Title: Mind Games
Author: Jo. R
Category: Angst, Sam/Jack, Alternate Universe
Spoilers: 'Grace', 'New Order', 'Affinity', 'Gemini', mild for 'Threads', 'Heroes' - AU because 'Reckoning' and 'Threads' haven't happened, with the exception of the Sam/Jack related storylines.
Season/Sequel: End of season eight - after 'Threads', before 'Moebius'. See Authors Notes for explanation. Standalone.
Summary: Someone's playing games.
Archive: SJA, SJFic, Random Ramblings, GateWorld, Helio, Anyone else, please, please ask. I'll probably say yes.
Disclaimer: SG-1 and its characters don't belong to me. No money is being made, no infringement is meant.
Author's Notes: This story is set in an AU and happens instead of "Reckoning", after the Sam and Jack related scenes in "Threads" though nothing else in that episode happened as far as this story is concerned (i.e. The Teal'c plot, Daniel plot and Jacob plot so totally didn't happen).
Dedication: Fairygnomes, thank you for the beta and for everything and squeee and YAY the pig! ;)
"Ignoring me again? Really, Carter, this isn't the proper way to treat your Commanding Officer. I could bring you up on charges for insubordination."
The threat created no reaction in her. No fear, no surprise. Nothing. She was too tired for one thing, exhausted to the point of near unconsciousness.
For another, it wasn't real.
He wasn't real.
"Why don't you just tell her what she wants to know? It'll all be over then. She'll let you go, leave Earth alone just like she promised.. She just wants to know what you're hiding from her. If you can't trust her, you can at least trust me."
"I trust the real you. You're not real." She stared at him through lidded eyes that desperately wanted to close, squinting to make out his shape in the shadows at the other side of the room.
He laughed, a laugh that sounded so real she was tempted to believe it was. "I don't know why you keep saying that, Carter. I'm as real as you are."
"No, you're not." Her voice was sad, her tone dejected. "You're a figment of my imagination, an illusion she's somehow created to get me to trust her. It's not going to work; you might as well just go away and leave me alone. I won't tell you anything. You're not real."
He moved soundlessly, standing in the shadows, stepping out of them and into the artificial light of the grey room. He walked over to her, his feet padding silently over the small blocks that formed the floor, and crouched down beside her, an almost tender smile on his face as he reached out to touch her cheek. "I'm real, Sam. Can't you feel it? Can't you feel me?"
She could, barely, and that made it harder. If she closed her eyes and let her imagination drift she could feel the warmth of imaginary fingers against her skin, a calloused hand cupping her cheek. She could feel his breath on her face, smell the faint scent of aftershave she'd come to recognise as being his but knew in some part of her mind that the real General O'Neill had stopped using it weeks ago for some reason.
But then she opened her eyes and saw the look in his. The tenderness, the devotion. The open curiosity. Three things she had never seen in the eyes of the real General Jack O'Neill, two of which she was certain she never would.
"You're not real." Her voice wavered but her gaze remained locked with his. "As soon as she comes back, you'll disappear, just like you did last time. Just like the others. If you were really here, you wouldn't leave me. You wouldn't let her hurt me."
As if proving her point, the wall at the far end of the room started to crumble. Colonel Samantha Carter watched as the man in front of her faded, giving her an all too clear view of the person keeping her there as a woman almost completely identical to her stepped into the room, her icy blue eyes pinning the Colonel to the wall that she had no choice but to lean against.
"Tell me what I want to know." The replicator took a step closer, the wall reforming behind her. "Show me what you're hiding, Samantha, or I'll destroy them all."
For two weeks, no one had known she was missing. For two whole weeks, fourteen days and nights, her closest friends had gone on with their lives, oblivious to the nightmare she was going through. It was only when she failed to report in on the fifteenth day that they'd realised something was wrong.
General Jack O'Neill had sat around the briefing room table with Doctor Daniel Jackson and Teal'c, with General George Hammond, Kerry Johnson and Major Paul Davis from the Pentagon, waiting for her to arrive so they could begin their debriefing.
After an hour, the alarm bells that had been going off quietly in each of her closest friends' minds grew too loud to ignore.
Phone calls were made and an SF was sent to her house to see if she was there. He reported back that her house was dark and showed no signs of having been lived in recently. There was a stack of unread newspapers on the porch, some damp and ruined by exposure to rain and morning dew.
The phone calls had resulted in alarming news. General O'Neill finally managed to speak to Detective Pete Shanahan, Colonel Carter's fiancé, only to be told by the concerned fiancé that the engagement had come to an abrupt end two weeks earlier and that, as far as he was aware, his former fiancée had planned to travel to New York to surprise her step-daughter, Cassandra Fraiser. A further phone call to Cassandra told them what they already suspected - that Sam hadn't arrived.
The last anyone had heard from Colonel Carter was fifteen days ago, when she'd met Detective Shanahan for lunch and handed him back the engagement ring, apologising for hurting him but confident that this time she'd made the right choice as far as they were both concerned: she couldn't marry him and couldn't go on hurting him by letting him believe she would.
"Sam's been missing for two weeks, Jack." Daniel sat back down at the now almost deserted table, his tie and suit jacket long since discarded. "And we didn't even know it."
"You don't have to state the obvious, Daniel. I'm well aware of it." Jack sat in his chair at the head of the table in a similar state, his hair spiking up in various directions, the result of running his hands through it one too many times throughout the course of the day. "The police are involved; they're out looking now, trying to trace her steps. I called and got authorisation to put together a team of SF's to follow any leads from our end that the cops can't trace."
"Like the NID?" Daniel sat up marginally straighter in his chair. "If they had anything to do with it, Agent Barrett would have been in touch to let us know.."
"Maybe." Jack shrugged grudgingly. "I've left messages for him and Major Davis has gone back to Washington to see what he can dig up from there. General Hammond went back with him. He's requested to meet with the President to see what resources can be spared. The cops are probably going to want to talk to us, too. Ask a few questions on when we last saw her, what we think she was thinking at the time.."
"They believe that Colonel Carter may have chosen to disappear?" Teal'c broke his silence, his expression surprised. "Do they believe she may have wanted to leave without informing us?"
Jack shrugged but his two friends could tell from the way he avoided their eyes that there was something else, something more than he was letting one. "They're just covering their bases," he eventually answered lamely. "Routine stuff."
"Routine stuff?" Daniel repeated. He let his palms rest against the cool surface of the table. "What aren't you telling us, Jack? What's going on?"
There was a long silence. Jack fidgeted with the corners of the file resting on the wood in front of him, a dog-eared file neither Teal'c nor Daniel had noticed before but one they realised he hadn't been without since it was discovered Sam was missing. "Carter didn't originally want to take time off," he said quietly, his eyes serious as they landed first on Daniel, then on Teal'c. "What I'm telling you is confidential. Neither of you can breathe a word of this, even to Carter." He waited until they nodded their agreement before continuing. "Before Carter took time off, Doctor Brightman submitted this report." He opened the folder and took out the first of many pieces of paper. He laid it on the table in front of them, watching as realisation dawned. Watching as they realised the dog-eared folder in his possession was Carter's personnel file.
Teal'c reached for the document first, scanning word after word without comment until finally he finished. With a look of concerned understanding, he handed the report to Daniel and waited silently for the doctor to read it.
"'Emotionally unstable'?" Daniel quoted, his eyebrows raised. "'Post-traumatic stress disorder'? What is this Jack? 'Recommendation for immediate action with a view to possible discharge from the Air Force'? You made her quit?"
"No." He was quick to shake his head to dispel that notion. "That's a last resort, Daniel, and it was only going to happen if Doctor Brightman couldn't clear her for active duty after Carter came back. She was supposed to take two weeks of downtime to take it easy, get herself together and maybe arrange some one-on-one sessions with McKenzie if she thought she needed them. We were supposed to talk about it this afternoon, after the briefing. Then she was supposed to see Doctor Brightman about being approved for duty."
"You knew this and yet you did not check on Colonel Carter while she was away from the SGC?" Teal'c spoke calmly but Jack felt the accusation as though the Jaffa had demanded to known why he'd all but forgotten about their friend, ignoring all of his better instincts.
"I asked Carter what her plans were and she said she was going away with Pete. I had no reason to doubt her." He shrugged but the action did little to appease his guilt. "The cops, obviously, don't know all of the details. They know Doctor Brightman believes Carter was depressed at the time of her disappearance but they don't know why. That's what they'll be wanting to ask us about."
"What do you want to tell them?" Daniel sat back in his chair, the report falling from numb fingers. "That her best friend was killed by aliens a year ago? That her father is an alien and lives on another planet? That she's been hurt and kidnapped and possessed countless times by various alien species over the last eight years? Or that her so-called best friends didn't realise she was unhappy and that two of them had no idea she was being forced to take downtime not to mention being threatened with the loss of the career she's devoted her life to?"
Jack sighed heavily and ran a hand through his hair. "I know how hard this is going to be, Daniel, and I know I should have said something but I thought it was up to Carter. It was her choice whether she wanted you guys to know what was going on or not."
"Apparently she didn't think it was important. Or maybe she didn't know how to tell us." Daniel shook his head guiltily. "We should have noticed something."
Teal'c agreed but didn't say so. "Colonel Carter is most adept at concealing how she feels, Daniel Jackson. You and O'Neill cannot blame yourselves. It will not help her. We should continue following all avenues to locate her and offer our assistance to the authorities. I assume Detective Shanahan is playing some part in the investigation, O'Neill? Will he be the one to interview us?"
"Actually, no. Detective Shanahan isn't involved in that side of the investigation." Jack answered slowly, his gaze wandering to the open folder on the table, and the small photo ID in the right hand corner of the sheet on the inside cover. "Until the police determine whether or not Carter left of her own accord, Detective Shanahan is a suspect in her disappearance. No clothes are missing from her house; her car was still in the garage as was her bike.. Pete is the last person to see her alive and unharmed. As far as I know they're still questioning him on what happened after she broke off the engagement."
"This is ridiculous," Daniel burst out after a momentarily stunned silence. "Pete wouldn't hurt her and even if he tried, Sam would stop him. I know he's a cop but if I had to put my money on one of them, it'd be Sam every time.. And she wouldn't hurt herself, either. She might be feeling a bit depressed but she'd get through it. She'd go see Cassie or her brother and his family and pull herself together. She wouldn't just disappear."
