"Colonel O'Neill, let me get this straight." General Hammond fervently wished that the signal through the Stargate via the MALP was substantially clearer. There were so many nuances that were lost in the static and snow, including his own to demonstrate astonishment, disbelief, and not a small amount of annoyance. He leaned across the counter to peer into the view screen. "You want to offer up SG-1 as experimental guinea pigs."
"I wouldn't call us guinea pigs, exactly, General." O'Neill carefully wasn't meeting General Hammond's eyes. It wasn't just the static across the signal. The MALP didn't do a good job with intergalactic communication, and O'Neill took advantage of the fact. He leaned into the camera so that Hammond could hear him a bit better and, incidentally, not see the scene going on behind. "More like… an exchange of knowledge. With emphasis on the stuff that we each want." He moved on hurriedly. "General, these people have an incredible level of technology, and they're willing to share. For the first time, we have an opportunity to do exactly what Washington has been begging for: get high tech weapons that we can use against the Goa'uld when they come knocking at our solar system. Carter is walking around like a kid in a candy shop. She can't decide what to look at first." Pause. "General, I wouldn't be recommending this if I didn't think it was a good idea. Carter says that with some of the weaponry they have here, we can take the Goa'uld down a peg, no problem."
"Convince me," Hammond put in dryly. "Convince me that the benefit is worth the risk to my premier team. That this isn't a trap of some kind that will cause us to end up shooting at things coming at us from our end of the Stargate."
"How about a device that neutralizes a Goa'uld personal shield?" O'Neill shot back. "The Paft are letting Carter tear it down right now, as a gesture of good faith. And they're giving her a copy of the manual, which Daniel and one of these Paft guys named Nira are translating into English as we speak."
Hammond's interest was sucked in, as O'Neill knew it would be. "And it works?"
"Well, we don't have a system lord hanging around to try it on, but we've seen vids, and the Paft have a Goa'uld hand device that Teal'C verifies as the real McCoy. We're as certain as we can be under the circumstances. Carter thinks it does."
Hammond still wasn't satisfied. "And what do they want in exchange?"
O'Neill backpedaled. "Well, we're still looking into that, General. The overall attitude seems to be up Daniel Jackson's alley: learning for the sake of knowledge. They want to study us as much as we want to learn from them, only while Daniel is into archeology, they have a thing for anatomy. They like figuring out how alien life forms operate. Biology stuff, General. And they've also had a few run-in's with the Goa'uld, and wouldn't mind in the slightest to see them wiped out to the last snake. Finally, a bunch of aliens after my own heart."
Hammond harrumphed. "Frankly, Colonel, I'd like to see a little better example of self-interest on the part of the Paft than a simple anatomy lesson. Just what are they getting out of opportunity to look at our insides? We know we're getting a good deal, but I can't say the same for these Paft people of yours. I'd rather not be trying to look a gift horse in the mouth only to be kicked by the other end, if you know what I mean, Colonel."
"General, I think we're okay there. The Paft are just as cautious as we are about trading knowledge and making friends. In fact, they use this planet as a safe house, a way station to meet people on neutral ground. We don't know the address to their home world, and they're comfortable with not knowing ours. Mutual distrust stuff, until we both decide we're worth putting up with. They've put together a base about an hour away from the Stargate: a few buildings here to make themselves comfortable, a storehouse for supplies, a laundry room, and a kitchen with a damn good cook."
"I'll keep that in mind, Colonel. Very well, you have a go. Just keep a firewall between us and the Paft, at least until we know each other a little better. I'll expect a preliminary report in three days." He stopped, and eyed the colonel as narrowly as he could through the MALP. "You said they gave Major Carter a shield disabling device as a gesture of good faith. What did we give them in return?"
O'Neill smiled beatifically. "We gave them Daniel."
Dr. Daniel Jackson smothered a giggle. "That tickles."
Pesh drew back. "Have I injured you?"
"No, no." Jackson waved for the Paft to continue its exam. "It just…tickles." He searched for a better explanation, one that Pesh could understand. "You have elicited a tactile sensation in me that results in laughter, despite no humorous event or comical verbiage occurring." Although being tickled by a tall skinny asexual biped came close to qualifying. Jackson's first description of the aliens included 'humanoid made of twigs.' "Why are you so interested in physiology? Does it have some special significance for you?"
Pesh waved a metallic box close to Jackson's chest, ignoring the archeologist's question and eyeing the results on the tiny screen. The pair were in the middle of the dusty compound, sitting on crates that were waiting to be stowed away, with other Paft walking by and glancing with intense curiosity at the pair. Jackson felt a bit chilly in the breeze, and certainly on display; Pesh had persuaded him to remove his shirt in order to better examine its new specimen. Every passing Paft surveyed him with an almost hungry stare.
The numbers on Pesh's scanner were in the Paft language; Jackson leaned over to look, wishing he'd gotten further with his translations. Pesh waved it closer to him and peered intently. "You are a structure of calcium, covered with flesh that is primarily water-based."
"That's right." Jackson had more trouble translating the medical-ese than any ancient language he'd come across.
"Several layers," Pesh murmured. "Large flesh-covered cavities surrounding nutrition-rich organs connected by an extensive circulatory system. May I?" It leaned over and prodded Jackson's ribs, feeling the hard calcium structures beneath the man's skin. "Very nice. And below these calcium structures—"
"Ribs," Jackson supplied.
"Ribs," Pesh accepted the correction. "In this area below the ribs are several nutrient-rich organs beneath a layer of muscle. Fascinating. Tell me, are all humans like this?"
Jackson cleared his throat, feeling uncomfortably like a bug under a microscope, more used to being the examiner than the examinee. "Pretty much. About half of us. The other half are females; women. There are some, uh, significant differences, both internal and external."
"Yes, the sexual division." Pesh didn't seem as interested that aspect, which struck Jackson as odd, since the Paft had no sexes. He would've thought that the curiosity of duel sex would have intrigued the mono-sexed Paft more. "You mentioned that earlier." It glanced up from its hand-held device. "Dr. Jackson, I'd like to do more intensive scans. I find your physiology to be extremely intriguing. May I invite you inside the Temple?"
"Of course." Jackson tried not to drool with anticipation. He'd been trying all day to find a polite way to request a tour of that building. Pesh and its friends had shown them around the other buildings, the kitchen and laundry and sleep chambers, but that particular building had been off-limits. Until now.
The Temple was the largest of the Paft buildings, the only structure to boast more than a single level. The rest of the compound was comprised of square, squat, gray brick buildings—the soil nearby contained a high proportion of dingy clay, which colored the walls a brilliant drab, as O'Neill characterized it—with a single door in the front and one in the back. It didn't take much to go through those buildings: into the kitchen and out the back door. No interior walls. No privacy; none needed for KP duty. A bunch of counters for food preparation, a bunch of metal boxes to burn the food in, and another bunch of metal boxes to freeze the food in before and after burning it. The sleeping chambers were much the same: small cubicles that reeked of sameness. Each room contained a rectangular bunk with a rectangular trunk to store personal items, a rectangular screen to provide privacy for the necessaries, and that was all. Even the window was square. Either the Paft didn't believe in decorating or, as O'Neill suggested, it was their version of a chain motel with furniture bought in bulk.
But the Temple that Pesh was inviting Jackson into was different. Still rectangular in design, it was two stories tall with only one entrance that SG-1 had been able to see. It alone had ornate carvings that Jackson had already taken pictures of, fully intending to do some heavy duty translating in the near future. The carving looked like language, and Pesh had assured Jackson that it was, that the carvings were an older version of the language that the Paft currently spoke. The walls were also a banal gray, being created from the mud from the clay banks of the nearby river, but the intricate writing fascinated Dr. Jackson. He followed Pesh inside.
O'Neill sauntered by to look over Carter's shoulder. She was dancing around a makeshift workbench conveniently located in the open center of the dusty compound, intently tearing down the bracelet that the Paft had presented to her: the shield disabling device. Unlike Goa'uld weapons, which tended towards flowing and curved in form, this device looked more like a Dick Tracy cast-off, square and clunky and firmly utilitarian. It had extruding buttons—not even a small touch pad. The buttons were meant to be pushed and held down by skinny fingers, and O'Neill glanced involuntarily at his own hands. Carter could manipulate the slender buttons, and maybe O'Neill himself could if he were careful and not in the tension-producing situations that he usually found himself in, but Teal'C never, and neither could half of Stargate Command.
Most of the Paft were taller than the humans and even Teal'C, but considerably more skinny. They looked as if a stiff wind would blow them over—scarecrows had more meat on their bones. O'Neill knew better than to be deceived—a friendly arm wrestling match between himself and the one teaching Carter proved that a couple hours earlier. And right now, the four members of SG-1 were outnumbered ten to one. No, much as he wanted to be friends with these people, he knew better than to trust them completely. That would come with time—he hoped. But there was something funny about the way they'd been looking at him recently. Kind of like a Washington cocktail soiree, with the guests waiting for the little miniature hotdogs to get served.
You're getting paranoid again, O'Neill. These people seem eager to help us. The enemy of our enemy is our friend.
"It works by disrupting the energy buffer of the personal shield, friend Carter," the Paft named Nira was saying. "I wish I knew how to explain it better to you. By causing a variable shift, the Goa'uld personal shield is unable to re-establish a stable lock, thus allowing both projectile and energy beams to pass into the Goa'uld personal space. We have found it most effective on those occasions when one of them encroaches on our world."
"You've had more than one run-in with them?" O'Neill couldn't help asking.
"Oh, yes." Nira nodded enthusiastically. "Periodically they sally forth to see if whatever new technology they have obtained will overcome our defenses. We've had a close call or two, but have always been able to beat them back." It nodded at the distant Teal'C, who remained on guard at the perimeter of the camp with a faintly disapproving frown on his face. O'Neill knew how the Jaffa felt; red flags were flying in tight formation, though for the life of him O'Neill couldn't figure out why he felt this way. These Paft had seemed like the perfect alien race to get to know. They had been real friendly at first, but as soon as General Hammond gave them the go for the info exchange, the skinny aliens became very focused. Driven, O'Neill thought. But driven by what?
Nira continued, "It is always difficult for us, knowing that the Goa'uld force their Jaffa slaves to make the assault. They are always the first to die." It shook its head. "Such a waste. We would welcome the Jaffa among us. We would cherish them, for what they are."
"For what they are?" That struck a wrong note for O'Neill. He covered by looking at the shield disabler. Carter would have to re-engineer the thing if they wanted it to be in popular use against the Goa'uld. Not too many Earth people could manipulate the tiny buttons. But once into production, O'Neill had no doubt that it would be of great benefit to the effort against the Goa'uld. "What do you mean?"
Nira eyed him with amusement. "They are a conquered people, Colonel O'Neill. They are not masters of their destiny, but must depend upon others to determine their fate in life. Is that not a sad reward for their dedication to their masters?"
"But you would welcome them to your world," O'Neill pushed.
"We would." Nira nodded its head. Little wisps of thick brown hair bobbled around its ears. "They are vibrant and full of life, despite being slaves. They would find useful employ and a joyous life among us. They would be happy."
"What about the Jaffa who've been captured? Where are they?"
"Dead." Nira's face fell. "Those who remain behind in the Goa'uld incursions have either fallen in battle never to rise again, or they kill themselves once they realize their situation."
That too didn't sound right. O'Neill resolved to ask Teal'C about it. Ritual suicide wasn't big on the Jaffa list of favorite things to do, even if left behind by a System Lord. The Jaffa was much more likely to bluster about how their Goa'uld master would come back for them, and then whine for a while and plot how to confound their captors. He turned to Carter.
Carter's face shone. "Colonel, this is incredible! We can learn so much from these people! Look here." She tried to show O'Neill what she was talking about. "The Goa'uld shields work by bending—"
"I'll take your word for it, Carter." O'Neill hurriedly cut her off. She could be as difficult to understand as the archeologist. "Can you figure out how to build more? This time big enough for my hands? Maybe General Hammond's?"
Carter grinned. "That's going to take a little while, Colonel. I can do it eventually, but this is new ground we're treading. They're using theories I've never heard of, never dreamed of. Nira's having trouble explaining the theory to me. I'm not sure we have the right referents. It's going to take a while," she repeated, eyes dancing with anticipation. "I can't wait to get these puppies back to SGC."
Nira beamed. "And we have more defensive weapons, friend Carter. We would be happy to trade knowledge. We find your species fascinating."
Inside the Paft Temple was considerably less interesting than Dr. Jackson had anticipated. It appeared that the only god revered in this particular place of worship was the god of biology. The interior reminded Jackson uncomfortably of the infirmary inside SGC, a place that he'd spent too much time in over the last few years. There were the inevitable beds looking lumpy and hard with metallic boxes all around to monitor whatever heart and lung equivalents the Paft possessed. The beds were long compared to those Jackson was used to, more suited to the taller Paft, and high off the ground compared to his own comfortable bed at home. Teal'C would fit nicely in one—no, wait. Teal'C didn't get sick. His symbiote saw to that. Jackson squashed the feeling of jealousy, and tried to look interested. He had really been expecting amazing works of art depicting life from a few millennia ago, or at least more of the archaic language to copy and decipher, not this sickbay knock-off done in colorless shades of gray.
There was one large room off to the side that they hurried past, Pesh and Crin claiming that Jackson wouldn't be interested in it. Jackson tried to peer in, ever hopeful. It was only the nursery, they told him, the place where newborns were cared for prior to returning to the Paft home world. But there seemed to be an extremely large quantities of small cradles, and Jackson didn't recall seeing any children present among the Paft. He started to ask, but Pesh drew him hurriedly to their master suite.
The center of the suite was where Pesh steered Jackson, to an oversized table with lots of metallic boxes hung from the ceiling. Some of the boxes were lights, bright lights to rival that of Frasier's surgical suite. More boxes defied easy description, with small probe-like sticks and buttons sticking out of them. Jackson tried not to shudder, and reminded himself that these Paft were friendly. Pesh several times had inquired if any of its testing had caused Jackson pain while outside doing the initial exam, and had in fact not given any discomfort at all.
They're interested in alien anatomy. In this case, humans. Try to learn the culture, Jackson, find out what drives them. This is your part of the mission.
One of the other Paft, clothed in the long brown tunics that all of them seemed to be wearing, chittered at Pesh. Pesh returned a few words, of which Jackson understood very little. A couple of terms came through: 'child', a phrase for 'not yet', and 'soon'. It wasn't enough for Jackson to guess at the meaning.
Pesh didn't give him time to ask. "Dr. Jackson, I should very much like to examine your anatomy with my machines. You have my word, it will not hurt. It is similar to your own medical equipment that you have described to me. But it will allow me to visualize your internal organs and deduce their functions. Take pictures."
