulder for Fatima, he knew she wasn't there. The perfume was coming from Darius, intermingled with sweat and what he now realized were the scents of recent sex. He was shocked and embarrassed by his own shock. But she was from a different culture and one that didn't believe in intercourse before marriage, at least not for women. Had Darius been trying to liberate her from misogynistic double standards or riding roughshod over the beliefs of her father? Daniel still couldn't decide when exactly one was insulting someone else's culture or standing up against oppression. But the cuneiform inscription was certainly lost to him now. He was too busy thinking about the girl who'd been like an older sister to him when he was a child, now emphatically grown up enough to be naked with Darius, wondering what Rajid would say if he ever found out, further embarrassed by his own naivety because he was also shocked that Darius really did cheat on his wife so casually and so blatantly, just as people said.
"What does it say?"
Daniel shook his head. "I can't." Her perfume was so distinctive, surely Rajid must have smelt it too. Didn't Darius know what a risk he was exposing her to? Rajid was a good man but he was also old-fashioned. Fatima was restless and clever. She wanted to go to university. Rajid wanted her to marry well and be a good wife and mother. They would never agree. The old Egypt and the new one clashing in a way that made Daniel sorry for both of them.
"You're just not trying." Darius releasing him in annoyance, exasperated and impatient. He shoved Daniel out of the way, hands rough on his shoulders. When he touched, he often left bruises, unaware of his own strength, a tactile man who bordered on being a bully. Fatima would have bruises too. Daniel blushed at the thought, an intrusion of her privacy to imagine those marks on her thighs and arms.
Darius closed his eyes and touched the wall like a safe-cracker with a new combination to crack, his fingers stroking across the cuneiform as tenderly as a lover. It was impossible and Daniel knew it but Darius could see better with his eyes closed than most men could with them open. " 'I bear witness to trial of my brother-enemy. I bear witness that he has transgressed. He has taken more than his due of that which we all need to survive. He has broken the treaty. He has conspired against our best interests. He shall be put to death in sight of life. We all shall witness it.' "
Daniel gazed at the golden-maned man in undisguised admiration. "How do you do that? Can you teach me how to do that?"
Darius reached out and tapped Daniel on the temple. "Not while you spend all your time in here and don't learn to use this…" It was an even greater shock when the man reached inside his thin cotton shirt and placed his warm callused palm against Daniel's breast. Daniel could feel his own heart beating and knew Darius must feel it too: a physical palpitation against his skin. Darius looked him in the eye and said softly, "Sometimes you have to stop thinking and start feeling. Your trouble is you read too much."
Daniel felt his heartbeat increase. Darius was too close, Fatima's perfume felt as it if it was coating both of them, it blazed in the heat of Darius’s sweat. As Darius looked at him and that hand stayed against his heart he felt acutely uncomfortable. "I don't…"
Rajid's exclamation made him spring back like a started deer and he cracked the back of his head on the wall. He saw the old man looking at him in shocked accusation, saw the guilty start Darius gave, and then he was sliding down the wall with the chamber graying in and out of focus.
Darius caught him before he fell. He was hoisted up onto the man's shoulder as if he weighed nothing at all and carried out into the light, set down as gently as a child in his tent, while Rajid's accusing face blurred and sharpened, blurred and sharpened. He snapped at Darius in Egyptian, demanding that he took better care, that he left Daniel to him to tend to, that he had done enough.
"He just needs to sleep it off. He'll be fine."
The guilt in Darius’s eyes as he looked at Rajid was replaced by irritation as Rajid anxiously examined the back of Daniel's head. "Leave him, he's fine! He's an adult. He can take care of himself."
Rajid's look at Darius was positively venomous. "In the ways of the world he is still a child."
Darius returned his gaze in exasperation. "Well, it's high time he grew up then."
As the tent flap closed Daniel realized his heart was still beating much too fast, and despite his embarrassment and the pain in his head he was relieved Rajid had arrived when he had. "I think I need to sleep." He didn't meet Rajid's eye.
"Do not take anything he offers you," Rajid said urgently.
Daniel had no idea how to respond to that. "I'm tired," he offered feebly. He closed his eyes and slipped straight into a guilty sleep permeated by the jasmine scent of Fatima's perfume.
As he walked past the various daubings, scratchings and scribblings on the walls of the Labyrinth, O'Neill thought about how much information he'd been forced to pick up that he really hadn't wanted on this particular mission. He hadn't been able to escape from all the archaeological know-how being thrown around and some of the damned stuff had stuck. So he knew that what he was walking past now was called a 'relief'. It had originally been concealed behind some other panels dedicated to the glory of Ra but they'd managed to remove those and find these other ones underneath. This was the section of the labyrinth Nelson was puzzling over, with blue-skinned bearers carrying offerings that Nelson had told him were symbols of fecundity but which looked exactly like staff weapons to O'Neill. Each carved picture was separated by a line of hieroglyphs which were apparently in a very archaic form of Ancient Egyptian. According to Nelson these panels were dedicated to an Egyptian deity called Nekheny about which almost nothing was known. According to Daniel these panels were dedicated to a deposed Goa'uld whose inscriptions the other System Lords had then attempted to wipe out with ones of their own. O'Neill's money was definitely on Daniel being right on this one.
In the next chamber was an enormous chunk of flat rock which he was damned if he was going to call a 'stele' however many times Daniel did so in his hearing. It was arched like a window in a church and had a picture on the top of four gods. Underneath were a lot of hieroglyphs going along in rows instead of up and down in columns. Daniel and Nelson had told him a lot more than he wanted to know about what it meant if something was in a cartouche or went up or down or sideways or back to front or whatever but he was determinedly expunging it all from his mind to leave enough room for the things that he needed to know. He did remember, however, that the inscription was a hymn of praise to some Egyptian gods who Teal'c had confirmed were also definitely a combination of late and current System Lords.
The next chamber up was a temple dedicated to Hathor which he tried to edge past but he was sighted by Hélène Bouldieu who dragged him in there so she could go into rhapsodies about the place again. Pulling a deeply unenthralled O'Neill from pillar to pillar, exclaiming over the richness and beauty of the colors and burbling about some temple to Isis at Philae which had been flooded when they built the Aswan Dam.
O'Neill's personal feelings on the matter were that the last thing an Uberbitch like Hathor needed dedicated to her was a big chamber full of pretty-painted pillars all telling the world how beautiful and wonderful she was.
"I never liked Hathor," he told Hélène firmly.
She had one finger to her lip contemplating the painted walls in what seemed to be such a trance of ecstasy he was starting to worry Her Late Snakeness had left some of her purple mist about the place. Then Hélène slowly drifted out of her reverie to take in what he'd just said. "Oh, because of her being sent by Ra to destroy Mankind, you mean?" Her accent was charming, he had to admit, very Juliette Binoche.
"Yeah. Among other things." It was as good a reason as any.
"You are being moralistic, no?" She looked back at the pillars. "Because she produced offspring with her father and also with her son?"
"She did?" Well, it didn't surprise him. She'd produced offspring with Daniel without so much as a by-your-leave after all.
"In the original myths she was the mother of Horus who was sired by her father, Ra, but later Isis usurped her cult and Horus was transferred to her. Horus and Hathor were also the parents of Ihy."