"I agree with you, Daniel, but until we get a solid lead, the cops have to keep all of the options on the table. They have to stick to the facts. Carter hasn't been her usual self for a while now, not since her twin went all bad-guy on us and left her feeling responsible. As far as the cops could determine, no clothes were missing. None of her neighbours reported anything strange but none of them have seen her in two weeks. Carter's missing. Whether she was abducted or left of her own free will no one knows for sure but we have to find out. If she's in trouble.."
Teal'c studied the General as Jack broke off. He saw the frustration in his friend's agitated gestures, saw the worry shadowing his eyes. If Colonel Carter was in trouble when she had first disappeared it was more likely than not that they would be too late in reaching her in time. If they found her. "Can our allies not assist us in locating her? The technology of the Asgard is far superior. They would be able to detect where on this planet Colonel Carter is located."
"If she's even on this planet," Daniel interjected as his shoulders slumped. "Let's face it, she could be anywhere. A lot of races we've come across have the ability to transport people to and from a planet's surface and they wouldn't necessarily show on our radar. Maybe the Goa'uld mistook her for the replicator or thought she could help them come up with a way of defeating them.."
Jack nodded slowly, considering the possibility. "I'll send a message to Thor and ask him to see if Carter's still here."
"It would be wise to inform the Tok'ra also. They may have heard something of importance but may not have connected it to Colonel Carter."
"Good idea, T. We'll do that, too." Jack pushed his chair away from the table, his face reflecting the strain shared by the others. "In the meantime we have to cooperate with the local authorities. As long as we don't hinder their investigation we'll be left to get on with our own."
His advice issued, Jack made his way to his office, pausing briefly to scoop up the report and slip it back inside the personnel file. He kicked the door shut behind him and let the folder drop on his desk as he sat own.
One minute passed, then two.
He inhaled deeply and picked up the phone on his desk, pressing the extension for the control room. "This is O'Neill. I want two messages sent out. One to Thor asking for help locating Colonel Carter and one to the Tok'ra. Just let them know of the situation and ask that they let us know if they hear anything."
He hung up after receiving acknowledgement and leaned back, staring sightlessly at the wall opposite his desk.
She'd been gone for two weeks and no one had noticed.
"They don't care about you anymore. They blame you for helping me become who I am." The replicator paced back and forth in front of her, a smile on her face that wasn't quite sincere. "Help me, Samantha. Join me. I'll let you live. Tell me what I need to know. Tell me what you're keeping from me. I know you're hiding something and if it's to protect them.. Well, I wouldn't bother. They betrayed you, just like you betrayed Fifth. They don't care about you so why should you care about them? Save yourself, Sam. No one else will do it for you."
She didn't see the point in arguing so she didn't. Instead, the real Sam Carter met the cool, calculating gaze of her opponent with an arched eyebrow, careful to keep her expression neutral. "You think you're an expert on betrayal, don't you? Because you managed to pull the wool over Fifth's eyes? That doesn't make you an expert. Fifth was in love with you, it wouldn't have been hard to do." She let her head tilt to the side, an icy smile of her own tugging at her lips. "Or maybe he wasn't. In love with you, I mean. Is that why you betrayed him? Because he made you in my image but you couldn't quite live up to his expectations? It would make sense. More sense than the crap you gave me before. Fifth would have made you a powerful ally."
The sound of the replicator's hand slapping her cheek echoed in the room, the wave of pain as her head was pushed back with the force of the blow serving to remind them both which was human as well as leaving Sam with the feeling she'd touched a nerve.
Lifting a hand to touch her face, Sam made no attempt at keeping the smirk from arranging her lips. "Why did you bring me here if not for a heart to heart, woman to woman? I can't tell you anything else so why keep me here if you know they're not going to rescue me? Either kill me or let me go. Or talk to me. Be honest. Explain to me why you're hell bent on making my life a misery."
"A misery?" The replicator spun on her heel and strode to the other side of the room, turning back with a glare. "You know nothing about misery. You're a pathetic excuse for a human being, Colonel Carter, and don't try to pretend otherwise. I have all of your memories, all of the memories Fifth gave me and all of the memories I took from you when we last met. What have you achieved with your life? What dreams have you accomplished? Are you happy? No? Why not?" The replicator ran a hand through her hair, her movements growing more and more erratic. "You frustrate me, Sam. I've tried to forget you, to lead my brethren to victory but all I can think of is you. Where I came from. You won't live to see the end of this encounter because I can't afford to let you. You're a distraction I can't afford and your presence in my life is what's making it a misery."
"So kill me." The challenge was accompanied by a shrug, a tired gesture Sam truly felt. "Get on with it and kill me. Then try going on. Put your master plan in action, attack Earth, kill everyone down there." Sam shrugged again, concealing her delight at the confusion on her counterpart's face. "But then try living with it. With yourself. The reason you're here, the reason you're having so much trouble forgetting about me is because I am you. You come from me - you said it yourself. You might like to think you're superior; that you're better than me but all of those memories, all of the feelings you've been trying to exploit as my weaknesses.. They make you just as weak. They make you human. They give you a conscience, one you've successfully managed to ignore for the most part but you can't run from it forever. Believe me, I've tried."
The replicator ground her teeth together and crossed her arms over her chest. "I don't like feeling this way."
An unladylike snort of humour escaped her. "No one does. Welcome to life. I don't like it either but you don't get a choice. You have to live with it or choose not to live at all." Sam let her gaze wander from the mirror image and stared at the patterns formed on the wall by the replicator blocks that made it. "Do you sleep?"
"Yeah. Do you dream?" Her gaze returned to the replicator and she was pleased to see confusion still marred her face. Good. She was growing tired of being the only one subjected to pointless mind games. "I just wondered. Maybe you have nightmares. Is Fifth in them? Does he beg you to change your mind, to let him live? Or is he in control when you sleep? Is he subjecting you to the torture you claimed he did?" Sam gave another shrug and let her head rest against the wall at her back. "I wonder what he'd use against you if he was alive. What he'd make you see. You know my fears; you've used them against me more times than I care to remember since I've been here. It only seems fair that I know yours, too."
"You already know them. What I showed you was real, Sam. It's one of the reasons I couldn't live with him anymore.." Her voice trailed off and her eyes hardened. "Stop this. Stop acting as though you're in control because you're not." She straightened her back, her hands resting on her hips as she glared at her captive. "Now tell me what I want to know. Tell me how far you and the Asgard are from modifying the weapon. Show me what you've done with it, what changes you've made. Show me and I'll let you go. I'll let Earth go free."
Sam rolled her eyes as the replicator advanced forward. "Your brethren will attack Earth whether you tell them to or not. You'll lose control, just like Reece did and then they'll destroy you, too. Besides," she added as the replicator got within reaching distance. "You already know what I know about the weapon. There have been no advancements that I'm aware of so I'm afraid I can't help you."
"You're lying," the replicator hissed, her blue eyes glowing dangerously as her fingertips brushed the skin of Sam's forehead. "You're keeping something from me and I will discover what it is."
She did her best to muffle her screams as the now familiar pain ripped through her, starting at her head and ending at her toes, as her mind was invaded and the mental barriers she'd built strained to stay up against the assault on her mind.
"It is no use, Samantha. I will get what I want eventually. You are not strong enough to fight me forever."
Hours, maybe days later, the pain in her head receded to a dull ache, making it possible for her to move into a more comfortable position. She had a crick in her neck from having held her head at such an awkward angle for so long and she winced as she brought a hand up to the back of her nape to ease the muscles gathered there.
"It would be easier if you just told her what she wants to know, Sam." Daniel Jackson, or an illusion of Daniel Jackson, sat opposite her with a sympathetic look on his face. Beside him, Teal'c sat with his legs crossed as though he'd been attempting to meditate while waiting for her to wake up. "Don't keep doing this to yourself. Just tell her, then we can all go home."
"Yeah. Right. You mean you'll all disappear and let her kill me." The hand massaging her neck moved to her forehead, gingerly soothing her throbbing temples. "I'm not buying it, Daniel. You're not even here."
"The knowledge you are withholding is not of equal value to your life, Colonel Carter." The expression on the face of 'Teal'c' was nothing if not stern and very Teal'c-like. "When we return to Earth we can compensate for what you tell her."
Sam sighed and let her eyes slide shut. "Come up with another plan, you mean? Nice try, Teal'c, but I don't have a planet at the moment, let alone one to tell her and another to put in place because of it."
"That doesn't make sense, Sam."
"Of course it doesn't make sense, Daniel, she's tired." The fourth voice came from much closer. Sam opened her eyes to find the now-familiar hallucination of General O'Neill sitting right beside her, with apparently no qualms about invading her personal space. "Give her a break, guys. She's not thinking straight. After a few hours sleep, she'll be ready to talk about it."
"Yeah, right." But 'Daniel' disappeared nevertheless, vanishing just seconds before 'Teal'c' did.
It appeared that even in her mind General O'Neill had the ability to command the others, prompting them to undergo vanishing acts when he felt she needed it. "Don't think I'm going to believe you're real just because you're pretending to care," she warned, settling herself against the wall again.
"I'm your hallucination, Carter, it's up to you to know whether I'm pretending or not." If he'd been real, she would have felt his breath stir her hair, would've felt his shoulder beneath her cheek instead of the wall behind her. "But think about it, Sam, at least consider telling her what she wants to know," he implored her softly a few minutes later. "If it's not something to do with the weapon, it's not important enough to risk your life to keep it secret."
"It's important to me." Her words were a little slurred by her body's need for sleep but Sam forced them out anyway. "More important than my life."
She felt him shake his head and could almost imagine feeling his body vibrate as he moved. Almost. "There's nothing more important than your life, Carter. Nothing."
"Yes, there is." The words were said on a sleepy sigh, her eyelids sliding shut.
"What?" His voice was soft, quiet, almost fading out of existence just as he himself was.
Sam sighed again, tilting her head to the side in a futile attempt at getting more comfortable. She didn't need to notice him disappear to know she was alone but she answered anyway, knowing it wouldn't make a difference.