"How do these machines work?" Jackson asked dutifully. Not only Carter but Dr. Frasier back at SGC would be interested, and being grilled by the two would waste valuable time that he could use for his own work. But he had to ask—he was part of the team.
"That's not important," Pesh moved on. "I desire that it looks at your anatomy. That is what is important. Later, should you wish it, I can arrange for someone to explain this technology to you. I personally do not understand it. Knowing how this machine works is unimportant. May I examine you further?"
"You do this with every species you meet?" Jackson pretended that he wasn't stalling for time, not quite certain why he felt uncomfortable with Pesh's request. Every Paft he'd met had been pleasant to the point of solicitous, and Pesh more than most.
"Every one," Pesh assured him. "Please place yourself on this table. I can warm it to your body temperature for comfort."
"Thanks." Jackson gingerly levered himself up onto the table. It allowed him, seated, to look the taller Pesh in the face.
But Pesh wasn't satisfied. "Remove your shirt again, Dr. Jackson." It paused. "I neglected to ask: does your species have an aversion to removing your clothing? I can make other arrangements if you do."
"Well…no. Not really."
"Excellent. Lie down, please. Observe, I will lower this imager over your torso in order to obtain both pictures and scans of function. You may monitor my progress in this screen, here above you. Do you feel anything?"
"No." Jackson corrected himself. "A little bit cold." The table hadn't come up to temperature yet.
Pesh fiddled with the controls at the side of the table, and the surface beneath Jackson's bare back immediately warmed to sauna level. It felt surprisingly good, relaxing nervous muscles.
Don't judge this race by your contact with other, less friendly sorts, Daniel. We may actually have found one that we can be allies with. And that has enough technology to help us against the Goa'uld with more than rousing cheers. Pesh seems genuinely interested, and considerate of my needs. I can meet him halfway. Jackson pulled off his shirt, exposing a bare torso, a little surprised, as always, at the muscles that had appeared there since signing on as SG-1's resident archeological geek. Sha're would be—would have been—pleased.
Pesh pulled a boxy-looking device down on a dangling arm, maneuvering it into place over his human specimen. "Just relax," it crooned, mostly to itself, fiddling with dials and motioning to its helper. "This won't hurt. Ah, there we are." It said something in Paft to the helper that Jackson didn't catch, but the helper beamed and scurried off.
"What did you tell him? It?" Jackson corrected himself. The Paft were a race with only one sex. "It" was the correct pronoun to use in English. I wouldn't know what pronoun to use in French, he mused.
"Crin is going for more recording media," Pesh said absently. "Just remain still for a moment longer. I am cataloguing your internal organs and determining their function. This one—can you see where I'm pointing?"
"The stomach." Jackson identified the picture on the vid screen. In black and white it was a little hard to do. No doubt Dr. Frasier could do a better job. Maybe he could suggest to O'Neill and General Hammond to let the doctor come through the Gate for a conference with Pesh. It would make for a good negotiating ploy. "Part of the digestive tract."
"Ah, yes. We have a similar organ, though located a bit higher in the thorax for more efficiency. And this one?"
"The kidney. I think. It removes waste products from the blood, among other things. The liver does that, too, but in a different way." Jackson struggled to remember the freshman "bio for poets" course he'd been forced to take years and years ago. "And they produce things called hormones, or enzymes; chemical stuff that does stuff to the body like turn us into adult men or women." I hope Pesh understands what I'm saying, 'cause I sure don't.
The Paft seemed to, for it nodded enthusiastically. "The digestive tract and its associated organs, for the purpose of turning extra-corporeal sources of energy into a form that is usable by your body. I see a substantial network of blood vessels to bring and carry away nutrients from the digestive tract. Delightful. So perfect." The smile split its face, echoed on its assistant who came hurrying back with yet another of those square box jobs. This one seemed rather better insulated, and Jackson idly wondered if it contained something like radioactive isotope that had to be contained against exposure. Pesh received it from Crin, fitting it carefully onto one of the dangling mechanical arms above its current specimen.
Jackson levered himself up onto his elbows to watch. "What's that?"
"Please, lie back down, Dr. Jackson. This won't hurt." Pesh was unaccountably excited. Is this how I seem to O'Neill and the others when I get hold of a project? "Please, lie back down." Pesh gently but firmly pushed down on one shoulder, and Crin the other.
"Okay, but what is it?" Jackson settled himself comfortably on the sauna-like table.
"Dr. Jackson, I will be taking pictures of your internal structures," Pesh declared. "It is imperative that you do not move."
"Again? I thought you got all the pictures you needed."
"These…" Pesh cast around for another way of describing it. "These are another type of pictures. Yes, that's a good explanation."
"Okay. I'll stay still."
"No, you do not understand." Pesh seemed agitated. "You must not move at all, or the pictures will be ruined."
"Pesh, I understand. I won't move. I'll lie right here."
The assistant Crin pulled a long flexible and square tube from underneath the table that Jackson was on, and handed the end to Pesh. The end blossomed into something that looked suspiciously like an oxygen mask in Frasier's infirmary. Jackson eyed it doubtfully.
"This will help you lie still." Was it his imagination, or was Pesh holding its breath? Why was Pesh so anxious to get him to lie still? What was in that tube?
It seemed Pesh was reading his mind. "This is a non-toxic gas that will cause you to doze. You will awake refreshed in only a few moments." It paused. "Please, Dr. Jackson. Have we not kept our end of the bargain? Did we not present your Major Carter with a sample of the Goa'uld shield disruptor?"
"How do you know that it's non-toxic?"
"Because it always is." Pesh looked at him as though he was the village idiot. "Those who were much smarter than we developed it."
Jackson tried not to worry. If the Paft had meant him any harm, it would have occurred by now. There was no need to go through this elaborate charade; there were over forty Paft on this base, only the four SG-1 team members. And the Paft had given Carter the shield disruptor, and the manual beside.
Trust has to begin somewhere. Isn't that what you're always telling Jack?
"Okay," he said, and no sooner had the words left his mouth but Crin was pressing the mask firmly over his nose and mouth.
"Breathe deeply," he heard through a blackening haze, and then he remembered no more.
"How's it going, Carter?" O'Neill already knew the answer to that one, but couldn't resist asking again. He was bored. Bored out of his skull. He wanted to scrub this mission, go home, and set up a mission that would actually use O'Neill's strong points. A mission that had, oh, weapons blasting and bombs exploding, preferably in a Goa'uld's face.
"Fine, sir," Carter replied with a go-away-sir tone in her voice. "A little more time here—" O'Neill heard uninterrupted time—"and I should be ready to pack it up for shipment back to SGC. Why don't you walk the perimeter, sir? Maybe take Teal'C with you. Find a place for us to build our own part of this base, if we decide on a more permanent relationship with the Paft."
"Trying to get rid of me, Carter?" O'Neill asked good-humoredly.
"No, sir. Yes, sir!" she finally admitted with exasperation.
O'Neill chuckled, pleased to be able to get under her skin. Carter was always so damned… military. He wandered off in search of Teal'C, certain that the Jaffa was as eager for action as he himself was despite the big man's serene façade.
"Dr. Jackson. Dr. Jackson, wake up." Pesh's voice finally penetrated through the fog. "Wake up. Are you all right?"
"Huh?" Jackson fumbled for his glasses, found that they were perched on his nose where they belonged. He leveraged open his eyes to find Pesh's dark brown ones hovering anxiously over him.
"How do you feel? Are you all right?"
"Uh. Yes. Yes, I am." And he was. He almost felt a sense of euphoria, a clear feeling of well-being. He glanced at his bare torso, the object of Pesh and Crin's intense study earlier, but it too appeared untouched. "Did you learn what you wanted about human anatomy?"
"Very much!" Pesh beamed. "Dr. Jackson, we'd like to learn more! Did you not say that Major Carter is a female, the other division of sexes that you mentioned? Would it be possible to examine her in the same fashion?"
"Uh, I guess so." How fast could Jackson talk? O'Neill always claimed that the archeologist could talk the sun out of setting, but this sounded a bit tougher. Samantha Carter was never thrilled with emphasizing her femininity—Jackson might be a married man, but he never minded following her backside into the Stargate event horizon—and Jackson foresaw an even greater obstacle: Carter had a new techie toy to play with. Playing with technology was always more fun for Carter than anything else, and dragging her away from her current plaything would be a challenge. He tried to explain it to Pesh.
"Ah! I understand. You will require another device to defend yourselves from the Goa'uld."
"Well, no, not exactly…"
"I have just the thing!" Pesh again dispatched Crin, who returned at a dead run with another metallic box—this one's smaller than a bread box—and displayed it to Jackson.
"Uh, thanks." Jackson was certain that Carter and O'Neill would want this, whatever it was. He decided to go for broke. "What is it?"
Crin stared at him as though the human had become a blithering idiot in front of its eyes.
Pesh was more forgiving. "I think you and your people will want this, friend Jackson. With this tool, you will easily be able to detect the Goa'uld among you. Would this be an acceptable offering in exchange for the opportunity to examine the female of your species?"
Jackson swallowed. No more Goa'uld spies walking around, sliding through the Gate to hide among the populations of Earth. No more MRI's every time each SG team returned home, checking for stowaways. "Yeah, I think we could persuade Sam to cooperate."
"Wonderful! Please bring her to this building. We will exchange immediately."
"No, Daniel, I'm not ready to leave. I still have to pack up the parts of this shield disabler. I finally got rid of the Colonel bothering me; now you've come to take his place?"
"Um, Sam, that's not exactly it. I, um, I've brought you another of the Paft devices. One that detects Goa'ulds. See?"
"Why, Daniel!" Her blue-eyed look of annoyance died a swift and painless death. "That's miraculous! What we couldn't do with a scanner like that! And you say that the Paft are giving it to us?"
"Sort of." Jackson held it out for Carter to inspect. Pesh twittered to Crin, Jackson only catching one word in ten.
"Sort of?" Carter halted. "What's 'sort of'? What do they want in exchange?"
"Well, you remember how they have such an interest in alien—to them—anatomy? And how they wanted to examine one of us in exchange for the shield disabler? And we agreed to allow them to examine me?"
"You told them they could have me?"
Sam was not taking it as well as Jackson had hoped. "Sam, it's for a device that will detect Goa'ulds inside one of us. Think of what that would mean for the Stargate program. What it would mean for Earth!"
"Daniel, I am not one of your lab rats." Carter's baby blues flashed fire.
Jackson winced. "Sam, I don't use lab rats. I study old writings."
"Whatever. I am not putting on a strip tease in an alien whorehouse!"
"It's not a whorehouse, it's a laboratory, Sam. They study alien anatomy. I wouldn't be asking if it weren't for science. Think of all the things we could learn, all the things they could teach us." He hit her where it hurt. "Sam, how much have you learned from this one shield disabler? Hm? How much more could you learn from this Goa'uld detector?" He could see Carter wavering. There was a running commentary on his progress from Pesh and Crin in the background, Jackson could tell that despite the language barrier. Some things didn't need to be translated.
Jackson went for the shot below the belt. "What would Jack want you to do, Sam? What is the mandate of the Stargate project? To obtain advanced weaponry with which to fight the Goa'uld. Well, I'd say this qualifies, Sam. What do you say?"
"Our preliminary tests do not require divesting your outer coverings," Pesh put in helpfully. "We could accomplish much of our purpose with our hand scanner." It held up the rectangular metal box that it held easily in its skinny hand. "Please. You are the only female human present. We very much would like to discover how your gender differs from the male."
"It's up to you, Sam." Jackson knew when to soften his voice, when to wheedle. He also knew that he had her hooked. "It doesn't hurt. I've been through it."
"That's not the point, Daniel." Carter raked her fingers through blonde hair. "I mean, I've still got this shield disabler to pack up. Colonel O'Neill and Teal'C will be back any time."
"So? We've got an appointment back home?"
"—is expecting us in another three days. He told us to conclude negotiations with our hosts, and arrange a treaty. Which is what we're doing right now. We're trading. Knowledge for knowledge." Jackson stepped closer, so that only she could hear. He wasn't a short man, but Carter's ear was still at his jaw level. "Think of the possibilities, Sam. Isn't a little embarrassment worth it?"
Carter turned on Pesh and Crin. "This thing really works?"
Pesh smiled triumphantly. "It was clear from the moment we used it that your friend Jaffa carries a larval Goa'uld inside him. It is why we greeted you with less than perfect hospitality."
Carter considered for so long that Jackson, who knew that it was a foregone conclusion, began to doubt. "All right. I'll do it. But, Daniel, if you expect me to take my clothes off, then not one of you will be watching. Is that clear? Not you, not Colonel O'Neill, not Teal'C. And there is no way you're getting me to take everything off. Not one bit."
Pesh reached over to tug Jackson's sleeve. "Dr. Jackson? I do not understand. Did you not say that you had no cultural aversions to removing your clothing?"
Jackson hurriedly chose to try out his fluency in the Paft language. "Yes. I have lived among people who do not regard clothing as a walking stick." Pesh and Crin looked at him, puzzled and trying not to laugh. "Uh, regard clothing as… as…"
"Necessary," Pesh supplied, smothering a smirk. "Required, friend Daniel Jackson. Please continue; your accent is most amusing. Though I am impressed that you have acquired as much of our language in so short a time, friend Daniel."
"Yeah. So am I." Sam was not amused, with her eyes flashing out a warning: what are you telling them, soon-to-be-pancaked friend Daniel?
"Uh, on Earth, where we come from, we have many different cultures," Jackson improvised smoothly. "I have adapted to many of them, but Major Carter has specialized in a field of knowledge which does not require this behavior. And in the culture she comes from, removal of clothing is considered extremely improper." Not to mention that it would have two human tongues and one Jaffa panting after her. Jackson tried not to think of Samantha Carter as anything more than a trusted team member and dear friend, but dammit she made it hard with her figure.
"So clothing removal is not an option?" Pesh considered. "This could be a problem, if the female is not capable of doing what the male is doing."
"Anything Daniel can do, I can do," Carter told it, and Jackson suppressed a smile. Carter had grown up a military brat, determined to keep up with both her father and older brother, and Jackson heard a lot of the hellion she must have been in those tones. "Set the Goa'uld detector down, next to the shield disabler. Where do you want me?"
"Here will do fine, Major Carter." Pesh already was aiming its scanner at her, afraid that if it waited too long that the human woman would take back her acquiescence. "Yes, I can see the similarities. You also have two lungs, not quite mirror-image to each other, a heart that circulates blood, the same calcium structures that encircle these organs—"
"Ribs," Jackson supplied.
"Yes, thank you, ribs. And below that the same nutrient-rich organs that the male possesses: three flaps of liver, two kidneys, the digestive track." It paused. "What is this? You have a small structure, very muscular, that is flanked by two small organs to either side. You differ from Dr. Jackson."
"I should hope so," Carter said mildly. "I think you're looking at my reproductive organs."
