Fragile Balance

Part Three

The wormhole expelled her from the other side with a pop. Her 'transition' at Edora had been very brief as she brushed the faint dampness from her eyes and dialled her destination on the DHD: the NID's secret off-world site.

"Major Carter." Newman stepped up to her as she descended the stairs. "How was your trip in?"

"Cold," she noted dryly, taking the opportunity to glance around the room. It was a large room, almost warehouse sized. Overhead, through the clear ceiling, the stormy sky could be seen overhead, clouds roiling and tumbling around in what must have been gale-force winds. But from inside, she could hear nothing of the weather - the air here was still and quiet.

Behind Newman, row upon row of shelves stood, crammed full of all kinds of technologies. The sheer number of them stunned her - there must have been dozens of items here, all taken by stealth or force from various planets in the last two years.

A wealth of technology that the NID had coveted and refused to share.

She kept her anger carefully under control and instead concentrated on the people who gathered behind Newman, quietly observing her.

Her new command - such as it was.

They were a rag-tag bunch. Mostly military according to the files she'd read, one or two were civilians with specialised training. The military people were the wild or rogue cards of the deck. She'd seen and known the type in the academy and during her time out in the Gulf. They had a use during wartime, but during peacetime they tended to turn their energies to troublemaking.

Maybourne had found a better use for those energies.

"We're not exactly the cream of the crop," Newman acknowledged, seeing her glance over the informally assembled people. "But we're very good at what we do."

"Which is basically stealing technology."

"Whatever we need to do to protect our planet, Major." Newman stood his ground and eyeballed her. "Isn't that why they kicked you out?"

Sam quirked a smile. "Point."

The young man's expression eased as he turned to his compatriots. "Guys, this is Major Carter, formerly of SG-1. She's our newest addition to the team, and, depending on how she works out during these first few missions, Maybourne may set her up to run this place since she's seen the SGC in action."

She got a series of fairly solemn nods from the group. One or two individuals smiled a little as they greeted her, but, by and large, they all seemed fairly reserved. Newman went through the names, introducing them one by one. Sam figured she wouldn't remember all of them, but she'd have a decent chance of remembering most of them. Not too many of them stuck out, although she paid careful attention to the names of the older members: Colonel Greaves, Sergeant Rice, and a man of subcontinental descent who gave his name simply as 'Ranjit'. The older ones would have the greatest influence and the best chance of leadership - official or unofficial - and might resent her as the newcomer who was taking over the base. She made a note to try to get them on-side with her.

Judging from the reception she got, Sam gathered most of them would be watching to see how she did on the first couple of missions before they came to a decision about her. They were polite, but cautious.

As Newman took her through the complex, showing her the layout of the base, Sam realised that these people didn't have much reason to love her. After all, her team had put their Earth-based operations out of action and stranded them here. Whatever home, family, friends or loved ones they'd had on Earth, they hadn't seen or heard from in over a year.

She only half-listened as he pointed out the various rooms in the base to her.

For the first time, she felt the pangs of conscience. Not over what she and SG-1 had done in uncovering the existence of the ring but about the consequences that had come about as a result of it. In trying to keep the honour of their planet, they'd had to sacrifice the futures of these people.

In seeking to bring down this smuggling ring - and any others like it, Sam would be handing these people over to the mercy of the USAF, under whose authority the Stargate and all its activities undertaken by Earth bodies fell.

It wasn't a pleasant thought.

But no more pleasant than the thought of the millions of lives wiped out by the Goa'uld motherships. Without the Asgard-Goa'uld treaty, Earth was defenceless before the power of the Goa'uld. And the Tollan might not exactly be allies as far as sharing weapons technology, but their goodwill might mean the difference between annihilation and survival.

And that was what her mission was about.

With her reasons justified in her mind, Sam tuned in more fully to what her guide was telling her as they headed down another corridor.

"...and these are the living quarters. Most people share a room with one other person, but some of us get our own rooms. You'll get your own, for one." Newman gave her a cocky grin, "It doesn't do for the base commander to have to share quarters, after all."

Her 'quarters' were nothing more than a room with an attached bathroom, spartan in its simplicity. Teal'c had more furniture - if only in his candles. "It'll do," she conceded as she dumped her duffle on the bed. "Does the operation of the base take up all the time around here?" There had to be more to the complex than rooms where people were squeezed in and sent off on missions.

"Major, all work and no play make the people on this base very dull indeed - and we have to live with each other all the time - although we have a planet or two where people are allowed to go off-duty." Newman grinned. "Since the Committee for Appropriations isn't looking over our shoulder at the electricity bill, we don't have to keep an eye on our Stargate use like the SGC does."

Sam smiled. "I can see how that would be handy. Is there any more of the complex to see?"

"There is, but it'll have to wait until later. Colonel Maybourne is due to call us in ten minutes." He held the door open for her to go through. "The Colonel contacts us for a basic report. Senior operative usually gives it, now that you're here, that'll probably be you. Colonel Greaves hasn't been doing too bad a job, but he's not exactly a people-person." There was a wry note in Newman's voice as he described the Colonel.

Thinking back to the middle-aged man who'd nodded briefly and tersely at her, Sam allowed herself a faint half-smile. "Do you have a rank, Newman?"