He mentally filed away the name of 'Ihy' as a Goa'uld he definitely didn't want to meet without a full clip of ammo.
"You prefer Isis?" She smiled at him secretively, like a cat with a mouse stashed away for later. "She is less…threatening? The loyal and loving wife to Osiris and good mother to Horus?"
He shrugged. "I always thought she was probably a bit of bitch as well."
Hélène laughed. "You are lucky you do not live in the times of Ancient Egypt. You would be put to death for blasphemy against such a dearly beloved goddess." She looked at him curiously. "Do you not like anything at all about Egyptian mythology, Colonel?"
He scratched his jaw. "I like Thor."
"You are impossible. Come and see this and be impressed. I insist on it." She caught his sleeve and tugged him towards a wall painting of someone who looked suspiciously like Ra to him fighting with an enormous snake. Above them were hundreds of squiggly golden hieroglyphs which he didn't need to be able to read to know what this was. She pointed to it. "Do you not think it is beautiful?"
O'Neill looked at it for a long moment. "It's Ra fighting with Apophis, right?"
She opened her eyes wide. "John told me you were an enthusiast but I thought he was mistaken. Yes, that is who it is."
He nodded. "See, what they don't you show you here is how many soldiers they'd have had to do the fighting. They'd be warring over territory which people would be living in – because otherwise what's the point in fighting for it unless you're going to get something from it? So there would be these places full of slaves they were fighting for so they'd get the right to have those people belonging to them like so many sheep and having to die for them if their god told them to." He looked around at the paintings. "I see lots of gods and people bringing them tributes and bowing down before them. And I see lots of dead people they're not showing here who would have been killed by Ra's…soldiers when he defeated Apophis."
Hélène increased her grip on his sleeve, looking at him in surprise. "Colonel, it is just a myth. No one died. They did not send their forces into battle against one another because they did not exist. They are just…symbols." She held out a hand to encompass the room. "Ra represents good and Apophis represents evil. It is the eternal struggle between light and darkness. It is not real. La Tapisserie de Bayeaux is more horrible because real men died in that battle and because the Anglo-Saxons lost much of their language and culture when the invaders came. But this is just a myth. A story for children."
Nelson wandered into the chamber and the conversation without warning: "But Colonel O'Neill does make a good point about the way myth and metaphor often represented the way the geopolitical landscape was altered. The emergence of one deity over another often representing a battle fought here on the earthly plane by a king who worshipped Sobek say, overtaking a king who worshipped Amun-Ra or the like."
"Yes, but why choose to be repulsed by every depiction of what could be a symbolic representation of a battle when one can admire the artistry and love which has gone into the painting?" Hélène protested. "Is it not better to celebrate the fact this beautiful thing has survived all these millennia for us to see it now? To look upon work that was created three or four thousand years ago?"
O'Neill was still staring at the painted Ra and the painted Apophis. Behind him, Nelson and Hélène were talking philosophy now. Trying to decide if anything could be called truly untainted by the politics of the era in which it had been created. They didn't get it and he couldn't tell them. They didn't know about those millions of slaves on other worlds, those Jaffa their beloved gods would sacrifice on a whim, to make a point, to gain a naquada mine or less. If they'd known, perhaps the colors would have been less beautiful to them too.
It struck him then like a physical blow that Daniel did know. Daniel could see what they could see and what O'Neill could see. The beauty of the colors, and the wonder that this piece of artwork painted by some adoring scribe thousands of thousands of years ago had survived, but also the reality of what it represented. Jaffa like Teal'c dying in their thousands over a land dispute in which even the slaves of the winner might well have been sacrificed. Daniel would see the myth and he would also see the glowing eyes of Ra as his ribbon device tried to burn its way into his brain. He would see the symbolic serpent of Apophis, god of the underworld in all those old familiar myths, and he would also see the scorched earth of Chulak after Apophis had laid waste to loyal Jaffa and potential rebels alike just to make a point.
He could never again gaze at a wall-painting with the same look on his face Hélène was wearing now, because the System Lords had stolen that away from him at the same time they took his wife.
Nelson's hand on his shoulder made O'Neill start. The man said quietly, "Are you okay, Colonel?"
O'Neill nodded. "Fine."
When he turned to go he found Hélène contemplating him curiously, her head on one side. "Sometimes, Colonel, I think you are a man of many deep places you do not want the world to see."
He thought that sounded vaguely pornographic but decided to take it in the spirit in which it was obviously meant. "A lot of people make that mistake about me," he assured her. "Actually I'm shallow and proud of it."
Smiling, she shook her head. "I do not think this is true."
He waved as he left the chamber. "No really, trust me, it is."
They had been here a week now and Daniel had sunk into a routine that was almost restful. Alexis had arrived and been embraced by Inga and Hélène, and had his hand shaken with unconcealed enthusiasm by Nelson and Zaheer. Alexis had swept Daniel into a bearhug, squeezing him so hard Daniel had felt his ribs groan a protest. But Alexis' obvious pleasure in seeing him again had made him feel warm inside. The man ruffled his hair fondly. "Little Danny Jackson – all grown up and clearly raring to help a poor old scholar with his translations. How is your Proto-Canaanite, Phoenician, and Aramaic these days?"
"Back off, Alexis. He's helping me with the hieroglyphs and those cryptographic inscriptions…."
"And I was here first and have already asked him for help with my runes. Talking of which, let me introduce you to the best assistant I've ever known – Colonel Jack O'Neill."
Alexis and Jack had shaken hands gravely. Jack had toned down the military hardass bit and Alexis had toned down the bouncing off the walls enthusiasm and energy. Then the moment of truth could be put off no longer and Alexis and Darius had to acknowledge one another's existence. They were stiffly polite, like terriers eyeing up the opposition before a fight. In the evenings the atmosphere between them was like an imminent thunderstorm but as yet they had managed to remain civil.
Nelson had been the most visibly relieved by the arrival of Alexis, clearly glad to pass over the responsibility of maintaining civilized relations to him. Daniel wondered sadly if he and Jack were two of the burdens of leadership Nelson had been glad not to have to shoulder by himself any more. This probably was the dig from hell in many ways. They were all haunted by the ghost of Rajid, the old man's name inevitably coming up from time to time and always at the most inopportune moment when Darius was within earshot. Darius was disintegrating. Daniel wasn't exactly a model of calm himself and the presence of Jack on the site couldn't help but remind everyone that this wasn't a normal dig or else the Air Force wouldn't be interested. He knew every archaeologist working in the Labyrinth kept coming up against anomalies that set their instincts jangling. Everything they examined looked authentic yet made no sense as anything except a fake. They were torn between wonder and suspicion, fascination and mistrust. To Nelson, at least, Daniel suspected, the Labyrinth was starting to seem like a beautiful woman offering herself to him on a plate who he was afraid, under the carefully applied make-up, might turn out to be a transvestite after all.
Now Daniel looked across from his translation of the Goa'uld hieroglyphs to see Jack was still in conversation with Inga in front of the rune forms on the panel on the opposite wall. He remembered how dumbfounded he and Inga had been in the past to find these two remnants of lost cultures on not only the same continent but within the same chamber. Even on a second viewing, and knowing so much more, he had felt some of the same wonder. He and Inga had just stared at the place, drinking it in, those enigmatic inscriptions almost jostling downstrokes, when Jack had spoiled the moment by strolling in and saying, "So what do they say?"