Crin began to whisper very agitatedly to Pesh, who frowned.
"Major Carter, do you carry a Goa'uld larvae within you?" it all but demanded. "Crin has used this device to locate the tell-tale signs. If you do, I insist on knowing your intentions!"
"I am not a Goa'uld," Carter insisted. Understanding hit. "It's Jolinahr. The protein markers. Pesh, I once was a host to a Tok'ra, a benevolent off-shoot of the Goa'uld. Jolinahr died saving my life, but I retain the protein markers of his passing. Scan further if you don't believe me."
"She tells the truth," Crin whispered from behind the Goa'uld detector that the pair had brought. "There is no larva inside. She is as human as Dr. Jackson, with these anomalies that they identify as 'female'." It shut the machine off, and chattered at Pesh, much too fast for Jackson to keep up with. Jackson suspected it was deliberate, especially when Pesh responded at an equal pace, glancing nervously at Dr. Jackson. Nira, the Paft that had been working with Carter on the shield disabler, also joined in, first pleading and in the next moment demanding.
Carter looked at Jackson, a question in her eyes. Jackson shrugged; the Paft were speaking too swiftly for him to understand anything more than that it was an argument.
The three came to a conclusion, Nira holding its head up in triumph. Pesh turned to Carter. "Major, would you consent to allowing us to use our equipment inside the Temple to examine your inner organs. This hand-held device, while good, is not adequate to our needs."
"Would I have to take off my clothes?" Carter asked suspiciously.
Pesh considered. "Normally, I would require it. However, in these circumstances, I believe I can compensate."
"And you weren't in the room, right, Daniel?" Carter demanded. "I mean, I'll go pretty far for science, but I have my limits. And taking off my clothes is one of them. Pesh didn't do it while I was asleep, did it?"
"How would I know, Sam? I wasn't inside the Temple with you. You insisted, remember? I don't know whether your clothes were on or off."
O'Neill chose that moment to return, Teal'C in tow.
"Did I just hear what I thought I heard? Carter? With clothes off?" No answer. "Daniel?"
"Uh, long story, Jack."
"I've got time. Nothing but time, in fact."
"I should really get back to translating the shield disruptor manual, Jack," the archeologist tried to dodge.
"Not a chance, Daniel. I want to hear about Carter's taking off her clothes."
"Colonel, it didn't happen."
"I want to examine this male, Colonel O'Neill, as well," Pesh broke in eagerly. "I wish to compare two identical males, to see racial variations."
O'Neill fixed the tall skinny Paft with an intimidating stare. "Me."
"Yes, Colonel O'Neill. It is of great interest to us to have this knowledge." It considered its options. "I will offer the manual to the Goa'uld detector in exchange."
"A Goa'uld detector?" O'Neill smiled in anticipation. "Clothing optional, children?"
"Please stay," Nira begged the SG-1 team. "We have planned a celebration in your honor. Our cooks have been working to prepare a feast." Having delivered the carrot, it then showed the stick. "The Gate is several miles away. It will take you until nightfall to get there on foot, and all the hovercrafts are in use by our own people, moving supplies into the base storehouse. Please stay."
Carter was hooked. "I could use the extra time to try to figure out how the disabler works. I can do it here just as easily back at the SGC, Colonel. And here there are experts to talk me through the theory."
"This is an ideal chance to study their culture," Jackson pushed, never one to leave a new planet. "Jack, what's the rush?"
O'Neill glared at his team, and turned on Teal'C. "I suppose you have a reason for staying here, too?"
"No, Colonel O'Neill, I do not. But I will agree that this is a pleasant planet on which to dwell. And we have been working very hard for a very long time. It would be well to remain here for a while and relax."
"I'd rather be fishing," O'Neill grumbled, mostly to himself, wishing boredom was a valid excuse for cutting the mission short. These skinny aliens were giving him the willies, especially after taking him into that dismal excuse for a temple. He counted himself fortunate that he didn't remember much after Paft said, "breathe deep." But he too could use a little R&R. "Does anybody know if they have fish here?"
"Jack, you're overreacting," Jackson told the silver-haired colonel. By common consent, they had all gathered in O'Neill's sleeping chambers after the Paft feast. Of all of them, only Jackson had enjoyed the Paft celebration, taking the opportunity to try out his new-found skill in the Paft language and attempting to converse with any alien who would favor him with a word. Carter, on the other hand, couldn't wait to get to get back to her new toys, and O'Neill—well, Mrs. O'Neill's boy was just plain bored. And who could tell what Teal'C was feeling?
O'Neill lounged across the bed with Carter perched on the end of the long mattress. Jackson took the chair, comparing it to the bean bag chair he'd had in his dorm room that quickly molded itself to any form anyone happened to punch it into. Teal'C remained standing by the door, ever vigilant.
Jackson waved a languid hand. "We don't need to stand guard. These are good people."
"Nira seems nice," Carter agreed. "Hovered over my shoulder every moment of the time, helping me understand the shield disabler. Wouldn't leave me alone. Like some others I could mention," she added.
"May I remind you that we've known them for all of twenty-four hours?" O'Neill said sarcastically. "They may be good people, and I would really like it if they were, but like the Paft themselves said, trust has to be earned. And we are so not there yet. Carter, take the first watch, Daniel the second. Teal'C, you want the third or the last?"
"I do not require sleep as you humans do," Teal'C reminded him for the umpteenth time since last Tuesday. "I will keep watch through the night while the three of you sleep."
"Hey, no, that's not fair," Jackson protested, covering a yawn. "I can do my share."
"DanielJackson, you are the only one among us who is capable of negotiating with our hosts. Your analysis of their language and culture will prevent us from making unacceptable diplomatic errors which could lead to disastrous treaty errors. Major Carter's expertise is required for examination of the devices that the Paft are gifting to us. If we are to be successful in this mission, we must have the two of you functioning at optimum levels."
"You left out Jack," Jackson pointed out.
"That's right, he did," O'Neill himself wasn't successful at suppressing his own yawn. "Teal'C, you're right; you and I will split it. You want the first or second half of the night?"
"As I said, Colonel O'Neill, I believe that I should stand guard while the three of you sleep. You appear to be excessively tired, much more so than the activities of the day would have indicated. Are you feeling well?"
"Never better," O'Neill growled, choking down yet another yawn. Dammit, he did feel tired. Must be the fresh mountain air, or something. That always did it to him when he went fishing. That was it.
"I'm kind of tuckered out myself," Jackson admitted. He hoisted himself out of the beanbag chair equivalent, staggering to get his feet under him, and Teal'C offered him a hand up. "Whatever you guys decide for night guard duty, wake me up for my share."
O'Neill's first thought was that, as usual, he hated taking the third shift of the night. Which is why he tried to choose it, just to show himself who was boss. He tried to convince himself that he wasn't tired, at least not any more than any other time, and knew he was lying to himself. He could hear Carter's voice outside the sleeping quarters telling him it was time to wake up. He reluctantly opened his eyes.
His second thought was lost in a wave of nausea. No, not just a wave, a tidal wave, a monsoon, which washed over him and sent him staggering for the facilities behind the rectangular privacy curtain.
He hadn't felt this bad since his last hangover. Which wasn't fair, because there hadn't been any drinking last night at the Paft feast. No booze, no alcohol, no drugs. Not that O'Neill did drugs, but he wouldn't put it past any skinny alien not to slip something into him and his entire team. This whole praying to the porcelain god thing proved there was something underhanded going on. He should have listened to his paranoia.
"Sir! Sir! Are you all right?"
"Just fine, Carter," he croaked, trying to make his voice sound normal. "I'll be out in a minute."
Must have been something he'd eaten last night. Clearing out his stomach made him feel a whole lot better, human even. When he got to his feet, his intestines stayed where they belonged. He dashed some cold water on his face, straightened his clothing into its usual rumpled comfort, and pushed his paranoia back inside himself where it belonged.
And caught sight of sunlight streaming in through the window.
O'Neill charged out of the sleeping quarters. "Carter! I left orders to split the shift. Why the hell didn't you wake me up?"
Carter stood her ground. "I tried, sir. But you didn't wake up, and you were kind of moaning in your sleep. Teal'C came, and he stood guard. He said he'd do his kel-no-reem a bit later today. You looked like you needed the rest, Colonel."
"I'll tell you when I need rest, Major. Where's Daniel?"
The door across the hall opened, and a certain sandy-haired archeologist clutched the doorframe, looking green. "Is it morning already?"
Carter felt Jackson's forehead, mother hen instincts aroused. It was cool, normal. "Are you all right? You look awful."
"Thanks, I think. No, I'm okay. Must have something I ate, last night. I'm feeling better now." Jackson took a deep breath, color returning to his face.
"Like a hangover, only no drinking?" O'Neill asked waspishly.
"Are you coming down with the flu?" Carter asked. "Colonel, we can head back to the SGC, cut the mission short. We can return as soon as you're feeling better, even send SG-5 if our hosts don't want to wait for us."
"Not necessary, Carter. I'm okay now; you, Daniel? We'll compare notes later, see what we ate and what you and Teal'C didn't. Looks like we found the first worm in the apple here, kids. Keep your eyes open. And be careful what you order for breakfast."
Jackson turned just a shade more green. And, to O'Neill's dismay, so did Carter.
Must have been something we ate.
"Fertile ground," O'Neill commented, looking over the rolling fields that the Paft cultivated to feed the base personnel and guests. Large grassy stalks that reminded him of wheat seemed to stretch on for acres until met by a line of verdant trees. It all seemed remarkably Earth-like. O'Neill had seen stranger landscapes on planets that humans had been re-settled on. "Real pretty. How long have you guys had this base?"
"Here?" Pesh leaned back in the pool of hot spring water, drowsy from the heat, its eyes hooded. It swirled water past its knees, digging its toes into the soft mud. "We erected these structures only about fifty planetary revolutions past."
"Fifty years?" Jackson queried sleepily. He was having a hard time keeping awake himself, and the rest of his body was saying, 'I told you so. You need more sleep.' "I thought you said last night that you've used this planet as your meeting place for several centuries."
"And so we have, Dr. Jackson. But periodically we come up with improvements to our technology that require the construction of new facilities. This base is only fifty years old. Our previous base is located over that hill." Pesh pointed.
Jackson brightened. Even basking in hot spring waters couldn't keep his curiosity bug down. "Will we be going near there? I'd like to compare the old with the new."
"Perhaps another time, Dr. Jackson." Crin tentatively started to massage Jackson's no longer tense muscles, bolder once Jackson made no objection. "Today's excursion was to honor Colonel O'Neill's request to observe the surrounding area in preparation for an Earth base."
"You are always welcome to share our facilities, Colonel," Tisk said for the fourteenth time. Tisk was one of the main negotiators that Jackson had met with, and its fluency in English was impressive for only learning the language a few days earlier. There was a sleep-educator for such things, Jackson had found out and informed the rest of the team, but its efficiency was limited and a great deal of effort was needed to become proficient in the desired tongue. Not all of the Paft on base could effectively use it, and some were able to learn only a sort of pidgin English.
"Thanks, but eventually we'll want our own. You understand," O'Neill returned. "Good fences, good neighbors, that sort of thing."
The reference went over the Paft's tall head, but the meaning was there, and the negotiator nodded in agreement. "Of course. A wise course of action. You are comfortable at present? Your accommodations are acceptable?"
"Definitely." O'Neill gestured to the hot spring they were soaking in. "And the amenities are a plus as well. You mind if I strongly recommend that we put our own base on top of this hot spring? I could spend a lot of time here. Carter and Teal'C are going to be pissed that they missed this trip." He glanced at the watch that he'd removed from his wrist and placed a safe distance away from the water. The watch was rated water-proof, but O'Neill had long ago decided to test that claim only under dire necessity.
Tisk eyed the human colonel in amusement. "Not an hour ago you were recommending that your base be located close to a fishing river. And previously you desired it high in these mountains. I believe you were enamored of the opportunities for wildlife photography."
"Hunting," Jackson murmured softly. "Hunting."
"What can I say?" O'Neill shrugged. The movement sent swirls of hot water eddying around three tall skinny bodies and two others less so. Jackson groaned softly with pleasure and sunk deeper until only his nose was showing. "I'm fickle. We have time to spend another eon here?"
Tisk shook its head, having picked up the gesture from its guests. "No. We should move on. We have much to show you of this world." It reluctantly withdrew from the hot water, drying itself off with thick towels brought for that purpose. It dropped the damp cloth into a bin on the back of the broad hovercraft that the Paft used for transportation over the uneven ground. The hovercraft, Nira had explained to Carter yesterday, would not harm the flora, coasting some three inches above ground. There were transports on their home world that used wheels and tracks, but the Paft were determined to keep this way station in a pristine condition. The hovercraft wouldn't traverse uneven territory, and it handled steep uphills badly, but it was sufficient for the Paft needs at present.
Pesh extended a hand to Jackson, helping the archeologist crawl out of the hot spring and handing him his own towel.
O'Neill waved a languid hand. "Go ahead without me, guys. You can pick me up later. Say, like tomorrow."
"Not a chance, Jack," the archeologist grinned. "This is your part of the mission, scanning the territory and figuring out logistics and long term planning. I'm strictly linguistics and negotiations. You're management." He stuck out his hand to help his friend out of the watering hole.
"Management!" O'Neill all but spat, stopping when he remembered where he was. "Watch it, Daniel. Insult me like that, and I'll pull you back in."
"And that's a threat?"
"It is if I hold your head underwater."
Crin looked mildly alarmed, and leaned over to Jackson. "That is one of his 'amusing comments' that you have warned me about, is it not?"
"Probably," Jackson replied airily. "With Jack, you never know." He pulled, and O'Neill stepped up and out of the hot spring, shivering a bit as a breeze ambled by. The colonel accepted a towel from Crin, rubbing briskly to remove the errant drops of water. O'Neill frowned; the headache he'd been fighting all day got suddenly worse. Much worse.
The skinny alien said something to him. O'Neill stared for a moment; it didn't sound like the Paft language, but he wasn't making sense of Crin's words over the roaring in his ears. And the landscape suddenly darkened, as though thunderclouds were rolling in at a typhoon pace.
The next thing he was aware of, O'Neill was flat on his back on the hovercraft, Jackson's nose dangling anxiously three inches above his own. He felt uncomfortably wrung out.
He blinked. The sunlight was too bright. "Daniel?"
"Jack!" The relief in the archeologist's voice was evident. "Are you all right? You scared the crap out of me."
O'Neill tried to sit up. "What happened?"
Jackson pushed him back down, replacing the blanket around him. "You fainted."
"Ridiculous." O'Neill closed his eyes against the light. "I never faint. Pass out, yes, after being zapped with a zat gun. Or beaten up by a detachment of Goa'uld storm troopers. But I never faint."