"I was a Captain." She noted the past tense. "Dishonourable discharge." He didn't tell her any more and she didn't pry, but she did see the measuring look he gave her. "Not surprised?"

"I never said that," she replied easily.

"So what were you thinking, Major?"

She considered her words carefully, "I was thinking that you were the kind of person who would do well in whatever field they chose - as long as the field of expertise didn't require rigid adherence to the rules."

The grin he gave her was broad, "That about sums it up." They passed a set of rooms where the steady pounding of punching bags could be heard. "That's the gym. Some of the equipment is makeshift, but it works to keep us fit and healthy. We have two doctors on the base - and while they're probably not quite as knowledgeable as Docs Fraiser and Warner of the SGC," Newman quirked a grin, "They're good at patching us up when things don't work out as nicely as they should."

"Have there been any casualties?"

"Not yet. We usually operate by stealth. If we're met by natives, we usually play the 'SGC team' game, scope out their tech and if any of it's useful, we take it. Most of the time they don't even know what it does." Newman shrugged. "So they hardly miss it."

Which was quite incorrect, Sam thought. Someone had missed the technology and complained to whatever race was looking after them.

He led her to a room off the gate room, with a couple of comfortable chairs and the long-range communications device sitting in a stand on the table. "Like a crystal ball," Newman joked as he took one of the seats.

"How often are these meetings?"

"Once every two days. Our focus is more on the research than on the exploratory aspect - we don't have the resources to do what the SGC does regarding the Goa'uld. If our teams encounter a Goa'uld or Goa'uld forces, the first priority is to get out of there."

"What about natives?"

Newman held his hands out, "This is the only base we have off-world, Major. We don't have the resources to fight the Goa'uld on a scale that you do. Our primary commitment is to Earth and Earth's defences - and once we're secure there, then we can help other planets." He glanced at the surface of the gold ball, gold and white mists swirling around in its depths. "Ah, here's the Colonel."

Maybourne's smug face filled the volume of the device, "Major Carter, how's the tour of the base going?"

"Very well, Colonel," she said. "You've got quite an operation running here."

"It's small but effective," Maybourne said proudly. "We're doing good work, Major, and I'm sure you'll become accustomed to the routine. In the meantime, how about we send you out and show you what we're doing?"

She shrugged, indicating that she was fine, "Sounds good to me, sir. Have to learn the ropes sometime." And the more she knew, the more they'd be able to stop this from going anywhere else. While it seemed that this was the only off-world outpost, they had to be sure. There was no point in catching this nest of rats and then finding themselves facing another infestation in another six months.

"Willing to take some advice, Major?" Maybourne's slight hesitancy surprised her and it must have showed her face, because he added, "We run things slightly different here, as I said. I mostly give advice, not orders."

Sam noted the use of the term 'mostly'. "So I see. If the advice is worth taking, I take it."

"Let Newman or one of the other experienced personnel lead the mission the first few times. Ease yourself into our way of doing things. Certainly there are things that can be improved - that's where your experience in the running of the SGC will come in handy - but let's start slowly and work up from there."

Sam nodded agreement. "Sounds reasonable."

Maybourne and Newman fell into a quick briefing about the next planet they were to visit. An agrarian society, no links to the Goa'uld for what they thought was several thousand years, but children's rumours of 'magic troves', dismissed by the adults, but quite possibly what they were looking for.

Sam listened to the plans, one part of her filing away all the relevant information, while another part quietly noted that it seemed a very clumsy way of doing business. Although, she reminded herself, this outpost didn't have half the resources of the SGC and they weren't able to run things quite the way the SGC could.

And why am I looking at ways to improve the running of this base? I'm not going to be here very long, and I have nothing vested in these people. I can't have anything vested in them - I'm going to take their operation down. Ultimately, this base would be dismantled, their research taken back through the gate to the SGC, and these men and women would end up in jail for treason.

"I'll be in contact in two days time. Take Major Carter out on the next mission," Maybourne regarded Sam with no small measure of amusement. "Good luck on the first time out, Major."

"Thank you, sir."

----

Sam took her time exploring the rest of the base. While she didn't anticipate being here more than a week, both prudence and curiosity required she take a good look around the place.

She had to admit, the setup was very neat. Whoever designed the place had skipped the recreational and the more complex exercise facilities since they had an entire universe in which to spend R&R time. That left more room for the functions of the base - a good trade-off since the base was only about half the size of the SGC and the personnel of this place lived here twenty-four-by-seven - or whatever the hours and days of the week were.

The main concession to on-base recreation was the computer network set up in the server room.

"Diablo II?" Sam asked Newman, amused as they peered in on the four oblivious gamers. Whites, blues, reds, and greens illuminated the intent faces of the players hunched protectively over their keyboards. The whirr of the air conditioner and the tap-tap-tap of keys were the only sounds in the room - apart from the occasional yelp as a player was shot or scored a hit against someone or something else.

"You don't play?"

"No." She'd never had the patience for computer games. There were too many other things to do with her time.

"Well, there are other recreational activities," Newman said. "Whatever your preference."

"Most of my 'recreational' time tends to be spent in the labs," she admitted, wryly. Certainly, in the last couple of months, all her spare time had been spent in her lab, trying to get the particle accelerator working.

