The fifth chevron glowed brightly in the underground chamber as it locked into place.
Daniel Jackson watched the wheel turn, searching for the next symbol in the coded address. Though he tried to ignore them, he could feel the glances directed his way. Jack O'Neill hid his worry beneath a facade of irreverence while Teal'c's Jaffa stoicism had never made him seem more remote. The open concern on Sam's face was almost refreshing in its honesty.
The sixth chevron lit up.
Daniel's heart didn't skip a beat as it would have a mere week ago. The hope that had once accompanied him on every journey through the Stargate was gone. Sha're was dead. With her went all his dreams, all his enthusiasm. But he had made her a promise, and he would keep it. He would find the Harsesis child, her son. Maybe then he would be free to succumb to his grief.
The seventh chevron locked, instigating the formation of a wormhole.
Aware of the interested looks directed his way from Hammond in the control room and the hardened guards here in the embarkation room, Daniel led the way up the ramp. Empty inside, he stepped across the event horizon.
Walking onto the new planet as if he were leaving one room and entering another, Daniel wasn't surprised to be greeted by pleasant temperatures and the absence of wind currents. The UAV had relayed this information in conjunction with other significant data, including the presence of a temple approximately two miles away.
Descending the steep stairs in front of the Stargate, Daniel felt a small spark of interest ignite his heart. Mounds of dust were scattered around the perimeter, some as far away as half-a-mile. Apparently a windless day was the norm on P3X-554, at least in the vicinity of the Stargate. There was no grass or any other plant life near the dust piles. Yet just beyond were lush green fields and a forest of trees.
"Does anyone have any idea what these are?" O'Neill asked, kicking one of the piles.
"Jack, don't." Daniel's breath caught in his throat as he protested the older man's action. There was no logical or scientific explanation to back his impression, but Daniel felt the mounds should be left undisturbed. "I don't know what they are. Until we do, I think we should leave them alone."
"Shall we see if we can find someone who does know?" Jack blazed a zigzag trail, avoiding the piles.
When grass sprang beneath his feet, Daniel thought the air smelled fresher, as though the world had suddenly come to life. He mentally shook himself, cursing an overactive imagination.
A loud screech echoed around them. The eerie sound raised goose-bumps on Daniel's flesh. Eyes searched the sky and trees for the source of the shriek.
O'Neill and Carter lifted their rifles, scanning for the danger the cry intimated. Teal'c expertly flipped his staff weapon so it rested in both hands. A flick of his finger armed the deadly jaws.
"Anyone see anything?" O'Neill demanded.
"Nothing, sir." Despite her reassurance, Carter didn't relax her stance.
Disarming the staff, Teal'c remained alert. "I am unclear what could have caused such a sound, O'Neill."
"Keep your eyes open," Jack advised, relaxing slightly.
"Why would I have them closed?" Teal'c's head tilted in puzzlement.
A smile curving the tips of her lips, Carter interpreted, "It's only an expression, Teal'c."
"Let's go." Obviously enjoying the confusion he'd caused, O'Neill's body turned to obey his order. Only quick reflexes saved him from falling flat on his face. His feet had been swallowed by the ground, making it impossible for him to move. "What the hell?"
"My feet are similarly encased, O'Neill," Teal'c calmly revealed.
A note in her voice that could be described as scientific curiosity rather than fear, Carter said, "Me, too, sir."
"Daniel?" Jack twisted his body, searching for the archeologist.
"I'm all right, Jack." Daniel hurried over to his friend and knelt at his feet. Whatever was trapping the rest of the team had not grabbed him. He was the only one free to investigate. Hands pulled at the grassy dirt surrounding O'Neill's ankles. The ground was as hard as concrete.
"Move aside, Daniel." Jack pulled his sidearm. Pointing it at an area just in front of his foot, he fired. The bullet ricocheted, brushing against his thigh before becoming embedded in the ground behind him.
"I'm fine, Carter, just a nick. Talk about cement overshoes." Holstering his weapon, Jack observed, "That didn't work. Teal'c try your staff."
