by Valerie Kessler
We have accomplished the impossible. We have escaped from Netu.
Even more astonishing, we have all lived to tell the tale.
My mind grasps these facts, but for now facts are all they are. The others seem much the same: too tired for the emotional reaction I know we should be having.
Selmak, Dr. Jackson, and Teal'c have already begun to get the rest we all so desperately need. Even Lantash, normally so opinionated, has had little to say, quietly lending his strength as I tend the worst of our group's injuries.
O'Neill takes in a sudden, sharp breath, hissing, "Ow! Jeez, Marty, are you sure you don't need a refresher course on that thing?"
I am reasonably certain the comment is a joke, or at least not to be taken too literally; but nonetheless I pause to reply, "I assure you, Colonel, I have more than sufficient experience in the use of the healing device. And I am sorry, but I did warn you that there could be some discomfort."
"Yeah, I know you did." O'Neill sighs. "Y'know, maybe we should leave it for ol' Doc Fraiser after all."
"I do not think that would be wise."
"Probably not." Another exaggerated sigh. "Okay, fine, let's get it over with."
Closing my eyes, I do just that, this time ignoring the patient muttering under his breath throughout. A single staff-weapon wound, simple work, compounded somewhat by the passage of... how many hours? I cannot be sure. Long enough for an infection to develop beneath the cauterized surface, not long enough for it to really take hold. Still, simple work.
Then it is done, the flow of energy through the device halting almost of its own accord, my physical awareness returning to my own weary body. It is fortunate there were no more serious injuries, Lantash notes internally. We have little left to give, and I do not think Aldwin's skill would be equal to such a task.
Wordlessly agreeing with him, I say aloud to O'Neill, "I will be happier with Dr. Fraiser's professional opinion, and no doubt she will be as well; but I believe it will give you no further trouble."
"Thanks." The word is little more than a grunt, but it counts. Lowering his voice, he adds, "Hey, check on Carter before you rack out, willya? I think she did something to her neck; looks like it started going stiff on her as soon as we got a chance to slow down and think."
Nodding to him, I cross to the corner where Samantha sits beside the makeshift bunk on which her father sleeps. O'Neill is right: She moves with noticeable caution as she turns to smile her greeting. "Guess I'm not the only one who can't sleep, huh?"
Holding up the healing device, I tell her, "You are the only one with an injury still requiring attention."
"What do you mean? I'm fine. Just a little sore."
"A little?" I challenge lightly, pointing to her right. "Can you turn your head to look at that door?"
"Sure, I -- ow!" She has turned no more than thirty degrees from straight ahead. "Okay, point taken. I think I pulled a muscle or something when Apophis' goons yanked my head back to look for the memory device. But it can wait."
"There is no reason it should."
"Come on, Martouf, you're just as exhausted as the rest of us. And I know what that thing takes out of you, remember? I wanted to sleep for a week after I healed Cronos."
I shake my head. "Cronos' injuries were life-threatening, and you were using the device for the first time. This will not be so difficult." Before she can argue the point, I continue, "Samantha, I know I have caused you a great deal of pain on this mission, and I cannot change that. Please, allow me to heal what I can."
She still looks ready to protest, then relents. "Okay. It is bothering me. What do I do?"
"Nothing," I reply, kneeling behind her.
"I guess I can handle... ohhh." Her sigh of relief at the initial warmth of the device's activation tells me just how much pain she is in.
And she calls this 'a little sore,' Lantash comments. Jolinar could hardly have found a more kindred spirit if she had tried.
I find the hot spot -- a dozen tiny tears in a muscle, radiating pain up and down her spine and across her shoulder -- and focus on it. Samantha tenses slightly in response, then gradually the muscle heals and loosens, with others around it following.
I stop the device and open my eyes to find she has dropped her chin to her chest. For a moment I assume she is merely stretching, taking advantage of her newly regained mobility; but then I realize she has fallen asleep, or very nearly so. Little wonder, really -- the surprise would be if there were anything other than the pain keeping her awake at this point. Pocketing the healing device, I move around to her left side, keeping a steadying hand on her shoulder.
"Mm?" She half-opens her eyes as I prepare to lift her onto the bunk adjacent to Jacob's, then closes them again, resting her head on my shoulder. "Better," she mumbles. "Thanks."
"You are welcome," I reply softly, a smile catching at the corners of my mouth. Lantash was right: Samantha is every bit as fiercely independent as our beloved was, and equally selective of whom she trusts to see how deeply her strength has been taxed by our ordeal. That she will let go and allow me to take care of her in this small way is an honor to be cherished.
Picking her up and standing brings O'Neill into my field of vision. The Tauri commander watches us intently, his expression unreadable. I meet his eyes for a moment, looking for disapproval or suspicion, and am relieved to see none. Whatever else the man might be thinking, he seems satisfied -- this time -- that I am not taking some emotional advantage of Samantha's exhaustion.
I settle her on the bunk, and a frown creases her brow as I carefully lower her head onto the bedroll. On impulse, I brush gentle fingertips over the lines to smooth them away, and trace her temple and the curve of her cheek.
She pushes herself up on her elbows, abruptly wide awake. Her glance darts around the teltac's hold before coming to rest on me. "Whoa. Weird."
"Samantha? Are you okay?"
"Yeah, I'm..." She pauses for a second, collecting her thoughts. "I guess I crashed on you. Sorry."
"There is no need to apologize," I assure her. "As you said, we are all exhausted. I tried to move you here without waking you."
Sitting up the rest of the way, she shakes her head. "No, it wasn't you. There was... I don't know." She moves back to lean against the bulkhead, pulling her knees up and draping her arms around them. "I don't think I was asleep enough to be dreaming, but it doesn't make sense as a memory."
Lantash wishes to answer this, and I sit on the edge of her bunk, letting him come forward. "The Blood of Sokar is a very persistent compound; I am having some difficulty purging it from our system. Your bodies may take several days to metabolize it completely. Until then, it may be that we will all experience momentary resurgences of its effects."
"Sweet." O'Neill stands at the foot of the bunk, arms crossed. "Again with the surprises."
"Very little is known about this drug, Colonel," Lantash reminds him, rising to the sarcastic bait. "Those with first-hand experience of it are generally not available to share the information."
"And I suppose you've been too busy trying to clear it out of Marty's system to mention this little tidbit to the rest of us once you figured it out?"
"Until now, I did not expect the remaining trace to have a noticeable effect."
"It still might not on anyone else, sir," Samantha points out, interrupting what is rapidly becoming a pointless argument for which none of us can spare the energy. "I've been stirring up my subconscious a lot more than the rest of you. It can't help but take some time to settle."
O'Neill scowls at this. "Gee, thanks, Carter. That makes me feel so much better."
I feel Lantash's sharp retort on the tip of our tongue, and caution him against it. This will accomplish nothing. He is only concerned for Samantha.
And masking it with anger at us. I know. But I do not appreciate being the convenient target when he knows perfectly well we would never willingly harm her.
Then tell him so. Later. When we are all rested and thinking more clearly, and when she is not present to be caught in the middle.
He concedes the point and returns control to me; time to steer this conversation elsewhere. "Why does it make no sense as a memory, Samantha?" I ask. "What did you see?"
"Jolinar. I think," she answers uncertainly. "I remember her looking in the mirror in Bynarr's quarters, and just now, the face was the same. But I was seeing her from outside."
I think I have the answer to this riddle, but withhold it until I am certain. If I am wrong, it will only confuse her more. "What else was happening?"
She frowns, her eyes taking on a faraway focus as she grasps for the elusive thread of a memory she never lived. "It was in an... ab't'kel?"
"I believe you would call it a 'safe house'."
"A safe house. You and Jolinar were on a mission in Cronos' court, but you were found out, and you ran. Jolinar was wounded. You carried her in and laid her on a cot -- that must be what triggered the memory, when you moved me up here. There was a woman helping you, a runaway slave. But..." She shakes her head. "That's her. How could she be -- oh. Of course." Comprehension dawns, and she looks to me for confirmation. "Rosha. Rosha was hiding you both from Cronos' Jaffa."
"Okay, time out," O'Neill puts in. "Who's Rosha?"
"Rosha was Jolinar's host, when last I saw them," I explain. I do not miss his slight grimace at this information; he may not much like me, or quite trust me, but there are times when I am oddly certain he sympathizes with my loss. "Samantha is describing their first meeting, through the eyes of Jolinar's previous host--"
I knew her for only a few weeks, but I feel the pang at her name as surely as Lantash does. "Yes."
Samantha laces her fingers together on her knees, resting her chin on them. Curiosity wars with fatigue, the inevitable outcome apparent in her heavy eyes and indistinct voice. "That's it, that's all I remember. I thought I had hold of it, but it's gone."
"I am surprised you could recall that much. Nihmat was running a high fever when we reached the safe house; I do not believe she was ever fully conscious there. And all of Jolinar's attention was devoted to attempting to heal her."
"Attempting?" she repeats.
I can only imagine her frustration at the scraps of memory that surface unpredictably, pieces of a puzzle that she may never be able to solve entirely. And if I have learned anything about Samantha Carter, it is that she will never abandon a puzzle. I have always given her what pieces I can, and will continue to do so; but now is not the time.
Before I can frame the best way to say this, O'Neill does it for me. "Hey, Carter, why don't you give Marty a break? The guy's gonna fall over any second, and we still got a long trip ahead of us. Plenty of time. Sleep now, talk later."
It is the perfect approach. Samantha is the one he truly fears might collapse, and I am sure she sees that as clearly as I do; but his argument is no more than the truth. "I will tell you all I know," I promise her. "Sleep well, Samantha."
"You too. Good night, Colonel."
"About time," he grumbles, a half-smile belying his gruffness. "'Night, Carter."
Half asleep before I reach my bunk, the last thing I expect is to dream. But I do, vividly.
Nihmat lets out a thin moan, or perhaps it is Jolinar -- I can no longer guess which of them is in control, and both are too deep in delirium to tell me. They are dying. Always conscious that I am still adjusting to sharing my body, Lantash tries to shield me from his anguish, but it is too overwhelming.