As she turned back to the corridor, she caught Newman studying her. Doubtless he'd heard about her efforts to get the particle accelerator going from Colonel Maybourne and was wondering about whether the rumours about Colonel O'Neill and her were true.

She ignored it, as she'd ignored many other questions and innuendos in the last three months, and he quirked a grin at her.

"Then we'll head for the labs, Major."

The labs were larger and busier than she'd anticipated, personnel standing in groups quietly tossing ideas back and forth. They looked up as she entered, obviously startled by her presence.

"Major Carter," one of the women stepped forward. "Lieutenant Jess Holland. It's truly an honour to meet you, ma'am." She was fairly young, probably in her late twenties, Sam judged. Bold enough to want to introduce herself rather than be introduced, young enough to believe that she was interesting to all who listened to her, enthusiastic enough to get away with it.

Sam opened her mouth to give an appropriately amused answer.

"Oh you can quit sucking up, Holland," interrupted another woman. "She's in here for the same stuff that we are. Getting caught with her fingers in the cookie jar." Dark eyes looked pointedly at Sam, who allowed a little of her amusement and none of her offence to show.

"But weren't the cookies worth it?" She asked, looking around at the things standing on the sideboards of the lab.

"Depends," said Dark-Eyes. "On what we had to give up when you and your toy-boys rained on our parade."

Sam felt her eyebrows arching, and projected amusement into her voice. "Boy-toys?" One corner of her mouth pulled out and up. "That's the first time I've heard my team-mates referred to as 'boy-toys'." At least in my hearing, although I wouldn't put it past some of the nurses...

"Some of us had lives before you and your saintly friends made it impossible for us to go home again, Major," Dark-Eyes spat.

"Helen," Newman said.

Helen ignored the warning. "Friends, families, children... Husbands."

Sam felt the longing edge of Helen's words like knives in her flesh. The sting operation had been over a year ago, and whatever the motives of these people, they were still humans with people they loved. People they'd been forced to leave behind when the operations got stranded off-world.

And, unbeknownst to them, their world was going to be up-ended once again when she revealed their covert operations for the second time.

"She's in the same boat as us now, Helen," Lieutenant Holland reminded the angry woman. "And whatever she had back at home, that's gone to her now, too. We're all stuck here, doing our duty - and that includes Major Carter." The Lieutenant managed a slightly hesitant smile. "Right, Major?"

The moment she took to regain her composure was no act. Whatever she had back at home was gone to her and she was stuck here doing her duty. And even once she'd done her duty, she wasn't sure she'd have anything to go back to.

Sure, she'd have a career and a commendation from General Hammond and whoever else had authorised this - but she was desperately afraid that she wouldn't have a team anymore. After what she'd said and done to ensure that there was enough distance for her to carry out her mission, she didn't think there'd be forgiveness for her actions.

So the smile on her lips was a little sad when it came. "That's right, Lieutenant."

"See?" The Lieutenant returned at Helen.

Helen just grunted and picked herself and her papers up and stalked out of the lab. Lieutenant Holland looked a little abashed. "I'm sorry about her attitude, ma'am. She's been like this for a while now."

"When we were stranded here, Helen left behind a husband and two children," Newman explained, leaning his hip against the desk. There was a sardonic expression on his face as he spoke. "She's since discovered that her husband has remarried, believing her dead."

Sam winced. That was a pretty fast remarriage. "Did most people here have family or partners they had to leave behind?" She asked softly.

"Some. Not all," Lieutenant Holland said. The young woman didn't appear to have left anyone she considered important behind. "We knew the risks when we got involved with this project, sometimes it costs you some, sometimes it costs you none." A shrug and a grin. "And some of us get more out of it than we ever would have gotten otherwise. Would you like to see the lab and some of the stuff we're working on?"

A glance at Newman produced a wry smile and a wave of the hand. "From all reports, we'd have a hard time keeping you out of the labs, Major. I'll leave you guys to it."

Jess Holland looked like she was about to bounce, "You're going to love the stuff we're working on here, ma'am! Even the SGC doesn't get a look at this kind of tech..."

As the Lieutenant took her through the labs, introducing her to the various personnel who worked in the labs, Sam learned that almost everyone on the base went out on missions and they all had a secondary role.

"For some of us, our primary role is going through the Stargate - Newman and several of the older ones are like that. Then there are those of us who mostly stay 'at home', so to speak. Ranjit's the only one who doesn't go out on any off-world missions. He prefers to stay on the base - one trip through the wormhole to get here was enough for him."

"And you're one of the people with a science background."

"Yup," Holland said proudly. "I did hope to get into the SGC, but they'd reached their quota and weren't looking for any other applicants at the time. My application for Area 51 was knocked back, but while I was considering other postings, Colonel Maybourne approached me and I ended up as part of this group."

It didn't seem to bother Holland that what she was doing amounted to stealing. Just like it didn't occur to her that taking the technology was in breach of the treaty with both Asgard and Tollan - and what that could mean for Earth.

Sam wondered if that was a tunnel vision the young woman had possessed at the start, or if it had been encouraged by the NID when they brought her to this base.