Disturbed by the near miss the previous action had produced, Daniel protested, "Jack . . . "
"We have to do it, Daniel. We're running out of options here."
Silently agreeing with the assessment, Daniel crossed to Teal'c to offer his assistance if it was necessary. "Ready?"
"Ready." Teal'c flicked the switch. The bolt of energy slammed into the ground and was instantly absorbed.
Daniel knelt by the burned patch, hoping to find a weakness. His shoulders slumped in defeat when his fingers touched undamaged earth. Worried, he returned to O'Neill's side.
"Daniel." Jack's hand rested on the younger man's shoulder. "I want you to go back to Earth."
"I'll bring back help," Daniel agreed, taking a step towards the DHD.
Grabbing Daniel's arm, Jack shook his head. "No rescue mission. We can't take the chance."
"You want me to desert you?" Horrified, Daniel pulled his arm free.
"Consider it a strategic withdrawal. This is not a request, Daniel. It's an order. We don't know why we're trapped and you aren't. We can't risk other lives."
Daniel couldn't believe what he was hearing. He'd just lost his wife. Now Jack expected him to abandon the only family he had left? "I'm going to the temple. There might be someone there who can help you."
"It's too dangerous." Jack's voice cracked as he pointed out, "You won't have backup."
A steady glance rested on each of his friends as Daniel fixed their faces in his mind. His decision wasn't based on courage but on need. It was hard enough to open his eyes each day, knowing Sha're wouldn't be in it. Losing Jack, Sam, and Teal'c, too, would be more than he could bear.
"I'll be back." Daniel turned away, closing his ears to Jack's angry shouts. When the recriminations shifted to pleas, his resolve weakened. Daniel had been in Jack's position. He knew the torture of watching a teammate, a friend, walk into danger alone. However, there was only one other alternative and it was unacceptable. Now that he knew what he would be missing, Daniel couldn't go back to the loneliness he'd known before these people entered his life. They'd become almost as important to him as Sha're. He would save them. Or, as the old adage stated, die trying.
Jack watched until Daniel disappeared. He wasn't surprised by the younger man's action. It wasn't the first time Daniel had disobeyed an order. Though he'd learned to shoot and could duck faster than anyone, Daniel would never have a military mindset. Most of the time, Jack found it refreshing. This wasn't one of those times.
"O'Neill," Teal'c softly called, an edge of uneasiness in the normally confident voice. "I believe I know the name of this planet."
"What!" Jack twisted to eye the Jaffa. Back muscles protested the awkward position.
"A legend has been passed down among the Jaffa of a world the System Lords favored as a source for new hosts after Earth buried its Stargate. It was called Venus."
"There's a planet in our own solar system with that name. It's uninhabitable."
Hands that had been busily inspecting the ground trapping her ankles stopped as Carter's gaze rested on Teal'c before shifting to O'Neill. "Venus was the Roman goddess of beauty, sir."
"Okay." Jack tentatively allowed, raising an eyebrow. "I take it you're saying the people of this Venus are known for their beauty. What has it got to do with the predicament we're in?"
"A thousand years ago, raiding parties sent to Venus to harvest hosts never returned," Teal'c dispassionately explained. "Many Jaffa disappeared before the planet was placed off limits."
"What happened to them?"
In a voice barely loud enough to be heard, Carter whispered, "They were caught in a booby trap."
"I believe so," Teal'c agreed.
Frustrated, O'Neill demanded, "What booby trap?"
"One which ensnares your feet so you can't move," Carter confidently replied. "Eventually, you starve to death or die of thirst."
His stomach fluttering queasily, Jack looked around. "There's one little flaw in your theory, Major. No bodies."
"From what Teal'c said, it's been a thousand years since the last Jaffa gated to this address. The bodies would've turned . . ."
". . . to dust," O'Neill choked out, remembering the gray smudge on the tip of his boot.
"What about Daniel? Why didn't this booby trap snare him?"
Carter shrugged her shoulders.
"I have no explanation," Teal'c admitted.