I do not realize I have cried aloud until Rosha grasps my shoulder and I feel the sound cut off in my throat as I look up at her. Eyes full of worry, she puts a finger to her lips, reminding me that we are hidden above a merchant's shop and must be silent until nightfall. She has already arranged an escort to help me transport Nihmat and Jolinar to our ship, concealed in the wilderness beyond the city walls. When we arrived here in the pre-dawn twilight, I feared they might not survive the journey. Now I wonder if they can hold on long enough to begin it.
"Muat!" Nihmat calls for the mother she has not seen since she was a small child, chosen by Ra to become one of his personal attendants. "Ne'neh! Muat!"
My heart aches for her, but the greater concern now must be to keep her quiet. Covering her mouth, I lean close to whisper what comfort I can, and --
There is a moment of disorientation as I wonder how I came to be sitting in the darkened cargo hold of a teltac, but it passes quickly. It is another moment before I am aware that the whimpering has not been left behind in my dream, and that it comes not from Nihmat but from Samantha. I am nearly on my feet when I look toward the corner to see that Jacob is already up, kneeling beside his daughter's bunk, stroking her hair and soothing her in words too quiet for me to make out.
She seems caught between restless dream and waking, turning toward him with the heartbreaking cry of a frightened child. "Daddy?"
O'Neill jolts awake at this, looking around him in alarm. "Charlie?" At first I wonder why he calls for the boy created by the Rhi Tou, whom Jacob brought to us some months ago; but then I recall that it was O'Neill who gave the boy that name. It is his own son he seeks, in the brief moment before he too recognizes where he is. "Carter."
He is halfway across the hold when Jacob holds up a hand, shaking his head. O'Neill nods and returns to his bunk, clearly unhappy to be doing nothing, but deferring to her father in this without protest.
"Too hot. Hurts." Samantha squirms fitfully. "Where's Daddy?"
"I'm right here, sweetheart. It's okay."
She is quiet for a few seconds, then sits bolt upright, her eyes open but panicky and confused. "No!" She speaks now with the voice of an adult, but remains partly trapped in some childhood episode. "This is wrong. You're not here, you're on TDY. You're not real. They sent you away, and they won't tell us where you are." Pressing her back against the bulkhead, she repeats, "Not real. You're not real."
Taking hold of her hands as she retreats, Jacob climbs up to sit beside her. "It's me, Sam. It's okay."
"Sam, look at me." He takes both her wrists in one hand, cupping her chin with the other and turning her face toward him. "I'm here. I'm safe, Sam. You saved me."
Whatever other tricks her mind may be playing on her, this seems to convince her that Jacob, at least, is who he appears to be. She ceases struggling, allowing him to draw her into a protective embrace and continue to murmur reassurances.
O'Neill shifts uncomfortably, sending a pointed look in my direction before lying down again with his back to them. He is right -- we are intruding on the private bond between parent and child -- and reluctantly I do the same.
We are fortunate Jacob is here, Lantash tells me. One of us might have calmed her, but not so easily. And not, I fear, without wounding her pride.
True enough, I agree, though I am quite certain he taught her that pride.
And he knows he succeeded, knows that both his children are strong and self-reliant. It is evident whenever Jacob speaks of Samantha or her brother that he loves them deeply, even if he did tell me once that he was "never any good at the mushy stuff." I have often suspected he was giving himself too little credit, and now I am sure of it. The child-Samantha of this latest memory/dream/hallucination would never have called for a father she did not trust to hold her and make things right.
I wait several minutes after Jacob's soft voice falls silent, and steal a look in their direction. Cradled against his chest -- much the way she held him while he was unconscious in the Pit -- Samantha has relaxed back into real sleep, her breathing slow and even. Jacob kisses the top of her head, then leans wearily against the bulkhead behind him. He spots me watching, and gestures for me to go over to them.
"Shall I help you settle her so you can go back to your own bunk?" I keep my voice just above a whisper.
Jacob smiles and shakes his head. "Let her be. I'm fine right here." With a rueful sigh, he adds, "Just when I think nothing can surprise me anymore, I wake up to hear my kid talking in her sleep in a language she's not supposed to know."
"I am sorry." I can think of nothing else to say.
Waving this off -- apparently no answer was required -- he goes on, "I heard Lantash's name. And 'Sawa'iy, ne n'khof rahet.' Any idea what that was all about?"
Leave me. We have no choice.
"I believe so. A memory came to the surface earlier, of the mission where we lost Nihmat."
He grimaces. "Thought it might be something along those lines. That one really hit Jolinar hard, didn't it?" A rhetorical question; he does not wait for my reply before continuing, "And that damn drug Apophis dumped down your throats can't be helping."
"No. Lantash says it is very difficult to break down."
"Can't say I'm surprised. Which means we should keep an eye on Daniel and Jack; they could have flashbacks too."
Nodding, I tell him, "We came to the same conclusion. Colonel O'Neill is aware of the possibility, but Dr. Jackson was already asleep."
Jacob glances over at O'Neill, who appears to have gone back to sleep as well. "He's got the right idea. I guess we just get some rest and deal with it as it happens, if it does. And Martouf?" he adds as I turn to go back to my bunk. "Thanks for looking out for my little girl."
"Of course. It is the least I can do."
To the Tauri that might sound like merely a figure of speech, long ago drained of meaning, but in this case it is the simple truth. For all the good that has come of Samantha's brief blending -- the alliance between Earth and the Tok'ra, Jacob's renewed health and the addition of his wisdom and experience to our resources -- I must never forget that it began with a crime against her. A crime that most humans, and virtually all of the Tok'ra, regard as unforgivable.
A crime committed by my mate.
Despite the months that had passed with no word, I had not accepted the possibility that Jolinar was dead until Samantha arrived with the news. Even so, it was a greater shock to learn that Jolinar had taken her as host without her consent, just as any of the enemies we so despise might have taken her. There were many who doubted that she came to us truly seeking friendship rather than vengeance for the violation of her body and mind.
For her part, Samantha has never quite grasped how wildly improbable it seemed to us that she would do so, or why her insistence that Jolinar had no choice may be enough to allow her to understand and forgive, but can never satisfy many among the Tok'ra. She is a disquieting reminder that, no matter how many times we declare that we are not Goa'uld, it was Goa'uld survival instincts that drove one of our truest and bravest to betray all that she stood for.
Samantha believes that the man she tried to resuscitate did not even know a symbiote was hiding within him, that it was only because she fought the blending with all her strength that Jolinar was forced to seize control. She, too, has no choice. When the one who wronged her has become a part of her, the only way to preserve her sanity has been to justify that wrong, to make peace with the remnant of Jolinar's mind that remains within her own.
If it is in my power help her reconcile the pieces of that legacy, I can do no less. I only wish I could do more.
And what would you do if we could? Lantash asks. Turn back time, prevent Jolinar from blending with her? Too much would be lost. Samantha knows that better than anyone.
He is right, of course. But that does not make it any easier for her.
I doubt she has ever done anything the easy way, he returns. Without a living symbiote to guide her, it will take time for her to understand and accept what she has gained. But she is learning.
It is easy to say that, but harder to watch her struggle with it.
Lantash needs rest as badly as any of us, and his patience is wearing thin. At the moment, she is not struggling with anything. She is sleeping. Just as we should be. Samantha is more than equal to the challenge fate has set her, and you know that when you are thinking clearly. Let it go.
That, too, is easier said than done; but again, he is right. I have been tempted on more than one occasion to ask Samantha if, given a choice, she would undo what has happened to her. I have never quite brought myself to do so, but I think her answer would be no. I am even more certain that she would disapprove of my lying awake worrying about her, and I am aware that it does her no good, but the mind does not always do as it is told.
Fortunately, the body and brain are less of a mystery, at least to the symbiote within me. The Tauri have learned more about the physical and chemical processes of life than almost any other human culture I have ever encountered, yet they have barely scratched the surface. Lantash, though, can make minute neurochemical adjustments with intuitive ease. No sooner has he secured my permission to do so, it seems, than the thoughts gnawing at me drift out of reach, and sleep follows.
Promise me you will save the child.
I don't understand what's happening, but I do know this is Sha're, alive and whole and in my arms, and I'll promise her anything if only I can keep her there.
Relief and sorrow wash over her face, her natural beauty and vitality shining through Amaunet's overdone makeup. The kiss is a small eternity, but over too soon, and then she is gone. Again.
I wake up clammy with sweat, chilly in the cool air of the cargo hold. After Netu's oppressive heat, we all agreed to set the thermostat a little lower than I, at least, normally would. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but now I have to put my jacket back on before I start shivering.
My lungs still ache, and my sinuses feel like someone filled them with concrete while I was sleeping. Caustic concrete. I pull a couple of Sudafed out of the pocket in the lining of my jacket. Usually I'd worry about it keeping me awake, but right now I don't think anything short of intravenous caffeine will do that for long.
Dry-swallowing the pills is habitual, automatic. At the moment, with my throat scraped raw by Netu's atmosphere, it's also a big mistake. I shouldn't have drained my canteen before I went to sleep; good thing there's plenty more water in one of the cargo crates, by where Sam's dad is sleeping.
At least, where he was the last time I looked. Now he's sitting up on her bunk, leaning against the wall, his arms around Sam, who's curled up half in his lap like a little kid. Obviously I missed something. I'm not really surprised -- the kind of psychological upheaval she's been through in the last few days almost has to have aftershocks -- but I hope it wasn't too bad.
They're both sound asleep, but it doesn't look very comfortable for Jacob. Not that he's likely to mind, I reflect, retrieving a full canteen and taking several long, welcome swallows from it. He might get a stiff neck, but nobody else is going to come and take away his firstborn. After waking up three times in the Pit to one of us telling him she was gone, he probably doesn't care about much else.
I tip the canteen up for a few more gulps, and when I lower it, everything has changed.
"Oh, look," Jack growls as the door clangs open. "The goon squad."
Oh, God, no, we're out of here! I know we got out of here. We're safe and sound, limping toward Vorash as fast as the battered hyperdrive will carry us. I know this for a fact, but my senses, my emotions, tell me differently. Then I catch sight of Sam slung bonelessly over one guy's shoulder, and emotion wins.
My stomach lurches as he dumps her unceremoniously on the floor. She doesn't even whimper. Jack is at her side in a flash, dragging his wounded leg faster than I would have thought possible, checking her pulse, her limbs, her ribs, her skull. "What the hell did you do to her?" he demands, too angry even to come up with a smartass remark.