The young woman proudly showed Sam around the labs, nearly glowing with delight and enthusiasm as she explained the purpose of each of the items on the bench. The other scientists in the labs came and went, some listening to Holland's explanation and correcting her from time to time when her enthusiasm outstripped her knowledge, some merely nodding at Sam and getting on with their work.

Sam was fascinated by the technology, even as she was aware of how everything here had been obtained. Wasn't there some old quote about fruit stolen from the vine tasting sweeter? Certainly the stuff they had stored here was enough to make any scientist seriously consider theft as a living - if this was the result.

Even her.

Her attention was captured as Holland showed her an anti-grav device, explaining how the material in the device created a 'nullifying field' where an artificial gravitational pull could be generated. As yet, the people working on the device hadn't come up with a solution that would enable things like 'walk on wall' boots, but they were looking into it.

"Have many advances come out of these articles?" Sam asked, pondering the device and the many others around them. If they were all as inscrutable as this item, then the research would be hard going.

"Quite a few, actually," the Lieutenant sounded excited. "Have you ever seen 'Terminator 2', Major?"

Sam cautiously admitted that she had.

"In 'Terminator 2', the black guy who's the head of the technology company talks about the chip they took from the first Terminator. He said that it was damaged beyond repair, but it still gave them ideas they'd never had before. That's kinda like what's happening here." No doubt about it, Lieutenant Holland was excited about this kind of breakthrough. "We may not be able to exactly copy what they've done to produce the tech, but we've gotten ideas that are so far beyond anything that's been thought before - it's absolutely incredible..."

It was hard not to smile at the younger woman's enthusiasm and passion for this work - or not to feel an answering echo in her own psyche, even as she felt the swift pang of pity for the Lieutenant. When this base was closed down, Jess Holland would rot in a federal prison. A young woman who had wanted nothing more than to work on exciting new challenges would find herself working on nothing. Unwanted by any base or place that might have anything near as complex as this kind of technology.

Something occurred to her.

"You get all this stuff from other cultures, right?"

"Well it certainly doesn't turn up in the mail," the Lieutenant said with a touch of asperity. Her expression turned contrite as she remembered who she was speaking to. "Ma'am, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to be disrespectful..."

Sam waved the girl silent. At this point in time she was more interested in how they procured the items and what happened after they'd researched them. "Be more careful of your phrasing next time, Lieutenant. Once you've gotten the tech and studied how it works - then what? All this knowledge doesn't do Earth a lot of good just sitting around here."

"No, ma'am, it doesn't." Now there was a touch of smugness in the Lieutenant's expression. "We have people in place on outgoing SG-teams who are contacted by Colonel Maybourne about pickups. With some advance knowledge of which teams are going to which planets, it's possible for us to hide the items near the Stargate on a planet that our contact will be travelling through. The smaller items can be easily hidden in packs or flak jackets, but we make schematics of the larger items and store them on data files or in hardcopy diagrams."

It was clever. It was more than clever, it was brilliantly organised and executed. Sam had to give them that. This base had operated in secret for over a year, gaining technological advances through theft and lies - and it had done it well.

Now it was her job to bring the card tower tumbling down with a mere puff of air.

"Major?" Holland had noticed her glassy silence and was looking at her with concern. "Are you okay?"

Sam managed a smile. "I'm fine, Lieutenant. Thank you for asking. It's been a long day..."

"Oh, of course! You'll want to lie down and take it all in." The young woman began escorting her to the door. "Do you need help getting to your quarters, ma'am? It can be very confusing at first - I know I wandered around for ages before I worked out how it all went..."

She assured the helpful Lieutenant that no assistance was necessary and made her way slowly through the base, accepting the nods and greetings from the few personnel she met along the way.

There were no more reactions like Helen's, but Sam felt the criticism of the other woman like salt in a wound. She felt the echo of that loneliness and abandonment in her own soul - the sense than she was in exile, unforgiven, unredeemed.

And this exile had been her choice. Helen's had not.

If she'd been trapped here by the results of someone else's choices, would she have been as bitter as Helen?

She didn't know the answer, and that scared her.

The material of her door wasn't metal - it seemed like some kind of a mesh weave - but when it closed behind her, she could no longer hear the sounds of the base. She flung herself down on the pallet, pulled the blanket up over her body, and took a long, deep breath.

She was alone.

Of course, she had to assume that she was under surveillance, even in here. They might suspect something, they might not, but she had to act as if she was constantly being watched. The ultimate performance.

She was alone.

No backup here, no support. Just her, flying on borrowed wings, hoping she could keep herself aloft, praying that she wouldn't betray the hopes of General Hammond, the Asgard and the Tollan.

She was very much alone.

Praying that she could make it through in one piece and go home.

Praying that the bridges between her and her team-mates were merely singed, not incinerated.

This operation had been her choice, but it was not her preference.

In the darkness, questions arose in her mind. Faced with the reality of the people whose work she was sabotaging, Sam no longer knew if she was doing the right thing.

Was it necessary? Yes. Earth needed the treaty with the Asgard and the goodwill of the Tollan.

But was it right?

In the darkness, the people she loved were a million miles distant from her and nearly twice that distant in spirit, Sam felt a yawning emptiness inside herself.