Not even fear for his friends or of the unknown awaiting him could dampen Daniel's curiosity as he approached the tiny temple. The design was clearly of Roman origin. Columns supported an overhang while the sun reflected off the pale pink marble walls. The structure resembled a miniature version of the Temple of Bel at Palmyra. There was a tranquility to the scene that was almost soporific.
Approaching the only entrance, Daniel knew he should pull his sidearm. Embraced by the beauty around him, the very thought of the weapon was offensive. This was a place of peace. Jack's face appeared before him, an angry frown on the weathered features. Compromising, Daniel put his hand on the holster as he pushed through the door. His response wasn't made only to appease his absent friend. Too many surprises in the last few years had twisted his curiosity into caution.
The cool air that greeted him as he entered the temple was welcome after his long walk. A narrow corridor stretched ahead with several rooms leading off it. Daniel warily approached the closest one and walked beneath the proscenium arch. Inside, shock momentarily held him motionless. Before him were Jack, Sam, and Teal'c in the same positions Daniel had left them. The Stargate was visible through their translucent bodies.
"This really sucks," Jack grumbled, his words garbled as though he was speaking under water.
Taking several hesitant steps forward, Daniel reached out to touch O'Neill on the shoulder. His hand passed right through.
"Daniel will be all right, sir," Carter softly soothed.
Jack could hide the concern on his face from the major and Teal'c, but it was clearly apparent to the invisible watcher miles away.
"I know that," O'Neill gruffly returned, the expression on his face making his words a lie.
Wondering if the device transmitting their voices worked both ways, Daniel called, "Jack?"
"He can't hear you."
There was no threat in the words or the deep melodic tone. It had an almost singsong quality to it that made Daniel feel safe rather than frightened. A slow turn brought him face to face with a man he could only describe as beautiful. Raven black ringlets framed delicate features as they tumbled down to broad shoulders. Taller than Daniel by several inches, a touch of gray at the temples placed his age closer to O'Neill's. Bronzed flesh stretched across a muscular body, partially concealed beneath a skimpy toga.
His own voice sounding crude and rough in comparison, Daniel introduced himself, "I'm Daniel Jackson, a peaceful explorer from the planet Earth."
"I am Dante. Your passive reaction was a surprise. It is why I allowed you to leave the tombmyo."
Quickly translating tomba as Italian for grave, Daniel guessed myo was the local appellation for yard. Gesturing to the holograms, he admitted, "I don't understand. Why did you trap my friends and not me?"
"Of the many beings who have stepped through the Cerchis, you are the only one who didn't raise a weapon when the Uccello shrieked. It is obvious to me you are not a soldier."
"I'm an archeologist. I study the past."
"Because I enjoy it."
"No. Why do you need to know what has happened in the past? You cannot change it."
"We seek knowledge even when it appears to have no useful purpose. We hope what we learn from the past can keep us from repeating the mistakes in the future."
"Then you can not be Goa'uld."
Daniel's heart lurched. Dante had spoken the word as if it were an obscenity. "No. No, we're not. What do you know of the Goa'uld?'
"Long ago they came." Sadness mixed with anger washed across the serene features. "They took many of our people. My wife among them."
"I'm sorry . . ."
"We devised the guerrayase to stop them from taking anyone else."
Some of the words Dante spoke had an Italian base which Daniel could interpret. Guerra, he knew, meant war. Yase however, had no basis in any language he knew. "Why didn't you bury your Stargate?" When Dante rested a puzzled gaze on him, Daniel hastily corrected, "Cerchis."
"Then those who were taken could never come home."
"So, the guerrayase doesn't work automatically. You have to activate it."
"That is correct."
His eyes resting on the holographic image of O'Neill, Daniel sighed with relief. "Then you can let my friends go?"
"Why not? They're not Goa'uld."
"Their actions have shown they have violent tendencies. This is not an acceptable trait."
"It can be."
"You do not have it."
"Believe it or not, that's not always such a good thing." Pausing, Daniel took a deep breath, stumbling for the words that would show he not only understood the man's pain, he'd experienced it. "The Goa'uld are our enemies, too. They kidnapped my wife and made her one of them."