Trying to answer that question had now taken them the best part of a week and they'd translated ten whole words. To Daniel's surprise and Jack's rather amusing pleasure, Inga considered the Air Force colonel as the best assistant she'd ever had and told everyone so. After that Jack had polished rune stones with an extra vigor while Daniel looked on in disbelief and thought of all the off-world digs in which he had tried to engage Jack's interest in the past with absolutely no success.
Over the days, he had grown more accustomed to the fact that some he sincerely hoped long-dead System Lord had put up a panel giving a translation of an agreement reached with the Asgard. He had even started to grow accustomed to the sight of Jack O'Neill sitting there cross-legged on the floor wiping the dust from polished stones while Inga sketched the panel with meticulous attention. It had never ceased to amaze him that the same Jack O'Neill who could be crass beyond all help with women under the age of forty-five was lamb-mild and uncharacteristically flirtatious once they hit what was presumably the 'safe' age of fifty-something. Observing Jack's behavior when he was with Katherine, for instance, Daniel had often deduced that Jack's mother must be a woman of strong character and formidable intellect who had never given him quite as much attention as he would like. Given the full focus of a woman of Katherine's type, Jack positively blossomed.
Although she and Jack had had a few skirmishes over Darius, Inga was for the most part mildly amused by the Air Force colonel but seemed to like him well enough. In fact somewhat to Daniel's surprise, all the archaeologists on the site seemed to like Jack well enough. Nelson was still laboring under the delusion that Jack was a keen amateur Egyptologist but while he was alone in that belief, the other archaeologists also had time for the Air Force representative in their midst. Except for Darius of course. Darius was still insisting on treating Jack like a plague toxin.
Without looking at Jack, Inga said mildly, "I know John thinks you're keen on Egyptology, Colonel O'Neill but I'm less convinced."
He wiped off another polished stone carefully. "What was your first clue?"
"The way your eyes glazed over with boredom when he was telling you about the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World was slightly suggestive." She glanced over her shoulder at him, eyes twinkling. "Are you not enthralled by the glories of the pyramids?"
Jack shrugged. "Well, you know, when you've seen the Seven Wonders of Minnesota…"
Daniel made no attempt to hide his disbelief. "The Seven Wonders of Minnesota?"
Inga completed the line she was copying before saying calmly, "I'm sure the Kensington Runestone is one of them."
"Right, first time."
"Are the others anything to do with fish?" Daniel prompted.
Jack was giving nothing away. "Call yourself an archaeologist and you don't know what they are?"
Daniel put down his pencil. "No, I admit it. Minnesota's wonders are a closed book to me."
Jack turned to the runologist. "Inga?"
She considered the point for a moment. "I have been to Minnesota more than once to visit relatives there and I do recall a rather impressive statue of Saint Urho in Menagha."
Jack smirked. "Two points to Inga. No points to Daniel."
" 'Saint Urho'?" Daniel demanded in disbelief. How could there be a saint in a place uninhabited by Christians until long after people had ceased being made saints? "I've never heard of him."
"You are unfamiliar with his cry of "Heinäsirkka, heinäsirkka, mene täältä hiiteen!"?" Inga's eyes were twinkling. Jack was trying to look innocent but only succeeding in looking smug.
Daniel managed with some difficulty to recognize the language as Finnish, although it was a long time since he'd had to speak any. He had been on a dig in the early nineties with a Finnish archaeologist who had taught him some of the language but it wasn't one he had needed much since. "Okay, let me think. 'Heinäsirkka' is 'grasshopper' and 'mene täältä hiiteen' is the politer version of what Paavo used to say when people tried to call him in the morning when he had a hangover." (In deference to Inga's sex he didn't add that Paavo's more usual protest had been "Äitisi nai poroja!" – "Your mother copulates with reindeer!" – although he made a mental note to tell Jack that later. Jack liked collecting insults in other languages. Daniel's ability to furnish him with new and ruder curse words being, as far as he could tell the only reason Jack was ever impressed by Daniel's skills as a linguist.) "Okay so that makes…'Grasshopper, grasshopper, go away'" He looked between them in bafflement. "That makes no sense."
"Saint Urho is the Finnish saint who rid ancient Finland of an insect scourge thereby saving the grape harvest." Inga began on the next line of runes, copying them with swift sure strokes.
"Grape harvest?" Daniel demanded. "In ancient Finland?"
Jack held up a hand. "Okay. You have to realize that there are two kinds of people in Minnesota: Irish and Scandinavians. And we have St Patrick's Day and they didn't have anything except a fake rune-stone…"
"It's never been proven a fake," Inga interjected mildly. "There are some very well-respected scholars who believe it's genuine."
"I bet you're not one of them," Jack looked up at her sideways.
"I'm still examining all the evidence," she returned with a maddening smile.
"Anyway…" Jack picked up another dusty stone and began to rub it on his jacket. "The Scandinavians got fed up with us making such a big deal out of St Patrick's Day and turning the beer green and running floats all over the place so they decided to have a saint's day themselves. So they invented Saint Urho, decided March 16th was Saint Urho's day and try to make everyone paint the town purple on that day."
"So one of Minnesota's Seven Wonders is a possibly fake rune-stone and the other is a definitely fake saint? Is the third one a slightly fake fish?"
Jack looked mildly affronted. "Where were you born anyway?"
"Oh." Jack wrinkled his nose. "Okay, so you have the Sphinx and a few pyramids in your home country but does Egypt have a Spam Museum?"
Daniel had been in the process of taking a swig of coffee out of his flask but damned near choked on it. He coughed violently and barely had to wipe his streaming eyes before gasping out, "You're kidding?"
"He's deadly serious," Inga assured Daniel over her shoulder, still placidly sketching as she talked. "My Uncle Magnus insisted that I paid a visit to the Spam Museum last time I was in Austin. It was…most interesting. There was a very instructive film on the subject."
"About tins of pork luncheon meat?"
"Don't knock it." Jack placed the stone he'd finished polishing in the bag with the others and picked up another one. "Without Spam who's to say who would have won World War II."
Daniel held up a finger. "One of these wonders has to have something to do with fish. All Minnesota has is big lakes with big fish in them, and people like Jack and his second cousin's husband, Olaf, telling you about the big lakes with the big fish in them while you freeze to death on a boat on one of the big lakes totally failing to catch any of the big fish that supposedly live in it. So don't tell me Minnesota has Seven Wonders and one of them isn't something to do with fish."
Jack grimaced at Inga. "Daniel's still a little bitter about the last vacation we took there."
"No, Jack, I'm still bitter about the last three vacations we took there. Especially as for the last two you told me we were going to Florida and Sam and Teal'c were coming too."
"Hey, you're thirty-six, how did I know you were serious about wanting to go to DisneyWorld?"
"I've never been there and neither has Teal'c. And it's warm in Florida."
"It also has alligators, all year round mosquitoes, and students wearing Mickey Mouse costumes – which is just plain creepy."
"At least isn't full of fish. And if you stopped insisting on taking vacations in Minnesota then Sam and Teal'c might actually want to come as well instead of always telling us Sam's car had broken down and they couldn't get there."
"Hey, there's no proof that was an excuse. They may have really wanted to come, but Carter's got that vintage Volvo, the engine's unreliable."