In the last two weeks, all the things she'd assumed were there for her had crumbled away.

She'd put all her energy and time into completing the particle accelerator, only knowing she missed his presence. The question of whether he wanted to return never occurred to her. She'd never thought he might give up hope of being rescued - that he'd question his value and assume they wouldn't try to get him back.

In the face of the answers, the mission had been a relief. Something else to take her attention, to draw her focus. The backwash of regrets and bitter hurt could be forgotten as she took up the next challenge and soldiered on.

Of course, she suspected they'd just be waiting for her when she got back. If she got back.

If she went back.

And suddenly a new avenue opened up to her.

I could stay here.

That thought died swiftly, put to death by her own practicality.

She couldn't stay here doing something she knew was wrong. She couldn't aid and abet the possible destruction of Earth through her actions in abandoning the agreements with their allies.

She was trapped.

In a way, Sam was trapped by other people's choices - by the choices of Helen, Jess Holland, Newman, the people who had come here, the people who had stayed behind to form the bridge back to the SGC, Colonel Maybourne.

They had chosen to steal technology from their allies instead of accepting their decision not to share technology directly, but give them the benefits of an alliance.

But she had also come here by her own choice.

Her choices were made, her bridges were burned, there was no turning back, bleak as the landscape before her was. Maybe there was indeed a promised haven beyond the wasteland, but she couldn't see it now and nobody could assure her that it was still there.

Slowly, the weight of everything on her shoulders crushed down on her, and she slept, but restlessly.

----

The new planet was a refreshing change after the artificiality of the base.

She'd gone through the rules of operation for the base early this morning when she woke and couldn't get back to sleep again. The lack of sleep made her tired, but the purpose of her presence here burned within her.

Around her, it was a crisp, chill morning. Trees yearned up to the sky - an intense royal blue colour. The sight had excited one of the scientists who promptly launched into a discourse about the probable atmospheric qualities of the planet.

Newman tugged his beanie down over his ears with an audible sigh and started walking, leaving Captain McCabe behind to catch up.

Sam grinned in spite of herself. There was a certain familiarity here - she couldn't count the number of times Daniel had started babbling about something the instant they hit the planet - or the number of times the Colonel had walked away without bothering to listen.

She knew of her own tendencies to 'techno babble' at the Colonel, but when they first arrived on a planet, she was usually more concerned about their military position than anything scientific - although there were always exceptions.

"Less chatter, McCabe," she said firmly. "Mission priority."

McCabe nodded with a decidedly sheepish look on his face. "Yes, ma'am."

"It's about two klicks that way to the nearest village," Newman indicated with one hand as Sam came alongside him. "But the caves we're exploring are on the other side of the village and we don't really want to alert the villagers to what we're doing..."

"So it's the long road for us," said the fourth member of their group - a Sergeant by the name of Franklins - as he shouldered his pack and headed off in the direction Newman had indicated.

Captain McCabe followed after, pulling out a tape recorder from his pocket and beginning to record his thoughts on the exploration.

"Does he do that all the time?" Sam inquired of Newman as they followed Franklins and McCabe.

"The recording? Yeah. He says it helps cement his impressions of the planet." Newman shrugged. "To each his own."

They walked through damp grass, the long strands sticking to their fatigues pants. Sam made a mental note to ask where the rogue group got their supplies from. There was no way they could appropriate this kind of stuff regularly over long-term, and, hard-wearing though fatigues might be, they didn't last forever.

And she still didn't know who the contacts within the SGC were.

She had to find out.

They didn't say much on the walk to the cave, starting only small conversations that were swiftly dealt with, leaving silence behind it.

The silence was unusual to Sam. On SG-1, there was almost always someone talking. Usually Daniel, although Sam was as guilty of talk as her team-mate. But Daniel would talk with anyone who would talk back to him - unless he was sulking, in which case he wouldn't talk to anyone. The Colonel, too, enjoyed conversation that was apropos of nothing in particular - which could be very amusing when Sam was in the mood to be entertained, and intensely frustrating when she wasn't.

Still, she wasn't sure about the tension in the air - her presence? The natives' hostility? Their own preoccupations?

They walked on, their boots squishing gently in the soft earth, leaving clear prints behind should anyone look along the trail of bent-and-broken grass in the meadow.

The chain of caves began in the hills, where the old rocky bones of the planet had split the fertile skin of the earth to jut through in a spine of mountains that apparently ran for several miles. They climbed a little way into the hills and were all breathing slightly harder when Sam saw the outline of what must be the cave mouth.

"Franklin, you're on watch. Major Carter, McCabe, you're with me."

They pulled out their flashlights, shining them into the dark. The caves seemed fairly empty right now, but that could easily change.

The opening of the cave was well-hidden, but the track inside it was worn.

"What were these caves used for?"

"They used to hide here when the Goa'uld came," Newman explained, his low voice echoing in the cave. "They were originally under Asgard protection - but something happened and the Goa'uld took them as slaves and brought them here. They retained some of the Asgard's technology - and we're hoping that some of it might still be useful to us."

"You haven't found many Asgard items?" Sam inquired.

It was MacCabe who answered her. "The Asgard are very protective of their technology. It's hard to get hold of anything."