"Then you have traveled through the Cerchis in search of her?"
"Not any more." Despite his best effort to prevent it, Daniel's voice cracked. "Sha're is dead."
Sympathy audible in his voice Dante asked, "Did the Goa'uld kill her? Is that what they do to those they possess?"
"The Goa'uld are parasites." Daniel didn't try to hide his disgust. "They use their captives as hosts or slaves."
"Will they kill my wife as they killed yours?"
"They didn't kill Sha're, not directly anyway," Daniel soothed, understanding the other man's fear. Taking a deep, unsteady breath, he explained, "The Goa'uld inside my wife tried to kill me. One of my friends was forced to kill her to save my life."
"That does not sound like much of a friend."
"You don't understand . . ."
". . . Who would you rather have died, you or your wife?"
"Myself," Daniel answered without hesitation.
Nodding agreement, Dante said, "Then we do think alike. Your friend did not save you."
"No. Yes. This may be hard to understand, but in a way Teal'c did save Sha're when he killed her." Calmness settled over Daniel as he accepted the truth of his own words.
"You called this one Jack." Dante pointed to O'Neill. Crossing to where the holographic Jaffa stood trapped, he deduced, "So this one is Teal'c? He has the symbol of a Goa'uld."
"Once he was First Prime to one. But, now, he fights beside us to defeat the Goa'uld."
"His life is still filled with violence."
Feeling he was losing what little ground he had gained, Daniel hastily asserted, "He fights only to free his people. As much as we wish it were possible, goals can't always be obtained using peaceful methods."
"Violence is never worthy."
"Your booby trap isn't exactly a slap on the wrist." Kicking one of the projected mounds, Daniel said, "Isn't this all that's left of others who have come through the Stargate?"
"We kill only to save our people," Dante defended
"As do we." Daniel swept his hand out to indicate O'Neill, Carter, and Teal'c. "Please, let my friends go. We'll leave and never come back."
Dante studied Teal'c, glided over to Carter and O'Neill before returning to the Jaffa. "How can you have friendship with the man responsible for your wife's death?"
"Teal'c was a victim of circumstance. He would gladly give his own life if it would bring Sha're back to me," Daniel insisted. Teeth grinding, his jaw clenched as he added, "Apophis kidnapped Sha're and put that thing inside her. He's the one I hold responsible for her death."
"You want revenge?"
"I want him to suffer just as he made my wife suffer."
"How will you accomplish this if you are not willing to use your weapon?"
"If I ever get Apophis in my sights, I'll be willing."
"You realize your words are not those of a peaceful explorer? Why should I let you and your friends go?"
An ironic smile twisted Daniel's lips. He'd proven he was no less a warrior than Jack, Sam, and Teal'c. Lack of ability rather than philosophy had momentarily saved him from their fate. His shoulders slumped in defeat. He had failed them. "I don't know."
"Could you find my wife?"
Daniel stared at Dante in shock. If he answered in the affirmative, it might save their lives. But he couldn't lie. He'd felt the other man's pain. He wouldn't give false hope. "I don't know."
"You found your wife," Dante angrily pointed out.
"She found me. She did something she knew would bring us to the planet where she was hiding." A hand rose towards the ceiling. "Your wife could be anywhere. As many lights as there are in the sky, there are that many planets and more. I will look for her. That's all I can promise."
Crossing to a panel by the door, Dante's fingers danced over a screen. Jack, Sam, and Teal'c disappeared. In their place a woman appeared. Dark hair piled high on top of her head added inches to her small stature. Daniel's gaze was drawn from the well-proportioned body to the green eyes sparkling above an infectious smile. Even as a hologram, she had a beauty that shone inside and out.
"This is my wife, Cara," Dante proudly proclaimed, tears in his eyes.
His own loss augmented by the other man's pain, Daniel choked, "She's very beautiful."
"She's strong. She's a fighter."
A feeling of deja vu washed over Daniel. He remembered using almost the same words to describe Sha're to Kendra. His stomach twisted. Bile rose in his throat as he relived the hope Kendra's escape from her Goa'uld parasite had given him. Even after he'd destroyed Thor's Hammer to save Teal'c, Daniel had known there was a chance he would get Sha're back. Now that day would never come.