Knowing there was no one there to hear.
Detective Pete Shanahan sat back in the uncomfortable plastic chair, staring at his colleagues with frustrated eyes. "I wouldn't hurt Sam. I didn't hurt her. You're looking at the wrong person, wasting time when you should be out there looking for her!"
"We want to believe you, Detective, but the fact remains that you are the last person to see her alive."
"And you think I have it in me to hurt her? I loved her. I still love her! I wouldn't hurt her. Hell, I doubt I could! She's more than capable of defending herself. If I'd tried, don't you think there'd be some sign of it? Don't you think she'd have fought back?" Pete sat forward and shrugged out of his jacket, throwing it down onto the floor without thought. "Look." He bared his arms to them, showing them unblemished skin from his fingers up to his forearms where the material of his t-shirt started. "No marks, no bruises. If I'd tried to hurt her she would have fought back. Sam's at least as trained as we are in the art of self-defence. If I'd tried anything, I'd be covered in bruises and probably nursing my pride as well as other delicate parts I could mention."
One of the detectives, a man called Ranson who Pete had collaborate with briefly during his short career in Colorado Springs, sat down in the chair opposite him, his expression weary. "You have a motive, Pete. You're the only person we've found so far with a reason to want to hurt Sam Carter. She broke up with you, ended the engagement. That must've hurt." Ranson shrugged. "If she trusted you, she could've let you close enough for you to subdue her." He held up a hand when Pete opened his mouth, his eyes blazing. "I'm just sating what other people who don't know you will say. You have to help us, Pete. If she doesn't show up and we don't find ourselves another avenue to investigate.."
"You won't find another one by wasting time asking me stupid questions." Pete glared at them, anger fighting with worry as he tried to control both. "Look, if you want to know where Sam is I suggest you ask her colleagues. They're her friends, they know more about her than anyone else. Even me."
"We will be questioning them later to determine when they last spoke to Colonel Carter." Ranson gazed at Pete through measuring eyes. "How did she seem when you said goodbye? Was she upset? Did you have any concerns about her state of mind at the time?"
Pete blinked at the abrupt change in conversation but that was all the reaction he allowed himself. "She was fine. Apologetic, maybe a little upset but she knew she was doing the right thing. We both knew. We were - are - both hurting but that's normal. That's what happens when a relationship with something you love comes to an end."
"Did she give you a reason for why she was ending the relationship?" Ranson got to his feet and moved to stand behind the chair he'd been sitting in, resting his hands on the back of it as he strove to achieve a casual stance. "It was sudden, wasn't it? Out of the blue? Just a few weeks ago you were looking at houses.."
"She said it was moving too fast for her, that she wasn't ready it to get so serious so fast." Pete shrugged and locked his gaze on Ranson's hands were they loosely gripped the plastic chair. "She said it wasn't fair to string me along when she didn't love me the way I loved her."
Ranson arched an eyebrow. "Still seems sudden considering she was serious enough to say yes to the proposal. Was there ever a time during the conversation when you considered the possibility that there was someone else? Maybe she was having an affair.."
"She wasn't. She wouldn't do that." But nevertheless, Pete squirmed a bit in his chair - and Detective Ranson noticed.
Taking his time, Ranson circled the room, walking behind Pete at a deliberately slow pace before returning to his chair and sitting back down at the table. "Are you sure, Detective? There's no one in her life you've suspected she had feelings for? No one you thought might be a threat to your relationship?"
From the way Pete shifted in his chair and fidgeted with his hands it was obvious what the answer was.
"Nothing's happened between them," Pete said eventually, his expression showing his discomfort. "Sam isn't the type of woman to cheat on someone. She would never.. And they can't. It's not allowed."
"Who is he?" Ranson leaned forward, his eyes finding Pete's and holding. "He might be able to shed some light on her disappearance, Pete. Maybe even put you in the clear once and for all. Just give us a name."
Again, Pete squirmed. He sunk down in his chair, clasped his hands in front of him and stared down at them intently. "She never said anything, never confirmed it but I always.. She talked about her friends, all of them, but there was something.. When she mentioned him, a look would come into her eyes. It wasn't a happy look. And that last time.. I asked her about him. About them. Outright." Pete let his gaze wander back to Ranson's face and shrugged. "She denied it and I believed her but.. She looked so sad. Hurt, defeated. But it was gone in an instant, I could be wrong.."
"Who did she talk about, Pete?"
"General Jack O'Neill, her commanding officer." Pete hurried on, his words tumbling out of his mouth. "Nothing's happened between them, I'm sure of that. Certainly not while we were together. It's against regulations, I did some research.. Sam wouldn't do anything to jeopardise her career. Besides, the General's got a girlfriend, I think. From what Sam said.."
Ranson held up his hand to stop the flow of words, a grimace on his face. "You don't have to defend her, Detective. I'm not about to accuse anyone, I just wanted to know who it was to make sure he's on our list to question." With a nod in Pete's direction, Ranson got to his feet and moved towards the door. "I think we're done here. If there's anything else we need to know we'll be in touch."
Pete stood and moved to pick up his discarded jacket. By the time he straightened, Detective Ranson was gone.
'Where are you, Sam?' He wondered as he made his way out of the station, trying to hold his head high as his colleagues stared at him and exchanged knowing looks. No doubt they all knew by now. Knew that his fiancée had ended their engagement and disappeared within twenty-four hours.
How long would it be, he wondered, before the rumours started circling that she'd been involved with someone else?
Shrugging into his jacket as he got outside, Pete stopped and inhaled deeply. He surveyed the busy parking lot, watched as cops he'd started to consider friends walked passed him with lowered heads, none making any effort to acknowledge him.
Colorado Springs couldn't even compare with Denver, he decided, heading for his car.
Not when his reason for being there was gone.
In her dreams she relived the torture her replicator double put her through during the day. She relived the painful moments of her life, everything from her mother's death to the recent events with the very creature responsible for her nightmares. Her mind itself betrayed her, her imagination creating more painful memories.
Memories it was hard to remember weren't real.
She woke up with a start after experiencing the false memory of seeing her friends die one by one at the hand of the replicator before feeling her own death approach as the world fell down around her, crumbling like the replicators once had when shot with the very weapon her captor was obsessed with.
Her first impulse on waking was to look around, to make sure she was alone. The last thing she wanted was to have all of her efforts at struggling to keep her secrets unknown only to let her guard down while she slept so the replicator could take them from her without a fight.
For several long, blissful minutes, Sam was alone. She sat up straighter, ran her hands over her face and combed her fingers through her hair. She wondered if anyone had noticed she was gone, wondered what day it was. She'd lost track of days and nights and hours and minutes..
"Do not look so defeated, Colonel Carter." The voice should have startled her but somehow it didn't. She'd almost been expecting one of them to show up. "SG-1 do not leave their own behind. We will find you."
She shook her head and gave him a humourless smile. "SG-1 might find me but you're not part of them. You're part of me, or maybe part of her. Your words aren't the truth, Teal'c, they're just what I want to hear."
"Is it so bad to hear them?" The Teal'c look-a-like studied her from across the room. "If there were not an element of truth in them you would not have had me say them."
"He has a point, Sam." Daniel appeared beside the Jaffa, standing with his arms crossed against his chest and his back against the wall. "We're you're hallucinations. We're only saying what you're thinking. What you think they would say if they were here instead of us."
"At least you're agreeing you're not real now." Sam murmured with a sigh, letting her head fall back against the wall so she could look at them without having to put any effort into keeping her head upright.
They looked confused at her words and the look they exchanged almost made her smile. She'd seen her Daniel and Teal'c exchange the same glance countless times before, though usually it was after General O'Neill said something they didn't get or didn't think was funny when it was intended to be. She wasn't used to seeing them after having spoken herself.
"You can't keep protecting him, Sam." Daniel lowered himself to the floor as she watched, a wry grin appearing on his face at her obvious surprise. "We're part of you. We know what you're hiding." He shrugged as she watched him, her mouth moving wordlessly. "We understand why you're keeping part of it from her, the theory you discussed with Thor." Daniel glanced around, appearing as nervous as she felt. He continued only when he was satisfied they were truly alone. "But the other thing.. Why waste your strength fighting to keep that from her? If you let her know that part of it, maybe she'll think that's all you're keeping from her and she'll leave you alone for a while, give you time to rest properly."
"If the replicator believes she has learned all she can from Colonel Carter, she may decide that as she has no further use for her she can be disposed of." Teal'c's gaze remained fixed on Sam's face. "And if you give her access to this knowledge, she may decide to use it against you to further weaken your resolve so that she can find the information she seeks."
Sam smiled weakly, nodding her head in agreement "That's part of why I'm doing it," she admitted quietly. "There is another reason." Her shoulders rose and fell as a sigh escaped her lips. "If I hold back certain.. elements of reality.. I can use them as a reminder."
"A reminder of what?"
Her smile turned sad, her eyes pained. "A reminder of the truth. Something to stop me from believing the fantasies she creates in my mind. If I keep it from her, she can't use it against me and she can't make me accept something I know is untrue but that I might otherwise be tempted to believe."
Her companions fell silent, both seeing and understanding the reasoning behind her words. Sam let her eyes close and didn't need to open them to know she was alone again.
Alone to try and count the minutes, the hours, she'd been there. Trying to work out how many days had already passed and how many more would need to before help would hopefully come.
Detective Ranson didn't know what made him look up when the doors opened but he knew as soon as his eyes fell on the three imposing figures marching towards the reception desk that they were there to see him.
He wondered if they were trying to intimidate him, if they were trying to look as imposing as possible, but he dismissed that idea as they got closer.
Close enough for him to see the concern shining in each of their eyes, the lines of worry on their faces.
Well, two of their faces.
The larger of the men stood behind the grey-haired man, his expression blank. Somehow still concerned but without it so plainly written on his face.
"General O'Neill, Doctor Jackson and, ah," Ranson glanced down to check the names scribbled hastily next to his own name. "Murray? Just Murray?"
"Yeah. It's a one-word thing. Like.. Like other one-word name things." The youngest of the three men - Doctor Daniel Jackson - shrugged when his two companions turned to stare at him. "Right, so do you know anything new? Has anyone come forward with anything that would help us - you - find her?"