"But something like this - overlooked, hopefully forgotten - it might be just what we're looking for."

It turned out to be exactly what they were looking for. A small stone-like item, somewhat resembling the half-egg 'control keys' Sam had seen in the chamber at Cimmeria. Some fiddling around with it showed its true purpose - to make the holder invisible.

Sam regarded the device with no small amount of amazement as Newman winked in and out of visibility like some military-dressed djinn.

There were some things, she suspected, that they would never be able to reverse-engineer - Asgard technology being one of them. It was just...alien. A completely different line of science to any they'd seen before on Earth. That wouldn't stop them from taking it and using it, of course - and maybe over time, they'd work out how the device worked and develop a substitute for it using Earth technology.

McCabe, at least, was very pleased with the find. He vanished from view, and a disembodied voice said he'd meet them outside the cave. They heard his steps scrambling up the slope - doubtless his intent was to give Franklin a shock.

Newman shook his head. "We should send one of the technical drafting teams here. This stuff is probably too bulky to move easily, but it would be worth our time to pull it apart and see if we can get some technical specs."

"We do that as well?"

He gave her a quick smile by the dim light of their torches. "We're a multi-talented bunch."

"So I see."

She gave one last glance around the room, then began the ascent back up to the mouth of the cave where Franklin was scowling at a broadly-grinning McCabe.

The daylight's brightness hurt her eyes and she slipped on her shades to block out the glare as Newman said, "Well, we found what we wanted. How about we head back?"

The journey back was more talkative than the one there. Captain McCabe recorded his ideas on the technology, interspersed with comments from Newman and Franklins, and Sam found herself drawn into the discussion about the possible means by which the device operated.

It was all speculation, of course, but it was decidedly enjoyable speculation. For a little while, Sam could forget she was on a mission at all, and just think that she was temporarily seconded to another team and laughing with them as they returned to base after finding some new item of technology.

Of course, once she stepped through the wormhole and found herself in what she was coming to think of as the rogue Stargating complex, that illusion was dispelled.

She changed and showered briskly and wearily. Now she needed to start collecting information - the people who were in sympathy with Maybourne and these people in the SGC. There was no point in cutting off the head of the beast if it merely grew another in a location more difficult to reach.

There was one shot at killing this monster, and she needed to be sure she'd gotten everyone.

They had to have some kind of database about who their contacts were at the SGC. Except, Sam realised as the hot spray washed over her skin, it was probably Colonel Maybourne who had the complete list since he would be the one to co-ordinate the pickups.

Sam would just have to make sure she was present for a pickup.

----

"You're sure about this?" Newman asked her.

She nodded. "I need to know the basics of this command from the ground up. Which means doing it at least once." That was Colonel O'Neill's mandate, and Sam had no doubt he'd done almost everything that was within his ability to do at least once. "It's no difficulty. I go in, plant the item, get out of there."

It should have been easy.

Wasn't there some old saying about the best-laid plans never lasting the first engagement?

The planet on which the pickup was taking place was beautiful. Compared with the barren harshness of the rogue base, Balesh was a lush green paradise.

Sam didn't waste any time in putting the wrapped package beneath a rock at the base of the DHD. According to Newman, their contact at the SGC would know to fetch the device from there.

Now, she just had to find an excuse to stay behind a little longer.

As it turned out, she didn't have to.

Chevrons began lighting up on the Stargate even as she turned, and she made a dash for the treeline. It was the work of a few moments to find herself a vantage point from which she could see the Stargate, the DHD, and the package hidden at its base. The binoculars stashed away in her pack would give her a clearer view of what was happening - whether this was an SGC team coming through, or someone or something else.

The Stargate burst open with its customary display of light and energy particles, and Sam watched as it settled to the shimmering blue surface of the event horizon.

She was too far to hear the noise that the surface made as the people came through, but not so distant that she couldn't recognise the men who came through. There was no mistaking their gaits, or the very distinctive way they moved.

SG-1 had been sent to pick up the package.

Her spirits sank.

Not them. Not these guys - I trusted them!

Her first reaction was denial. There was no way that any of her team-mates would get involved in something like this. The Colonel was too honourable, Daniel was too direct, and Teal'c held no love for the NID.

Still, in the last few days, she had come to believe that anything was possible of anyone. And if she could go so far out of her way as to go undercover to flush out a mole, then wasn't it possible that one of her team-mates might see a more direct way to achieve the goals they'd been striving for these last few years?

Maybe. Maybe not.

There was always the Lieutenant who accompanied them, blonde, tall and lanky with a focused air about her. Sam remembered her vaguely from the labs - Claire Tobias. Very driven, but with a reserve about her that rebuffed friendly overtures.

She could always hope.

At the Colonel's order, they wandered off in the opposite direction to where Sam had ensconced herself, and she breathed a sigh of relief. At least this wouldn't be a game of hide and seek.

Still, their presence here made her very nervous with a dry-throat, heart-drumming kind of terror. Terror that seized her on several levels.

It wasn't just that SG-1 had been sent to pick up the package, it was also that they were early. The information being received by the rogues was incorrect, which could cause trouble for Sam on several levels. Sam didn't know any of the rogue personnel by sight and doubted that any of the personnel from SGC Stargating teams would know them by sight. However, Sam was a different matter.