"I believe Cara will someday return to me."
Jealousy gripped Daniel, making him hate Dante for the optimism that still endured. His own pain was so consuming, he wondered if he could ever feel anything for anyone again. Would he ever have the courage?
"I want you and your friends to search for her."
Enveloped in his grief, it took Daniel a few minutes to process what Dante was suggesting. "You're letting us go?"
"If you find Cara, tell her I love her. That I'm waiting for her."
Honesty and his own understanding of the man's personal agony compelled Daniel to confess, "There's no guarantee we'll find her."
"There's a chance. It's all I'm asking for. You know how empty my life is without her. That is my guarantee."
Daniel carefully studied the holographic image, burning each delicate feature into his memory. Dante was right. Their shared heartache was enough to ensure his promise.
Fingering a non-existent tie, Jack glanced at Carter and muttered, "This is another fine mess you've gotten me into."
Carter screwed up her face and whimpered.
"O'Neill," Teal'c valiantly protested, "I do not believe you should blame Major Carter for our predicament."
One corner of her mouth curving into a slight smile, Carter soothed, "It's all right, Teal'c. The colonel was imitating an actor named Oliver Hardy. The character this man played was always blaming his friend Stan Laurel for the trouble they would get into even though they might be equally responsible. I was reacting as Laurel would have."
"Laurel always believed Hardy," Jack finished, a mock frown on his face.
Confused, Teal'c demanded, "Why would he believe something if it was untrue?"
Returning his gaze to the hedge Daniel had disappeared behind, Jack let Carter explain, satisfied he'd raised their spirits if only temporarily.
So many emotions fought for dominance inside him: fear, anger, hurt. Each one was a direct result of Daniel's actions. For once in his life, why couldn't the civilian have obeyed an order? Instead, he had gone traipsing off into the unknown - alone.
Needing an outlet for the anger burning inside him, Jack tugged at his right foot until sweat beaded on his brow and his muscles protested. He wasn't even sure who he was madder at, the people who had devised this booby trap or Daniel. Why couldn't the younger man have obeyed him just this once? The litany repeated like a needle caught in the groove of a scratched record.
The question always produced the same answer, reminding Jack of another time Daniel had run off on his own. Teal'c had obeyed orders and followed. It had resulted in Sha're's death but saved Daniel's life. Jack's legs wobbled as he remembered his first sight of the couple lying side by side on the ornate rug. At first, Jack was just grateful Daniel was alive. But then reality returned. He knew Daniel would no longer feel alive. Jack had experienced the agony of losing someone he loved. Yet even their shared tragedies hadn't made Daniel reach out to him. Jack was surprised at how much that hurt. Until he realized Daniel hadn't reached out to anyone. Then, he was just plain scared.
Sometimes he could still feel the softness of the mattress beneath him the day he had finally made his decision. But the strongest memory was the temptation to use the cold steel in his hand. The release it offered. How close he had come to surrendering. Was Daniel's attempt to seek help for his friends his way of eating a bullet?
More scared than ever, Jack tugged at a trapped leg. The force of the yank threw him off balance. He only had a brief second to realize his legs were free before he slammed face first into the ground. Spitting grass, he rolled over delighted to see Carter and Teal'c had also been released.
Scrambling to his feet, Jack turned towards the temple. "Let's find Daniel." Jack couldn't have been more proud of his team when no one voiced an objection.
Setting a brisk pace, O'Neill was barely able to avoid crashing into their missing teammate when Daniel suddenly appeared around the hedge.
"Jack, you're free." Daniel wearily smiled. "He kept his promise."
"Who is he?" Jack demanded.
"Sir," Carter hesitantly interrupted, edging towards the DHD, "maybe we should find out back at the base?"
Head bowed, Daniel whispered, "Sam's right, Jack. Dante could change his mind."
Falling into step with the younger man, Jack hissed, "Why are we whispering?"