"Then there's detachment of Goa'uld storm troopers around here that we missed," Jackson said tartly. "So lie there and rest, in case they find you again."
O'Neill closed his eyes. Crap. Daniel was taking charge of things. That was a sure recipe for disaster. And he felt like crap. His head hurt, he was shivering, his esophagus was sending up smoke signals—
He had the flu.
What the hell, it had to happen one of these missions. There was no way Doc Frasier could have picked it up on his pre-mission physical, not if it was in the early stages, and O'Neill would be the first to admit that acknowledging any physical symptoms before a mission was right up there on his list of things to do, right after inviting Apophis to high tea. But to be honest, O'Neill didn't really remember feeling bad, not until this morning.
Crap. Crap again. O'Neill resigned himself to twenty-four hours of misery, after which he would have twenty four hours of cleaning up whatever mess Daniel got them into. Better get started at it, O'Neill. He closed his eyes with a groan.
A couple of pain-killers didn't cut it, so he took a couple more that Carter brought him sometime during the night. At least, he thought it was the night. There was little to no light sneaking into his sleeping quarters, and Carter thoughtfully closed the curtains to keep out the rest of the world. His head hurt, as well as the rest of him.
"How are you feeling, sir?"
"Don't ask, Carter. Don't ask. Just tell me: how much trouble has Daniel gotten into so far?"
"None, sir. He's simply studying the Paft as much as they're studying him. They're doing some kind of exchange of cultural knowledge. Daniel's fascinated; this is the first species that he's run across that's not bisexual. He's full of ideas on the papers he's going to write about how it affects their cultural outlook and view on the world. Says they have an amazingly strong fixation of the production of children, lots of concerns about both quantity and quality. He's gotten permission to go look at the old base several miles away. I sent Teal'C with him."
"Great. Now go away."
"No, sir. Sir, we need to get you back to SGC and let Dr. Frasier take a look at you. I've talked to Teal'C; we'll borrow one of the Paft's hovercrafts for the trip to the Stargate. We can be there in—"
"I said no, Carter. I am not going anywhere. I am going to sleep here tonight, and tomorrow I will be over this flu or whatever it is."
"Sir, it might be something indigenous—"
"If it is, then I sure as hell am not bringing it back to Earth. Have I made myself clear, Carter?"
"That's an order, Carter. Give me the damn pills and leave me alone."
O'Neill felt a presence in the room, someone heavy and silent. It was still dark; not a stray speck of light crept in. It must still be evening, he reasoned. He had slept for a few hours, threw off whatever virus had crawled into him, and was ready to resume the mission.
He felt a lot better, as long as he didn't move.
In fact, he felt a hell of a lot better even when he did move, as long as it wasn't too fast.
He decided to go for broke. He cleared his throat. "Teal'C?"
"Colonel O'Neill." The Jaffa's voice held relief. "You are awake."
"And hungrier than a…" O'Neill let his voice trail off, his brain still too sleepy to come up with an adequate simile pungent enough for the situation. "What time is it?"
"I believe it is close to ten o'clock."
"Good. All I lost was about eight hours. Did I miss dinner? I'm starving."
"Colonel O'Neill, it is ten o'clock in the morning."
"Even better." O'Neill swung his bare feet over the edge of the bed, searching blindly in the dim light for his shoes. "Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. I slept away my twenty four hour flu; I am now ready to clean up whatever mess Daniel's gotten himself into. Where is he?"
"Colonel O'Neill." Teal'C's voice held an unpleasant portent.
"What?" O'Neill's blood ran cold. "It was only twenty four hours, Teal'C. Right?"
"Colonel O'Neill, you have been unconscious for almost two days. Major Carter and DanielJackson were most upset, insisting that you be brought back to Stargate Command."
"I told Carter not to. Dammit, Teal'C, you didn't let her, did you?" He took a better look at his surroundings in the dim light. "No, you couldn't have. We're still on PX-34728. The Paft way station." He sat back down on the bed. "Well, hell. No wonder I'm so hungry."
"General Hammond agreed with your assessment of the situation, Colonel O'Neill. He refused to allow you to be brought back through the Stargate, although he did permit samples of your blood, suitably contained against contamination, to be sent through. Dr. Frasier was unable to diagnose the cause of your illness, though she spoke of your immune system being activated. 'Under attack' is how I believe she put it. I understand from General Hammond that it was most difficult to prevent the doctor from charging through the Stargate to come to your side."
"I'll bet." O'Neill winced, envisioning the petite brunette angrily tossing two hundred pounds of general out of her way. He'd gone up against Frasier a couple of times, and usually came out the loser. It said something about Hammond that he was able to stand up to the doctor. "And the Paft?"
"Almost as concerned. The ones known as Pesh and Crin had you carried to their temple/infirmary, but were unable to deduce the cause of your malady. They returned you to your room at our insistence." Teal'C paused.
"But—?" O'Neill prompted, at the delay in Teal'C's words.
"I do not believe they were telling the truth," Teal'C admitted cautiously. "There was a certain…furtiveness to their actions, the way they averted their eyes from mine, and how they spoke more frequently in the Paft tongue. Clearly, they were upset. Less clear was whether or not they knew the origin of your illness. Tisk in particular was most unhappy. It walked away last evening after a Paft conversation with Pesh that I was unable to comprehend, and Tisk has not been seen since. I believe it may have returned to its home world through the Stargate. DanielJackson has stated that Tisk's departure has something to do with its family, as the word 'child' was used frequently in Tisk's discussion with Pesh and the others."
"Really." That sounded important, but for the life of him, O'Neill couldn't figure out what it meant. "What does Daniel think? And Carter?"
"Major Carter has not considered the matter. Having received her orders not to return you to Stargate Command, she returned to her studies of both the shield disabler and the Goa'uld detector. She has realized that she is most useful while engaged in that endeavor."
"And Daniel? What has that space monkey gotten himself into?"
"DanielJackson agrees with me, that there is something suspicious about the Paft behavior. He is attempting to decipher the meaning behind their activities, to discover what, if any, relevance your illness has to our negotiations. He believes there may be some cultural significance."
"And just how is he doing that, might one ask?"
"One might. He has traveled to the site of the old base in an effort to understand the Paft's actions by understanding their history. The Paft Crin has accompanied him."
"That's our Daniel. Gonna pull the past in somehow, even if it has no relevance to our present day problem." O'Neill shook his head, and regretted doing it. His temples throbbed again, though not as badly as he remembered from the night before. "Ten o'clock? In the morning?"
"Mid-morning," Teal'C confirmed.
"Then, outta my way. Mrs. O'Neill's little boy is hungry."
O'Neill had never seen Jackson so reticent. Usually the archeologist was brimming with knowledge, eager to share what he had found out.
This time Jackson had no bounce to his step, no grin stretched across his face. He trudged back into the base, dusty and muddy from several hours on the trail. O'Neill frowned; hadn't the man used one of the Paft hovercrafts? Jackson looked tired and grim.
O'Neill intercepted him, stuffing the last bite into his mouth. "Daniel?"
Relief warred with fatigue for dominance on Jackson's face. "Jack! You're awake. How're you feeling?"
"I'll know how I ought to be feeling once I hear what you have to say," O'Neill told him, swallowing to clear his mouth for coherent speech. "I take it you've discovered something about our hosts?"
"You might say that," Jackson replied. He looked around; no Paft were nearby, but Carter and Teal'C were coming upon them. A knot of Paft, Crin among them, stood several yards away, trying to look like they weren't watching the SG-1 team.
"And I'm not going to like it," O'Neill supplied. His paranoia surfaced again, all flags waving. "C'mon, let's walk around a bit. We'll take you back to the dorm rooms to get cleaned up after we finish talking. This discussion sounds like it shouldn't be held in a place where lots of little bugs could have been placed years before the Paft ever heard of us." He pulled Jackson into a slow walk, Carter and Teal'C behind and listening intently. After a moment or two, the Paft figured out how to slowly drift in their direction, always keeping the team in sight, but not so close that they could be considered as doing anything so gauche as eavesdropping. O'Neill kept them moving.
"Jack, I went to the old Paft base," Jackson started. "It's over the hill, a few miles away. Crin went with me. Wouldn't let me out of its sight."
"I know where it is. Tisk pointed it out yesterday. The day before. Whatever. Keep going, Daniel."
"I was hoping to find some writing, something on the walls, maybe even an old journal that had survived after all these years. Crin has been teaching me more of the Paft language, and languages—especially written languages—don't change all that dramatically in fifty years. Not usually. And not in this case, either."
'So you found something. Spit it out, Daniel. Don't keep us in suspense."
"I found something," Jackson confirmed miserably. "I found a nursery inside, one even bigger than the one here on this base. I found a room with equipment like the Temple infirmary they have here." He stopped, and turned to look at Teal'C. "Teal'C, do you remember when we first arrived on PX-34728? The Paft were very interested in you, wanted to examine you just as they wanted to examine us. They knew you were a Jaffa."
"They did. I clearly identified myself, shortly after arriving through the Gate. Then they appeared to lose interest in me."
"Right after learning that you carried a Goa'uld larva inside," Jackson clarified.
Teal'C frowned, remembering. "You are correct, DanielJackson. Their close attendance waned significantly after discovering that fact. You believe it is relevant to our current situation?"
"Very," Jackson said, pausing to let a benevolently smiling Paft walk by. The tall and skinny alien patted the archeologist kindly on the shoulder, and Jackson favored it with a welcoming smile. Only his teammates could tell that the expression was forced. When the Paft was out of earshot, Jackson continued. "This is a race with an almost fanatical devotion to learning about the physiology of other species. The old base was not as abandoned as Pesh and Crin told us. It was actually in rather good condition, used as a repository for information; a library, of sorts. Crin said that they also use it for overflow personnel, if there are a lot of them. But still no children, no use for the nursery, and certainly no reason for the Paft to construct extensive rooms for children that they don't have. I found well-preserved texts on the fauna of their home world, again focusing on anatomy and physiology, but very little on behavior. I found a text that I think was written some two hundred years ago specifically on the Jaffa, and stating how those Jaffa that carried a larval Goa'uld were unacceptable for use. Even those that were Goa'uld-free apparently didn't tolerate Paft usage very well."
"Usage for what, Daniel?"
"I'm getting to that, Jack."
"Get there a little faster. I'm getting upset."
"I need to back up a little. A few millennium or so." Jackson ignored O'Neill's snort of disgust. "The Paft are a race with no sexes. Not bisexual, not three sexes; they have no division at all. As an archeologist, I've had to study quite a bit of sociology as well, and I can tell you that certainly on Earth, and for every other bisexual race we've encountered, the sex drive is a major factor in determining the shape of the culture. As much as we would like to think that we are in control of our so-called 'animal instincts', they still come out in a lot of unexpected ways. Our sexuality drives most of our behavior."
"That's a given," Carter said. "But how does it apply to what's going on here?"
"The urge to procreate is mandatory for any successful species," Jackson lectured. "Without it, the species dies out; goes extinct."
"Faster, Daniel," O'Neill all but snarled. "How do these Paft procreate? If that's where you're going with this."
"It is. I'll leave the exact details to the Paft themselves, but to make a long story short—"
"They lay eggs in a host being. Like a parasite."
Teal'C all but spat. "They are false gods! Like the Goa'uld! Let us leave now!"
"Hold on, big guy," O'Neill cautioned, trying not to give in to his paranoia. Teal'C was doing a good job of that all by himself, and didn't need O'Neill's help. "They haven't made any claims to being gods. They've been pretty nice so far. Daniel, what aren't you telling us? Are you saying that they want to put their unborn kids inside us like maggots?" He tried not to shudder.
Jackson visibly steeled himself. "As a monosexual race, there is precious little genetic drift. No mutations, no combining of DNA, or their equivalent. Biochemistry is not my long suit. In short, without sexual interaction, without mating outside of their individual genome, they can only clone themselves."
"And this affects us how?" This was frightening. Jackson was making sense to O'Neill, and O'Neill didn't like it one bit.
"In order to prevent this stagnant cloning effect, in order to evolve as a race, the Paft have developed the ability to take on some of the aspects of the host species." Jackson found it easier to retreat into academic-ese. "Those who are hosted by a race characterized by strength become stronger. Those who are hosted by a race of exceptional intelligence turn into Paft geniuses. When I was at the Paft library, I even came across a reference to a race that possessed telepathic powers. Apparently those powers didn't transfer as well to the Paft as they had hoped, but they did try. In an emergency, the Paft can lay eggs into just about any suitable host. Mammalian types tend to do better, cold-blooded animals less well. They've used their home world analogs to dogs and cats, but only in extreme circumstances. Because the dog things aren't anywhere close to Paft and human intelligence, the resultant Paft infants are really pretty stupid. Crin told me that most Paft would rather remain childless than procreate using a lower animal for a host."
O'Neill never claimed to be as smart as the other two, but he was very good at putting two and two together. "So you're telling me, Daniel, that these Paft are welcoming us as potential incubators for their children? That they're checking us out as a race of surrogate mothers?"
Okay, so maybe Carter could put two and two together faster than he could.
"Not checking all of us out. They lost interest in Teal'C as soon as they found out that he carries a symbiote. Right, Daniel?"
Jackson shrugged unhappily. "That's what Crin said."
"But the three of us made it all the way into the Temple." O'Neill felt a cold shudder go through him. "Are you trying to tell me, Carter, that you, Daniel and I are currently harboring little baby Paft eggs in our guts?"
"We don't know that, Jack." Jackson tried to put the best spin on it. "If I were Pesh, looking for potential hosts, I'd be doing a lot of background testing before selecting an untried host for my kid. The Paft are as devoted to their children as we are. They wouldn't want to dump them on just anyone until they had thoroughly checked them out. We may be getting upset over nothing."
"Or you and Colonel O'Neill and I could have been compromised," Carter said in a tight voice.
O'Neill tried to take it all in. The thought of a parasite in his belly, feeding off who knew what, frightened him. Was that what had made him so sick? "That's it. Kids, we are out of here. Pack up; we're moving out. We'll stay in quarantine at the SGC until we can have Frasier check the three of us. All four, just in case Daniel is wrong." He checked his watch. "Four o'clock. We can be at the Stargate inside of an hour if we borrow one of the Pafts' hovercraft."
"What are we going to tell the Paft, sir?" Carter wanted to know. "I mean, they'll know that we suspect if we leave so suddenly."
"Let them, Carter. I don't much care what they think. We'll say we were suddenly recalled. They take action to keep us here: we know that Daniel is right, and Hammond will know to never open the Gate to the Paft. They don't, we escape back to Earth to check out Daniel's suspicions, and we write this world's Stargate address out of our phone book for the next millennium."
Teal'C nodded slowly. "It appears that the Paft are competition for the Goa'uld. While the Goa'uld take hosts for the mature form, these Paft secure hosts for their larvae. Both actions are unconscionable without the host consent."