If this incorrect information was symptomatic of the data being received by the rogues, then Sam was in a very real danger of having both her cover and her career blown. If she arrived on a planet too late and was caught by the team, then she'd have no chance of reintegrating into the rogue group, nor of catching the person passing information from the SGC.

SG-1 took several hours to finish their task - several hours during which Sam started at every snapped twig or crackled leaf. A little nervous there, Major?

Maybe just a little.

She tried to occupy her mind with plans and options, to move now or to wait until she had more complete data, but it was difficult. She missed the guys. She missed her team. She missed the teasing and the camaraderie, the care they'd shown her - particularly Teal'c and Daniel those months when she'd worked herself into the ground. She missed the Colonel's drawl at her door, 'Wanna get some cake?' And the way he made spaces seem smaller with the chained energy of his personality.

At length, their voices grew closer again, and she raised her binoculars to check out the guys. The Colonel was saying something to Lieutenant Tobias who was regarding him with amusement. His gaze occasionally ranged over the countryside, but apart from that, he seemed at ease with the new team member.

Sam felt a brief pang in her chest as she contemplated the idea that she was replaceable - on SG-1, in the lives of her friends. Maybe there wouldn't be a team to return to once she was done here.

The depressing thoughts were doing nothing for her attitude, so she banished them and concentrated on the package and her former team-mates.

Teal'c was standing further away from the Stargate than the others, but his gaze was ranging over the landscape, as if sensing that something wasn't quite right. Sam didn't move. She'd been lucky enough to find a hiding spot distant enough so Teal'c couldn't sense her through the naquadah in their bloodstreams, but Teal'c was exceptionally sensitive to his surroundings and might spot her anyway.

She could hope he didn't.

Daniel was already at the DHD, dialling home. He seemed out of sorts, his face had that peculiar tight expressionlessness that she associated with Daniel in a bad temper.

As he reached up to get one of the higher buttons on the DHD, his foot touched the stone under which the package was hidden. Sam held her breath, hoping he didn't do anything more. Since Sha're's death, Daniel had become increasingly bitter, the bitterness held back by the thinnest of threads. It was entirely possible that the thread had snapped and Sam had just never noticed. But she hoped to God and whatever deities might be out there that Daniel wasn't implicated in this.

He moved away from the DHD without giving the rocks at the bottom of the pedestal a second look. As he lifted his arm to aim the GDO at the event horizon, Teal'c turned towards the DHD but didn't make a move towards it. Instead, he went to help Daniel Jackson with the large silver equipment box.

That still left Colonel O'Neill or Lieutenant Tobias.

It was very smooth in the end. Lieutenant Tobias bent to tie her shoelace by the DHD and picked up the packet, unaware that Sam was watching her from across the clearing.

One down, several to go.

As SG-1 vanished through the wormhole, Sam rested her head against the bole of the tree behind which she hid. A little while later, she heard the event horizon dissipate and heaved herself up. Her muscles ached a little, stiff from being in the same position for several hours. As she stretched, she considered the situation with the traitors inside the SGC.

Lieutenant Tobias couldn't be the only traitor in the SGC. Simple common sense dictated that there must be others. For starters, the rogues would need someone with a significant degree of clearance to get the information about who was going where. That meant one of the team leaders - at the very least a Major or one of the senior Aides.

How deep did this go, anyway? Sam had no idea and neither did the people who had assigned her to this mission. That had been part of her mission - work out how deep it all went so her superiors could excise it, leaf, stem, and root.

She dialled the rogues planet and went through without a second thought, only to find a dozen guns pointed at her on the other side of the wormhole.

Her astonishment only lasted a moment. There were a thousand reasons that they were pointing weapons at her, and only one of them was because she'd been found out. "Newman, what is this?" She demanded of the young man, deciding that a commanding officer's ire would hold up considerably better than an immediate assumption that they knew all about her mission to reveal them.

"Weapons down," he said, not without some relief. "Good to see you back, Major Carter."

"It's good to be back," she responded as she came down the stairs. One hand indicated the personnel putting their weaponry away. "What's with the warm welcome?"

Newman glanced around the room, "You've been away four hours. We feared the worst..."

Sam grimaced, pulling off her cap and scrubbing her hand through her hair - it would be due for a haircut shortly. "Whoever's passing you information needs to check their timetable. I was on my way back when the SGC team arrived - had to hide out until they'd gone." She dusted her hands and the cap off and exhaled. She could do with a nice long shower right about now. The stress of the mission had really gotten to her.

"Close shave, huh?"

"And then some..." Sam was interrupted by a shout from Lieutenant Holland.

"The tech!"

They turned, even as a large piece of tech vanished from one of the shelves in a blur of white light. Sam blinked as another two items stored on the shelves vanished. Damn. Thor, what are you doing? This isn't enough time...I haven't found everyone out... Unfortunately, this part of the mission was running to the Asgard's schedule - not Sam's. She gritted her teeth as she made her way over to the DHD and began dialling.

She hadn't planned her exit this soon, but it seemed that the Asgard were pre-empting the conclusion of her time undercover. At this point, she only really had one choice...