"You will see for yourself," Kintac returns smugly. "Bring him."
Jack just glares as they haul him to his feet, biting back a grunt of pain. I see my own anxiety reflected in Martouf's face, but we manage to wait until they are out of the room -- and out of range to do anything else to Sam out of spite -- before scrambling over to her. Martouf snatches up someone's jacket, folding it into a pillow and sliding it under her head, as I repeat Jack's hasty check-over. Her cheeks are flushed, her pulse and breathing are slow but strong, and I'm as sure as I can be that nothing is broken. There's not a mark on her, but she is completely and utterly out cold.
A woman's piercing scream rings through the Pit from somewhere above, and Jacob starts awake again. "Sam?"
"She is back," Martouf assures him, pulling the nearly empty medicine bottle from his pocket and taking it to him. "They have taken Colonel O'Neill in her place."
Sighing, I answer, "She seems to be, but I can't wake her up. I think they drugged her."
Jacob nods at this, less than happy but apparently unsurprised. "Blood of Sokar. Hallucinogen, really nasty stuff. They use it to augment the torture."
"I have heard of it," Martouf says, carefully tipping up the bottle for him. "Was this done to you also?"
"No. Not yet, anyway. But I've seen what it does to people." Looking over at me, he adds, "Let her sleep for now, Daniel. She's better off."
Martouf shakes his head. "I do not understand. Why would Apophis use the narcotic alone? There is no sign that she was tortured."
Uh-oh. "Not physically," I correct him.
He looks puzzled a second longer, then he realizes what I'm talking about. "The memory device. It was behind her left ear."
I pull back her hair on both sides, just to be sure. "It's gone."
Just for a second, a flash of anger and guilt breaks through Martouf's unflappable composure. "They took the control wand from me the last time we were searched. If Apophis fully activated the device, he could have used any of her memories against her."
"Or any of Jolinar's," I finish for him.
"Great. And now it's Jack's turn."
"I am afraid so."
"Daniel! That's all over!" Jacob's voice is quiet but urgent. A second ago he was propped up against the bars, barely able to move; but now he's crouched in front of me, gripping my shoulder. "Sam's okay, and so is Jack. We're not there anymore. You understand? We're safe."
I blink stupidly at him for a few seconds, then remember. "We're on the cargo ship." The rough stone walls and lurid light of the Pit stay stubbornly in view behind him for a moment, then warp crazily into where I know I really am. My head is splitting, and I don't think it's just the sinus pressure. "Ow. Um, what was that?"
Jacob offers the canteen that I seem to have dropped; there's a small puddle on the floor around my knees. "Flashback," he explains, "courtesy of the Blood of Sokar. Looks like it'll be a while before any of you really finish metabolizing it."
"Hence, random hallucinations. That's... a little disturbing." Well, at least now I have a good idea what I missed. "I'm guessing it hit Sam first?"
"Well, it wasn't good." Sighing, he elaborates, "She still didn't know where she was when she went back to sleep. Talking you back to reality was a lot easier."
I finish off the remaining water in the canteen before replying, "That's weird. I mean, I know she's smaller, but usually drugs have less effect on her than on Jack or me, because of the naquadah in her blood."
"I know. But so did Apophis; I figure he upped the dose to compensate."
"Or, since they used it on Goa'uld as well as humans, it might be designed to interact with naquadah, to make it harder for the symbiote to break down. Martouf said Lantash is having a lot of trouble with it."
That's not a good sign. "And Sam doesn't have a symbiote at all."
Jacob nods grimly. "Right. Either way, she got a double whammy."
"Again, charming." I pinch the bridge of my nose; my head really is killing me. "Anything I can do?"
He shrugs. "Go back to bed. I'm no doctor, but I know rest is the body's best defense against just about anything. With any luck, you can all sleep it off, or at least the worst of it."
"Oh, I hope so."
I don't know why I asked Sam if they were crazy. I already knew they were.
Damn good thing, too, considering there wouldn't be an Earth to speak of anymore if they weren't. Or about a dozen other planets, for that matter.
But four people coming to Netu for us?
Okay, that wasn't exactly how it went. Martouf didn't want us there, sure, but his priority was relaying our intel to the Council. He was all set to take a one-way trip down by himself to do it, too. And what wouldn't I give to have seen SG-1's reaction to that?
Sam was there for me, of course. And Daniel and Jack were there for her. A team that will go to hell and back for each other -- leave it to SG-1 to take it to literal extremes. Jack's going to have to find a new hobby, because his collection of proven cliches is complete. No way they're ever going to top this one.
As Daniel has just demonstrated, though, they're not quite back. Sokar's private little hell is a work of genius, twisted though it is; and not all the chains are forged of metal. We're luckier than anybody should be, the five of us. Once the others shake off the chemical bonds of the Blood of Sokar, we're really and truly free. Even Jolinar didn't manage that; there was one shackle she could never break.
I wish she had told him. Not just because Sam had to, though I admit that's a big part of it. Hard enough to separate herself from the echo she feels of Jolinar's disgust and shame, without also feeling responsible for breaking Martouf's heart. I know my kid, and she would have taken that secret to her grave if there had been any other way.
But there wasn't, and what's killing Martouf isn't what Jolinar had to do to escape. He can get over that. What he might never be able to shake is the uncertainty about why she didn't tell him. He knows in his head she probably just couldn't stand to face it herself, that she buried the memory so deep it was a miracle Sam found it at all. But he'll always have those nagging doubts... Didn't she trust him to keep on loving her if he knew? Didn't she think he was strong enough?
Truth is, even though everybody always thought of her as the tough one in kind of an odd couple, it was his brand of strength she needed. Selmak saw it, but I don't think too many other people caught on: Jolinar's way of dealing was not to deal. Everybody admired her ability to do whatever she had to do without hesitation, and rightfully so; but when it was done, she locked it in a box and never looked at it again. She was a soldier to her soul. And if not for Martouf, there wouldn't have been much of that soul left.
Because he's not a soldier. Martouf's a good kid -- and yes, Selmak, I know he's actually got a couple years on me, that's not the point -- but he doesn't belong here.
By the time we pulled out of Vietnam, I could pick them out at a glance. They weren't there because they chose to be, but because their numbers came up and Uncle Sam told them to go. They went through training expressly designed to take a man apart and put him back together a different way; and while they came out the other end as much a part of the whole as the guys next to them, they still weren't exactly what the design intended. They did the job, and they did it well. But they didn't belong there.
And God only knows where the rest of us would have been without them.
It only took my first few days with the Tok'ra to realize I can still pick them out. It's a hell of a way to run a war, but some of the hosts among us really are cut out for it. Bitterness drives most of the others; it's hard to care that you might never go home when you don't have a home to go to anymore.
Then there's Martouf, and a precious few like him, the heart and soul of any army. Certainly of any resistance movement. You don't have people like that, you might as well hang it up then and there, because they're the ones who remind you day after day what you're fighting for. They give people like Jolinar a reason to make it back from the mission alive.
They make it possible for people like me to go home and raise kids like Sam.
She's every inch what the Air Force has made her, and proud of it. But she's also still the little girl who sat glued to the TV for every launch from Kennedy, when the rest of the world had gotten bored and turned its attention elsewhere before she was even old enough to understand what was going on. She's still the gawky tomboy who found a grown woman's grace overnight and kept us all from getting sucked into the black void where her mother used to be. She's still the whiz-bang cadet who blew every curve to vapor and barely even noticed, because she was too busy tackling the next burning mystery of the universe.
And she still thinks her old man is worth saving, scars and all. Don't ask me how I managed that one.
I hope she's sleeping as peacefully as she seems to be. She's earned it, and then some. They all have. But I don't think anybody will blame me for worrying about her the most. With the possible exception of Sam herself, that is. I'm not sure whether she'd take it better or worse coming from me than from Jack or Daniel or Martouf, but at least I have more of an excuse.
Of course, the point is academic for now, since she's down for the count. I can fuss over her if I damn well please. Seems like every time we get together she's taking care of me more than the other way around anyway. I know that was going to be the situation eventually, before cancer and then Selmak changed the rules, but that doesn't mean I want to keep making a habit of it.
Ready for a desk job, then? Selmak teases.
You're not going to believe this, but right now I'm almost tempted.
You're right. I don't believe it.
Hey, you're the one who convinced Garshaw to send us on this one, I remind him. You were going just as stir crazy as I was.
True, he concedes. But I think the tunnels will seem far less confining when we return.
Then Sam shifts, curling herself up tighter, and that subject is tabled without another thought. I'm ready to talk her through another flashback, but it looks like maybe she's just cold. The temperature in here might have been a welcome change from Netu while we were all up and around, but it's probably not the greatest idea for sleeping. I can't help being a little annoyed with Jack -- he's taken his team through pretty much every climate there is, and he ought to know better. Except that he does know better, and I can't fault him for thinking they could just wake up and get blankets or adjust the environmental controls if it was called for. He didn't count on leftover hallucinations and disturbed sleep patterns, and who can blame him?
Okay, I just did, but that's a knee-jerk reaction I won't even pretend I'm ever going to get over. No CO is ever really going to be good enough for my kid. Jack gets that. But he does a damn good job of looking out for his people, including Sam. And, almost as important, not especially her. He's not out to earn brownie points from me. Never has been. Which is exactly why I know I can trust him to lead her all over the galaxy and home again.
But he still ought to know better.
I fetch a blanket from a supply crate and tuck it around Sam. My first impulse is to pick up where I left off, hold her until I'm sure her system and her mind are clear. But I'm amazed I didn't disturb her when I got up to deal with Daniel, and I don't want to push my luck. Besides, if she's cold, she's probably done being four years old with strep. Maybe this was my chance to make up for being a couple thousand miles away when that happened for real, to convince her when nobody else could that she wasn't going to be miserable forever. A little taste of what it was like when I had the unquestioned power to make everything okay, when I was the one who was all hers while Mommy rode herd on Mark and his terrible twos. But it's past. Good thing, too, because no way was it worth her having to relive that.
And you just don't shield a decorated officer with a Ph.D. from the monsters the way you do with a sick four-year-old. So I stretch out on my own bunk -- still close by if she happens to need me -- and hope to finish out this crazy night in peace.
I was too hot and my throat hurt, but I'm better now.
Because Daddy came home... no, that's wrong.