"She's got two working motorbikes! She can get herself to any part of the world in a day if she wants to. The only place she can never manage to get to is Minnesota. Don't you think that could be telling you something about Minnesota?"
Jack looked mutinous. "We have the world's largest twine ball."
"Admit that one of those Wonders is fish-related in some way."
There was a long pause before Jack grimaced and then shrugged in defeat. "Okay. Minnesota is also home to the Big Fish, but before you sneer I think I should point out that you don't get sixty-five-foot tiger muskies just anywhere and some of the lunkers pulled out of Lake Winnibigoshish…"
"I knew it." Daniel shook his head in disbelief. "And I just don't get it. The Tomb of Tutankhamun leaves you cold but you can get excited about a fake fish."
Inga uttered a mild expletive as the nib of her pencil broke. "I must fetch another. Don't disappear, Colonel. You're a wonderful assistant for a runologist with a bad back."
As she headed out into the daylight, Jack watched her go fondly. "Inga is one cool lady."
Daniel had to admit to himself he was very glad Jack had come. "How about that, an archaeologist you like."
"Hey," Jack twisted his head around to look at him. "You're an archaeologist I like. Sometimes. When you're not being too annoying."
Daniel couldn't completely suppress a small smile. He had his mouth open to respond when Darius’s voice cut through the cheery atmosphere with a sneer.
"Oh, did I interrupt a domestic moment? I do apologize."
He hadn't seen him and didn't know how long he'd been standing there. Daniel muttered unconvincingly, "Jack's a work colleague, Darius."
He winced as the man went past him, a blur of tawny mane and sweat-streaked safari suit, like a big game hunter stalking prey underground, but Jack didn’t so much as blink. Even though Darius had stepped out of one of the side tunnels to loom over him threateningly while he was sitting cross-legged on the floor at a decided disadvantage Jack just looked up steadily at the man before saying coolly, "Have you ever been in therapy, Golding?"
The man's smile was glassy and cold. "For years."
Jack slowly polished a stone on his jacket without breaking eye contact for even a blink. "You should ask for your money back. You were robbed."
Daniel watched Darius go with conflicting feelings of guilt, fear, and compassion. He'd seen Darius throwing those pills down his throat with increasing desperation. He needed a handful now to fire an hour of inspiration, or perhaps they were just to blank out everything else except the cuneiform beneath his fingers. Daniel knew Darius must be fighting the memories too. Perhaps he was also feeling the black tide of them lapping at the corners of his mind, threatening to break through.
"Don't do that."
He looked up to find Jack gazing at him in mingled exasperation and concern.
"Don't do what?"
"Look like you've done something wrong every time that guy makes some cheap crack."
"I don't." Daniel ran a hand through his hair, darting Jack a semi-reproachful sideways look. "Do I?"
"Yes, you do. And it's driving me nuts. And what's with the 'work colleague' crap? I thought we were friends."
Daniel recognized the hurt and anger in Jack's eyes and felt defeated by it. "I'm not being petty, Jack, of course we're friends, it's just that Darius…" He didn't know how to put it into words.
"He'd get the wrong idea. Or…pretend to. He'd make a big deal out of… Never mind, just… It's just easier if he doesn't know we're as close as…"
Jack stabbed a finger at him accusingly. "Daniel, for crying out loud. Ever since we arrived here you've been acting like he's the jealous ex-husband and I'm the new boyfriend you don't want him to find out about. Now, given the fact that you and I don't have anything to hide, can we please stop acting like characters out of a French farce?"
Daniel couldn't help noticing – and resenting – the way Jack had switched Daniel's gender so that he got to keep his. That was pretty typical he had to admit. He also had to admit that much as it might make him wince, Jack's summing up was also a fairly accurate assessment of the way he'd been behaving. "You don't understand Darius."
"Yes, I do. He's a control freak with an ego size of the Milky Way and in the good old days you used to think the sun shone out of the…back of his head, and that was just the way he liked it. Now you're all grown up and he doesn't like that too much, and he particularly doesn't want you hero-worshipping anyone except him or God forbid, having made a life for yourself without him telling you what to think and do. But that's his problem, not yours, and it's certainly not mine."
Daniel had a horrible feeling that trapped between the opposing magnetic forces of the two irresistible objects that Jack and Darius represented he was going to get stretched thinner than spun silk before this dig was over.
Still glaring at him as if he could suppress all arguments that way, Jack tossed the stone he'd been polishing into the bag with the others, Daniel wincing as it clinked.
Jack saw the wince and positively scowled at him. "We both know Asgard technology doesn't chip."
"But Viking artifacts do and that's what Inga thinks it is." He looked after Darius, wondering how much the man remembered, things Daniel didn't? Maybe everything by now? Maybe that was why Darius was getting drunker and nastier every night and had started swallowing those pills like candy.
"Daniel, you're letting yourself get mind-fu-screwed by Golding. Stop helping him."
Daniel said breathlessly: "I might have had a crush. I remember being very impressed by how clever he was. He's a brilliant archaeologist. I remember being very…aware of him when he was nearby."
Jack was still looking at him in irritation, clearly trying to be patient yet not succeeding in any way. "Yes, because he's nuts. I'm aware of him too. I make damned sure I know where he is and that he isn't carrying a monkey wrench."
"Jack…" Daniel reproached him quietly. "Going insane isn't a fun ride for anyone."
"He's on his medication now."
"Nelson told me he was on his medication before. It didn't work too well back then. What's so different this time?"
"He had two different doctors and they gave him pills that didn't mix. Then he tried some local remedy for his migraines and that made things worse. The combination of the different medication made him hallucinate. And he was… very stressed at the time. Grieving." It was your fault she died. All your fault….Whose voice was that anyway? A memory or a projection? Had Darius ever said it? And had it been Daniel he said it to?
From the Great Above Inanna opened her ear to the Great Below… My lady abandoned heaven and earth to descend to the underworld…
Wrapped around with tears and tasting of blood the words of the old myth had a different kind of power. But he wasn't going back to the time even if they had, somehow, persuaded him to come back to this place.
The shadows looked as if someone had hung them in the corners like corpses on a gallows, sometimes they seemed to be pulsing quietly with an internal energy that flickered blue in the darkness. It was right on the edge of his memory, the knife blade and the tearing cloth. But he was afraid he already knew what it led to and he couldn't go there, couldn't cope with that level of self-disgust. He had already woken up still attached to a body that had done repulsively unclean things and been unable to escape it however many bars of soap he used to try to wash away Hathor's perfume.
He jumped as Jack rested his hands on his shoulders. Looking into Jack's eyes he realized the man was a hair's breadth away from shaking him. Daniel blinked at him in accusation. "What?"
"Stop. Helping. Him."
"Yes, you are. You're trying to find a way to make what happened back then your fault. It wasn't."
"You don't know that."
Jack kept looking into his eyes for a moment and then released him. "Okay, let's try this a different way. Think back to how you were in those days and tell me honestly how it felt to you when you were with Golding. Not what he's said you were feeling, what it felt like to you."