"There have been no developments since I last updated General O'Neill." Ransom gave them a curt nod, his gaze lingering on the man in question. There was something about the man, something about the way his eyes couldn't stay focused in one place that made him wonder just how accurate Shanahan had been in his theories. "Why don't we get this started? I'm sure you're all very busy people.. I promise I won't take up too much of your time."
"Doctor Jackson, why don't you come with me? Mister, ah, Murray, if you'd like to go with Detective Harris and General O'Neill, if you'd just take a seat, one of us will be with you soon." Ranson nodded to the detective who'd moved to stand behind the visitors, a man who almost matched Murray in size and who knew without a doubt that that was the reason he had been given the responsibility to question the man. "Right this way, Doctor Jackson."
"Okay." Daniel threw a quick glance at the other two before following Ranson along the corridor, a glance Ranson caught and filed away in his memory.
They were hiding something, he was sure, and he was determined to find out what it had to do with his case.
"When was the last time you saw Colonel Carter, Doctor Jackson?"
"Two weeks and three days ago. The last time she was at work."
"How did she seem when you last spoke to her, Murray?"
"Colonel Carter seemed to be herself."
"Do you believe Colonel Carter was depressed at the time?"
"I hadn't noticed anything, and I like to think I would have. Sam's had a tough time of it but I wouldn't say she was depressed. Not then. Probably when she found out she was being forced to take two weeks leave she didn't want.."
"Is it unusual for Colonel Carter to be gone this long without having been in touch with one of you?"
"It is unusual for Colonel Carter to be late for work. She is now 27 hours late."
"Were you aware of her intention to break off her engagement to Detective Shanahan?"
"No. But I'm sure Sam had her reasons for doing it."
"She didn't discuss her decision with you, or with anyone else to the best of your knowledge?"
"Colonel Carter is an extremely private person. She is also an adult. She can make decisions without the need to consult with others."
"Is there any truth in the rumours that Colonel Carter and General O'Neill were having an affair and that this is the reason she called off her engagement?"
"No. There's no truth in that at all."
"You seem very confident that that's not the case. To the best of your knowledge, has anything of a romantic nature ever occurred between them?"
"It has not. Air Force regulations strictly forbid it."
"But there's a chance Colonel Carter may have had feelings for General O'Neill? Feelings he may or may not return?"
"Sam and Jack are good friends, like we all are. It's what happens when you've been working with someone for so long. I bet you're pretty good friends with your partner or whoever you work with on a regular basis. You wouldn't like it if someone accused you of having an affair, would you?"
"So you're saying that, as far as you're aware, Colonel Carter and General O'Neill weren't involved in a romantic relationship?"
"They were not."
"Thank you for your time, Doctor Jackson. If we have any further questions, we will be in touch."
"Thank you for your time, Mr. Murray. We'll be in touch if we have any further questions."
Daniel and Ranson reappeared in the waiting room just seconds behind Teal'c and Harris. Jack stood as his friends approached, noticing instantly the scowl on Daniel's face and the tension in Teal'c's shoulders. He questioned them with a look but before either could answer found himself the focus of Detective Ranson's attention.
"General O'Neill, I'm sorry to have kept you waiting. If you'd like to come with me, I promise to try and make this as short as possible."
Jack gave the detective a nod but said nothing. With a curious glance at his friends, he started following Ranson to the room the detective had so recently vacated, wondering why he felt like he had something to hide.
Why it felt like he had a reason to feel guilty.
He waited until Detective Ranson motioned for him to sit. Jack sat down opposite the other man, his shoulders squared as his hands came to rest against the table.
"Thank you for agreeing to this, General O'Neill. I know you must be busy." Ranson watched as Jack nodded in acknowledgement but otherwise kept his posture neutral. "I understand that you were the one to report Colonel Carter as missing." Again, Jack nodded. Ranson fought back a sigh. "What made you reach that conclusion?"
"Carter didn't show up for a meeting we had planned. It isn't like her to be late so we tried calling her. She didn't pick up so I sent a SF around to her place. He reported there was no sign of her so I made some more calls. First to Detective Shanahan, who said she told him she was going to visit Cassie - ah, Cassandra Fraiser, her Goddaughter. We then called Cassie who told us she hadn't heard from or seen Carter in the last couple of weeks." Jack arched a questioning eyebrow. "It should all have been taken down by the person I talked to."
Ranson gave him a humourless smile. "Yes. It is. When was the last time you saw or spoke to Colonel Carter?"
"Before she left work on Thursday 13th. Around 1600 hours. We had a meeting to discuss the report made by the chief medical officer. I mentioned that, too, to the person I spoke to."
"That was the meeting where you told Colonel Carter she was on leave, that you were concerned by Doctor Brightman's diagnosis?" Detective Ranson leaned forward. "How did she react to that?"
Jack shrugged. "She denied it, said she was fine. Carter's a workaholic. She'd have said she was fine even if she wasn't if it meant she could get back to work."
"Did you argue about it? Did you order her to take time off?"
"Not in so many words. Carter protested, said she didn't want time off. I suggested she take the two weeks if only to prove to Brightman that she was capable of taking a break. She eventually agreed to take the downtime, said she'd use it to get some things in order but warned me she might be back by the end of the first week."
"But she wasn't back by the end of the first week." Ranson sat back in his chair, studying the man sat opposite him. "Did you question her on her plans for the two weeks?"
Interestingly, Jack's gaze lowered to the top of the table between them before returning to Ranson's. "She said she was going to spend some time making some changes. I assumed she meant sorting out wedding plans and houses and that sort of thing."
"So you had no idea Colonel Carter planned to break off the engagement? She hadn't confided in you..?" Ranson sighed audibly when Jack remained silent. "I find it strange that she didn't talk to any of you about her plans. By all accounts, yourself, Doctor Jackson and Mr. Murray are the closest friends she had - that we know of. But she said nothing to any of you. It doesn't make sense. Does she have any other close friends, maybe a female friend she might discuss her relationships with?"
His back straightened and Jack found himself swallowing before he attempted an answer. "Her best female friend died almost a year ago. As far as I'm aware, Carter wasn't close to anyone else outside of work other than Detective Shanahan."
"Doesn't that strike you as being odd? Colonel Carter is a very attractive woman, likeable, smart. Isn't it strange that she doesn't have any other close friends?"
"Like I said, Carter's a workaholic. If she wanted more friends she could get them. It just wasn't - isn't - a priority at the moment."
Ranson nodded again, slowly, and pushed his chair back. He took his time in getting to his feet, walking around to stand behind his chair to mimic the position he'd adopted when questioning Detective Shanahan. "Were you a priority in her life, General? Did you ask her to make you and your relationship with her a priority? Is that why she broke off the engagement?"
"Carter and I don't have the type of relationship you're implying we have." Jack answered calmly, almost without missing a beat. "I wouldn't say I was any more a priority than Daniel or Murray. And I wouldn't say my relationship with her, our friendship, is any more important than the ones she has with them."
"It's interesting you should say that, General. Detective Shanahan would probably disagree." Ranson walked around the room, slowing as he walked behind the general. "Are you aware that Colonel Carter's former fiancé believes she harbours feelings of a romantic nature towards you? He implied that it may have been the reason she ended their relationship."
"I didn't know Shanahan felt that way and I can't say whether or not it's true. I don't know. Maybe you should find Carter so you can ask her?"
"Were you and Colonel Carter romantically involved at the time of her disappearance or have you ever been romantically involved?" Ranson returned to his side of the table but remained on his feet.
"Do you believe Colonel Carter suffering from depression at the time of her disappearance is related? That she might have done so willingly?"
"No. She wouldn't go AWOL. Her career and her fiends mean too much to her." Jack held his head a little higher, his hands pressed palm down against the table. "Can I go now? Like you said, I'm a busy man."
Ranson held his gaze for several long moments, the tension level rising with every second that passed. "You can go," he said finally, his eyes fixed on Jack as the other man got to his feet. "We'll be in touch if we find anything new or need to speak to you again."
"You do that." Jack shrugged his shoulders to ease the tension in his back and sauntered to the door. He rejoined his friends, ignoring their questioning glances. "Let's get out of here," he muttered, already making his way towards the door. "These guys aren't going to find her so it's up to us."
Her quarters were bigger than she remembered. And the standard single bunk had been replaced with a double bed that was far more comfortable than any bed on a military base had the right to be.
"This isn't real." She sat up, pushing the blankets aside. Stopped when the gold band on her wedding finger caught the light. "This is definitely not real."
She took her time in getting dressed, wondering at the ring on her finger and the married quarters that were so obviously hers. Pete couldn't have been responsible for putting the ring on her finger - they wouldn't have ended up with married quarters unless something drastic had happened.
Besides, they weren't engaged anymore. She wasn't engaged to anyone anymore.
Leaving the relative safety of the room, she wasn't surprised to find no name on the door. No way of identifying who her mysterious roommate was though she suspected she knew.
One of the replicator's comments to her had been that she knew where Fifth had gone wrong.
He'd chosen the wrong man.
She smiled politely at the people who passed her, almost all who smiled and greeted her by her rank.
It convinced her further that where she was wasn't real. Although she got on well with her colleagues at the SGC, she wasn't on friendly terms with all of them.
Not like she seemed to be here.
Then again, not one of the people she passed called her by her name. It was always 'Colonel'. Never Sam, never 'Colonel Carter' or whatever her surname was in this delusional reality.
She wasn't falling for it. She'd been put through too many of these scenarios to believe them.
Soon, she knew, the replicator would start getting frustrated and things would start to go bad - very bad, no doubt, since she was apparently at the SGC.
End of the world bad.
Regardless, Sam carried on, knowing the nightmare wouldn't end until she'd seen what the replicator wanted her to see.
She was almost at her lab when the klaxons went off, red lights flashing all around her as people ran in opposite directions, some looking panicked, giving her the impression that there was something more than she was aware of going on.
Something she was supposed to be aware of no doubt.
Sighing to herself, repeating once again that none of it was real, Sam turned on her heel and slowly made her way to the control room, ignoring the surprised looks she got from her 'colleagues' for being so calm and casual during what she was sure was apparently something serious.