That is the thought of a child. Is Nihmat dreaming of Abydos again? I thought her safe from the dreams. There is nothing for it now but to hope they do not turn to nightmares; I am too weak to do anything more.
Cronos' shreedak is an insidious organism, poisoning the body against itself, undermining my efforts to heal the damage. I cannot even properly close the knife wound in our side, where the infection entered. At least I can think now. That last attack set every nerve on fire, until it was all I could do to keep our heart beating and our lungs drawing air in anything like a normal rhythm. I was close to giving up, too close, when I finally beat it back.
Poor Martouf. I clutched his hand so tightly I must have nearly broken it, but he never faltered, his calm voice reaching through Nihmat's delirium and helping me coax her to sleep at last. Lantash, though he said nothing to the Council, was worried that his new host was not ready for such a mission. Certainly I had my own doubts about this gentle young man. But there was no one else, and now he has laid all our doubts to rest.
I am glad of that. Already the poison is rallying for a new assault; we may be leaving Lantash in Martouf's hands before the night is out...
What happened next?
The ghost in my head doesn't answer.
I thought I was finally getting used to this, learning to keep track of what's me and what's Jolinar. I guess I'm good enough at it that remembering that I'm me and not her seems to have knocked me right out of the dream, wide awake and clutching for ragged scraps of images and a sense of self that's just a little shaky right now.
I also have a monster headache, almost a match for the one I woke up with after Apophis' interrogation. Hangover from hell, the Colonel would probably say. Literally. Time to raid the medical kit for some Tylenol. Keeping hydrated is a good idea, too.
Teal'c must have finished his kelno'reem cycle and gone up front with Aldwin; everyone else is present, accounted for, and sound asleep. A glance at my watch tells me it's been a little over six hours since I conked out on Martouf. I've gotten by on less, but I know I should probably try to catch a few more hours, to make up for--
Wait a minute. Why do I feel like I'm missing something?
Taking a canteen with me, I climb back up to sit on my bunk, taking a deep breath and mentally retracing my steps. Start with Martouf healing my neck.
Hadn't really noticed how much it hurt until it didn't anymore, by which time I would have sworn somebody had turned up the gravity. Okay to sleep, we're safe now. Martouf carrying me, another time, another place. Safe now. Safe house. Ab't'kel. Not me, Jolinar. I'm me, not Jolinar. Waking up, startling Martouf, talking with him and the Colonel about the Blood of Sokar and flashbacks. Okay, that all tracks. Then I settled down to sleep for real, and... Oh.
At least this memory was mine. It's one of the earliest ones I recall clearly: sitting on the couch with Mom, with the lights and TV off and the curtains drawn, feverish and mopey and barely able to swallow past the pain in my throat. The center of it is this moment of panic when I tried to remember what it was like when I didn't feel like this, and I couldn't. I couldn't imagine it. It had only been a day or two, I'm sure, but I guess when you're four that's all it takes. Mom was telling me it was going to be okay, but she had been saying that all along, and nothing had changed. Somehow it got all mixed up in my head with Dad being gone. Maybe it was because TDY -- I could read by then, I knew the letters, but I didn't know it stood for temporary duty, and it wouldn't have meant much if I had -- was another thing that felt like forever to my preschool time sense, so this nebulous future time when I'd be better got equated with the nebulous future time when he'd be home.
Tonight, unlike in real life, they did happen at the same time, within the sitting-on-the-couch memory. I panicked all over again, because that wasn't how it happened. It had to be a trick. I had no way of knowing it wasn't, not when I didn't remember I was here. Before, when Apophis played into my memory of talking with Dad before Mom's funeral, the drug made me see him as Dad because that's who I expected to be there, and things didn't get all twisted until what Apophis was actually saying started to get through. But in this memory, Dad wasn't supposed to be there at all. Which means he was the intruding piece of reality that changed things around.
Great. I must have scared him half to death. And I'd rather not think about who else might have been awake. It's not that I feel like I have to never be vulnerable in front of these guys or anything, but needing Dad to rock me to sleep is a bit much. At least I can trust them not to mention it. I think.
I didn't think about it when I woke up just now, but he must have gotten out the extra blanket for me. It's not as cool in here as it was earlier, though. Teal'c or Aldwin must have turned up the environmental controls a little. It's not much of an issue for Dad or Martouf, of course; their symbiotes regulate body temperature. Daniel's wearing his jacket. He wasn't earlier, so I guess he got up at some point. Wonder if he saw me lose it? The Colonel is sleeping on his side with his back to me, still in shirtsleeves. Somehow, though, I doubt he slept through any kind of disturbance.
The good news is that Dad looks ten times better already. He was the first one Martouf treated with the healing device, but even then he looked pale and fragile, and Selmak was still too weak to talk to us. Whatever Sokar did to them seems to have been aimed more at him than at Dad; hopefully this means he's recovering. I don't want to imagine what they've been through. I only got a small taste of the agony Jolinar endured, and it was almost enough to make me give up on the whole mission. I just hope Dad was feeling better before he had to take care of me and my phantom strep.
I swallow, and pain slams my throat. I'm back there again, afraid I'll be there forever, hot and achey and miserable. South Carolina in August is no place to be sick, and base housing at Shaw didn't come with air conditioning in the early '70s. I know these things because I'm grown up, which means I'm not here. This isn't real. This is long ago and far away. Light-years away. I'm all grown up with oak leaves on my shoulders and my team by my side, and we're going home. This. Isn't. Real.
I know that, I'm sure of it, even though everything I see and feel tells me otherwise, but I'm still afraid to swallow. It's going to hurt. It's never going to stop hurting, but I'll have to do it soon anyway.
This is ridiculous! What Dad went through, what Jolinar went through, hell, what I've been through, and I'm worried about a little swallow? Get some perspective!
Another swallow, another slamming pain. I'm on my knees, in the midst of chaos, trying to stop one man from dying as the glider fire rains down around us. Breathe, come on, breathe! Then he grabs my head before I can pull away, and that sound, that awful squealing noise, tell me it's not what I know it is, stabbing in my throat, burning in my brain, oh, God, this can't be happening, getoutgetoutgetoutgetoutgetout...
She knows what is happening, she is fighting me, it's too late, I cannot hide...
My life! My body! Get OUT!!!
Listen to me, please! I am not your enemy!
Sir! Help me! It's a Goa'uld, what was it doing here? Don't listen to it! Help me!
Who is this man, what must I say? If you will not give me the knowledge, I must take it. I cannot let the ashrak find me again! Forgive me, this is not our way, but I will not let him take me!
"Carter!" His name is Colonel O'Neill, and he is shaking me. "Come on, Carter, snap out of it!"
"Yeah. I'm fine."
Colonel, no! Don't listen to it!
I look up into a face full of concern. The host is a warrior; this O'Neill is her commander, and also her friend. "You sure?" Concerned, but too calm. The gliders, the fire -- why does he not insist we leave this place?
"I'm sure. Leave him, he's dead. We have to get out of here."
Use him up and throw him away? Is that what you're planning to do to me?
"Uh...leave who? Get out of where?"
Why are we not running? The chaapa'ai... Stargate. "We have to go through the Stargate!"
He's holding me down, stopping me. Does he know? It's right, we have to get off this planet, but if it gets into the SGC and they think it's me...
"Whoa, Carter, take it easy. Calm down. We're okay."
We are not! We will all die! How do I make him understand?
"Carter--ow! Hey, watch where you're flinging those elbows!"
He adjusts his hold, tightens his grip. I should be stronger, should be able to break free, but I cannot. How can this be?
"Samantha, listen to me."
Martouf? No, he cannot be here, this is not the way it was! "Samantha," I echo him. This is her name; Carter is her family name. How could Martouf... if he sees what I've done... "I'm Samantha Carter."
"Okay, glad we got that much straight," O'Neill says over my shoulder. "Now let's work on where you are, okay?"
On Nasya! Getting strafed! Colonel, we don't have time for this!
But Martouf was not here. This is wrong.
"This isn't real."
"No one is dead, Samantha. We are safe now." Ah, that voice, how can I help but believe him? "Do you remember where we are?"
He wears strange clothing, I see now. He is dressed like...
He's dressed like us. He changed at the SGC. Netu. Dad. Escape.
I'm back on the teltac, sitting in the middle of the floor. I'm me.
"Yeah," I manage. "I remember."
Colonel O'Neill relaxes his grip, but only a little. "So if I let you go, you're not gonna bolt for a Stargate that isn't there, right?"
"No, sir." If we're lucky, I might not even die of embarrassment. Everyone's up now, and gathered around with identical worried expressions. Wonderful. "I'm getting really tired of this."
"I can imagine," Daniel says. "Once was more than enough for me."
"You too?" I look around at the others. "Colonel? Martouf?"
They both shake their heads, and the Colonel says, "Unless you count some colorful dreams. But I don't."
"Well, that's good, anyway." I squeeze my eyes shut for a second. "Ugh. Aren't headaches supposed to get better after you take Tylenol?"
Dad frowns. "Daniel, you had a headache too, didn't you?"
"Yes," he answers. "Why?"
"Did you take anything for it before you had your flashback?"
"No...wait, not for the headache. Sinus congestion. I took some Sudafed."
I think I see where this is going. "You think that triggered the hallucinations?"
"Partly, anyway," Dad replies. "Like I told Daniel earlier, I think you were already having the hardest time because of the naquadah in your system. But you guys had still better lay off any other medications until we can be sure you're clean."
"That's all well and good," the Colonel says, "but that naquadah's not going anywhere. How long is this gonna keep happening to her?"
"I don't know! You think I like this any more than you do?"
Oh, please don't start raising voices. My head can't take it. "Dad..."
"I'm sorry, Sam." He takes a deep breath, lets it out in a frustrated sigh. "Look, this is all just educated guessing, at best. And I don't really know what to do about it. Believe me, Jack, if you have any suggestions, I'd be happy to hear them."
"What about that healing doohickey? If it can fix other things, can it clear stuff out that doesn't belong there?"
Dad and Martouf exchange a look, and Martouf answers, "Possibly, but only to a limited extent, and for a limited time. That is why I have not mentioned it before. I can attempt it if you wish, Samantha."
I hesitate, and Daniel suggests, "Maybe it'll work well enough to help with the headache?"
Martouf nods. "I believe so."