O'Neill agreed. "Yeah, putting maggots into my gut is a sick thing to do, whether it's a snake Goa'uld or a stick skinny Paft. Carter, if we bug out, can you salvage any of the technology they gave us? Washington still wants us to collect high tech weapons, and I'd rather this mission not be a total bust."
Carter considered. "I can have my things packed in fifteen minutes, Colonel. The shield disruptor is already in pieces inside my backpack, ready to go. The Goa'uld detector will take a little longer. It's big; Teal'C, can you put some of the parts into your pack?"
"I can, Major Carter."
"Fifteen minutes, kids," O'Neill agreed. "Teal'C, you cover Carter. Daniel, you're with me. Let's see what we can recover out of our sleeping quarters. I hope you don't want to take much."
"All right, hit the road," O'Neill growled. "We'll head through the forest as soon as possible, where the Paft can't follow on their hovercraft. Who would've thought that Carter couldn't hotwire one of those babies? Carter, you disappoint me."
"Sorry, sir. The technology is very different from our own."
"Next time, grow up with one of those misspent youths," O'Neill started to say, when Pesh and Crin showed up with several other Paft. O'Neill recognized many as those in the group that had been watching the Earth team from afar. Apparently SG-1's escape attempt wasn't going to go unnoticed.
"Colonel O'Neill!" Pesh beamed with artificial good cheer. "I observed you and your team poking at the hovercraft. Did you wish to go somewhere? Perhaps back to the hot springs that you enjoyed so much?"
Ten of 'em. Maybe we could take them, maybe not. Let's play this out.
"We've been recalled," O'Neill lied easily. "We need to head back through the Stargate, get more instructions from our people back home. Can we get a lift? We'll be back in a day or so, as soon as we debrief. I know our people will be really interested in the exchange of information," he offered.
Pesh looked puzzled. "Recalled? How could that be? How did you receive this information, since you have not visited the Stargate since your arrival on this world?"
Think fast, O'Neill. "Did I forget to tell you? Carter's telepathic. Got the message a little while ago."
Pesh turned to the blonde major with interest. "You are telepathic? Is this common among your species?"
"No, sir," Carter said, trying not to glare at O'Neill. "Very rare."
"Why did you not mention it previously?"
"You didn't ask," O'Neill slid in smoothly. "How about that lift? We'll be back in a day or two."
Pesh frowned. "It would be most inconvenient for you to leave at this time, Colonel O'Neill. Perhaps you could send the Jaffa, and the rest of you remain here with us?"
Bingo. Daniel's nailed it. And I don't like it one bit. O'Neill shrugged regretfully. "Love to, but not this time. Orders are orders. Besides, we won't be gone long. Our people are very anxious for this exchange of information to continue."
A few more Paft joined the group. O'Neill looked around, trying not to appear uneasy. He felt very hemmed in by tall skinny aliens, and he could tell that the rest of the team felt the same.
Pesh moved in. "I'm afraid that's not possible, Colonel O'Neill. We cannot allow you to return home at this time. You must remain with us."
"Let's not let this get ugly." O'Neill was good at intimidation, and he used every ounce of it. "We'll go home, we'll come back. Assuming we get this little misunderstanding cleared up."
But there was something more driving Pesh, something that pushed courtesy out of the way. There was sorrow on its face and in its voice, but determination was uppermost. "Colonel O'Neill, you are not going home. You and your team will remain here until we give you permission to go. Don't try to run off; my people are erecting a barrier around the Stargate as we speak." Pesh took his arm. "You have an appointment with me. In the Temple."
The Temple took on a new look, now that O'Neill knew what its real purpose was. Pesh escorted him into the building, not quite touching the colonel but guiding him nevertheless. It still reminded him uncomfortably of Frasier's lair, and Pesh led him to the center room.
"Sit there." Pesh indicated the table in the center of the room, already fiddling with the controls to bring the cold surface up to body temperature, ever the considerate host.
O'Neill eased himself onto the table. "What, no thugs to keep me in line?"
"That can be arranged, if necessary, Colonel." Pesh wasn't paying close attention to its subject. The knobs and dials were more interesting. "It won't do you much good. You're trapped on this planet. Your best option is to cooperate, for your colleagues' sake, if nothing else." It threw him an exasperated glance. "It's not as though this hurts, Colonel. We're simply studying you for suitability as hosts. Quite painless, even for your primitive nervous systems. And if we're wrong, we have the capability of blocking your pain centers."
"Gee, that's a relief."
Pesh sighed. "Lie back." It pulled the mechanical arm over to position it above O'Neill's midriff, moving it downward until it was a bare two inches above his belt buckle. It flipped a toggle, and the box hummed. O'Neill didn't remember this part from before, but he did remember being gassed into unconsciousness on his first visit to this room, presumably when Pesh had inserted its parasitic little larvae into his gut. Carter and Jackson had reported the same thing. So far, nothing hurt. Pesh was keeping its promise.
"Is this what you did before?"
"No. Last time was much more extensive. I was comparing your anatomy to that of Dr. Jackson, the differences and the similarities. And I was comparing those readings to those of other races that we've encountered."
"Find anything interesting?" O'Neill didn't bother to keep the sarcasm out of his voice.
"Well, frankly, yes." Pesh paused, gave his full attention to O'Neill. "I understand that Dr. Jackson found our library at the old base, and has deduced the purpose behind our way station here on this planet. Crin didn't have many options after Jackson guessed so much. None of us realized that he was so adept at picking up languages, let alone ours. I assume that was when things became clear."
"Pretty much. Something about this being a spider web for catching travelers for use as hosts. And here I thought only the Goa'uld behaved as badly as that."
"We all behave as nature dictates, Colonel O'Neill. Don't try to tell me that humans have never used the lower animals for their own purposes. The phrase 'pet dogs and cats' comes to mind. And would you like to discuss the role of the cattle ranch and chicken farms in your species' histories? No, Colonel, we all use everything around us to survive. Our techniques are simply a bit more humane—to use your term—than most. Roll onto your side, please."
"Is that what you think of us?" O'Neill complied with Pesh's direction. "Lower animals?"
"Not really." Pesh toggled a few more switches, took a few more readings, frowning. "You don't give weapons to pets. And, if your race proves to be successful hosts, you'll need those weapons to defend yourselves from the Goa'uld. Although looking at these results, I wouldn't count on any more weapons handed over if I were you."
"What's a matter? Not good enough for you?"
"I'm not certain, Colonel. We require as hosts a race that can successfully carry our children until they are ready to be born, generally a task that is neither onerous nor lengthy. Tisk's egg was implanted in you."
"Was—? Not is?"
"Was," Pesh confirmed. "Your body very efficiently eliminated the intruder in your abdomen. You contain a remarkably sophisticated immune system. Tisk was understandably upset."
"So sorry." O'Neill wasn't sorry in the slightest. This was his gut they were discussing so cavalierly. "Must be why Tisk ran off in a snit."
"It that means what I think it does, then yes. Tisk no longer wishes to be part of this expedition. That was the last egg it has produced; it is old enough that creating another is doubtful. It had high hopes for the success of this implantation. This casts doubt on the suitability of your race as hosts. If there is a high percentage of failed implantations, we will not be able to use your species."
"Great." O'Neill relaxed. This might work out after all. "No maggots inside me? Check away."
"You do realize that this means we have no need to supply you with weapons? That we will not have any reason to protect you from the Goa'uld? Although," Pesh mused to itself, "if you could be persuaded to help search out other likely species, we might reconsider."
"Not a chance, buster."
"Pity," Pesh said. "Well, perhaps you were a fluke. Tisk is old, and its egg probably degraded. We still have Dr. Jackson and Major Carter successfully carrying eggs."
"Colonel, let me play Devil's Advocate here," Carter said grimly. Pieces of the Goa'uld detector were spread out around her; she'd been playing again. They weren't going anywhere, and Carter had decided to make good use of the time. "Granted, the idea of having larvae in my stomach doesn't thrill me—sorry, Teal'C."
"I understand completely, Major Carter. It does not 'thrill' me, either, though I must submit to the necessity."
"But maybe we should look at this with a cost-benefit analysis. We sacrifice a few of us, in exchange for weapons that will substantially improve our chances with the Goa'uld." Carter gestured to the parts lying on the ground. "This detector alone would increase Earth's safety factor substantially. Who knows how much more the Paft could teach us? Colonel, I for one would be willing to sacrifice a few weeks of discomfort in order to gain this technology. I mean, women go through this all the time having babies. This isn't much different, I guess."
"But we don't know how long it would be," Jackson argued, taking the other side. "Or what the long term effects will be. Just how long are we supposed to be hosting these eggs of the Paft?" He grimaced. "And I'm really having a hard time dealing with the concept of a larva inside me, Sam. If we had access to the Stargate, I'd be through it in a flash and on Doc Frasier's table, begging her to cut it out of me. We're talking maggots here, Sam. I'm pretty tolerant when it comes to other customs, but this goes too far for me."
"I must agree with DanielJackson," Teal'C put in. "We do not have an adequate understanding of the process that the Paft wish you to undergo. In addition, they imposed it upon you without your consent, and by deceit. This does not bode well for a long term relationship."
"But it's understandable." Jackson did an about face, arguing with not only the others but himself. "If you were facing extinction because you didn't have another suitable host race to help with the procreation process, you wouldn't want to take a chance on that other race turning you down. Failure is not an option here." He rubbed his belly uncomfortably. "But I still don't like it."
"I think that's the real point, team," O'Neill said. "We have a lot of unknowns here. And the biggest one, as far as I'm concerned, is how the Paft will react. We already know that this whole egg in the breadbasket thing might not work; Pesh told me that I managed to eliminate Tisk's egg like it was a virus with my immune system in hot pursuit. It's hoping that I was just a fluke, that the two of you will carry your own larvae to 'term'. And if you do, how will the Paft handle it? If we decline their invitation to submit willingly to being their surrogate mothers, will they come after us with slavery in mind?"
"They don't have Earth's Stargate address," Carter pointed out.
"Not yet, Carter. But we each carry it in our pointy little heads. And I'd rather not find out what toys the Paft have to get it out."
"So what are our options, Colonel?"
O'Neill looked around the dusty compound. No Paft were in earshot, and there was little chance of transmitters here outside. "I think we're going to have to bid adieu to our friends. Anybody up for a brisk hike?"
"But the Stargate is enclosed within a barrier. We will not be able to return home," Teal'C pointed out.
"Yeah, but in the meantime, we'll be out of their clutches. And maybe Carter here can figure out a way around the barrier. We haven't given her a chance yet, have we?"
"I haven't even seen the barrier," Carter admitted. "We're just assuming that they're erected it, as they said they would. Maybe they haven't."
"It's a plan," O'Neill decided. "Teal'C, you have the greatest ease of movement around here. They aren't watching you. Scope out the land. Find us a place where we can hole up for a few days while Carter figures out how to get past the barrier. Carter, you and I will take a little trip to the Stargate itself, take a look at the problem close up and personal."
"What about me?" Jackson asked.
"Daniel, I have the perfect job for you, one that you excel at."
"I hate feeding you straight lines," Jackson complained mildly. "And what is this perfect job, Jack?"
O'Neill smiled. "Get in the Paft's way."
"It's not the language that's slowing me down," Jackson reported. "It's the biology."
The archeologist looked tired, O'Neill thought. They all were. Over the last two days they had each been working at their assigned tasks, preparing for escape. Teal'C reported that he had a reasonably good knowledge of the land around the Paft base, and could guide the team to a location that the Paft would not be able to find. It couldn't be too far from the Gate, in order for Carter to drop the barrier that prevented them from returning home, but too close and the Paft would find them.
O'Neill had taken Carter to the Stargate yesterday, using one of the hovercraft. Nira had gone along; Carter had found out that she was hosting Nira's own larva, and the skinny Paft was sticking to Carter's side like a leech. O'Neill didn't like it, but there wasn't much to be done about the situation. Carter made the best of it, pumping Nira for information not only on the barrier but on the other bits of technology around the camp. This time, Carter reported, Nira seemed to delight in being obtuse. The astrophysicist wasn't allowed to come within ten feet of the barrier encircling the Stargate, and came away as frustrated as she'd been before the trip.
O'Neill had almost as much freedom as Teal'C. Once his own larva was no more, the Paft had little interest in him. O'Neill wasn't suitable as a host, therefore they could care less about what he did, as long as he didn't interfere with the Paft's plans. They almost stopped him from taking Carter to the Stargate, but acquiesced when Nira agreed to ride along. O'Neill made it his job to assess the Paft's abilities, to figure out just what they were up against, and how it could be used to the team's benefit.
Those abilities looked pretty formidable, O'Neill had to admit. Tall and skinny, they had a reach longer than Teal'C's. And, as he'd found earlier, those skinny arms were strong. The humans could run faster, but the hovercraft would make up the difference unless SG-1 high-tailed it into the forest where the hovercraft couldn't go. Teal'C assured him that the planned escape route would take that into consideration.
The one thing that the Paft didn't seem to have were long range weapons. Nothing that fired bullets, projectiles, or energy beams. They were big on defensive tools, but nothing that could be construed as offensive. O'Neill didn't understand it, but thanked his lucky stars for small favors.
Just as O'Neill hoped, Jackson proved as much of a distraction as they needed. Jackson poked here and there, sticking his nose into everything and learning as much about their captors as he could. He also made it a point to pull attention to himself, to draw it away from his teammates. His biggest escapade was to wander into the Paft power station and try to electrocute himself. He didn't succeed, but panicked Paft flocked all around him for hours afterward, not leaving the archeologist alone for fear he would do the larva inside his belly some damage. O'Neill, once convinced that Jackson wasn't foolish enough to accidentally kill himself off, further panicked the Paft by telling them that this was Jackson's typical behavior. That they had better keep a close eye on him so that he didn't blow up some essential part of the Paft base and himself and the larva along with it.
"They're happy to keep me in the library now," Jackson reported. "They think they can keep me safe there. It's hard to blow up books." He grinned, weariness oozing out of every pore, and O'Neill knew that the strain of hosting the Paft larva was taking its toll. Carter looked as bad off. "But I can knock over large bookshelves. They're still scrambling. And cleaning up the mess I made this morning."
O'Neill grinned. "Take it easy, Daniel. I think you've caused enough havoc for one mission. And we still have to extract you and Carter from whatever cocoon the Paft will put you in as soon as they realize our intentions. Teal'C?"
"I have located a cave that appears to be suitable. I have also acquired many supplies, and provisioned it with purloined food from the Paft stores. We may not be comfortable, but we will be well nourished. I believe that the exterior of the cave will protect us from the Paft sensors. They will not be able to find us once we are safely inside."
"How about the fauna here? Anything to watch out for?"