The other members of SG-1 were in the control room, waiting for her apparently. Teal'c and Daniel glanced at her in concern when she stood with her arms crossed over her chest, waiting.
General O'Neill looked up from the computer screen he'd been studying, his expression troubled.
"It's a text message for you. From the replicators."
His words should have startled her but they didn't. Instead she was mildly intrigued.
It was a new scenario; one in which her replicator captor apparently wanted to communicate with her.
Either that or the replicator was using the situation to remind her of who had all of the power in the situation they were currently in - both in her false reality and in the real one she knew was true.
Her curiosity well and truly piqued, Sam moved forward, brushing passed the General to peer at the screen. She watched the words scroll down as her finger tapped the mouse, working back to the beginning of the document.
This is your last chance. Tell me what I need to know or your world will suffer the consequences.'
"Do you know what she's talking about, Carter?" General O'Neill lingered behind her as she straightened.
She could picture the look on his face without turning back to see it. "I have no idea, Sir," she answered calmly, her gaze fixed on the screen in front of her.
"Perhaps she thinks you have devised a way to destroy her kind." The ever-so-helpful suggestion made by Teal'c was met with sounds of agreement from the others. "Has there been any advancement, Colonel Carter?"
"No." Staring straight ahead, Sam stiffened when she felt something - someone - brush a hand across the small of her back. "I don't know anything new. The Asgard are still working on it." She turned slightly, positioning her upper body to face General O'Neill though she kept her gaze averted. If she looked at any of them they'd know she was lying. Whether or not they called her on it in this reality was another story but it wasn't a risk she was prepared to take. "Can I be excused, Sir? I have a lot of work building up in my lab.."
"Permission granted, Carter."
She felt them watch her as she left, felt their eyes burn into her back as she walked away from the computer console, down the stairs leading out into the corridor.
Wondering how long it would be before one of them followed her.
Before the replicator tried using one of her friends to find out what she knew.
On returning to the SGC, after spending - wasting - three hours knocking on doors in Carter's neighbourhood, Jack had the distinct feeling they were back at square one.
If they'd ever even left it.
He sat in his office, pen poised in his hand, head bent. Pretending he was concentrating on the document in front of him when in truth the words could have been written in Greek and he wouldn't have noticed.
He wouldn't have cared.
It was his fault.
Out of the three people Carter was closest to - her former fiancé not included - he was the only one who'd known she'd been forced into taking downtime. He was the only one who'd suspected she was unhappy, that there was something more going on in that head of hers than she was willing to admit to anyone.
And yet.. He hadn't said anything to the others. Hadn't called to check up on her, not even when he'd waited for her to show up after the first week and had been disappointed - if he admitted it to himself - when she hadn't.
Oh, he'd been pleased at the time. Relieved she was taking time out to take care of herself. But he'd been disappointed, too. Maybe a bit jealous but he wasn't going there.
He'd kept himself from going there successfully for two months and counting and wasn't about to go back.
He sat at his desk, staring down at the blurred characters on the page looking up at him and recalled the last time he'd seen her, their conversation before he'd sent her home.
Sent her into whatever trap had been waiting for her.
For almost an hour they'd sat in his office in silence. She'd released her anger when Doctor Brightman had been in the room, fought and protested and insisted she was okay.
For almost an hour after they'd been left alone, neither of them had spoken.
Then she stood up, catching his attention. Put her hands in her pockets and shrugged, apologising for her behaviour and admitting that maybe she was feeling a little stressed.
That maybe she would benefit from some downtime, time to get herself together.
Time to make some changes.
He hadn't known what she meant then but as he thought back now, he realised she'd been talking about Shanahan, about her engagement. He'd thought she meant she was starting to consider leaving the SGC to have the "normal" life she seemed to want more as the years passed by but he knew now he was wrong.
Now he knew it looked like she'd chosen the life working at the SGC had to offer her, instead of the life she thought women of her age were supposed to have.
He remembered, keenly, the look on her face before she'd left.
A half-smile, almost timid expression. Bright eyes.
He'd put it down to the prospect of spending two weeks with her fiancé - well, one week, after she'd turned around at the door and joked that he shouldn't be surprised if she came back early - but obviously she'd been keeping something from him..
There was a knock at the door and he looked up in time to see it open. His visitor entered the room and closed the door behind her without waiting for him to comment.
.. Just like he'd been keeping something from her.
"I just heard about Colonel Carter, Jack." Agent Kerry Johnson, CIA, stepped up to the desk, her eyes wide with concern. "Is there anything I can do? Do you have any leads?"
"Kerry." Jack acknowledged her with a small smile, letting his pen fall from his fingers. "I didn't know you were back in town."
Kerry returned the smile, shrugging as she sat down in the chair opposite his desk. "I was passing through on business when I heard about Colonel Carter. I thought I'd see if there's anything I can do to help."
"I appreciate the offer but I don't think there's anything you can do. At this stage I'm pretty sure her disappearance is related to the SGC.." A hand rose to his face and rubbed at his eyes. He looked at his former lover and sighed, knowing he could trust her. Knowing she already knew things he wouldn't trust other people with. "The cops think I had something to do with it. Apparently Carter called things off with Shanahan and he led them to believe it had something to do with me."
A frown of disbelief crossed her features but not before a curious look glared and died in her eyes. "I know you well enough to know you wouldn't hurt her, Jack, but I have to ask.. Do you have anything to do with their break up? Have you spoken to her about..?"
"No. I decided not to say anything." He shifted uncomfortably. "It wouldn't have been right, Carter was happy with Shanahan.."
"If she was happy she'd still be engaged to him." A wry smile graced her face and her voice held a note of disappointment. "I have to admit one of the reasons I was passing through Colorado is because I heard rumours.. I've heard murmurs that they're looking for a replacement should you choose to retire. I thought that meant you'd taken my advice, or at least some of it."
A genuine grin momentarily curved up his lips. "I was taking some of it. I thought it was good advice but the whole running of this place as a civilian.. I don't think it would've worked as well as you think."
"She'd still be under your command or at least in a position where you could be accused of favouritism," Kerry guessed. "I'm sure there'd be a way around that but I think you know that. You hoped that if you retired completely there'd be no obstacles to hide behind, no excuses."
"We have a pretty good excuse now. It's all irrelevant unless we figure out where Carter is." The grin and all traces of it slipped from his face. "And right now our chances of that look pretty slim."
"Don't give up, Jack. You'll find her." Kerry's expression was sympathetic, her voice calm and confident. "I'll make a few calls and see if I can find out anything, okay? I know I won't be able to find out much but I'll be able to tell you what the police are thinking, and maybe determine whether the NID have anything to do with it."
"I'd appreciate that, thank you." He ran a hand over his eyes again, tension and tiredness adding lines and shadows to his face. Adding years.
After throwing him another glance, Kerry eased herself out of her chair and walked gracefully towards the door. She stopped when she got there and turned back, her expression showing the indecision warring on inside her. But her curiosity got to the better of her and she found out she needed to know, not just wanted to. "Does she know, Jack? About us?"
It took just ten minutes for one of them to follow her.
"You want to tell me what that was all about?" She didn't need to turn around to know who was speaking, or to know that he wasn't pleased. "Is there something I should know about, Carter?"
"With respect, Sir, no. It's nothing you need to know about." She kept her eyes fixed forward, staring at the screen, at the specifications of the Ancient device used against the replicators. It was no coincidence that it was the only program her laptop would load. No surprise, either.
"Damn it, Carter." The angry outburst was, however, a small surprise, as were the hands that closed tightly over the tops of her arms and jerked her around so she was facing him. "If she's threatening you, contacting you in any way, I need to know about it. I can't help you if you don't let me in, Sam. Don't shut me out again. Please." The temper faded, softened into desperation, and she found that more surprising, more disturbing, that his anger. "Don't shut me out. You can't do that anymore."
Her gaze travelled lower, leaving his face on impulse, finding his hands where they'd ran down her arms to join with hers.
The matching gold band on his finger made her start.
Made her ache.
Slowly, swallowing the lump in her throat, Sam let her eyes return to his face, the hurt in his shaking her resolve. She shook one of her hands free, the left hand with the ring burning her finger, and lifted it to his face, touching his cheek tenderly.
"This isn't real," she told him quietly, unable to keep the tremor from her voice. "None of this is real." She cleared her voice when it caught in her throat and let her eyes drop to his lips, finding them easier to look at than his eyes. Than the pain she was causing, the pain she tried to tell herself wasn't real either. "I know it doesn't feel like it to you but this isn't reality, Jack. It's a delusion she's created, to try and get me to tell her what she wants to know."
"No." She watched as he shook his head in disbelief and took a step back from her, letting go of her hands. "This is real. Don't you think I'd know if it wasn't? You're just having one of your episodes, Carter. We'll get you to Mackenzie and Brightman." He looked at her with such sadness in his eyes that she was almost tempted to take back her words just to make it go away. "I thought we were over this. I though you were better.." He cut himself off mid-sentence and ran a hand through his hair. "We'll get you back in for treatment," he spoke decisively, more to himself than to her. "A few weeks at the centre with the doctors and you'll be fine again."
She saw the strain on his face, the weariness in his eyes. He looked old, much older than she was used to. As if he'd been through more battles, more wars than she remembered them going through.
"I don't need a doctor, Sir. I just need her to stop screwing with my head."
The look on his face when she said it, when she said 'Sir'.. It made her start to doubt herself for the first time since waking up in her unfamiliar quarters.
"It's been three years, Sam. I wish she'd stopped screwing with your head, too, because I can't keep doing this. I can't keep losing you." Something must have registered on her face, some confusion or doubt. Whatever it was, it encouraged him to take a step closer, to reach out tentatively and take her hands. "You were taken captive three years ago, Sam. She transported you to her ship just out of Earth's orbit using technology she'd adapted from the Asgard. We didn't know you were gone at first but as soon as we realised it, we had everyone out looking for you. The Asgard found you, abandoned on some planet somewhere. You had brain damage, Carter. Because of all the times she messed with your mind. Between Dad and Thor, they managed to fix most of it but.. Ever since then you keep suffering setbacks. Every so often you slip into one of these illusions and forget everything that's happened since. A few weeks therapy usually helps but until you get the treatment you need, you're convinced that you're back there. That she's still holding you captive and that we've left you there."