"Sold," I agree. "If you're sure you're up to it, that is."
"I am sufficiently rested," he assures me with a smile.
He offers me a hand up and nods toward my bunk. I head over there and sit down, grateful to see Dad motioning the guys to follow him to the opposite corner. This is going to be weird enough. And if it's as tricky as it sounds, Martouf is going to need the quiet to concentrate.
"Maybe I can manage not to fall asleep this time," I tell him with a rueful chuckle. "Not that it wouldn't probably be a good idea."
He studies me curiously for a second. "This makes you nervous."
Am I that obvious? "It's okay. I know you know what you're doing."
"But you are uncomfortable with the technology."
"Yes." No point in lying about it. "It's not like the hand device, but still... I can make it work, but I don't understand it. And I feel like I should understand it. It's just... like you said, uncomfortable."
Sometimes Martouf has the saddest smile I've ever seen. I'm not sure what's prompting it now, and I'm not about to ask. "I am sorry."
"It's okay, really. So, what do you want me to do?"
"It will be easiest if you lie down. Relax, and try to be as calm and still as you can."
I follow his instructions, shifting a little until I find a comfortable position I can stay in. "Okay. Ready." He didn't tell me to close my eyes, and I don't -- nervous or not, I'm too curious. Just because I've avoided using these things unless I absolutely had to doesn't mean I don't want to learn more about them.
He gives me an encouraging smile and raises the healing device a few inches above the point between my collarbones. Then he closes his eyes and takes a long, measured breath, and as he lets it out, the device lights up. It gives off some heat too, and at first that's all I feel. The tingle that follows is so subtle I almost miss it -- nothing at all like the sharp strangeness of muscle knitting itself together earlier. It's as if the traces of the drug he's trying to eliminate are sending out a tiny electrical buzz, diffused all through my body and more concentrated in the left side and back of my head.
Evidently Martouf is aware of this too. I have to close my eyes against the bright glow as he moves the device next to my temple. Lying down was a good idea; if I were upright, I think this would make me dizzy. The tingling turns to pins-and-needles in that part of my head, as if the Blood of Sokar is fighting back. I wonder if it's alive, or quasi-alive, like nishta?
With that thought comes a vivid flash of Seth's throne room, his scowl as he turns my head to look for an entry scar, my confusion as I wonder what I've done to displease him. Then it's gone, and the tingle in my head fades into nothing. A second later, the heat on my face and the light through my eyelids abruptly stop.
I open my eyes to find Martouf watching me anxiously, and grin at him. "Wow. Who turned on the lights?"
"It helped, then?"
"Yeah." He reaches to steady me as I sit up, but for a change it isn't necessary. "I didn't realize how hazy everything was. Weird, what we can get used to."
"And your headache?"
"Much better. Thank you."
"I am glad." Slipping the healing device off his hand, he adds, "I do not know how long it will last. Hopefully long enough to afford you some better rest."
"I really don't feel like sleeping right now, even if I probably should," I tell him. "If it's okay with you, I'd kind of like to talk about the memory I found earlier."
Martouf considers this for a second, then nods. "It seems to have become very important to you."
"I guess it has. I don't know why, really. Maybe it's just because I know a lot about Jolinar now, but hardly anything about Rosha. Which is funny, considering how long they were together." Gesturing toward the cockpit, I suggest, "Maybe we could give Aldwin and Teal'c a break?"
"Very well. As I said, I will tell you what I can."
The two chairs in the teltac's cockpit aren't set up for face-to-face conversation. Perching on the half-wall between them is the most comfortable alternative, and that's not saying much, especially when I'm juggling an MRE at the same time. Right after the world came back into focus, I noticed how hungry I was.
On the other hand, this spot gives me a great view of the control panel over Martouf's shoulder. "I'm not sure what that does, but I think you've checked it three times now."
I just barely keep myself from laughing aloud at the startled, almost guilty look on his face when he turns to me. "It controls the pitch of our flight," he admits, "and in hyperspeed it does very little."
"You don't have to talk about this if you don't want to, you know. Sometimes I forget that I'm not just remembering Jolinar's personal life, I'm prying into yours."
Martouf shakes his head. "I do not think any question you could ask would offend me. But I wish there were a way for you to understand the impressions left in your mind without experiencing the pain that accompanies them."
"So do I. But the emotions are there whether I have a grasp of the memory or not -- they're usually what comes first. And they're not all painful. Confusing, sure. But not necessarily painful."
There's that sad smile again. "I am glad of that. But those seem to be the strongest."
He has a point, but... Okay, he has a point. "One thing I'm sure of is that Jolinar's life was never easy, right? And I really don't think she got to choose which chunks of it she left me with." I can't help shuddering as I add, "It took everything she had just to leave me alive."
"How much were you aware of while she was within you?"
The question takes me by surprise. It's usually Jolinar he wants to know about, which is perfectly understandable. "Not much. Sometimes I got a vague impression of what was going on, like I was watching it from underwater. Sometimes it was just a dark void." I try to keep this from sounding as terrifying as it was, but there's really no way to do that, is there? "I think she tried to reason with me at first, but I was too panicked. We both were."
I guess that came out more like some kind of apology or excuse than I meant it to, because Martouf says, "You had no way to know you could trust her, Samantha. She could not have expected you to."
"I know. I just keep thinking, maybe if I had given her a chance..."
"You would have risked all that it is your duty to protect."
"I know." I had almost this same conversation with the Colonel once. He was right, and so is Martouf. It just never feels that way to me. "Anyway, when... at the end..." Damn, I'm going to start crying if I keep this up. Not exactly the best way to prove I'm okay with this now. "I wasn't really fighting her anymore. I was so tired. I didn't understand why she suddenly pushed me as far into the void as she possibly could. When the pain started to get through, I thought it was something she was doing. By the time I realized it wasn't, that she was trying to protect me..." I shake my head, at a loss. The only real communication that passed between Jolinar and me while she was alive, and I can't begin to articulate it. Any words I can come up with barely trace the outline.
Martouf is even quieter than usual as he tells me, "The hara kash is similar to the ribbon device, but more precisely focused, and the ashrak are expert in its use."
"After it stopped, I remember him telling somebody I was dead. Or she was. Maybe both. But he knew we weren't." This is so unbelievably weird. I'm sitting here matter-of-factly describing Jolinar's last moments to the mate who loved her more than anything. This isn't what he asked me, but somehow it's where we've ended up, and now that I've started I feel like I have to get it out. Which doesn't keep me from at least half hoping that Martouf will stop me, that he won't want to hear any more. "He did it on purpose. He expected her to prolong it by trying to heal herself, even though she knew it wouldn't be enough. He was counting on Goa'uld instinct to grasp at any straw for survival, against all reason."
"But she knew that her remaining strength might be enough to heal you."
"Yes." I look at him curiously. "You're not guessing. You know."
"The human body is very easy for the Goa'uld to repair, either through technology or by their own natural healing ability. That, along with our adaptability, is why we are the hosts they have chosen to seed throughout the galaxy."
I think that's the first time I've ever heard him use 'we' to refer to humans rather than to the Tok'ra. But it's not the first time I've wondered where he came from before joining them. I have a memory, sort of a freeze frame, of him standing in the sunshine, surrounded by a dozen laughing children in brightly-colored clothing. He's laughing with them, not at all the sad smile of the Martouf I know. There's a bittersweet feeling that goes with the image, their infectious delight shot through with pangs of envy and loneliness. I've never had the heart to ask him about it. I guess that's a little silly, considering the conversation we're having now.
"The choice that is no choice is a traditional component of the form of execution to which Jolinar was sentenced," Martouf continues, his voice taking on a slight edge. "The Goa'uld know it is possible to heal the host, but they would consider it a waste of the effort, even though any attempt by the symbiote to heal itself is doomed to failure. I doubt they could even conceive of the condemned making that choice."
"Until it happened, anyway. I guess they know all about it now."
"But I still do not believe they understand it. One of the many flaws that will one day lead to their defeat."
"Amen to that." I shake my head. "I have to admit, though, I'm not so sure I could have done the same in her place. The human survival instinct can be pretty overriding too."
"Perhaps. But I have seen you place the greater good before it more than once, and without hesitation."
"That's different. I'm trained to do what I have to." I hope I'm not squirming too visibly. You'd think I'd learn to be comfortable with compliments by now, at the rate he hands them out. "Anyway, you've also seen me duck out of the room to have a panic attack at the thought of being a host."
"No one could blame you for that, Samantha. I do not think Garshaw would even have suggested it in your presence had the need not been so urgent."
"But it was. Selmak was dying, and I just wanted to hide in a corner until the whole thing went away." Restless, I stand up and lean against the bulkhead on the other side of the pilot's chair, crossing my arms. "Rosha felt that way too, didn't she? But it didn't stop her." Not the most graceful way of bringing us back to the planned topic, maybe, but that tangent was getting embarrassing.
Martouf, bless his unfailingly polite heart, doesn't even bat an eye. "No. It did not."
"How is she?" It is well after nightfall, but the normal volume of Rosha's question as she enters the attic still startles me. "It's all right, the shopgirl has gone home. Only Karrek, the owner, is here."
"And the girl does not suspect?"
"If she does, she gave no sign of it to Karrek." She sets her oil lamp on a box near Jolinar's cot. "She seems to be resting more easily."
"Yes," I agree, "but her fever still has not broken."
"Then she's still fighting. The demons haven't won." A little superstitious, perhaps, but no more so than I was not long ago. And she is essentially correct. "I saw Cronos use the shreedak poison many times when I worked in his court, even on enemy gods. None survived so long. She's very strong."
"The Goa'uld are not gods, Rosha," I remind her.
"I know." She smiles at her own error, and I find myself smiling back in spite of the circumstances. "But a lifetime of habit is hard to break."
"And it is clear what you believe. Otherwise Jolinar and I would both be dead by now. She is not the only strong one."
Rosha looks down, embarrassed, lashes veiling her clear blue eyes. "We all do as we must."
When she looks up again, I am struck anew by her beauty, and Lantash must silently remind me not to say so.
Thank you, I reply. Though even with your knowledge, it is difficult to understand why it upset her so. It is simply the truth.
To you it is simply the truth, with every reason it should be spoken. To her it can never be simple.
But perhaps, like Nihmat, someday she will see that it can be good.