Daniel closed his eyes and tried to remember. He recalled the man's incredible abilities with cuneiform, not just in identifying them but in understanding the mind of the scribe who had carved them there so many thousands of years before. Seeming to know so quickly what he was trying to say, making those incredible leaps of faith. Encouraging Daniel to do the same. Telling him to go with his gut, with his instinct. Saying 'What do you think it might say?' Don't look at the words. Look at the whole picture. What kind of man was he who carved it? What kind of society did he live in? What was he trying to say? Close your eyes and tell me what it says." Brilliant, bullying, and eternally unpredictable, unexpectedly generous with his time one day, abrasive and dismissive the next.
Daniel opened his eyes. "I remember feeling…admiration and respect and a little fear."
Jack nodded. "And maybe that's all it ever was."
"Admiration and respect and a little fear. Maybe he told you there was a romantic attraction there because that's what he wanted it to be. Maybe he told you that because he wanted it, not because it was true."
Daniel felt himself close down, close off, pushing Jack away with his mind. If he'd had those powers he'd briefly experienced on Kheb he would have been shoving Jack towards the exit, away from him, stopping him sharing those thoughts. He wrapped his arms around himself. "Darius prefers women. He was always having affairs. Women couldn't keep away from him. That's why his wife…" He shook his head, not wanting to say it aloud, to lay a crime so heavy at anyone's door. "That may have been part of the reason why his wife…"
Jack threw up his hands in exasperation. "Okay have it your way. You had a crush. He's blameless. Everything that happened to you in your place was completely your own fault. I mean you were all of twenty-three-years-old and he was forty-one. He kidnapped you at knife-point and you ended up in a coma but, hey, that's not to say you weren't asking for it, is it?"
Daniel turned his head away, feeling the traitorous tears threatening again. He spoke between his teeth. "I may have gone willingly. I don't remember. I wanted to get to the center of the labyrinth and he was the one who cracked the code."
"He had a hunting knife."
He remembered the flash of the blade, the fear… Oh god the fear had been the worst part of it, that was what he was afraid of, experiencing that fear again, the paralysis, the creeping dread, being left in the dark with insanity and the glittering slice of that knife. He'd been so afraid of the knife. He would have done anything to escape it. He could remember the edge of his button against his fingertips, could remember fumbling to try to undo his shirt when the order came, stepping out of his pants, shivering and naked and terrified to the point of mindless obedience….
He looked at Jack's anger-darkened face and took a step back. "What?"
Jack threw up his hands in defeat. "Nothing. You're just driving me insane."
Daniel shuddered. "I think that's what I did to Darius."
"You didn't do a damned thing!"
They both jumped guiltily as Inga reappeared. She looked at Jack in mild reproach. "Shouting something more loudly does not make it more true."
He stared back at her in exasperation then jerked a thumb at Daniel. "Well, can I just deck him then? I promise I'll do it quietly."
She returned his gaze without any humor. "I think there is probably a special place in hell for people who hurt people like Daniel, Colonel."
He returned her gaze unblinkingly. "I certainly hope so."
"I think Darius believes there is too."
Jack kept right on looking at her, challenging, aware of the sympathy she was clearly trying to elicit and refusing to have anything to do with it. He said coolly, "I hope that too."
Daniel turned his head in time to hear that stifled sound and his eyes met Darius’s. He read the recognition in them, and the fear, their gaze locked, bodies frozen, then he saw Darius shudder as if from the flash of a camera and he knew Darius had remembered something else. Daniel stepped forward, trying to read the memory in Darius’s eyes and for a second he thought he glimpsed the silver flash of a blade, and then Darius was gone, striding down the corridor into another part of the maze, away from the memory, away from Daniel.
He dropped his notebook and ran after him, calling him back, but when he caught up with him by a crossroads of four identical corridors, Darius had already taken what looked like a handful of pills and was dissolving their sugar coatings on his tongue with neat whiskey from a hip flask.
Daniel moistened his lips. "Are you okay?"
Darius wiped his mouth deliberately, the amber alcohol staining the gray of his beard. His tone was matter-of-fact despite the now very obvious tremor in his right hand. "No. Are you?"
"No." Daniel looked around for inspiration. "Maybe we shouldn't have come back here." As the silence stretched between them, he asked suddenly, "Do you remember?"
Darius flinched violently. "No." He said it like someone pushing something away.
"Nothing at all?"
Darius looked him in the eye. "What I remember didn't happen."
Daniel shivered. Looking into Darius’s eyes was like staring into the mouth of hell, so much horror lived in them. "Are you sure?"
"I'm not sure of anything." Darius took another swig of whiskey. "But if what I remembered was true then…" He shook his head, shuddered. "Well, let's just say you would never have come back here."
"Maybe it is true." Daniel almost said Maybe I remember it too. Except he didn't. He didn't know what he remembered, he only knew the fear he felt matched the expression in Darius's eyes far better than it matched the hospital reports. Maybe I came back because I'm too stupid to know when I'm in danger. Jack's pretty much been telling me that for years.
When Darius grabbed him and slammed him up against the wall, he only didn't cry out because the breath was knocked out of him too soon. As he gasped through a combination of shock and oxygen starvation, the man loomed over him, desperate for absolution, searching Daniel's face and not finding what he was looking for there. "Do you want it to be true?"
Daniel shuddered. "No."
Darius spoke rapidly, his mouth very close to Daniel's. "I had fantasies. I remember them. Do you want to hear them? Do you want to think they happened? Maybe they did. Maybe I did all the things I thought about doing and maybe you liked it."
"No." He swallowed hard. "You wouldn't have done that. You were never…" That bad. He broke off because the truth was he didn't know that at all, he didn’t know anything, just like Darius had always told him. Perhaps Darius had been capable of anything back then. Even that.
"Are you sure about that?" Darius continued to gaze into his eyes, wanting something Daniel couldn't give.
Daniel winced in apology, every instinct he possessed screaming at him this man was dangerous, unable to keep that from his face. "No."
Darius let him go abruptly. "That makes two of us." He reached out and smoothed the creases from Daniel's shirt wearily. "Go away before I hurt you again."
Daniel didn't know if he meant now, leave this moment and this corridor before the man slammed him against another wall, or leave Egypt before he hurt him like he had in the past. Except he hadn't hurt him in the past. The hospital reports said so.
Darius screwed on the top his hip flask as though it was the most fascinating task in the world. Then he said quietly, "Rajid was a good man. He was only trying to protect you."
Daniel blinked at him in confusion at the abrupt change of subject. "I know."
"He loved your mother. He loved you. He would never have done anything to hurt you."
Daniel touched the smooth rock of the wall, needing to feel the glassy surface against his fingers. "I know that too."
There was a pause before Darius jammed the flask back into his jacket with sudden savagery. "Are you sleeping with O'Neill?"
"No." Daniel could feel his face closing off, the way he looked when he was lying. He couldn't even make the truth seem true today.
Darius headed towards the eastern corridor, the one Daniel hadn't explored yet, and then stopped. His voice was surprisingly matter-of-fact, as if he was discussing the weather. "If you are I'll kill him."
Daniel shivered. "I'm not. I swear I'm not." When that didn't elicit a response he added with a desperation he couldn't have explained, "Jack's a good man. Please don't hurt him."
Darius wasn't even listening to him. As he walked away his last words made even less sense than the ones that had gone before: "I owe it to Rajid."
Alone with Inga, O'Neill had to stop himself from running after Daniel and Golding. Only Daniel would go charging into a dark tunnel with a guy who had almost killed him once and see nothing at all unwise about doing so.