His grip on her hands tightened when she tried to pull away.
"We found you, Carter. We got you back, safely. I know you don't remember this and that you think what I'm saying is another one of her fabrications but it's not. I swear. This is real." He brought her left hand up to his face, brushing his lips over the ring on her finger. "We got married two years ago, just before your first episode. You've had them on and off since then and it's hard. I don't.. I love you but I can't keep doing this, Sam. I can't deal with you pushing me away like this. It was bad enough before but now.. You're my wife. You're not supposed to shut me out like this, I can't.. It hurts too much when you do."
The distress on his face was genuine. The defeat worrying.
"Okay." Sam gave in to the impulse to let her fingers tangle with his. She looked up at him, tilted her head to the side and studied him intently. "Let's just say I believe you. If that happened three years ago, why did she send me the text message? What could I know that she doesn't?"
Confusion replaced despair and he stared down at her in concern. "What text message, Carter? We haven't seen or heard from her in years. The Asgard went after her, remember? With their new weapon? She fled the galaxy and good riddance to her, too."
She shook her head and took a step back, reluctantly pulling her hands from his. "Ten minutes ago we were in the control room. Ten minutes ago, she sent a text message through for me, warning me that this was my last chance. It's why you came to see me, isn't it? You wanted to know what I was keeping from you, why she was trying to threaten me."
"I came to see you to take you for lunch. Cake and jello in the infirmary with the guys, remember?" Distress crept into his eyes, into his expression. "I think we should go and see Doctor Brightman, okay? She'll know how to handle this.."
He reached for her hand. Her left hand.
Sam stared down at it as his fingers once again wound around hers, staring hard at the matching rings.
Matching rings that had no place being there.
"What about Agent Johnson?" She asked quietly, fixing her feet firmly to the floor as he attempted to pull her towards the door. "What about Kerry, Jack?"
The bafflement on his face said it all, even before he confirmed it with words. "Who?"
Smiling sadly, she knew it was time to let one of her secrets go. Time to give in - just a little - to the replicator trying so hard to trick her. "This isn't real, Jack. None of it. The Asgard haven't found me, you haven't brought me home. You probably don't even know I'm missing. We're certainly not married because you don't love me that way, not anymore. Maybe once you did but you're over it, you're over me."
She took a step closer when he opened his mouth to protest, raising the hand that wasn't wrapped in his to her lips, mimicking his gesture from only a few moments ago. "This isn't real because in reality you'd never look at me like that. You'll never love me the way you think you do now because you're with someone else. That's how I know this isn't real."
"None of this is real," she murmured, breaking contact and once again moving back. "I wish I could believe it was."
"Does she know what about us?"
The expression on his face was blank and Kerry had no reason not to believe it wasn't genuine.
With a sigh, she turned fully to face him, resting her back against the door as she surveyed him through exasperated eyes. "About us. About the fact there is no longer an us. Have you told her that? Somehow dropped it into conversation that I'm no longer in the picture so to speak?"
"No. Why?" The blank expression gave way to an expression of sincere confusion and it was all she could do not to throw her hands in the air.
"Jack.." Kerry took a step forward then decided better of it. She shook her head, letting her eyes close momentarily. "You should have found a way to tell her. As far as Colonel Carter is aware, you and I are still a.. a couple, a sort of couple."
"As far as I was aware, Carter was still engaged. She didn't tell me she was planning on breaking it off." He was quick to defend himself, the frown deepening as she continued to stare at him. The look on her face was uncannily familiar, reminding him of all those times he'd been on the receiving end of it from the women in his life - usually when they'd been discussing one of those things that were important to women yet somehow entirely unimportant to men. "What?"
"It's different for women, trust me on this. And I'm sure she would've told you about her relationship ending if she'd had the chance. Well, if you'd told her you weren't seeing me anymore she would have." Kerry shook her head again and sighed. Again. "Just promise me you'll find a way to tell her when you find her, okay? I keep remembering the look on her face when she saw us together and.. Well, just tell her. I can imagine what she's feeling right now and I'd be willing to put money on it that telling her we're over would make her feel better."
"Don't say Carter's not like that, Jack, she's a woman no matter how much you might consider her to be one of the guys. It's a woman thing." Kerry shrugged and ran a hand over her face. "We're different to men. If the guy we have feelings for has feelings for someone else.. Well, we don't easily accept that and try to move on. In fact we usually indulge ourselves in lots of ice cream and girl's nights in, something I bet she hasn't let herself do.."
"I wasn't going to say that." He cut her off much in the same way she had him. "I was going to say Carter was on downtime when she disappeared. Doctor Brightman recommended it, said she was concerned Carter was depressed.." He shifted uncomfortably in his chair, not liking the look that appeared on her face. "You think that maybe..?"
"Maybe her knowing about us contributed? It's possible." Kerry kept her voice soft, forcing a smile that was more sympathetic than reassuring no matter how hard she tried. "I know if I was in her shoes it wouldn't have made me feel very good. And you never know, it might have been a contributing factor to her ending her engagement. Maybe she was planning to fight me for you."
They both smiled at that, amusement showing on her face as his face flushed a little - out of pleasure at the thought as much as embarrassment, she was sure.
"Just make sure you tell her when you find her, Jack. A woman's mind is a complicated thing but it's nothing compared to her heart."
Kerry turned back towards the door and opened it before she could change her mind again, slipping outside into the hallway and closing it firmly behind her. She slipped her cell phone from her pocket even though she couldn't use it until she got considerably closer to the surface, determined to help.
In his office, Jack sat staring down at the file in front of him, again seeing nothing, considering the advice she'd given him, wondering if he could've made a difference.
They stood staring at each other, glaring at each other. One breathing heavily, the other icily composed.
"This is what you have been keeping from me?" The replicator stalked forward, stopping just a few feet away from the woman crumpled on the floor at her feet. "Why?" She demanded. "Why deceive me into believing you are hiding something of great importance?" She stood unnaturally still, her hands curling where they rested on her hips as she surveyed her companion. Her victim. "Unless you know more.. Unless you believe you can distract me with useless pieces of information."
"I don't know anything else. I kept it from you because I knew you would use it against me." Sam clenched her fists and forced herself to hold her head high so she could return the replicator's cold glare with a heated one of her own.
Fire and ice battled for supremacy as their gazes locked.
A small, knowing smile spread across the replicator's face. She took a step forward and crouched down so that the two women were eye-to-eye. "You kept it from me because you knew I'd use it against you and yet you've now let me in on the secret." The smile widened and she leaned forward, leaned closer. Supporting herself with one hand, she reached out with the other. "Keeping things from me is a bad idea, Samantha. I don't like it when you try to do that. We're the same, you and me. We shouldn't have secrets from each other, it isn't nice." An expression of mock apology spread across her face, though the malevolent glee in her eyes made them shine unnaturally. "And now you have to be punished for it. You brought this on yourself, Samantha. Remember that."
Sam barely had time to brace herself as the replicator's hand moved closer, barely had time to scream as the invasion began again.
Four of them sat around the table in the briefing room, gathered together to report their findings.
Whatever findings there were.
"We've got nothing. No one saw or heard anything. Apparently her neighbours have stopped paying much attention to when she comes and goes. They're used to her being away for days at a time, used to not seeing her around." Daniel looked to Teal'c for confirmation.
"The occupants of the house adjacent to Colonel Carter's reported that they did not see her leave the premises after returning from her lunch with Detective Shanahan. However, they did state that they believed Colonel Carter may have left without their noticing it at some time during the night as they have noticed she leaves her home at varying hours."
"Depending on when she's called to the SGC to deal with some emergency," Daniel finished, shrugging his shoulders. "No one was any help, Jack. It's like she just disappeared into thin air."
"That's pretty much what the cops have got, too," Kerry contributed, turning her chair slightly so that she faced Jack. "Other than thinking you might have something to do with it, and suspecting that Teal'c and Daniel know more than they're letting on." She shrugged when the three men looked at her. "That's the best reason they've got, short of blaming one of their own. I called a few of my contacts, too. Agent Barrett included. The NID haven't got anything to do with it. They're actually out there looking for her, too, because they know if she isn't found soon people will probably start looking at them closer and they're working on something they don't want the rest of us knowing about."
"Have the Asgard not been in touch? Or the Tok'ra?"
At Teal'c's question, Jack felt their attention turn to him. He clasped his hands on the table in front of him to keep from fidgeting. "The Tok'ra were as helpful as ever. They said they haven't heard anything but will let us know if they do. They're also supposedly going to pass on the message to Jacob but whether that happens, and whether it happens anytime soon is another story. As for the Asgard.."
He was gone before he could finish the sentence. Kerry, Teal'c and Daniel could only blink as he was enveloped in a bright white light and vanished before their eyes.
".. Hi, Thor. Great timing. We were just talking about you.."
"We received your message, O'Neill, and came as soon as we heard." Thor blinked his big black eyes and walked passed him to a display holding a weapon. A weapon that looked more than a little familiar. "We were planning to contact Colonel Carter. Her idea worked. We have been successful in reconfiguring the Ancient's device."
"Idea.. Carter had an idea?" Jack frowned, glancing from the weapon to the little grey alien. "Why didn't she tell me?"
"I believe Colonel Carter thought voicing the idea to too many would put both your life and Daniel Jackson's life in jeopardy were the replicators to discover it. When we last met, she suggested that the key to reconfiguring the Ancient device so that it may once more be effective against the Asgard may be stored within the knowledge you and Daniel Jackson retain in your subconscious. We have been working with the information that was downloaded into the ship's computer when your mind was merged with it and have indeed found what we believe to be the key."
"You mean we can defeat the replicators again? Even Carter's evil twin?"
"We believe so, yes." Thor turned from the weapon to face the General. "The information you had downloaded led us to Ta'kara, where we located a device we believe is not only capable of defeating the Asgard but also all enemies we have encountered within the galaxies we have explored. We also believe that this may be the cause of Colonel Carter's disappearance. We are currently scanning the space around your planet for any trace of the replicator vessel."
Jack's blood ran cold. "You think the replicator has her?"