"The watch has already gone by," Rosha tells me. "They always pass through the merchant quarter at least twice, but at different times each night. Karrek is readying the cart. It's time."
I open my mouth to answer, but Jolinar speaks first. "We are ready."
She has already pushed herself halfway to a sitting position, and I pick her up before she can try to stand. "No, we are not. But we have no choice. Nihmat?"
"Sleeping. Out of reach of the pain. I can do that much for her. For now, at least." She is shivering, in spite of the heat radiating from her. Too much heat, consuming Nihmat's fragile human frame.
"You should rest too," I chide her, following Rosha down the back stairs. "When we reach the ship--"
"I cannot save her, Martouf."
A season ago I did not believe I would ever hear such grief in an altered voice, or that I would do anything but rejoice if I did.
A season ago I lived in a far simpler world.
As if to underscore the point, I feel Lantash's sharp words on my tongue. "You cannot know that. You owe her better than to give up now!"
"I owe her the best that I can give," Jolinar replies calmly, recognizing his fear in the outburst as surely as I feel it in the pit of my stomach. "It will not be enough."
Only now do I understand what she is not saying: If she cannot save Nihmat, she cannot save herself.
Necessity gives Jolinar the last word, as Rosha gestures for silence before pulling up the hood of her cloak and opening the outer door. Karrek is already waiting there with his cart, his beast's feet wrapped in cloth to muffle the sound. I make Jolinar as comfortable as I can and crawl in back beside her, while Rosha climbs up on the bench with the merchant. Every stone and rut makes me wince, but Jolinar seems unaware of the bumpy ride, either unconscious again or too focused inward to notice. I hold onto my hope that it is the latter, that she has found reserves of strength sufficient to renew her effort to heal Nihmat and herself.
If anyone has such reserves, it is Jolinar, Lantash agrees. I cannot believe she speaks as though she has already given up.
We travel in silence a few minutes longer, the space between houses increasing until we reach the outskirts of the city. Soon Karrek will stop the cart and turn back, and Rosha will lead us on foot to a hidden gap in the wall. Perhaps another twenty minutes beyond that lies an overgrown gully, our ship, and freedom from this ill-fated place.
It might as well be on Kheb.
"Kree! You there, stop your cart!"
If my heart skips a beat at this harsh voice, it nearly stops at the deeper, quieter one that speaks as the cart rolls to a halt. "Rosha. Did you truly believe you could escape the eyes of your god?"
"You are no god, Cronos!" Rosha snaps, throwing back her hood and glaring at the System Lord. He stands some ten paces ahead of us. I wonder if he can see her hands trembling from there? "I know the truth, and nothing you do will ever change it."
"Hold your tongue, child!" Karrek hisses desperately. "My lord, the traitor gods have confused her with their lies. Please, you promised you would show her mercy!"
"Promised?" Cronos' tone is as ominous as any I have ever heard. "Do you doubt me, old man?"
"No, my lord, I only meant--"
The glow of the ribbon device gives me just enough warning to duck and shield Jolinar with my body before the kinetic blast sends Karrek flying backward to land in a broken heap on the street behind us. The force is well focused, but still knocks Rosha into the back of the cart, stunned. As I move to help her, Jolinar sits up, somehow managing a bitter laugh. "Still rewarding your loyal worshipers, I see."
What is she doing?
Being Jolinar, Lantash answers, with a swell of love and pride that quells my near-panic at her seemingly suicidal baiting of the System Lord. In any case, what more can he do to her now?
Cronos strides over to the cart, flanked by two guards. "Jolinar." A cold, ugly smile crosses his face. "Had I known before today that it was you within that pretty vessel... No matter. You will still live long enough to see your mate die first."
Samantha has not moved, seems hardly to have breathed, throughout my account; but now she shifts her weight, crossing her arms more tightly. "And then he used the hand device on you."
"Yes." I watch her closely, but this time she remains in control of the memory. Perhaps the worst is over.
"Not the kinetic blast, though. Up close and personal."
I do not miss the quickly-suppressed shudder, or the strain around her eyes. I have known for some time that she inherited Jolinar's distaste for the ribbon device along with the ability to use it, and that it is compounded by frustration at her difficulty in mastering the weapon. Neither of those is insurmountable, but now... "Your father was angry with Selmak for days, for pushing you to use it against Seth."
She blinks, thrown momentarily by the shift of subject, then shakes her head. "I didn't know that." Shrugging, she continues, "Anyway, Selmak was right. It was the only way to stop him."
"Surely you do not regret his death?"
"No, of course not. It's just... It's too much power, too much destruction, with too little effort. I can't even figure out how to dial it down." She grimaces. "Not that I've tried since then. I can't... I mean, the looks on the guys' faces. They both swear it's not true, but I saw it. They're my team. They're not supposed to be scared of me."
I do not know what to say to her. I cannot imagine that Colonel O'Neill or Dr. Jackson could ever truly fear her, even for a moment, but I was not there. My opinion will have no weight.
After an awkward few seconds, Samantha continues, "Anyway... obviously you survived. Jolinar was surprised Cronos didn't kill you then and there, after what he'd said. You were out for a while, though."
"You remember, then?"
"Bits and pieces. They're starting to make a little more sense, but it's still not -- whoa." Without warning, she half-crumples, half-slides to the deck, bracing herself against the bulkhead, to sit with her head between her knees.
"Samantha?" I slap the door control before kneeling beside her. "Jacob! Colonel O'Neill!"
"No, it's okay," comes the muffled protest. "Just...gimme a sec. I'm okay."
O'Neill arrives in the cockpit in time to hear this last, and scowls. "Like hell you are. I knew this was a bad idea. I shoulda slapped you back in bed where you belong."
"I am sorry, Colonel, I should not have agreed to--"
"Never mind, Marty," he cuts me off, dropping to one knee on her other side. "It's not like anybody expects you to say 'no' to her. Just drive the damn ship, okay?"
I am tempted to argue, but Samantha's well-being is O'Neill's responsibility, not mine. Even Lantash agrees that this is his right, and that his rudeness is more than excusable. Jacob has entered the cockpit close on his heels, kneeling in my place as I return to the pilot's seat. The others cluster near the doorway.
Glancing up at me, Jacob asks, "What happened?"
Before I can explain, Samantha answers, "Dizzy. Really sudden. I'll be okay."
"Sure you will," O'Neill agrees, "after you go back to bed and stay there until we get to Vorash."
She sits up, shaky but straight, clenching her jaw and keeping her eyes closed for a moment before looking up at him. "Sir--"
"Don't even start that sentence, Carter. I'm giving you an order, end of discussion."
Her sigh is weary and resigned. "Yes, sir."
Jacob glances over to the doorway. "Teal'c--"
"No!" Less sharply, Samantha repeats, "No. Thank you. I can walk thirty feet."
O'Neill studies her for a long moment before replying, "Okay, then." Standing and offering her a hand, he adds with every appearance of seriousness, "But I'm not racing you."
"No racing," she agrees with a wan smile, taking hold of his hand and pulling herself cautiously to her feet.
Damn, I want to be home. At this point, even one of ol' Doc Fraiser's lectures would sound good.
Okay, let's be honest: By the time we get carted in her door, they usually sound pretty good. The woman is an unholy hybrid of petty dictator and mother hen, all highly concentrated in a five-foot-two package. And let's face it: I'm suspicious of anybody who can move that fast in those shoes. But when she launches into that laundry list of why you obviously can't be trusted to cross the street without getting yourself nearly (or actually) killed, you know you're home. If you didn't get there in one piece, you'll be that way before she's done with you. You'll also be ready to strangle her, but I'm pretty sure she considers that part of standard operating procedure.
Yep. One of those lectures would sound pretty damn good right about now.
Carter seems to have run through her supply of stubborn. I haven't decided whether that should make me more or less worried, but either way, she keeps hold of my hand even after she's on her feet. I wonder if she's even noticed, considering that she's concentrating on staying upright with a level of focus usually reserved for fiddling with temperamental toys that could blow up in her face. This has got to stop.
We're about halfway there when Carter mumbles, "Sorry, sir," which is all the warning I get before she passes out. It's just enough to let me pull her arm around my neck and catch her under back and knees. Jacob has been hovering -- for which I don't blame him a bit, by the way -- and damn near gets kicked in the gut with her combat boots when I swing her up.
"You got her?"
"I got her, Jacob." Then I realize how much heat is coming through her sleeve across the back of my neck. "Aw, hell."
I hate giving the poor guy something to be even more anxious about, assuming that's even possible, but there's not a lot of choice. "Does she feel too warm to you?"
He lays a hand across her forehead and nods grimly. "Yeah." Then he checks mine. "So do you, but not as much."
"Great." I start walking again. "Remind me not to fly the friendly Tok'ra skies anymore. Like we need this on top of everything else."
"Maybe we do," Daniel speaks up behind me. We must look like some kind of half-assed parade drill, trooping across the cargo hold every five minutes. "I mean, a fever is one of the ways your body fights off infection, right?"
"Indeed," Teal'c agrees. "Your temperature appears to be elevated also, Daniel Jackson."
I can almost hear the rattle of Daniel's head nodding. Or maybe it's just his glasses. "So, this could be a good thing. It could be part of getting the Blood of Sokar out of our systems."
"Which is all fine and dandy, Daniel, except -- what the -- ?"
I turn around to talk to him -- almost nailing Jacob with the boots again -- about two and half strides away from putting Carter down. Except that I have no clue where I'm planning to put her down or why I'm carrying her. Or how, for that matter. I broke a leg and a couple of ribs when the 'gate spit us out into this deep freeze. She's in better shape, or at least I thought she was. Now she's unconscious and feverish. Gotta get out of here, get us both home to Doc Fraiser. How the hell are we gonna do that without Carter to fix the DHD?
Because we're not here.
It only takes a couple seconds to remember where we're supposed to be, but that doesn't change the scenery or the sharp pain of broken bones. "Somebody take her. Now!" I half-gasp. I can't see anything but ice and an uncooperative Stargate, but I know Jacob and the rest of them are here somewhere.
"What is the matter, O'Neill?" Teal'c's voice isn't really coming from the radio in my vest pocket, and it doesn't mean we're getting rescued, because we're not really here to need rescuing. Focus. He's got to be right in front of me, or close to it.
"Damn it, Teal'c, just take her!"