Seeing the anxiety in her eyes too, he took a chance. "Tell me what happened."
She gave herself a little shake before answering him. "What do you mean?"
"Don't stall, Inga. What happened thirteen years ago?"
"Only Darius and Daniel know what – "
" – happened in the Labyrinth. I know. But only you know what happened outside of the Labyrinth while they were in there. So what happened that you know about?" Sometimes being stern with his mother did get her to not get up on stepladders when there was no one else in the house, or to try rewiring things while they were still plugged in. He didn't have a lot of authority over her, it was true, but every now and then if he pulled out every stop of the hardass Air Force colonel act that reduced airmen to quivering jellies he could sometimes get her to listen to him, at least for a few minutes.
Inga regarded him for a moment in a 'I refuse to be bullied by you' manner, and then turned back to the runeforms, speaking over her shoulder as if that would somehow make it less of a concession.
"We're not sure how Darius and Daniel ended up in the Labyrinth. John thinks Darius kidnapped Daniel from his tent. I think it was just bad luck that Daniel was working late in the Labyrinth and Darius came across him when he was…under the influence of something or had finally cracked up over Anna. He seems to have taken Daniel into the center of the Labyrinth, although none of us know how he found his way there. We'd been trying to reach it for months without success. The real mystery is how they found the center, not what took place in there because whatever it was, it couldn't have been anything very serious." She shot him a defiant look. "I saw Daniel in hospital. I spoke to the doctors who treated him and I swear to you, he barely had a mark on him. Go and read the hospital records if you don't believe me. Whatever Darius’s intentions might have been when he persuaded Daniel to – "
" 'Persuaded'?" O'Neill demanded angrily. "The guy had a knife to his throat."
" 'Threatened' then if you must think like that, but for all anyone knows he talked Daniel into going with him willingly by offering to show Daniel the way to get to the center of the Labyrinth. Daniel was very curious back then. And he had no reason to be frightened of Darius. He still doesn't." She threw the last words at him with defiance. "Or do you imagine that Daniel would just give in without a fight if Darius told him to do something…unpleasant? Darius is and was very strong. If he'd forced Daniel to do something he didn't want to do, he would have left bruises. Definitely. And like I said, Daniel barely had a mark on him."
O'Neill kept his face as blank as he could make it but it was difficult. His head was full of images of Golding dragging Daniel along by the hair with a knife to his throat. He couldn't help thinking that if this had been a woman they were discussing, Inga might not have insisted on bruises as proof of force. With a knife held to their throat, how many people would fight? Daniel had been so young back then and so damned innocent. He might not have known what was coming until it was too late.
But another part of his mind told him that even if Daniel had frozen, mind locked up, body rigid with shock, unable to fight, unable to even voice a protest, what he was afraid Golding had done would still have left bruises, and there hadn't been any bruises. So why wasn't he more reassured?
Inga touched the runes as if she was taking comfort from them, her fingers tracing their sharp edges as she spoke. "Rajid must have seen Darius taking Daniel into the Labyrinth and he followed them. Darius seemed to be trying to commit suicide. He had sticks of dynamite with him. He stole them from a building site. When I asked him why, he said it was because there was something evil in the labyrinth and he didn't know any other way to destroy it. Apparently he'd been having flashes of terrible 'visions' whenever he went in there for weeks but he hadn't told us. He said it was only much later that he realized the evil in the labyrinth came from him."
O'Neill grimaced again. He was not going to feel sorry for Darius Golding. The guy had damned near killed his best friend. Daniel could forgive him and Inga could forgive him if they felt they must, but he wouldn't, whatever they might say to try to make him.
Inga continued evenly, "He left the dynamite behind in a trail and Rajid followed the trail to the center. He got Daniel away from Darius and took him outside. Then he went back for Darius. He got him out just before the explosion. Daniel had gone back to try to help and they were all hit by the blast. They weren't seriously injured but Daniel was knocked out. Rajid died of a heart attack probably from the exertion and stress of getting them both clear. By the time the ambulance got there nothing could be done for him. Daniel was taken to the hospital in Cairo and I think the Air Force paid for his treatment. He was in a coma for several weeks but then he woke up and was pretty much unharmed."
Her expression was still defiant. There was an unspoken suggestion that what she was really saying was that what Golding had done wasn't that bad. Daniel hadn't really been hurt by it. He hadn't really injured him.
O'Neill felt a flicker of temper but kept it under control with an effort. She reminded him of someone whose husband was a rapist but who didn't want to admit it. Determinedly living in denial. Maybe even blaming the victim for what the person she loved had done. He said evenly, "So why was Daniel naked when Rajid found him? Why was he covered in blood?" What happened to him that was so terrifying he won't let himself remember it?
"I don't know." Inga touched the runes again, averting her gaze. She sounded suddenly frail and tired. "I try not to think about it."
He felt simultaneously sorry for her and exasperated by her because all she had to do was dislike Golding the way he did and it all became much easier to deal with. "How were the Air Force involved?"
"I would have thought you could have told me that."
He shook his head. "Different department."
She shrugged, a little angry with him in return. "They came in their uniforms with their sunglasses." The glance she shot at him made him wince as he remembered his own arrival on the dig. "They asked a lot of questions and gave us no answers of their own but I suppose in some ways we had reason to be grateful to them. They sorted things out with the Egyptian authorities. They paid for a survey to prove that our site hadn't undermined the site at Hierakonpolis. They paid for Daniel's medical treatment. They paid compensation to Rajid's family on the understanding that it wasn't an acceptance of liability. They thanked us for the work we had done and told us work would be resumed as soon as possible." She shrugged again. "And thirteen years later they even kept their word."
He nodded. "Thanks."
She put her hand on his arm. "Now can you answer my questions? Can you tell me why the Air Force is interested in an ancient Egyptian maze?" She looked at him closely. "Do you know something we don't, Colonel? Do you know why there are runes next to hieroglyphs? Cuneiform next to Phoenician? Why there are myths told here that none of us have ever heard before?"
He took a step back. "Even if I did know do you think it's likely the Air Force would let me tell you?"
"Do you believe that good people can do bad things?"
He was turning away when her question reached him so abruptly. He winced and turned back. "I know they can."
"Darius might have intended to do something terrible to Daniel in that place but whatever his intentions were it's obvious that he didn't get the chance to carry them out. He didn't succeed in…hurting Daniel, and he didn't manage to kill either of them. He was very…disturbed back then. There are things in his past he has never told even me about. I think everything caught up with him at once and Daniel just happened to be the catalyst for his…breakdown. He would never have really wanted to do him any harm." O'Neill must have looked unconvinced because she took a step forward, lowering her voice to add rapidly, "Even if it was his own guilt and confusion about perhaps experiencing…desire for Daniel, and perhaps in his confusion blaming something Anna didn't know about for her suicide, I don't think he ever really intended to do anything…sexual to Daniel."
He gave her a long level stare. "So, you're saying that just because Golding dragged Daniel into a place where no one else could find them, ordered him to take off all his clothes at knifepoint, then did something to him so terrible Daniel throws up when he's forced to even slightly confront it, I shouldn't go leaping to any wild conclusions?"
She turned away. "I think Daniel probably wasn't even Daniel to him in there. He was…symbolic. Darius himself, in his right mind, would never mean to cause Daniel harm, or anyone else for that matter."