"It is a possibility, O'Neill. The replicator Fifth made in her image will no doubt be aware of Colonel Carter's desire to solve the problem we faced after the weapon was rendered ineffective. It stands to reason that she would return to learn all that she can about Colonel Carter's plans to restore its capabilities." Just as Thor finished speaking, a console in the centre of the room beeped. Gracefully, the Asgard walked over to the computer and entered a few commands, his eyes fixed on the response.
Impatience building inside of him, Jack managed to stand still for all of thirty seconds before making his way over to the console, leaning on it from the opposite side as he stared at Thor expectantly. "What is it?"
Thor looked up from the screen, almost as if he'd forgotten the General was there. "There are traces of unusual emissions in the atmosphere around your world. The replicators have been here recently."
"Can you follow them? Follow the trail?" Hope rose even as he tried to push it aside. "Maybe we can catch up with them.."
"I am afraid that is not possible, O'Neill." The Asgard's apology was genuine.
Jack sighed, his shoulders slumping as his short-lived hope rapidly faded, replaced instead by a sense of dread and foreboding. "It's too old, isn't it? She's long gone and taken Carter with her."
"I do not believe that is the case, O'Neill. If these readings are correct, the replicator vessel is still in Earth's orbit." Thor's fingers danced across the console. "The vessel is, however, using some form of cloaking device. It will take time for our scans to detect it due to the unusual configuration of its shield."
"But they're still here? They're close." Jack gripped the console, his eyes fixed on the colours and lines and dots on the screen in front of him even though his mind couldn't make sense of it all. "If they're still here there's a chance Carter's with them. A good chance she's still alive."
"I hope you are right." Thor kept his gaze averted. "I will return you to your planet, O'Neill, and contact you as soon as I have located the vessel."
He didn't give Jack the chance to protest, the chance to insist he be allowed to stay on the Asgard ship. By the time Jack had opened his mouth to say something he found he was standing back in the briefing room, with Teal'c, Daniel, Kerry and Sergeant Harriman staring at him in surprise.
"The replicators have Carter," he said in way of greeting. "Thor's scanning for the ship now but it's cloaked so it might take.."
Another flash of light.
Sergeant Harriman looked around, startled, to find he was alone.
The first thing she noticed was the grey walls. They were pretty hard to miss. The second was that one of the three men she had been with was missing, the third being that he'd been replaced by someone else.
Someone who looked like the missing Colonel Carter but who definitely wasn't her.
Daniel and Teal'c moved closer to her side, almost as if they were protecting her. Kerry wasn't sure why but she was glad for it.
If the way the replicator version of Colonel Carter was staring at her was any indication of how her stay aboard what she assumed was the replicator ship was going to be then Kerry was pleased to have them on her side.
The replicator continued to stare at her through cold eyes, assessing her. "You are not what I expected," was the eventual greeting. It was delivered in such a way that Kerry couldn't help but feel insulted. The replicator walked nearer, circling them. Teal'c moved to grab her but she deflected the attempt, grabbing his arm and dragging it behind his back. "Yet they still protect you like one of their own. Interesting." The replicator pushed Teal'c aside and moved to stand in front of them again. "You're not one of them. You never will be. You will never mean as much to them as she does."
"I've never tried." Kerry crossed her arms over her chest, lifted her chin a little higher. "I never will try. But you're an outsider, too. You're not one of them. You're not her."
"I never tried to be." The smile on her face was carved in ice. "I never will." It faded into a scowl as she tilted her head to one side, considering the thought. "I will never be that weak. I will never allow someone to hurt me as much as she has allowed. I will never break and I will never die. She has, and will." A distant expression flittered over her features and she straightened, her gaze shifting to rest on the wall behind them, her intent gaze seeming to physically burn a hole in it. A hole that kept growing. "She will die as soon as I've taken what it is I need." She smiled. "And so will you."
She barely stirred at the sound of his voice, her eyes shut tightly as her arms remained wrapped around her legs.
"Damn it, Carter. What's she done to you?" Jack crouched down in front of her, wincing slightly as the hard floor dug into the tender flesh of his knees. He moved a hand to reach out for her but paused, pulling his hand back when her head jerked up and her dazed eyes met his before flickering away skittishly. "Carter? Colonel. Look at me."
"You're not real. You're not really here." Sam shook her head and closed her eyes. A thin sheen of sweat broke out over her forehead as she fought the urge to retch, a side effect of the intrusion into her mind. "You're not real. You're just a hallucination."
"No, he isn't, Carter. I am," the second voice came from the opposite side of the room. Her eyes opened and she pushed herself back, propelling herself away from the two General O'Neill's she could see in the room. The one furthest away from her grinned a little sadly and crossed his arms over his chest, leaning casually against the wall at the far end of the room. "I wouldn't lie to you, Sam. I haven't lied to you since you created me. He's the real deal. I don't know if he's here to rescue you or if he's counting on you to save his ass.. Probably the latter but don't worry about it, it's about time he and the others returned the favour."
The other General O'Neill, the one who was closest, glanced behind him, following the direction of her horrified gaze. Seeing nothing and no one, he turned his attention back to the woman looking between him and the wall in surprise. "Carter?"
Her gaze flickered back to him and her brow furrowed as she stared straight through him. "There's never been two of you before," she murmured, her eyes moving to the now empty space his twin had occupied before returning to his face. She reached out to him, almost touched him, but wrenched her hand back before contact could be made. "It's a trick. You're not him. She's just using you. She thinks I'll tell you but I won't." Her eyes changed, her gaze hardened. For the first time since finding himself in the room with her, Jack could see the Carter he knew shine through. "I'm not going to tell you anything so you might as well leave me alone."
"I don't want you to tell me anything, Carter, I know." He scooted forward a foot, taking his time as she watched him warily. The suspicion he could deal with, understand. Maybe even take pride in. "I spoke to Thor." He kept his voice quiet, his eyes locked on hers. "I know what you know, Carter. He told me about your theory and it worked out, okay? You were right. Now we need to get off this ship so he can put that knowledge to good use but first you have to trust me. You have to believe me so we can fight her together."
For a moment he thought he'd won. He saw her resolve flicker, soften for a split second but the wariness reappeared in her expression the moment he reached out to touch her shoulder. "I want to believe you but I can't. She's used this trick too many times. I don't know if you're a hallucination or if none of this is real and she's screwing with my head again in some dream sequence she's created to get me to break. It's not going to work. She will have to kill me first because I am not giving in. I'm not giving up. I'm stronger than that."
"You are," he agreed instantly. "You're stronger than she gave you credit for, than Brightman and Mackenzie and even me gave you credit for. But you don't have to be strong all the time, Sam. Not now. I'm here and I'm pretty sure she brought the others with me. Maybe Thor'll have been able to detect the location of the ship when she beamed us aboard.." His musings were cut off by the change of expression on her face. By the hope. "If I was a hallucination, you wouldn't be able to feel me, right?"
"You said that before," she spoke softly, sadness entering her eyes in place of hope. "And I thought I could feel you but you weren't here then. Just like you're not here now."
Jack stared at her, letting the hand he'd moved support him as he weighed up his options. To his way of thinking, he had to get her to believe he was real, not the delusion she seemed so sure he was. To do that, he had to established physical contact. A touch wouldn't be enough, she could easily brush that aside as being another trick of the mind, another game. No, to his way of thinking he had two options to prove he was real, and he was there.
There was no way in hell he was hitting her, no way he was proving it with violence so that just left one option..
He moved as quickly as he could, not giving himself time to second guess his plan, not giving her time to realise his intention and try to stop it.
His hands clasped her shoulders, yanking her nearer. He pressed his lips against hers, keeping his eyes open to study her reaction. Her eyes widened, with panic at first, then surprise. The hands that had risen to push against his chest clutched the material of his BDUs as her eyes closed. Relieved that she wasn't pushing him away and pleasantly surprised that she responded, Jack let his own eyes slip shut..
.. Only to regret it several seconds later when she pulled away and he opened his eyes just in time to catch a glimpse of her fist moving towards his face.
"Damn it, Carter! What the hell..?" He gingerly touched the area around his left eye, glaring at her after discerning the swelling had already started. "What'd you do that for?"
She stared at him in shock, her mouth moving wordlessly. Then she clapped a hand over her lips, mortification arranging her features. "Sir! You're real! I'm so sorry, Sir, I thought.. I thought it was another trick. Another hallucination…"
"Do you hallucinate about me kissing you often?" An eyebrow rose, and he was surprised to find he was almost as curious as he was annoyed.
Mortification gave way to embarrassment as she moved forward, resting on her knees as she pulled his hand away from his face so she could take a better look at the damage she'd inflicted. She cringed slightly at the redness around his eye, realising that he'd be sporting an unattractive bruise before long. "I'm so sorry, Sir," she murmured, chewing on her bottom lip as her gaze lowered. "But I thought.." Her voice trailed off and her gaze returned to his face. "How did you get here? Does she know? You have to leave, you have to get out of here before she figures it out.."
"Like I was saying, hopefully Thor noticed her beam us up and he'll find a way to get us out of here." Jack covered her hand and moved it from where it fussed over his eye. "Damn, Carter. You pack quite a punch."
"Sorry, Sir." The beginnings of a smile tugged at her lips but she kept it at bay as her mind processed his words. "You weren't the only one she beamed up?"
"I don't think so. From what I saw before the blinding flash of light, she brought Daniel, Teal'c and Kerry up with me. Haven't got a clue where they are, though." He caught the subtle change in her expression at the mention of the third person transported up with him, saw the way her eyes dulled a little and couldn't help but feel a little bit hopeful. "Look, Carter, there's something you should know.."
The expression on her face told him she didn't want to hear it and the way she tried to scramble to her feet told him there was more to it than that.
Glancing over his shoulder, he expected to see nothing, expected her to be seeing another hallucination but was treated to the sight of the wall disappearing, a doorway emerging.
The replicator stood on the other side, with Daniel, Teal'c and Kerry behind her.
Jack got to his feet, helping Sam get unsteadily to hers. He kept hold of her arm, kept her behind him. He didn't think it was just his imagination that the look of contempt on the replicator's face was aimed at the woman he did his best to shield, even as the woman in question tried to stand in front of him.
Probably to try and protect him back.