I haven't even finished the sentence before he does. Or somebody does. At least, I hope they have and I'm not hallucinating it, because I'm going down, and if I've still got Carter she's going with me. And dropping a two-star general's sick daughter right in front of him probably wouldn't be the best career move ever.
Oh, God, this sucks. Every damn breath hurts, and there's nothing to lie down on but ice. Which isn't actually there. At least in Antarctica, I had warm blankets, with a warm Carter sharing them part of the time. Neither of those elements features in this lovely hallucination.
"Bring her over here, Teal'c," Jacob is saying, somewhere off to my... left? "Daniel, you stay with Jack. Aldwin, take over piloting and send Martouf back here."
General or no general, I usually get a little cranky when he starts tossing orders at my team, but right now I'm grateful he's around to take charge. Just for a minute, though. I'm going to pull it together here, and then it's my mission again.
Cold. Pain. Sam, it was an honor serving with you.
Jeez, when was the last time I called her that?
Maybe just a little nap...
"Jack?" Where did Daniel come from? "Jack!"
"Agh! No shaking." God, that hurts. What the hell is he thinking? "And you don't have to yell."
"Sorry. Are you okay?"
I cough instead of talking on the first try, then manage, "Yeah. Sure. Apart from being a broken popsicle."
"Broken -- ?" Confused Daniel Look #46, followed by that invisible light bulb over his head. Somebody could make a bundle turning him into a cartoon. "Oh. Wow, no wonder you couldn't carry Sam. Jack, listen, you're not in Antarctica."
"Who said anything about--? Gaaahhhh!"
Daniel jumps, then asks uncertainly, "Jack?"
"Come on, Daniel, I figured you were fluent in Old High Pissed-Off O'Neill by now." As suddenly as it began, the flashback is over, and I sit up, wincing at a last jab in my lungs. "Translation: 'Of course I'm not in Antarctica. I remember that now. I'm in an interstellar jalopy, raving like a basket case.' Hey, there, Marty." He should really patent that terribly concerned look. Betcha Jolinar was a sucker for it every time.
Barely glancing away from Carter, tucked safely back in her bunk, Jacob tells Marty, "Sam, Daniel and Jack are all running fevers. Sam's is the worst, which tracks with what's happened so far. Lantash have any insight?"
I wonder whether Marty's thinking about it, or just listening to the snake's answer. But I'm not quite curious enough to ask him.
"The drug is not a true organism," he answers after a few seconds, "but the most effective approach seems to be dealing with it as if it were. With luck, this means that their immune systems are doing just that."
"In other words, Daniel's theory is right." I stand up. "So that means we're almost done, right?"
"I cannot say with any certainty," Marty replies apologetically. "Our body is the only model Lantash has, and that information does not entirely apply to you."
"Well, you're the only one... ones who've got anything to apply." Nodding over at Carter, I tell him, "She's burning up. If it means she's burning this crap out of her system, fine. If it's not gonna work, we need to know. And you've got the closest thing to an educated guess here."
I'm putting him on a lousy spot, and it's another few seconds before he nods, obviously a very unhappy Tok'ra. "I believe we should let it run its course as long as we can safely do so. I can see no better alternative."
It is quiet again in the cargo hold, the light dimmed to allow those recovering from the Blood of Sokar to sleep more easily. Aldwin has assured me he is able to continue as pilot for some hours longer, so that I may watch over them.
Things appear much as they did when I awoke from kelno'reem nearly a day ago, except that General Carter's vigil over his daughter remains a wakeful one. The others, including Martouf, sleep in their accustomed places, so normally that it is difficult to believe Sokar's poison works within them still. Indeed, Martouf is certain that for them the worst is over.
All but Major Carter. Her fever continued to climb for nearly an hour after her collapse, and after three hours more her father's anxious eyes tell me it has not abated. Quiet such as this has been fleeting, any strength she might regain from it immediately exhausted by restless agitation and fragmented murmurs in both English and Goa'uld.
So rare are the circumstances under which she survived the death of Jolinar within her, even the Tok'ra do not fully understand the resulting changes to her body and mind. There is no way to know whether Apophis expected Sokar's drug to attack her as if she were Goa'uld, though there is little doubt that he did not care. In the eyes of the System Lords, the Tauri as a people have become a formidable enemy, but as individuals they remain nothing but slaves to be used and discarded.
General Carter knows this. Had they been born on any of a thousand other worlds, he knows that at a Goa'uld's whim, he might never have seen his daughter grow into a woman, or he might have seen her mind entombed alive and her beauty hardened into a mask for a false god. He knows he may yet see it, for her knowledge of both SGC and Tok'ra secrets makes her all the more desirable a host. Indeed, it is a threat with which Apophis and Hathor have already taunted her. Yet he would no more try to dissuade her from the risks she takes every day than he would himself abandon the fight to bring freedom to other worlds and safeguard their own.
These things are always true. At this moment, however, there are two other truths he considers first: His child suffers, and he cannot stop it. That she has not been a child for many years makes little difference; I see in him the same fear I felt when I first returned to Chulak and found Rya'c gravely ill.
It is not only worry, but also weariness, that lines his face as he lays the thermometer strip across her forehead once again. Clearly he is not yet fully recovered from his own ordeal on Netu. "General Carter, should not you rest also?" I ask.
He shakes his head. "I'm okay."
I hesitate to press the issue with a warrior of his stature, but even the wisest need counsel upon occasion. "And your symbiote?"
"Would probably try to make the same claim, but I'd know he was lying." He laughs shortly. "He's also threatening to waste his energy to tell you I'm lying. But I think you already knew that." He picks up the strip, reads it, and hands it to me. "She's still holding at 102. Wake me up if it spikes any higher, or if it doesn't break in another two hours." Sighing, he adds, "I don't like letting it go this long when she was already so worn out, but I don't want to give up too soon either. Martouf's right, we have to give it a chance."
"And if it is not successful?"
Instantly General Carter looks years older, and I regret asking. "Break out the cold packs, try to bring down the fever, and hope she doesn't lose her mind before we can get her back to the SGC." He shakes his head. "That's all I can think of right now."
"Perhaps inspiration will come with rest," I tell him. "Or perhaps it will not be needed at all."
Sighing, he replies, "I hope not."
It is a hopeful sign that Major Carter continues to sleep quietly through the next half hour, and a more hopeful one that her temperature has dropped to ninety-nine degrees at the end of that interval. The others, too, remain quiet, though I doubt the images that have so disturbed them can be completely banished so soon. A short while later, as if in confirmation of this, O'Neill awakens abruptly, looking around him in apparent alarm for a moment before rising and walking over to me.
"How's she doing, Teal'c?"
"Her fever has broken," I report. "I do not yet know if it has served its purpose in purging the Blood of Sokar from her body."
"Damn well better have," O'Neill grumbles. Nodding toward the platform to which General Carter has moved, he asks, "How'd you convince Jacob to get some sleep? Hit him over the head with your staff weapon?"
"He is a wise man. He knows that it will not benefit Major Carter to make himself ill also."
"And what of you, O'Neill?"
He blinks. "What about me?"
"Do you believe that you have fully recovered?"
"Hell if I know." Scowling, he adds, "And I have definitely come up with better phrasing choices in my time. How much longer are we gonna be cooped up in this bucket, anyway?"
One would not have to know him as well as I do to guess that he will not be pleased by my answer. "Approximately thirty-six hours."
"Well, that sucks. The whole trip out here didn't take that long!"
"The engines have suffered a great deal of strain, and can no longer be safely operated at more than twenty-five percent of their normal capacity. To do so would risk burning them out entirely before we reach the Tok'ra homeworld."
"Okay, I like the sound of that even less," O'Neill concedes. "But it still sucks."
"Right." He passes a hand down over his face. "I'm gonna try and get some more rest, then. Doesn't seem like there's much else to do." He looks over at Daniel Jackson for a moment, as if to confirm this, but the younger man remains undisturbed.
"There is not. Sleep well, O'Neill."
I wake up like a normal person for a change, sure of where I am, or at least of where I was headed when I blacked out. It's reasonable to assume the Colonel got me the rest of the way to my bunk, and for the moment I'm content to stay here. No reason to rush things like opening my eyes if I don't have to; God only knows how my brain will decide to process the sensory input when I do. Besides, playing possum defers the inevitable worried questions I don't feel like answering right now.
To be honest, I don't much feel like doing anything right now. Much as I didn't want to admit it earlier, the Colonel had the right idea, ordering me back to bed. The headache Martouf chased away with the healing device must have gone home crying to its big brother. In which case it should be going after Martouf, but nobody ever accused a playground bully of fairness or logic.
Not that I'm wishing it on Martouf, of course. He's been through enough for a couple of lifetimes, even by Tok'ra standards. I wasn't there for most of it, but for a lot of it I might as well have been. Which makes me that much more grateful my memories -- and Jolinar's -- seem to have finally started behaving like memories again, giving me a chance to sort them out instead of overtaking the present.
It was a game to Cronos, and he made sure Jolinar knew it, depositing her and the still-unconscious Martouf in a sumptuous apartment in lieu of a cell, and "generously" ordering Rosha to wait on them. Considering her own hopes for escape had been yanked away, Rosha obeyed him remarkably calmly, and Jolinar told her so.
"What else should I do?" she answered. "My fate was sealed from the moment I found favor in Cronos' eyes."
"Found favor?" Jolinar repeated. The words resonated with the memories of Nihmat's childhood terrors, the emotions impossible to separate from her own.
But Rosha's nightmare was even worse. "I have served in the palace all my life," she explained flatly. "When I was fifteen, I was chosen for a slave's highest honor, and greatest fear."
Jolinar didn't have to guess what that meant, but she said it aloud anyway. "To become a host."
Rosha nodded. "The young queen's time is nearly here. Cronos means for me to watch you both suffer and die, then I am to go to her." She slanted a glance at the closed door, dropping her voice. "I do not mean to do either of those things."
"Whatever your plan," Jolinar warned her at the same volume, "it will not be easy to achieve if you include me in it. Lantash should recover from the ribbon blast soon, and he can still get you away from this planet if you can get to our ship."
"Surely he would never leave you behind?"
"Better one in Cronos' hands than three," Jolinar answered. "If there is no alternative, he will do what he must to carry our intelligence back to the Tok'ra."