O'Neill decided that as conversations went this one was pointless. He liked Inga too much to say what he thought about the way she was twisting herself into knots to try not to find someone in the wrong who was clearly more in the wrong than any man he'd ever seen. Daniel had been just a kid back then, full of hope and enthusiasm and trust. Golding had betrayed his trust and that seemed to O'Neill to be a crime in itself, even if it didn't leave physical marks on the skin.
Inga gave him a look of appeal. "Whatever he originally intended to do, he didn't do it. Doesn't he get any credit for that? He had Daniel at his mercy and he didn't hurt him."
He didn't say what they both knew, that if Rajid hadn't arrived in time, Daniel would have been killed in that explosion. What was the point when it obviously mattered so much to her that Golding should be just another victim here. Nodding he said only, "Thanks for your help." When he left her she was staring at the runes as though somehow they must provide a way to prove that Golding wasn't guilty after all.
O'Neill was still engaged on his never-ending search for the Asgard control panel when he ran into Alexis. The Greek scholar always reminded of Mister Tumnus from "The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe", a book Charlie had made O'Neill read to him countless times in the past. Alexis had the same tightly curled black hair and pointed beard, the streaks of gray in both the only hint that he was now in his late-fifties and not the forty-something he looked on first sight. He was a good head shorter than O'Neill, a bundle of terrier-like energy who tended to fall on inscriptions and worry them into submission. He was also fiercely protective of Daniel and as a consequence more than a little disapproving of O'Neill, or at least of what O'Neill did for a living and the fact that Daniel was now doing it for a living too. A couple of times in the company of Alexis O'Neill had felt uncomfortably like the ne'er-do-well son-in-law Daniel had married in haste and about whom the rest of the family were afraid he would be repenting at leisure.
Although he liked the Greek scholar on a personal level, O'Neill tried to avoid him whenever possible, finding it too difficult some days to have it brought home to him how gutted all these other archaeologist were by what Daniel had chosen to do with his life. As a part of the choice Daniel had made, and particularly as the guy who'd asked for him to be allowed to join a first contact team in the first place, there were days when O'Neill couldn't cope with hearing about the glittering academic career Alexis had thought lay ahead of Daniel, of how brilliant his parents had been, of how disappointed Daniel's father would have been if he'd known he was squandering his gifts to work for the military….
Today though, the man was unavoidable and O'Neill found himself trapped back in the same circular conversation, trying to justify Daniel's choices without being able to offer any of the real reasons why he wasn't actually wasting his life the way they all thought.
Alexis finished his usual rant and then wiped his brow. "No offence, O'Neill."
"None taken." O'Neill gritted his teeth.
"I just don't think you have any idea what the world of archaeology has lost."
"I can guess."
Alexis sighed, gazing through an open archway to look into the chamber in which Daniel was working with Golding. "If he looked happy I wouldn't mind so much but…"
"I know." O'Neill snapped it before he could stop himself then took off his forage cap and ran a hand through his hair. "Sometimes the work Daniel does for us is stuff he loves, and sometimes it isn't. Recently he's had too much of the bad stuff and not enough of the good, but I'm going to make sure that changes, I promise."
Alexis held up his hands in supplication. "It's his life. I know that. But he was so brilliant…"
"He still is."
Alexis shrugged in defeat. "I just thought by now he would be changing the face of archaeology. You know? I remember him as this amazing little kid with permanently skinned knees climbing into crypts, jabbering away to the workers in a dozen different languages, already knowing half the mythology of Egypt. I remember thinking he was going to do incredible things, be up there with Howard Carter and Champollion, with Schliemann and Evans. It's bad enough his parents never lived to see him grow up, and his son-of-a-bitch grandfather never gave him the time of day, but to know he's wasting his talents for a bunch of guys who never got over playing with their Action Men…" The Greek winced then. "Sorry, O'Neill. It's just…your world isn't our world, and I'm not convinced it should be Daniel's world either."
"Some days I'm not convinced of that either," O'Neill answered evenly, "but I figure when it's time to move on, Daniel will know."
"Promise me when it is, you'll make sure they let him go?"
O'Neill opened his mouth to make a flip response but the memory of Armin Selig's blood warming his hands was too vivid and still too raw. "I promise."
He tried to shake off the burden of that conversation but it dominated his thoughts to the point where he found himself turning circles in confusion, not recognizing any of the chambers he entered, trying to fight the panic as he kept walking along corridors he was sure he'd passed an hour before without recognizing any of them. After much too long, he hit a dead-end which he knew hadn't been there the day before, as if the walls had closed in on him like enemy Jaffa. The weak lemon lights cast more shadows than illumination while the painted eyes of unknown gods looked down on him from the walls as if they knew of every Goa'uld he'd ever killed and were planning to make him pay for it. By the time he managed to retrace his steps to a chamber he recognized his heart was beating so hard his ribs were aching, and for the first time he found himself wondering if it really was true that the walls could remember, and if so exactly how much evil was stored here.
Later, as they sat around the campfire and Golding ripped into Daniel for the third consecutive evening about how he was wasting his life and his god-given talent working for those ratfuckers in blue that were the United States Air Force, it was Alexis who told Golding to shut up and back off. Alexis who told Golding that Daniel was an adult and perfectly able to make his own decisions, and anyway, bitch about the military as Golding might, Alexis would love to hear the last time an archaeologist had saved the world.
Looking through the flickering firelight at Daniel huddled in O'Neill's borrowed coat, sipping his coffee, O'Neill thought that if only Alexis knew it, he was sitting right next to an archaeologist who had helped save the world on more than one occasion. Except that fact, like Daniel's vindication over the matter of the age of the pyramids, was something neither O'Neill nor Daniel could share.
Abruptly, O'Neill got to his feet and walked into the darkness. It was too cold away from the fire, but for a minute he couldn't stand it. They were all so damned tactful to Daniel in his hearing. Alexis had never breathed so much as a word to the man himself that suggested how bitterly disappointed he was about the career choices Daniel had made, but it still sat down with them every evening: the specter of the future they'd thought Daniel was going to have. Their adopted son, echo of their dead friends, the boy they'd all waited so impatiently to see grow up and dazzle the world, only to watch dismayed as he destroyed his own career right in front of their disbelieving eyes. Because they were good people they'd never reproached him but O'Neill could sense the intensity of their regret some days, and if he was aware of it, he was damned sure Daniel must be too.
"Jack…" He turned his head to find Daniel standing in the shadows, arms wrapped around himself, breath visible in the darkness. "It's too cold. Come back to the fire."
O'Neill jerked his head at the campfire. "Don't you ever want to tell them you were right? That what you do every day is…"
Daniel reached out and touched him, stilling his moment of indiscretion. He was right, O'Neill knew, sound carried too well on this rich old air. Daniel lowered his voice to say, "I know what I do every day. I know I was right. It doesn't matter if no one else knows it."
O'Neill avoided Daniel's eye. "It matters to me."
"Jack, Alexis thinks I've screwed up my career and wrecked my life, and he's still defending my choices. He wanted me to be the greatest archaeologist the world has ever known and I'm an academic joke he has to defend every time he goes to a conference, but he still defends me. So does John. So does Inga."