"What are you doing?" Newman came up beside her. "You're not supposed to..."

Sam punched him in the jaw with a right hook, catching him unawares and off-balance. He fell to the floor, permitting her to finish dialling the address of her destination.

As the event horizon billowed out, she turned to address the stunned rogue Stargaters looking from her to Newman. "I think the game is up. That," she indicated as another item vanished in a beam of light, "is Asgard transporter technology." She indicated the Stargate behind her. "I won't be staying here, and you're welcome to join me where I'm going. However, I'll be holding the door open from the other end so you won't be able to dial out again. You've got two choices: my way or the Asgard's way."

And without a further word, she plunged into the event horizon, trusting that the Asgard had given the signal to General Hammond and that she wasn't about to end up splattered across the back of the iris.

Please, please, please, please...

The wormhole spat her out with a 'glop'.

The SGC's gate room was crowded with people - among them the newly-returned SG-1. It seemed that General Hammond had roused most of the SGC's special forces population to the Gate room to receive the rogue Stargaters - and one departed Major. Their weapons trained on her with perfect accuracy, but even from behind the muzzles she could see their astonishment at her presence - the face of someone they'd thought was gone.

Sam didn't move completely out of the event horizon. Instead, she left her arm in the buffer zone of the Stargate, preventing it from closing. Her arm had made the transfer through the wormhole, but wasn't yet rematerialised on the other end. She could only hope the wormhole wouldn't unexpectedly close down on her - otherwise, she'd get an unplanned amputation from the elbow down.

A moment later, the first of the rogues emerged from the Stargate and halted at the top of the ramp in astonishment. At the hailing of the PA, he went down the ramp, glancing over at Sam in surprise. Comprehension took time to dawn on this one. It wasn't until the SF was binding his wrists that he realised the deception practised upon him.

One by one, the others came through. Some took longer to realise that the betrayers had been betrayed in turn, some, like Lieutenant Holland, realised it mere moments after landing on the ramp. Her accusing gaze turned to Sam, but she accepted the bindings placed upon her without a further word.

Within herself, Sam levelled what she'd had to do against what the Asgard and Tollan would have done if she hadn't intervened. Did she regret it? Yes. She'd made promises with the intent of breaking them.

Would she do it again?

In a heartbeat.

The last of the rogue Stargaters emerged from the wormhole and Sam pulled her arm from the buffer zone, ending the wormhole's open state and shutting it down. On the floor below, the marines of SG-3 were putting bindings on the rogue Stargaters one by one. Over in the corner, SG-1 gaped at their returned team-mate in disbelief.

Sam merely glanced over the guys - she focused on Tobias, whose blue eyes were both shocked and a little suspicious. She could call Tobias on the matter now, or she could wait - and maybe use the Lieutenant as the stalking horse for whoever else in the SGC was in this racket.

The voice inside her urged caution. She would deal with Tobias later - the Lieutenant was presently more useful as bait than imprisoned. General Hammond, the Tollan, and the Asgard would need to be told that they hadn't cut the head off the serpent yet, but they could wait a little longer.

And, if she was honest with herself, Sam wasn't ready to go back to SG-1 just yet.

So she turned away from her former team-mates and walked up to General Hammond.

As she passed, one of the rogues spat at her feet. Helen. "Knew you were up to something. Bitch."

Sam didn't say a thing - she didn't have to. Helen was the one in bindings. Sam had just done her job. Did she feel guilty? Yes. She had lied and deceived to get the job done. But if not her, then someone else would have been brought in to betray them. What had been required had been achieved. What was done was done.

It was results that mattered, not how you achieved them. Wasn't that right?

"Sir." Mission accomplished. The words stuck in her throat. She couldn't get them out.

And maybe he sensed that her mission wasn't accomplished, for he merely nodded. "Well done, Major." His gaze ranged out over the expressions of the rogue Stargating teams as he addressed them. "People, you're being transported to Petersen Air Base where you will be incarcerated awaiting your trials."

"Trials?" Newman demanded, "For what? For obeying orders?"

"For breaking the terms of treaty with our allies," Hammond said. He was calm and authoritative - two things that Sam didn't feel right now.

Newman snorted. "Allies that won't give us anything with which to defend ourselves!"

"And who would defend us against them when they took offence at our thieving?" Sam asked back, her voice dragging the attention of the others. "We need them, Newman."

"You'll get what's coming to you, Major!" Helen spat, back along the line. "And you'll wish you hadn't betrayed us!"

There was nothing Sam could say in response to the threat. Hammond nodded at the SFs and the rogues were led out, leaving Sam standing at the base of the ramp, feeling very much distant and alienated from the people she'd once worked with.

If she'd been the Colonel, then she would have responded with something open and easy, trying to smooth everything over. If she'd been Daniel, she would have blustered her way through whatever her team-mates had to bring against her. If she'd been Teal'c, she would have pointed at the necessity, the duty of what she'd had to do.

She was not them.

She was Major Sam Carter who'd said bitter, terrible things to alienate them and had no means of building bridges to get back to where she'd been. Because to push them from her, she'd needed to use against them the very trust they'd placed in her.

And that was the way it was.

----

AUTHOR'S NOTES: The rest of this story can be found at Denise's stories page (user 21018).