"Several times have I found tracks belonging to a large predatory animal, but have yet to observe it. It declines to come close to the Paft base, but we may be at some risk once we have left the safety of the compound. I believe that I will be able to best it with my staff weapon, if we can re-acquire it from the Paft."
"We chance it," O'Neill decided. "Carter? Can we leave tonight, after light's out?"
"No, sir, I don't think we can." At O'Neill's raised eyebrows, she continued, "I searched our rooms, looking for bugs, and found more that I bargained for. The Paft have wired our sleeping quarters to respond to any changes in our physical condition. They're really getting paranoid about keeping these larval eggs healthy; not that I blame them, but it makes it difficult for us to get away. They'll know it if Daniel or I turn over in our sleep, let alone get up and walk out of camp."
O'Neill said a bad word. "So we have to leave in broad daylight?"
"It looks that way, sir. Either that, or you leave Daniel and I behind."
"Not a chance, Carter. Daniel, will they let us just walk out of the compound, long enough to get far enough away?"
"Probably not," Daniel admitted cheerfully. "But I've got a better option." He dangled the remote access device to one of the hovercraft. "Want this?"
"Daniel! What a delightful surprise! Where did you get these?"
"I picked Crin's pocket," Daniel admitted with a red face, expanding, "I learned how to do that as a kid, from a boy in one of the Cairo marketplaces. His name was Abdullah, and we used to play together until my mom found out what he was teaching me. I never thought I'd need to use that particular skill."
"Well, we're glad you did." O'Neill grinned. "We'll plan to say good bye very quietly tomorrow morning, after Pesh does its usual morning rounds on Daniel and Carter. Teal'C, I want you to take what Paft equipment you can from Carter and store it up in that cave of yours before nightfall. The less we have to carry when moving fast the better, and Washington will be pleased if we can haul something back for our trouble. I'll see if I can slip in and liberate some of our weapons that the Paft so carefully removed from our possession. I'll feel a lot better up in the hills with a few guns in my hands."
"I too would like my staff weapon to be returned," Teal'C grumbled.
"I'll see what I can arrange. All right, kids, off to work. Carter, I'm with you. I'll help you pack up the toys so that Teal'C can cart them off."
Nira caught up with Carter and O'Neill in the late afternoon. "Friend Carter, I was looking for you. I had assumed that you would be studying the Goa'uld detector device. Where were you?"
"Oh, here and there," Carter improvised. O'Neill looked on. Nira all but ignored him; a human without a larval egg was unimportant to it. That satisfied O'Neill—he had a backpack full of Paft technology and human weapons, and letting Nira know what was in there would definitely be detrimental to their long term plans. "I got tired of looking at all the technology, and decided to take a break today. I was walking around with Colonel O'Neill."
"You ought to rest," Nira scolded. "Pesh reports that your glucose levels are low, and the waste products in your blood are rising. Have some concern for my egg you are bearing."
"You can have some concern for us humans," O'Neill shot back. "We didn't ask for this."
"This is a child," Nira insisted. "It must be cherished. Come with me. Rest."
"It's all right, Colonel," Carter said to forestall any further argument. "I'll go. I am feeling a little tired," she admitted.
O'Neill took a better look. Carter looked pale, lines pulling down the edges of her mouth. O'Neill didn't recall ever seeing her like this. Carter always had one of the most beautiful faces he'd seen, not that he'd admit it to her. Not if he wanted to keep his place as team leader. And keep his head on his shoulders, once he told the major. Carter had a mean right hook, and the balls to use it. "Carter, you okay?"
She sighed. "Headache."
O'Neill didn't like the sound of that. Or maybe he did. That was how the end of his own brief hosting session had begun. Maybe Carter's body would reject its own Paft egg. He shouldered the backpack over one arm, and bolstered her up with the other. He remembered how it felt, and he didn't envy Carter the next couple of days.
"She's over the worst of it," O'Neill reported, keeping his voice low. There, in the middle of the compound, he was certain that the Paft couldn't hear what they were saying, but there were a lot of them that contrived to walk within earshot. In fact, they contrived frequently. O'Neill was getting sick of it. "A good night's sleep, and we can be on track. You ready?"
Teal'C inclined his head a bare centimeter. "I am. The cave is well-provisioned, now better than our original plans allowed for. We have only the Paft technology to take with us on the trail. I did not take it earlier, for I did not wish the Paft to discover it missing."
"Good thinking." O'Neill turned to Jackson. "Daniel?"
"What? Oh. Yeah, I'm ready." He looked around, paused as another of the Paft walked past them. It gave him a paternalistic pat on the shoulder. O'Neill sourly likened it to the way a human would pat a dog. Daniel deserved better.
O'Neill also didn't like the way his archeologist looked. The man could barely drag himself out of bed this morning, and O'Neill had quietly refused Jackson's request to sit up with Carter last night. O'Neill himself felt no ill effects from his short and unwilling time as host to a Paft egg, but the effects seemed to be cumulative. Carter had needed four days to eliminate the Paft parasite, while O'Neill himself had only needed two. O'Neill wondered how long it would take Jackson. And if Jackson's body would abort the Paft egg as had the other two. He devoutly hoped so, for the sake of the human race.
"We really need to blow this joint," he muttered grimly. "First thing in the morning. Daniel, you up to snitching the keys to the car again?"
Jackson had returned the control mechanism that he had obtained four days earlier, afraid that the Paft would notice it missing and come looking for it. All pretense of negotiations had broken down, but the Paft still attempted to be civil, and the SG team intended to take full advantage of that fact. The archeologist tried to brighten. "Not a problem, Jack. I can get them any time you're ready."
"Then we go right after tomorrow morning's role call," O'Neill said. "They won't be expecting us to be anywhere in particular. Our friend Pesh will do its daily once over of Daniel here, we'll pick up our packs, and sneak out. That'll give us a good couple hours head start before they notice that we're gone. It's a plan?"
"It is indeed a plan, Colonel O'Neill," Teal'C agreed. "However, we had best discuss something else. The Paft Pesh approaches."
"And so he—it—does." O'Neill raised his voice. "So, how's the weather?"
Pesh looked around itself in amused bewilderment. "Colonel O'Neill, you are out in it. You can see for yourself that the day is sunny and warm, and is likely to remain so for some time, as evidenced by the lack of clouds in the sky. Is there another equally banal topic that you would like to pursue?"
"Sure. Like when are you going to take down the barrier surrounding the Stargate? When are you going to act like civilized beings, and let us go?"
"We are acting like civilized beings, Colonel," Pesh pointed out. "Were we not, we would have seized you from the start and imprisoned you for our use. Are you not more comfortable like this? Able to walk about, converse freely?"
"We'd be even better if you'd let us go back through the Gate."
"But that would not meet our own needs, Colonel. One must have balance. We look after your needs and you minister to ours, however poorly you personally have done for us, though we can hardly blame you. I doubt that your failure to successfully incubate the egg was deliberate. Out of three attempts, only one egg is still intact, which suggests that you humans are a marginally acceptable host race; only a slight improvement over the Jaffa. Speaking of which, Dr. Jackson, I would like to invite you to the Temple once more. I wish to check on the progress of the egg." Jackson sighed.
"Invite, or command?" O'Neill demanded. "You already checked him out this morning. Why now? It's only six hours later. And don't give me that crap about it being an invitation. That's no invitation, and that's no temple. That's a command, and you work in a laboratory, and Daniel here is your lab rat."
"If you would like, Colonel O'Neill, I can apply a collar to Dr. Jackson and drag him off as you do your own pets back on your home world," Pesh snapped back, its good humor finally cracking under the barrage. "I can build a cage to confine him. I will restrain him in the Temple until the egg has hatched."
"Jack, don't argue," Jackson said tiredly. "I'll go."
O'Neill cooled down quickly. They would have their hands full getting the four of them out of the Paft base in the morning; locking Jackson up was the last thing they needed. Pesh led Jackson off in the direction of the Temple, O'Neill looking angrily after them.
"We can't let them do that to Daniel," he said quietly, his voice still intense. "We can't let them put him in a cage. We have to get out of here."
"We may have little choice," Teal'C replied, his calm voice belying the tension he undoubtedly felt. "We must cause little furor now, and lull the Paft into a false sense of security. They must believe us stymied, and powerless."
"I can carry my share," Carter insisted, taking a piece of Goa'uld detector from O'Neill's hand. He was about to put it into his own pack. "I feel fine, Colonel."
"Major, you were flat on your back for four days. I don't care how fine you feel, I'm lightening your load, and that's an order. Got it?"
"Yes, sir," she snarled, clearly ready to do something underhanded to get her way. Something like going behind his back to even out the weights in the backpacks.
O'Neill saw through her ploy. "If you want to do something sensible, Major, go look through Daniel's stuff. I'm anticipating that he'll barely be able to handle himself, let alone a backpack, once he comes out of Pesh's Hatchery Temple. This Horton Hatching a Who thing is killing him. You can take his share. You'll get plenty to tote then."
Dammit, why did it sound like she wasn't listening to him again? Well, nothing he could do about it right now. He had other things to do. "Teal'C, gather up the packs and skedaddle. We'll meet you beyond the hot spring, as we planned. If we don't, assume the plan is scrubbed, and come back before sundown. Enter the base carefully; they may have taken other measures. Got it?"
"Yes, Colonel O'Neill. I will await your arrival." Teal'C then raised an eyebrow in puzzlement, and chose his words very carefully. "Horton Hatches a Who, Colonel O'Neill?"
"We'll wait till it comes out on DVD," O'Neill said hurriedly.
O'Neill sauntered across the compound, Carter by his side. The sun was already mid-morning high in the sky, the heat making a meager addition to the cool breeze that whistled past them. Three Paft exited the kitchen, waving at them. O'Neill waved back, adding a one-fingered gesture which he was certain they didn't understand.
"Just telling them how much I enjoyed their hospitality, Major."
"Yes, sir." Carter subsided. "Look, there's Daniel."
"It's show time, Carter. Let's go."
The archeologist leaned tiredly against the doorframe of the Temple. Dark circles drooped beneath his glasses, and his hair looked more flyaway than usual. O'Neill felt a pang of remorse; this was one of his team, someone that he was responsible for. More than that—Jackson was a civilian. He wasn't supposed to be put in harm's way, though he ended up there more often than not. O'Neill and Carter walked over to him, trying not to hurry, not to attract attention.
Carter took the archeologist's arm. "Daniel, are you all right?"
Jackson grimaced. "Yeah. Hatching this larva is getting to me, though. I'll be glad when it's over. What did you guys do to get rid of yours?"
O'Neill took the other arm. "Beats me, Daniel. Guess I make a worse mother hen than you do. C'mon, Teal'C's waiting for us up in the hills. Let's get moving, kids. Daniel, you up to picking a pocket or two?"
"Sure." Jackson blinked, and staggered. O'Neill and Carter automatically grabbed for him.
"Whoa, Nellie. You're not going anywhere, Daniel. Here, sit down." O'Neill grabbed a nearby stool, dragging it over and plopped the archeologist onto it. "Well, crap. This puts a monkey wrench in things. Heisting a set of keys just doesn't go over big if you fall flat on your face."
Jackson shook his head, and instantly looked as though he regretted the action. "I'm all right. Just give me a minute, Jack. I can do it."
"Heads up," Carter stage-whispered. "Crin's coming out."
The Paft indeed exited the same Temple door as Jackson had just moments ago, heading immediately in their direction seeing its prize brood mare in distress. It bustled up to them, ignoring the glare that O'Neill sent in its direction. "Dr. Jackson! Are you ill?"
"Not in the slightest," Jackson lied, hauling open his eyes. "I'm fine."
He's not as pale as a ghost, he's not sweating, and he's not about to pass out. O'Neill pasted a big grin on his face. "He's doing great, Crin. Just hunky-dory. We're all thrilled to be here. Now go away." Please.
"Nonsense." Crin pushed forward a large cup of something. Surprisingly, it smelled good to O'Neill. "Pesh was concerned about the glucose levels in your blood. Drink this. You must stay strong. For the egg, which drains your strength." It held the cup to Jackson's mouth, all but forcing it down his throat.
Jackson gagged, but then caught the hang of it. "Hey, that's not half bad. What's in it?"
"Fruit juice, mostly, from our orchards to the south. From its testing results, Pesh has determined that you require large quantities of sugars to successfully nourish the larva. Fruit sugars are the easiest to obtain, although it did add as much sucrose as it could."
"Well, that explains the unpleasant aftertaste," Jackson mused.
O'Neill could see the color seeping back into the man's face. We might be able to pull this off after all. "Got any more of that stuff? It seems to agree with him."
"Not at present, although I have dispatched workers to the orchards to obtain more of the fruit with which to make it. Now that we have determined the need, we will keep a large supply of it on hand until the egg is hatched."
"Yeah, there's always that," O'Neill said sourly. "Mustn't forget the egg."
"Sir," Carter put in, changing the subject, "you did say that we were going to the hot springs. Shouldn't we get going?"
He could always count on Carter to stick to the plan, and he was grateful for it. "You're right, Carter. Daniel, you feel up to it? Might make you feel better," he added quickly, forestalling Crin's objections.
"Yeah, that sounds good, Jack. Almost as good as coffee," Jackson grinned.
"No," Crin said with finality. "Dr. Jackson must stay here, at the base. Pesh wishes me to observe you closely during these final days of incubation."
"Final days?" O'Neill perked up his ears. "And just how long does this process normally take?"
"With humans, it is unclear." Crin lapsed into lecture mode, a condition with which O'Neill was very familiar, having lived through several years with Dr. Jackson. "Different species incubate our eggs at different rates, with different results. However, from the scans that Pesh and I have taken, we estimate that hatching will occur in no more than five days, possibly less. Therefore, it is imperative that Dr. Jackson remain on the base, where support to the infant may be given when it hatches. Paft infants are frail at that time, similar to what I understand of human infants."
O'Neill could see his plans going up in smoke. There was no point in leaving, if Jackson stayed at the base. O'Neill had sworn that he would never leave any team member behind, and he wasn't about to break that vow now.
Light bulb. "The egg isn't hatching now, or going into labor, or whatever it does. Right? Not at the moment."
"Correct, Colonel O'Neill. What did you have in mind?"
"Look, Crin, we've got days ahead of us before the blessed event." O'Neill bit his tongue to keep the sarcasm from showing. "There's no reason why we can't take Daniel to the hot springs. It'll make him feel good, it'll make us feel good, and it won't hurt the egg you shoved inside him."
"It's only an hour away by hovercraft," Carter added. "I've watched you enough; the hovercraft's not hard to maneuver. Get me a set of keys, and we'll be back by noon."
Crin started to waver.
"I would really like to get off this base," Jackson wheedled. He put a plea into his voice, and O'Neill could see the Paft's resolve crumble under the onslaught. "It's not as though something bad could happen. Where could we go? You've got the Stargate covered."