"Dr. Jackson," Hammond gently reprimanded, "you should've obeyed Colonel O'Neill's orders and returned to the SGC. However, since your actions resulted in your team's release, I'll let your indiscretion slide. In future however, remember you are expected to follow orders."
"Yes, sir." Daniel continued to stare at the table top as he had throughout the debriefing.
Pushing his chair away from the conference table, Hammond rose. "Dismissed."
Jack nodded towards the stairs, silently instructing Carter and Teal'c to follow the general. Alone, he addressed the oblivious Daniel. "So?"
"So?" Raising his head, Daniel's face showed his surprise when his eyes rested on Hammond's empty chair.
"You want to tell me about this Dante?"
"Isn't that what I just did or do we have a different definition for debriefing?"
"I heard what you said. It was a very professional report. Not like you at all."
"I can be professional," Daniel indignantly protested, rising from his seat.
Rolling his chair back, Jack gained his feet in one fluid motion. Coming around the table, he blocked Daniel's exit. "You can be professional. What you can't be is dispassionate. Yet you're doing a very good imitation of someone who doesn't care."
"Jack will you stop talking in riddles?"
"I know you were doing everything you could to save our lives. I appreciate it. I really do." Jack paused, studying the impassive face before him. "But how could you lie to this Dante? It's been a thousand years since his wife was taken. You know how impossible it will be to find her. How could you give him false hope?"
Daniel grimaced, pushing Jack away.
Regaining his balance, O'Neill countered to prevent Daniel from escaping. But instead of heading for the stairs, the broken man crossed to the window overlooking the Stargate.
A glazed look of sorrow spread across Daniel's face. "Even false hope is better than none at all."
Ears sharpened to hear the strained voice, Jack stepped closer. Bright blue eyes swimming in tears reflected back at him.
"Do you know how hard it was to walk up that ramp this morning and know Sha're wouldn't be on the other side? Couldn't be on the other side? Will never be on the other side." Daniel's hand pressed against the window. The sturdy frame trembled. "I made her a promise, and I'll keep it. Just as I'll keep my promise to Dante. I never lied to him."
"I know that."
Daniel's eyes lifted to meet Jack's mirrored in the glass in front of him. "Then why did you accuse me of giving him false hope?"
"I thought it would make you mad."
"I had to reach you. Since you won't tell me what you need, I'm kind of bumping around in the dark here."
"I don't need anything." Daniel dropped his gaze.
Jack knew the statement was a lie. Putting a hand on the younger man's arm, he pleaded, "Daniel . . ."
Pulling away from the comforting touch, Daniel cried, "Don't you dare tell me you know how I feel."
". . . because you don't."
Though it was an effort, Jack kept his voice calm and steady, "It might help if you could tell me."
"Help me or you?"
The strong jaw quivered before Daniel softly admitted, "I feel like I've lost my reason to live."
"I thought so." When Daniel's surprised gaze turned towards him, Jack reminded, "I recognized the symptoms. I've been there remember?"
"Oh, God, Jack. I'm sorry. I didn't mean . . ."
"You didn't. You'll find it doesn't take much to remember what you've lost. It may take a while, but before long you'll also remember what you had, and that's a good thing."
The hurt and longing visible in his eyes, Daniel whispered, "I hope so."
"Daniel, just don't forget you're not alone, anymore. You have family. Let us help."
"Listen." Clearing his throat, Jack put a hand on Daniel's shoulder. He was gratified when the other man allowed it to stay there this time. "You said you saw a holographic image of this Carrie . . ."
"Cara," Daniel automatically corrected.
"Do you think you could describe her to an artist? We could give copies of the pictures to the other SG teams. Have them keep a lookout, too."
A weak smile on his lips, Daniel nodded. "Good idea."
"I do have one now and then."
Dropping his eyes and crossing his arms over his chest, Daniel shrugged, "Just thanks."
Recognizing the protective posture, Jack reluctantly pulled back, granting the space the silent gesture requested. "You're welcome." Clapping Daniel on the back, Jack forced a note of enthusiasm into his voice, "Let's go find that artist."