O'Neill didn't tell Daniel that made it worse. He knew it did. He knew how much Daniel must want to make these people proud of him, to vindicate their loyalty to him by proving he'd been right all the time. Aloud he said, "But you've got to want to stick it to Golding sometimes."
Daniel smiled faintly. "Actually, two years ago at an international conference on the Pyramid Texts, Darius punched out one of the respectable scholars who walked out on my lecture the day Katherine found me. Sometimes it's worth failing to find out who your friends are." And for a moment, as if Daniel had willed him to, O'Neill saw reflected in Daniel's eyes not the red glow of the campfire but a silhouette of one man sobbing in another's arms in an SGC storeroom.
O'Neill sighed. "I'm sorry you can't tell them the truth. I appreciate how hard it must be for you."
"No harder than it was for Sam not to be able to tell her dying father why she couldn't take that place he'd got her with NASA. No harder than it was for you not to be able to tell Sara why that crystal alien looked just like her dead son. I don't ever take it for granted, Jack. Don't think just because I needed to get away from it for a while that it ever could or would get old for me."
O'Neill frowned. "What?"
Daniel help up his hands, nodding up at the sky and Jack raised his eyes to a tapestry of glittering constellations so vivid and so close it felt as if he could just reach out and pluck them from the sky like silver fruit.
"The Stargate. The most incredible archaeological find there has ever been and probably ever will be, and I got to live in the era when it was found, and I got to step through it onto the surface of other worlds. Don't ever think I'm not grateful, Jack. Don't ever think it's lost its magic for me. I get tired of fighting sometimes, and even more tired of failing, but I don't ever get tired of the wonder of what we do." Daniel moistened his lips. "I know how lucky I am to have been recruited to the SGC. I know how lucky I am you ever let me on your team in the first place."
O'Neill reached out and touched his hand, feeling how cold Daniel's skin was. He said intently, "If it wasn't for you I would have died on Abydos. I was the lucky one, Daniel. And don't think just because I don't tell you that every day that I don't know it."
Daniel swallowed, wrapping his arms around himself. "We'd better go back. Darius will think we're…"
"Okay." Embarrassed by how mushy he'd been, O'Neill didn't argue, scratching his jaw so as to avoid meeting Daniel's eyes as they walked back to the campfire.
Golding looked pointedly at his watch as they returned. "Just a quickie was it, Colonel?"
O'Neill gave him a mirthless smile. "What can I tell you, Golding? It's just too damned cold for foreplay."
"Jack…" Daniel gave him a warning look.
O'Neill shrugged petulantly and tossed another log on the fire but as he gave Golding another defiant look and saw the depths of the jealousy and hatred in the man's glittering eyes, he did feel that faint thrill of fear again. For a moment even the blaze couldn't warn him and he was abruptly aware of the infinite distance of the stars, his own insignificance, his lifespan one brief ripple in the sea of time.
It was a relief when Hélène got out her guitar and started to sing Joni Mitchell songs without quite hitting the high notes, giving him back the comfort of the seventies. Sometimes he needed a way back to a time when everything had still seemed possible. When his world hadn’t contained the constant shadow of the Goa'uld, and somewhere on another continent a child called Daniel Jackson was climbing over the broken statues of dead pharaohs asking more questions than anyone could answer in a single lifetime…
When the crate arrived, Daniel and Nelson fell on the ultraviolet lights like – in Hélène's words – 'little boys with new light sabers'. They didn't care, they had been peering at faint impressions on the walls for days now, trying to see if there were colors there, if that really was a sign or just a shadow on the wall. While Alexis was still signing for them, checking the paperwork and grumbling over the cost – apparently out of habit as the Air Force was paying for them – Daniel and Nelson had already snatched up the lights and almost run back into the Labyrinth with them to try them out, not wanting to waste a second now the means was there to unravel one of the mysteries of this place. They were breathless when they reached the chamber but bubbling with excitement, yelling back along the passageway for Jack to kill the power of the generator to put out the lights.
When he obeyed, the darkness was unexpected, breathlessly impenetrable. They were abruptly so alone when a second before they had been connected to the daylight by that humming cable, the sunlight echoed by those lemon yellow lights. The air was deafeningly silent without the hum of the generator, a subterranean breeze rushing past them as if it was teasing them for their sudden moment of fear.
They fumbled with their new toys, finding the 'on' switches they both realized they should have had their thumbs on before they asked for the lights to be turned off. Then abruptly the walls were bathed in violet light, images appearing under its rays like those children's coloring books which when dabbed with water revealed beautiful pictures.
"Look!" Nelson pointed to the wall in ecstasy. "Just as we thought, behind the stele dedicated to Mertseger there's half an inscription and the symbol for Nekheny. Damn, it's in that weird dialect. Can you translate?"
Daniel squinted at it, trying to make out the words. There were so many inscriptions here for which he would have asked for Teal'c's help if the Jaffa had been available. But some he could read:
I am the last of the first ones…the true counsel of nine… I am Nekheny who will not yield…not to Ra or his followers… I will fight until the last drop of my armies’ blood… I will fight until my last breath… I will not take flight like Sokar or hide like Seth…
His heart sank. Here he was with a fellow archaeologist. They had their brand new toy and a brand new inscription to translate and he was going to have to lie because to do otherwise would give Nelson too many clues that might lead him to realize the truth about the Goa'uld. Feeling sick inside, Daniel could hardly meet the man's eye. "No. Sorry. I don't understand it either."
Nelson's disappointment was quickly concealed. He patted Daniel on the shoulder in consolation, making him feel a hundred times worse. "Never mind. At least we can see it now and there may be someone out there who understands this stuff. Let's photograph it while we can. Get Hélène to draw it for us. All my hawks always end up looking like budgerigars for some reason…"
Daniel forced a smile but he still felt sick at heart. Now, for the first time, he saw that ignorance sometimes could be bliss. He also wondered if this was why Darius drank, because he wanted to get back to a time when he didn't remember, when nothing was tainted, and everything seemed possible.
Ironically, when O'Neill finally found what he was looking for, he hadn't even been searching for it very hard. He'd been much more focused on trying to avoid another hour spent with Zaheer hearing about how beautiful those coiling snakes were and how exciting it was that gods from Indian mythology should be found praised here. That tests of the stone suggested it could have been Babylonian. That perhaps the Indian myths Golding was always dismissing as such latecomers compared with the Sumerians and Akkadians might in fact be just as old and have begun their days on a different continent….
So many theories put forward with so much modesty and hope, all of which he knew to be as wrong as it was possible to be. So he'd just been ducking away from another chamber full of snake pictures when he'd noticed that little alcove. It was tucked away behind a pillar, which was why he'd walked past it before, but once he shone his flashlight in there he knew he'd hit pay dirt.
It was a small dais, sloping up to a curved top on which was a line of runes. Underneath the runes was a pattern of circles and lines which no doubt Inga would spend days, possibly even years, trying to decipher, and it never occurring to her that this was a piece of Asgard technology, the rune stones shaped like neatly sliced hard-boiled eggs she'd been handing to him so carefully the mechanisms that made this baby fire up.
Looking around to make sure no one was watching him, O'Neill took a piece of chalk from his pocket and carefully drew his initials on the pillar outside. He didn't think it was a good idea for either him or Daniel to start messing around with Asgard whirligigs right now, but he also thought it was something he would much rather NID never found out about.