That did it. O'Neill had been on the receiving end of Jackson's arguments. The archeologist could worry an argument to death until his opponent gave in through sheer exhaustion. The unprepared Crin didn't have a chance.
The unprepared Crin didn't have a chance.
And O'Neill didn't have a choice. Not when Crin announced that while it was permitting the excursion, Crin itself would accompany them.
Which was how O'Neill ended up with a black eye, Carter sporting a split lip, and Crin nursing a dislocated shoulder. Teal'C arrived in the nick of time to see Carter sweep Crin's skinny legs out from under it, knocking the Paft into the hot springs, and O'Neill pounced onto the alien to subdue it with a monstrous splash.
"You mustn't do this!" Crin shrieked at the top of its lungs. "The egg—!" and its voice cut off as it was dunked under water.
"Hush up," O'Neill said, letting Crin up, sputtering for air. "There's nobody around to hear you. It's just you, and me, and my team. Teal'C, got any rope there?"
The Jaffa handed it over. "This was not your plan. You were to come alone and unaccompanied." He also gave O'Neill back his K-90 as well as a zat gun that O'Neill tucked into his waistband. "Would a zalatnikel not have been a more efficacious method for subduing the Paft?"
"Yeah, but not half as satisfying," O'Neill grunted, looping the rope around Crin's wrists. The Paft groaned as the rope pulled at its dislocated shoulder. "Had a little unexpected set back. I figure a hostage might be a good idea at this point."
"At least we've got a hovercraft," Carter pointed out. "We can take it as far as possible to Teal'C's cave, and then ditch it."
"Ditch it?" O'Neill showed mock outrage. "After all the trouble I went to getting it? I don't think so, Carter. You're going to use it to hustle down to the Gate and figure out how to get the barrier down."
Carter grinned. "Yes, sir. I always did like driving better than walking."
O'Neill beamed back. "In that case, Carter, you drive. Teal'C, you and me ride shotgun. All right, campers, let's go. Crin, I'll even let you sit next to your incubator."
Jackson grimaced. "Very funny, Jack." He rubbed his belly uncomfortably, climbing clumsily back into the hovercraft, and O'Neill tried to suppress a frown.
The cave that Teal'C led them to was well-chosen: a small and hidden entrance that Teal'C himself could barely squeeze through that opened up into a spacious cavern. O'Neill estimated that they could even handle a small campfire inside, as long as it didn't throw off too much smoke to choke them out. They didn't dare light one outside for fear of giving away their position, but inside it would give welcome heat as well as illumination.
The hovercraft they hid several miles away, under bushes and trees. Carter disabled the homing device as well as any other electronic equipment that might lead the Paft to its location. O'Neill was fairly certain that even if the Paft found the transport, they still wouldn't find SG-1's cave, but taking unnecessary chances was not in his lexicon. Not anymore.
O'Neill was cautiously pleased with how Jackson was faring. The drink that Crin had forced down him seemed to have a strong effect, and the archeologist made the hike with much of his usual good humor, only flagging out near the end. Crin was more difficult; complaining and whining and moaning over its injured shoulder until O'Neill was strongly tempted to gag the skinny being just to shut it up. Then he caught the furtive look that the Paft threw around, and realized that its behavior was deliberate. Crin was doing everything it could to slow them down, trying to draw attention to them should any other Paft be in the area. O'Neill immediately calmed down. Crin wanted them upset and arguing, so O'Neill wanted them working as the well-oiled team that they were.
Inside the cave was a different story. There O'Neill carefully hobbled the Paft, tying its hands for good measure. He handed one of the liberated zat guns to Jackson. "Keep an eye on Crin, here. I'm going out for some firewood. Carter, Teal'C, you're with me."
"I can fetch wood, Jack. You don't have to baby me."
"Daniel," O'Neill said in exasperation, "someone has to watch Crin. I'm telling you to do it. Got a problem with that?"
"Good. Shut up." O'Neill turned on his heel and walked out of the cave, leaving Jackson alone with Crin, with a portable lantern that they'd taken from the hovercraft to augment the stray sunbeams that wandered in. He caught up with Carter and Teal'C, each already with an armful of brush.
He took the wood from Carter. "Ready for step two, folks?"
Teal'C glanced up at the sky. "We should wait until sunset. We will be more difficult to detect in these woods, and this will make our journey to the Stargate safer."
"Which brings us to problem number two. Carter, how long will it take you to take down the barrier that the Paft erected?"
"Sir, I'm not certain I can. I couldn't see the barrier very well the first time, and the Paft have already demonstrated technology that's at least a decade or two beyond what we have. I'm good at figuring things out, but I can't make any promises on this. Let me get a good look at it first."
"Major Carter is correct. Furthermore, the Paft have undoubtedly placed heavy guards around the Gate, assuming that that is our ultimate goal. We must proceed cautiously."
"I agree." O'Neill jerked his thumb back at the cave. "Daniel seems to be doing okay; possibly that Paft egg inside him is slowly disintegrating, just as it did in Carter and me."
"He does look better," Carter agreed. "Sir, that would solve all our problems. Once the Paft no longer have an interest in us as incubators for their eggs, they'll let us go."
"We can only hope, Carter."
Inside the cave, Jackson kept the zat gun loosely trained on Crin. The skinny alien shifted uncomfortably in its bonds, arranging to sit up against the wall of the cave. The lantern cast long shadows here and there. If he half-closed his eyes, Jackson could pretend to see Neanderthal cave drawings in the colored rock formations.
He kept them open.
"You would be wise," Crin said conversationally, pain edging its voice in deference to its injured shoulder, "to persuade your friends to return you to our base."
"I think you and I have a different definition of the word 'wise'," Jackson returned.
"I'm quite serious, friend Jackson. The egg is close to hatching. The child will need immediate care. And so will you."
"I'm a living example of the kind of 'care' you offer," Jackson said. "As Jack would say, I feel like crap, thanks to what you've done to me. Thanks, but I'll stick to my own kind."
"Have you ever seen a Paft egg hatch?" Crin asked idly. "Quite an interesting process. I've watched it hundreds of times, and it never ceases to amaze me. First, it detaches itself from the organs of the host. The host usually feels quite euphoric at this point, once the drain of supplying the egg with nutrients is halted. I understand that for some of the host species that we've employed we've actually had to restrain them for their own good. Then the hatching begins." When Jackson didn't respond, Crin continued, "Our young have several incisors at birth, which they lose within a few months. Very sharp incisors. Teeth that they only need for a little while, to hatch with. Do you know how our eggs hatch, friend Jackson?"
"Actually, I do," Jackson replied dryly.
That stopped Crin. It stared at him. It was not the response that the Paft expected.
"In fact, I have a fairly good idea of how it happens. If you recall, Crin, I visited your library. Several times. And I read several texts on how several hosts incubated your eggs, as well as the quality of care that you gave them afterward. So, yes, I think I'm relatively knowledgeable on the subject," Jackson finished, speaking in Paft. The accent was questionable, but the meaning was clear. Crin wasn't going to frighten Daniel Jackson. He leaned his back against the rock, keeping the zat gun trained on the skinny alien.
Fooled the Paft. Wish I were as good at fooling myself.
"There." Teal'C pointed.
He had taken Carter in a roundabout fashion to get as close as possible to the Stargate. They were now hidden in a copse of trees, with bushes skirting the roots and providing a cover to peer through. Darkness completed their concealment.
The Stargate stood proudly in a large clearing, its curved lines black against the moon-lit sky. Carter could easily see two of the moons, one slightly larger than the other, but the third was barely visible through the light of the first two. The Stargate itself seemed to shimmer in the moonlight; a testiment to the active energy barrier encircling it. Even as they watched, a small flying thing careened into the barrier and bounced off. It fell to the ground, only to pick itself up and fly off squeaking in the opposite direction.
Carter pointed: the control panel for the barrier was located almost directly opposite their position. It would take time, but they could crawl around the forest perimeter to arrive at a point less than two meters away from it. Or, they could simply walk across the clearing. There was no one present. The forest night was filled only with the same noises that Carter had heard since her arrival here. Carter motioned at Teal'C: let's go.
The Jaffa shook his head vehemently, putting a firm hand on her shoulder to prevent her from rising. He pointed to another edge of the perimeter. Carter squinted, giving her eyes time to thoroughly adjust.
A tall skinny Paft squatted there, waiting for something to happen. Another sat in a bush several meters back.
Carter raised her eyebrows at Teal'C. Have they seen us?
Teal'C shook his head.
Teal'C held up one hand, and three fingers on the other: eight.
Too many. Carter sighed. Four, even five they might hope to overcome with surprise on their side. But eight would be too much for just the two of them. Devoutly she wished Colonel O'Neill had come along as well. Though he refused to allow himself to be thought of as smart—preferring smart ass, to be honest—the air force colonel was a brilliant tactician. He would've been able to figure out a plan.
Teal'C turned to go; a retreat. Carter stalled him, staring at the barrier controls. They looked simple, almost primitive in design. She looked a moment longer, trying to memorize where the various pieces were, trying to see what she would be able to do with it once able to approach unhindered. If the SG-1 team opted for the frontal attack, she might not have much time to decipher the controls to take down the barrier.
Finally she was ready. Face set grimly, she motioned silently to her companion, and they stole silently into the night and away from the ambush.
The Paft never knew that they had been there.
O'Neill wished that he had gone along with Carter instead of Teal'C. He really, really wished he had gone along. Waiting for something to happen, waiting for someone to do all the work, didn't set well with him. O'Neill was a man of action. Let Jackson play with words and languages, Carter could have her techie-toys; O'Neill craved action.
But Teal'C was the better man for the job. Or Jaffa. Whatever. The English language didn't cope all that well when it came to working with people of another species, even ones that came with baby parasites in their bellies. But Teal'C knew the lay of the land, could better guide Carter to the Stargate to try to disable the barrier. O'Neill wanted Jackson where he could keep his eye on the man, and the Paft sensors off him. As good as the archeologist looked right now, O'Neill didn't trust any situation that contained a Paft.
So he scouted the surrounding area, looking for both Paft patrols and wild fruit that they could use to extend their supplies. No telling how long it would take to get that damn barrier down from around the Gate. He left Jackson in charge of their bound prisoner with a zat gun for back up. O'Neill was cautiously hopeful that Jackson too was eliminating the Paft parasite. A few days of sleeping it off, and the Paft would have no reason to prevent them from returning through the Stargate. All they needed was time.
He listened a few moments longer: nothing. It was still too soon for Carter and Teal'C to be returning. There was a Paft patrol in the distance, but they were several miles away and no threat unless he crawled out of hiding and fired off a few rounds. Sighing in frustration, he ducked back inside the cave.
It could have been the flickering light from the campfire, but O'Neill doubted it. Jackson was going under again, worn out by incubating that damn egg. The man could barely keep his eyes open. O'Neill rescued the zat gun from him, Jackson sleepily trying to prevent its seizure, then giving it up readily when he realized who was taking it.
It wasn't much of a smile. "You could say that."
"You're probably aborting that damn egg," O'Neill offered. "It'll be over soon." Jackson nodded, more to acknowledge O'Neill's words than anything else, and closed his eyes.
Crin adjusted itself uncomfortably. "Your species places great store in herd instinct."
O'Neill blinked. That was Jackson's kind of talk. It sounded impressive, and O'Neill wasn't sure what the skinny alien meant.
Jackson translated, eyes still closed. "Yes, we stand by our friends, others of our species. We find that we work better as a group."
Yeah, Jackson definitely needed to get some shut eye. More than that, he needed to get to Doc Frasier for some serious Paft-ectomy surgery, maybe couldn't wait for the egg to disintegrate and go away. Lines were drawn on his face where lines had never been seen before. Once again O'Neill wondered what was keeping the other half of his team. O'Neill considered shutting up the Paft, and decided against it. The only thing that could distract Jackson from his troubles was a cultural problem, and Crin sounded like it was handing one over on a silver platter.
Crin turned to O'Neill. "You value the life of this one?"
"Ya think? I don't go dragging him around the mountainside for the fun of it."
"Then you should return him to the base. At once. He will die if you do not."
O'Neill eyed the skinny alien balefully. "You know something you're not telling me?"
"I am quite willing to share my knowledge with you, Colonel O'Neill. It is not in anyone's best interests that I conceal this: your friend Dr. Jackson is dying."
"You don't know that," Jackson interrupted. "Jack, don't listen to it. It's trying to get you to give me back to the Paft."
"Not gonna happen, Daniel." He turned back to Crin. "You got something to say? Spit it out."
"The egg is hatching," Crin said bluntly. "Look at him. Is it not obvious?"
"Not to me. Pesh said another five days," O'Neill reminded it. "It hasn't been even twenty-four hours."
"Pesh also said that it could not be certain, that with a unique species such as yours, there could be variations. This is clearly one of them."
"Your egg is disintegrating, just as it did in Jack and Sam," Jackson insisted. "Just takes a little longer in some of us. Face it: you can't use us as incubators."
"It is true, your species does not appear promising as hosts," Crin agreed. "A thirty percent success rate is not adequate for our needs, though if some of your racial traits are transferred through the incubation process, we may reconsider on a case by case basis. We will assess that possibility after we examine the hatchling, for which we must return at once to our base. If you comply with my directives, I will see that no harm comes to you, Colonel, for your actions against me. We will release all of you to return through the Gate as soon as the child is safe."
"You're a hostage," O'Neill reminded it. "You don't get to make demands."
"Oh, but I do." Crin nodded, as if to itself. "You see, you cannot win. If you keep me captive here, Dr. Jackson will die. Once he is dead, and the hatchling with him, there will be no reason to hold any of you on this planet. We will then remove the barrier to the Stargate, you will return to your home but minus your colleague. Although you can certainly take his body home with you, if that is your custom. Is that an acceptable alternative?"
"You know it's not," O'Neill said grimly. "I presume you have a better option? One that doesn't involve a lot of pain and suffering?"
"Of course." Crin smiled enticingly. "Return Dr. Jackson to us. You may remain on this planet, or not, as you see fit. We will give him back to you once the infant has completed hatching." It eyed the archeologist. "It will not take long." It turned back to O'Neill. "It would be best for both of us. We have no interest in retaining Dr. Jackson in our custody; frankly, you are a difficult species to deal with. And I presume you have little eagerness to acquire a Paft infant."
"You got that in one."
"We, on the other hand, are most anxious. Children are exceptionally precious to us." It smiled winningly. "I would like for us both to get what we want, Colonel O'Neill." It then allowed its expression to turn thoughtful. "Are you aware of what the Paft hatching process is, Colonel?"
O'Neill halted. That was something that hadn't crossed his mind. Eggs hatch, they crack their shell. But how does that happen inside a host? How does the kid get out of the host? And what does that do to the host?