"Only if there is no alternative," came a stern declaration from the other side of the bed. Lantash winced a little as he sat up, but seemed basically all right. "I know our duty, but do not expect me to abandon you for any other reason."
Putting on a teasing smile for his benefit, Jolinar answered, "Never. I have no intention of missing future, far more enjoyable opportunities to try your patience."
"It hardly has a fair adversary in your stubbornness!" Lantash returned, matching the smile. More seriously, he went on, "Evidently Cronos has not yet tired of us."
"His wounded pride is our best ally now." She turned to Rosha. "So. What do we know?"
I'm sure Rosha gave her an answer. I have no idea what it was. Frustrating, but if I have to lose hold of something, better Jolinar's past than my present.
I open my eyes to find Teal'c watching me, showing no surprise that I'm awake. He's probably known it for a while. Without being asked, he holds out an open canteen -- definitely knew I was awake -- and helps me sit up to take several grateful gulps. I feel like somebody hit a 'reset' button, putting me back at how thirsty I was by the time we left Netu.
I've downed a good third of the canteen before I lower it and hand it back to him. "Thanks, Teal'c." I make a pretty sorry attempt at a smile and add, "I hope I'm allowed to get up long enough to go to the bathroom, or we're going to have a problem."
"We will indeed," he replies, "if you intend to move about the ship without assistance."
"Believe me, I'm not in a hurry to repeat my earlier performance," I assure him, cautiously swinging my legs over the edge of the bunk. I stare at my stocking feet for a second, trying to gauge my equilibrium and wondering where they've put my boots.
"Major Carter?" Okay, maybe it was longer than a second. "Are you all right?"
I look up at him, not wasting the effort to smile this time. "I think I will be," I answer, as honestly as I can. Teal'c simply nods at this. "Just still really tired. In spite of sleeping through at least half the trip so far."
"Colonel O'Neill and Daniel Jackson have done much the same." He indicates the dim shapes across the hold. "They have experienced fewer disturbances from hallucinations and fever, but must nonetheless compensate."
"Fever?" I repeat. "That was real?"
"It was indeed."
"Wow. I thought it was just part of my hallucination." I start to shift my weight to stand up, and wince. "Guess that explains why I'm so achey."
Teal'c sets a hand on my shoulder, just firmly enough to make his meaning clear. "It may be that you are strong enough to walk, Major Carter. However, at present it is neither necessary nor wise."
My impulse is to argue, but that hasn't been serving me too well. "You're right."
Without further comment, he bends down to let me loop my arms around his neck, and scoops me up off the bunk. It's not completely effortless, but it's close enough. I feel about as ridiculous as I expected, but also...safe. If a fully armed squadron of Serpent Guards came through that door right now, I wouldn't get a scratch while Teal'c was alive to stop it.
Steady and secure as he is, though, he can't stop the wave of vertigo that sets the ship whirling around me again. Instinctively I close my eyes against it, grateful for the solid shoulder to lean my head on until it clears.
It seems like it's only been a couple seconds when Teal'c asks softly, "Major Carter?"
"Hm? Whoa." We've stopped moving , and looking up I see why. "We're here already?"
"We are. Are you ready to stand?"
"Yeah." I manage not to be impatient with how cautiously he sets me on my feet. I also manage not to wobble too much once I get there, which is a relief. Now I just need to keep from nodding off again. I trust Teal'c absolutely, but I still don't want him to have to fetch me from the latrine.
As it turns out, now that I'm relatively up and about, I don't have to worry about it. I'm still unbelievably tired, and the headache is still there, but having something to do, even something this simple, allows me to push that to the background. Even so, after I come out, it's another odd relief to know that there's not even a question whether Teal'c is going to carry me again. It's a given, and for now I'm content to accept that.
I will not reach the ship. If the others remain with me, neither will they.
We should never have made it this far, and would not have without Rosha. Her knowledge of the comings and goings of Cronos' court, of all the petty workings that are beneath the System Lord's notice, has already served to spirit us out of the palace once, and she believes it can do so again. She knows better than her "god" ever could the schedules of cleaning and food delivery, the changing of guards, and who among Cronos' slaves is willing, able and trustworthy to smuggle a zat'nik'tel to her in our chambers. She has lost no time in making this arrangement, despite the close watch on her.
It will mean nothing, though, if we cannot take advantage of the tiny chance the weapon and Rosha's knowledge might grant us.
"Leave me." The words do not come willingly, and for a moment I wonder if they have even been heard. Part of me hopes they have not, that I can pretend I didn't say them. The part that insists I must keep fighting for the life I have already lost, no matter what it takes or who suffers for it.
As any Goa'uld would do.
I renounced those ways so long ago it seems truly another life. Yet it was my life. Most of the others insist that we are not Goa'uld, and perhaps for them it is not a lie. Most were born to the struggle a few of us chose -- but they are not the ones who bristle most fiercely at the name.
Perhaps they are right. Perhaps we are so far from what we once were that we are no longer Goa'uld at all. I do not believe it. And whatever lies I have told in my time, that lie I will never tell, to another or to myself.
It is a moment before I realize that Lantash has spoken in response to what I said, not what I was thinking. Focusing on where I am and what is happening is more of an effort by the minute.
"We have no choice." Even as he draws breath to answer, I repeat, "We have no choice, Lantash. You cannot take me with you and hope to escape."
"I will not survive the journey in any case," I interrupt him. I had hoped to convince him without stating it so bluntly, but in my heart I knew better. Blunt truth has always been our way. "Nihmat is dying. I cannot stop it. I cannot survive without her."
He has no answer for this. What could he say?
Instead he leans close, brushing a stray curl of Nihmat's dark hair from our face before pulling us into a tight embrace. We hold him with what strength remains to us, Martouf's body shaking with sobs they will not voice. It cannot last; shifting position has disturbed the fluid filling our lungs, triggering a painful coughing spell. By the time it subsides, it is only his arms that keep me sitting up, and the room seems to be growing darker. "Go," I tell him urgently. It is barely a whisper. "Go."
"Perhaps...there is another way." Rosha's quiet voice startles us both; I had all but forgotten she was here. She hesitates before adding, "You could live if you had another host?"
I look up at Lantash, who gives her the answer for which I can no longer spare the breath. "If the blending did not fail. She is very weak."
"And if it did?"
He seems to realize now that her question is more than rhetorical, and turns to face her directly, still supporting me against him with one arm. "She would die. The host might be unharmed, or might suffer mental or physical illness. Jolinar would do her best, but there is no way to be certain."
Rosha considers this a moment, then nods. "I understand."
"What are you saying, Rosha?" It is Martouf who asks, in a patient tone only he could summon at such a moment.
"I am saying that I am not worthy of freedom if I watch two of you die when I might save one." A fleeting, ironic smile crosses her face as she adds, "And I am saying something not so noble: If we are recaptured, this way Cronos' young queen can never have me."
Martouf nods. "I have heard worse reasons, and seen the successful blendings that came of them. If you are truly willing, I am the last person to dissuade you."
The only answer I can give is to reach a hand toward her, and only for a few seconds before it drops back into my lap. Nihmat is all but gone now; I am mourning her already as Rosha approaches, her features set in equal parts of fear and determination. This choice is not an easy one for her, but she has made it.
Martouf lowers me back onto the bed and relinquishes his place beside me, stepping back just enough for tact's sake, but remaining close enough to reach us should something go wrong. Instead of sitting where he was, Rosha kneels on the floor, which places her face nearly level with mine. "What must I do?" she asks.
"Come closer," I manage. "Close as you can."
She does as I ask, leaning in until her face fills my field of vision. I have a moment to cherish this last sight through Nihmat's eyes even as I disengage from her, drawing back the delicate neural connections that have joined us for more than half her life. Then the crossing of cold, empty air, inches that seem so far, the leap to the haven of Rosha's warmth and brave strength.
I am sitting on my heels with my head bowed, weeping as I grasp Nihmat's lifeless hand in both my own. Both of Rosha's. She is here, bright and wondering and not a little overwhelmed. Grief for Nihmat tightens our throat, and its echo comes back to me from Rosha's mind. A careful balance: forging the bonds we need without drowning her in my sorrow. I have done this so many times, yet it never grows easier.
I kiss Nihmat's hand and lay it across her chest, then reach out to close the sightless dark eyes. I have no words that will do her sufficient honor; she would understand. Slowly I get to my feet, feeling out the unfamiliar length of limb, center of gravity, slightness of frame. The only body Rosha has known since reaching adulthood. She knows how to inhabit it with rare grace, knowledge that cannot be taught but which I can now draw on to move it. Yesterday I barely cleared Martouf's shoulder; now I look up only slightly to meet his eyes, and can stand flat on my feet to kiss him. I think I will like this.
I never want to let him go, but it is best to give Rosha more time to grow accustomed to sharing my feelings. And more immediately, we still have an escape to make. Reluctantly I step back, and he nods, turning to pay his respects to Nihmat.
"Good-bye, brave desert flower," he murmurs, smoothing down her unruly hair one last time. He will miss that. He looks back at me, holding up the zat'nik'tel Rosha has obtained for us, and I nod. There must be nothing of Nihmat left for Cronos to exploit. I imagine each of the three blasts adding force to my wish that her spirit will find peace, wherever it is that spirits go.
You will not go unavenged, I swear silently.
No, Rosha agrees. She will not.
But that is for another day. Today we escape and survive.
I barely have time to wonder where Samantha is before Teal'c carries her back from the forward section. Tears inexplicably sparkle on her eyelashes, but it is clear she is sleeping, and more naturally than the stressful pendulum swings of restlessness and narcotic heaviness over the past day. A pang of inappropriate envy is quickly overcome -- it is only right that Teal'c, as part of the team with whom she faces the unknown every day, those who know her as no one else can, should warrant this absolute trust.
For all the echoes of Jolinar I may see in her, this sets her firmly apart. She understands that she can lean on the strength of those who love her without compromising her own, as surely as she offers them her strength in return. No member of SG-1 will ever live alone for long with a secret that eats the soul.
Little wonder the Tauri are so adamant that no one is to be left behind -- it would be like leaving behind a part of yourself. There are those who believe this value is a luxury we cannot afford, but because of it everyone who ventured to Netu on this mission is going home, alive and whole.
It is a lesson I will not forget.