"You and Major Carter did not go through the hatching process," Crin said. "The eggs that were implanted within you died very quickly, and were absorbed and excreted by your bodies in the same manner that you absorb and excrete harmful bacteria. You exhibited symptoms of an illness: headache, malaise, fever, etc. Then you recovered. Some of our subsequent testing showed that the elimination process would be even quicker should we attempt to implant another egg. Your bodies are quite efficient at repelling our efforts, Colonel."
"Bully for us. Get on with it, Crin."
"Dr. Jackson was fortunate enough not to have enough antibodies to repel the intruder. He has successfully carried the egg through to the hatching stage."
"Not yet," Jackson put in, his voice cracking with effort.
"Look at him, Colonel." Crin wasn't done. "He is obviously concealing great pain. This is the hatching process, O'Neill. Do you know what the hatching process consists of?"
"You're going to tell me," O'Neill said grimly. "Daniel?"
"They chew their way out," Crin told him, not allowing Jackson to speak. "It takes a while. Usually several hours, sometimes days. With our usual hosts, we can supply anesthesia so that the pain is inconsequential. Here, in this cave, without supplies…" It almost shrugged, remembered its injured shoulder. "You might want to reconsider. Before it's too late."
"Daniel?" O'Neill squatted beside the younger man. "Is Crin telling the truth? Is that thing inside you hatching?"
"It's not bad," Jackson lied. He closed his eyes. "No worse than an all-nighter of coffee and stress and no antacids." He opened his eyes once again, to look O'Neill in the face. "It doesn't matter if you give me to the Paft or not. They won't give me any pain-killers. They're afraid of what it would do to the infant." He sighed, and swallowed hard. "Jack, I'm going to die of this thing. Make it count. Let me get you guys off this rock. Buy your freedom."
O'Neill cursed under his breath. "Like hell, Daniel. We stick together. Either we all go, or nobody goes."
O'Neill trotted out to meet his returning team members. It was still the dark of night, forest creatures chirping and whirring. Once O'Neill thought he heard the crash of something large taking down something else large and had gone out briefly to investigate. But it was far away, and O'Neill had enough troubles of his own.
"Report," he barked. There wasn't time for niceties.
Carter all but snapped to attention. "We got to the Gate, sir, and yes, the barrier is still there. There were a lot of Paft guards, waiting for us to walk into their little trap. I was able to look the barrier controls over from a distance, sir, and it was really very interesting."
"Don't keep me in suspense, Carter."
"Sir, the barrier controls are just a dummy set up." Even Teal'C raised his eyebrows at that. Carter hadn't had time to share her findings with him, either. "My guess is that they set up an idiot box with blinking lights to draw us in to recapture us. Probably they handle the barrier controls themselves from back at the Paft base. It would be the safest thing to do. If we kill the barrier controls at the Paft base, we still have to travel at least an hour by hovercraft to the Stargate. That's an hour that the Paft know where we are, and where we're going, and how we're getting there. If we go straight to the Gate from the base, they're waiting for us. They can get us coming and going."
"So we cannot get through the Paft barrier," Teal'C observed with grim finality. "We must find another way."
"We've got more problems," O'Neill informed them. "Daniel's hatching a Who."
Teal'c raised his eyebrows, but Carter caught the reference immediately. "And I take it that's not good."
"Not if you're Daniel." He gestured at the still figure propped against the stone wall of the cave. "Crin tells me it makes appendicitis look like a tummy ache. We'd better think fast, kids, if we don't want to be out one slightly annoying archeologist."
"Trust me, Daniel," O'Neill muttered into Jackson's ear. "I'll get you through this." I hope.
Jackson nodded stiffly, biting his lip against the agony in his gut. He looked as bad as he ever had, O'Neill thought, and he had seen Jackson through some pretty tough times: pale and sweating, the lines on his face deep enough to run this hovercraft through.
"Just…make it stop."
"We are almost there, O'Neill." Teal'C didn't turn from his task of steering the hovercraft, but Carter had barely taken her eyes off of her teammates during the entire trip. The journey down the mountainside had been an eternity, with first one, then the other, giving a shoulder for Jackson to lean on. Teal'C offered to carry him, but Jackson's pride kept him going. It was a relief for everyone when they arrived at the hovercraft.
O'Neill stopped them approximately a quarter mile outside the Stargate clearing. "Okay, folks. Carter, Teal'C, this is where you get off. Stay out of sight, and don't get caught."
"Sir?" Carter eyed him suspiciously. "Are you going to let us in on your plan?"
"Carter, my plan is get us all off this rock. Preferably in one piece and not leaking blood. I want you and Teal'C to move into a position where I can call in the cavalry if I need you. Got it?"
"No, sir. Sir, you haven't told us what your plan is." Carter eyed him suspiciously. "Is it because you think we'll object to it?"
"Quite possibly, Carter. But in the meantime, I want the two of you to skedaddle. And that's an order, major."
"Yes, sir." But Carter wasn't happy. Neither was Teal'C, but they both obeyed orders. O'Neill breathed a sigh of relief. The pair were military, but every now and again following orders wasn't part of their mindset. It made them good teammates, but not always easy to live with.
Crin also looked upon the colonel with mistrust. "What do you intend to do? You haven't much time, friend O'Neill. Dr. Jackson is dying."
"Oh, we're back to being friends, are we?" O'Neill gestured to the driver's seat. "Move. You're driving. Head for the Stargate."
"I cannot drive. My shoulder was injured."
"It better get healthy fast. I'm not in a patient mood, friend Crin. Jackson dies, so do you." O'Neill lifted his K-90. Crin squeaked, and scooted into the driver's seat, taking over the steering mechanism, favoring its shoulder but doing a creditable job of maneuvering the vehicle.
O'Neill shifted Jackson to a slightly more comfortable position in the back seat of the hovercraft, cushioning the man's head against him. Jackson appeared to be resting, eyes closed, but O'Neill knew better. He only hoped that this plan would work in time.
And if it didn't? Well, at least the end would be quick. For them both. And I won't have to go breaking in a new geek archeologist. I've barely gotten used to this one.
Crin drove straight into the Stargate clearing, stopping just a meter or two from the barrier. It called out to the other Paft.
Not much of soldiers, O'Neill thought idly. The guards sauntered out, waving cheerfully at Crin and calling Paft greetings to it. One even attempted to pat Jackson on the head. O'Neill growled at the skinny alien warningly. Guns, or what passed for guns, pointed lazily at the group, but they were clearly waiting for someone with a modicum of intelligence to tell them how to handle this situation. O'Neill waited impatiently.
Pesh was the one to take charge, bustling up from well behind the lines. "You are turning the host in to us? A wise decision. We can take him back to our base for further observation."
"Not exactly." O'Neill held up a grenade in his fist, his other arm around Jackson's chest, holding the archeologist close. "Know what this is?"
Pesh didn't. Neither did the rest of the Paft. O'Neill wasted no time in explaining it to them.
"And I've got it in a dead man's switch." O'Neill grinned wildly. "You shoot me, I let go, and everyone, including your damn egg, goes up in a big enough explosion to be seen back at your base. So call your people, take down the barrier, and we'll go home."
"We cannot allow the egg to be removed from us," Pesh wailed. "Not at this time!"
"We'll send it back," O'Neill promised, "just as soon as we cut it out of Daniel here. Under anesthesia—ever hear of that? We'll send it back through the Stargate."
"No." Pesh shook its skinny head. "The baby would die. Our infants require essential care immediately after hatching, and travel through the Stargate would surely kill it. Go ahead and make your explosion. We must have my infant, or all is lost. I will not disengage the barrier."
O'Neill stared. "Are you crazy? I just offered you everything you want! Take down the damn barrier! We'll get the kid back to you, I promise! I'll bring it myself!"
"The child has almost arrived," Crin burst in. "Pesh, it is hatching! All is not yet lost!"
"Almost here?" Pesh's eyes glowed. "My child? O'Neill, you must let me to the host! Now!" It surged forward, four other Paft moving with it.
"Stay back!" O'Neill demanded. "I swear, I'll blow us all up!"
Ever have one of those days where nothing happened like it was supposed to? Any sane being would have backed off. The Paft didn't care.
"It comes!" Crin cried out. "Look, Pesh, the child comes." Crin tugged Jackson away from O'Neill, heedless of the live grenade that O'Neill still had clutched in his hand. Jackson stifled a moan but enough sound escaped to make O'Neill wince. Crin pulled Jackson's tee up to expose bare skin, and the rapid movements of the Paft infant underneath could clearly be seen trying to escape the fleshy confines of its host. Jackson sagged to the ground, Crin catching and easing him down, barely able to constrain its excitement.
"Leave him alone!" O'Neill yelled. "Don't you idiots realize I'm holding a live grenade here?" He slapped his comm unit with his free hand. "O'Neill to cavalry. Get your asses over here now." He turned back, trying again to regain control over the excited Paft crowd. "Take down that barrier, Pesh, or I swear I'll blow us all to kingdom come!"
It just didn't have the same effect when you're holding a grenade and being ignored, O'Neill reflected. Kind of took all the fun out of it.
Three Paft, Pesh among them, pushed O'Neill aside in their haste to get to the host. Jackson was losing it, gasping for breath and groaning in between. He writhed in pain, trying helplessly to keep the Paft from laying hands upon him but they easily pinned him to the ground, excitedly chittering to themselves and fondling the hatchling through human flesh and encouraging its efforts to escape the host. The other Paft crowded around, making it impossible to O'Neill to see.
"Well, hell," O'Neill said to himself, because no one else was listening. He looked at the grenade. One pineapple wasted. He tossed it at the useless dummy controls to the barrier, taking it out in one mighty bang!
The Paft didn't blink an eyelash.
O'Neill hauled body after body out of his way. If Daniel is still in there, O'Neill wanted to get at him. Not that he didn't trust the Paft but—no, he didn't trust the Paft. Two others joined him: Carter and Teal'C. They cleared an opening to their teammate.
The tone of the chittering changed. Pesh looked accusingly at the SG-1 team. "It's dying," it shrieked accusingly. "My child is dying! It cannot escape the accursed host! The dermal covering is too thick!"
"The baby can't chew its way out through Daniel's stomach," Carter translated.
O'Neill looked. Pesh seemed to be right. The frantic movements under Jackson's skin were slowing, less frantic and more feeble. O'Neill could almost see the colors of the Paft infant showing through translucent skin. Jackson himself had gone a ghastly white, his own strength gone.
"He's hemorrhaging!" Carter hissed. "Colonel, we have to get him back to SGC now!"
O'Neill gave one quick moment for a heartfelt curse, and acted. Drawing his field knife, he stepped forward and slashed at Jackson's belly, slicing him open as neatly as filleting a fish. Jackson screamed in sudden agony. Blood fountained.
But the Paft infant squirted up through the opening. Pesh snatched the child from its bloody nest, gathering it to its breast and crooning. Another Paft shoved some kind of bulb into the infant's face and squeezed: resuscitation had begun. Soft infant blankets appeared as if by magic for Pesh to swaddle around the baby. O'Neill grabbed one and pressed it to the knife thrust he'd put into his archeologist, trying to staunch the flow of blood.
Teal'C grabbed Crin by the shoulder—the injured one. Crin squealed, but Teal'C didn't care. "You will open this barrier now," he snarled, "or I will rip this arm from its socket."
Crin said something to another of its fellows. The shimmering around the Stargate flickered away, leaving only a memory.
"Carter, dial home!" O'Neill barked. "Teal'C, give me a hand here." Heedless of the blood still oozing from under the makeshift bandage, O'Neill and Teal'C each grabbed one end of the limp archeologist and hauled him through the Stargate just moments after the event horizon flashed out. The last thing that O'Neill saw before the blue shimmer clouded his vision was a tall and skinny Paft cooing over a small and skinny Paft baby.
"So we're all agreed, then?" General Hammond sat at one long side of the table, the better to talk to each and every member of SG-1. "PX-34728 will be one of our proscribed worlds. No one will be allowed to gate to the Paft way station."
"No, sir!" Dr. Jackson sat up straight, and then winced. It was only by the grace of God and Dr. Frasier—who was at Jackson's side—that he had been allowed to attend this debriefing. She scowled at him, clearly wondering if to have him escorted back to her infirmary. In a wheelchair. Which the man was already sitting in. Jackson smiled brightly at her, trying to look the picture of health. He didn't quite pull it off—the intravenous still dripping into his arm didn't help. On one side of the IV bag was printed 'Lactated Ringer's', and on the other a nurse with a misbegotten sense of humor had printed 'Surgeon's Holy Water'.
Jackson hurried on. "General Hammond, these people have significantly advanced technology. They can be allies. They're willing to trade."
"Dr. Jackson, may I remind you that we do not particularly wish to give them what they want? That bandage across your belly ought to be evidence of that."
"I believe that they don't want us as hosts, General. Not any more. Look at what happened: two-thirds of the hosts turned out to be unsuitable, and they almost lost their third egg because it couldn't get itself out of me." Jackson controlled a shudder. He was a scientist first and foremost, and the fact that he had almost died on the Paft way station world shouldn't affect that. "But they are enemies of the Goa'uld, and they are willing to trade."
"And just what would we have that they would be willing to trade for, Dr. Jackson?"
"And another thing, Daniel," Carter put in, "is that while they have the advanced technology, they don't know how to build it. Everything they have is old. Nira was helpful in translating the manual, but that's all. It didn't understand what it was saying. Daniel, what they have is all but worthless. It will take us at least five years to understand how the shield disabler works, and probably another ten to build a prototype. I estimate longer for the Goa'uld detector."
"What do you mean, they don't know how to build it?" Jackson protested. "Sam, they gave it to you. They wrote the manual."
Carter shook her head. "You came up with the answer yourself, Daniel. You told us that they sought out intelligent hosts, to improve their own intelligence. You said that if they used hosts of lower intelligence, their children were born with lower IQ's. Daniel, those weapons were built by their ancestors. Not a one of the Paft we met knew how any of those devices worked. We'd be starting almost from scratch to try to duplicate their technology. Pesh, Crin, and Nira were the only ones there with any reasonable amount of intelligence. That was why Nira had such trouble trying to teach me how the Goa'uld shield disruptor worked. It really didn't understand the theory behind the weapon in the first place."
Hammond harrumphed. "Decades before their technology is useful to us. The chance of the people on Earth being used as hosts to a race of parasites. No, Dr. Jackson, I am afraid my decision stands. PX-34728 will remain a proscribed world. Dismissed."
"You'll see," Pesh crooned to its child nestled in its arms. "You'll find the world where your host came from, my little one. That lovely intelligence that I have won for you, and there's more where that came from. You shall find a way to make use of the humans. You shall be the savior of the Paft."
And, cuddled in the protective arms of Pesh, a week old infant Paft began to coo as it differentiated its first calculus equations. And blinked near-sightedly.