"Are you ready to talk to me now?" The replicator advanced forward, leaving the trio behind her to watch in horrified fascination. "Because the way I figure it you can either tell me what I want to know or I go to the source itself. Himself." Her eyes narrowed and glinted. "I know you're still hiding something, Sam, and I know he's somehow involved. So either you tell me, or I take the initiative and find out for myself."
The replicator took another step towards them as Sam sidestepped Jack and moved to stand between him and her reflection.
Their expressions were both determined. Fire blazed in Sam's eyes as ice cooled those of her opponent.
"I won't let you do this. I won't tell you what you want to know and I won't let anyone else." She held her head high but kept her hands clenched at her sides. She felt her legs shaking, knew her hands would tremble if she released them.
"I didn't think you would, not easily, but that you're still fighting the inevitable surprises me." The replicator smiled, tilted her head to the side as she stopped just a few feet away. "You're stronger than I expected you'd be. I figured you'd have given in by now. Told me just to make it stop." The smile turned nasty, threatening. "Don't stand in my way, Samantha. You may be strong but you can't live through it again. I know how much damage I've caused you already and believe me when I say your mind wouldn't survive."
Sam met the threat with an arched eyebrow, folding her arms over her chest as she felt the tremors spread. "You said you were going to kill me. Why the big show of concern for my health now?"
"Don't confuse concern with motive. He won't tell me what I want to know if you're dead at his feet."
"He won't tell you if I'm alive, either." With more courage than she felt, Sam took a step forward, sensing Jack follow. "You won't get anything more from them than you got from me so let them go. You're going to destroy the planet anyway. Why have them here when you do? Why not kill us all at the same time then you'll have nothing to worry about. We're not a threat to you if we're dead." She mimicked her twin and let her head tilt to the side, a cold smile curving up the corners of her mouth. "Unless you were bluffing all along. Maybe you don't want to kill us. Not all of us. It'd be pretty lonely for you then, wouldn't it? The only one of your kind left alive, no humans to taunt. Living knowing that you wiped out every single one of the people you have memories of, feelings for." She took another step forward, leaving mere inches between them. "My memories, my feelings. I can't stop you from having them because he took them from me and put them in you but I won't let you take this. I won't let you know what you want to know. This is mine and you're not taking it from me."
The replicator lashed out and grabbed her arm. It took everything she had in her not to flinch, not to fight.
To simply stare her opponent in the eye and wait.
The sound of bone cracking assaulted her ears before the pain registered.
Beads of sweat broke out anew and ran down her bloodless face but Sam continued to stare out the replicator, gritting her teeth against the scream she knew the replicator was waiting for.
She was stronger than that. Had to be.
She did fall to her knees, though, when her legs buckled beneath her.
Jack moved to intercept and she was distantly aware of Teal'c and Daniel coming to her aid but she couldn't focus on them. Couldn't help them. Her gaze was locked on the replicator who still held onto her arm.
On the look on her face.
"You will break," the replicator seethed, her face and her hand moving closer. "I will break you and you will once again lead me into victory against your world."
"Go to hell," were the only words Sam could manage as the hand edging closer pierced the skin of her forehead, sending fresh waves of agony coursing through her body.
They could only stand and stare in horror as the two women were locked in a deadly embrace. An embrace only one of them would walk away from alive.
Jack was barely aware of the flash of light signalling Thor's arrival. He couldn't tear his eyes away from the awkward angle of Sam's arm, of the look of agony on her face.
Knowing it was because of him.
Because she was protecting him.
"O'Neill." Teal'c's voice and the arm that closed around his arm shook him from his stupefied state and Jack glanced up to find the small grey Asgard standing beside Kerry and Daniel, the former who kept glancing between the two women and the little alien at her side. "Colonel Carter is strong. She will continue to fight."
"That's what I'm afraid of." Blinking as his gaze strayed back to the woman in question, Jack looked at Thor hopefully. "Since you're here does that mean you can help..?"
"The replicator vessel dropped its shields momentarily when you were transported from Earth. We were able to adapt to the frequency after establishing a lock. I'm afraid that while we can transport you to our ship, we cannot transport Colonel Carter while she is joined to the replicator in this way. It would be far too dangerous to attempt." Thor stared at him apologetically through big black eyes as he held out the device in his hand, bringing it to Jack's attention for the first time. "This is a biochemical substance we believe will have the same effect as the weapon when injected directly to the replicator being. It will cause communication between the pieces she is made from to cease."
Jack looked from the device to the replicator and her hostage. "Can you use it..?"
Thor shook his head. "I would not attempt it while they are connected. I have no way of knowing how it will affect Colonel Carter. It may kill her, O'Neill."
"Jack." Daniel took a step away from Kerry and Thor, eyeing the syringe resembling device warily. "You can't risk it.."
The ship lurched slightly beneath their feet. Thor tilted his head to the side as the others looked at him in question.
"I believe we are moving," Teal'c stated, glancing at the Asgard for confirmation.
"My ship indicates we are approaching your world." Thor straightened and once more returned his attention to the General. "If you do not act soon the people of your planet will be alerted to our presence. I believe the vessel is powering some form of weapon."
Jack swallowed hard and took the device in the Asgard's outstretched hand.
"It might kill her, Jack." Daniel took another step forward, seeing the intention play across his friends face.
The intention, the pain and the grief.
"I know, Daniel." Dull eyes rose and met Daniel's. "But I have to. I can't risk the planet.."
"Colonel Carter would understand." Teal'c declared solemnly. "She would not want the replicator to succeed."
"I know." But even Teal'c turned away slightly, averting his gaze. Daniel turned his back on him, his expression showing his distress. Jack moved until he could kneel beside Sam, glancing at her pained expression, at her closed eyes. It would stop as soon as he used the device.
It would all stop.
Conscious of Thor and Kerry watching his every move, of his former team mates listening to every word, he leaned towards the frozen woman. "I'm sorry, Sam. I wish there was another way." His throat ached as he moved the device nearer the arm of the replicator, nearer the vice holding the Colonel in place. "But you won," he whispered huskily. "You fought her and won but it's time it ended. Time you stopped needing to fight."
There was a soft click as he pressed the button, watched a tiny needle appear and disappear, punching a delicate hole in the replicators synthesised skin.
For several long moments nothing happened.
Then the look of pain on Sam's face was mirrored on that of the replicator. She withdrew her hand, let go of Sam and took a step back, a horrified expression on her face as Jack moved quickly to catch the limp form of the unconscious Colonel.
"What did you do?" She demanded, her eyes glowing as she cradled her arm. Her arm that felt numb for several seconds before the tips of her fingers crumbled. "What did you do?"
They disappeared before her eyes, just seconds before her world ended.
Just seconds before her ship was hit with a blast of the Asgard weapon and disintegrated into millions of tiny pieces.
Kerry volunteered to be transported back down to Earth, to take care of informing Sergeant Harriman of what had happened and to concoct a cover story they could feed to the police so they would stop investigating their missing person case.
Jack, Daniel and Teal'c remained aboard, pacing the familiar hallways of the Asgard ship, waiting for news. Thor had disappeared with Sam the moment they'd transported onto the ship and they hadn't seen or heard anything from the alien ever since.
Three hours and thirty-seven minutes ago, according to Jack's watch.
Three hours and thirty-eight minutes.
"We have done all we can." Thor's voice reached their eyes before it registered that he'd walked along the corridor towards them. "We have fixed Colonel Carter's arm, repaired as much of the damage to her brain as possible and although there is still swelling, we are confident that it will ease. In a few days, I will release her into the care of your facility however I think she should stay aboard for now."
"Thank you." Daniel expelled a sigh of relief when no one else spoke.
"Is she going to be okay?" Jack kept his hands in his pockets, his gaze intense. "You said you repaired as much of the damage as possible, not all of it."
Thor blinked. "I believe in time Colonel Carter will be as she once was, physically. The trauma that she has endured was intense. I have no way of knowing how it will affect her mental state of being."
"You sound like Brightman and Mackenzie," Jack muttered, noticing the confusion on the Asgard's face but choosing not to explain. "Physically, will she be okay? Will she be physically able to return to active duty? Her career's important to her. If there are gonna be side-effects, we need to be prepared.."
"She will recover adequately but she will need time. It is up to your doctors to decide when she can do that, O'Neill. I do not know enough about your stipulations to determine that."
Daniel stepped in when Jack remained silent, his expression sullen. "We appreciate that, Thor, and we appreciate your help. Jack's just worried.."
"I understand, Daniel Jackson." Thor nodded in acknowledgement. "I will return you all to the SGC. Colonel Carter will follow when we believe she is ready."
They were back in the briefing room before they could protest. Glaring up at the ceiling, Jack strode into his office, slamming the door behind him, leaving Teal'c and Daniel to explain to the group of concerned people, Kerry and Harriman included, what was going on.
After three days, she was released into the care of the SGC infirmary. Two days after that, she woke up for the first time and asked for a drink of water. Twenty-two hours after that, she woke up again and was able to stay awake for almost an hour before the need to sleep caught up with her. A week and a half after that, Doctor Brightman called Doctor Mackenzie to set up a counselling session, the first of what she expected would be many.
She was wrong.
She looked down at Doctor Mackenzie's report before looking back at the doctor, staring at him in amazement. "Are you sure?"
"I'm positive." Mackenzie shrugged his shoulders as he sat in the chair opposite her in her small office. "I spoke with Colonel Carter at length and I'm more assured of her mental state now than I have been in a long time. She's a very strong woman, Doctor, and she knows what she wants."
"She's voluntarily taking leave for two months?" Doctor Brightman closed the report and shook her head. "I never thought I'd see the day when she'd agree to that, let alone suggest it." She quirked an eyebrow at the psychologist. "And you're sure she's okay? Mentally?"
"She's as okay as a woman who's been through what she's been through and survived can be." Mackenzie smiled humourlessly. "I'll be honest with you, Doctor, if she hadn't suggested taking downtime I would have recommended she take a month off, just to give her time to absorb and accept her latest adventure. But through speaking to her, I'm convinced we have nothing to worry about. Colonel Carter knows her limits now, I'm not so sure she did before. And she's accepted that taking a step back isn't a sign of weakness. That's a breakthrough for her."
Doctor Brightman shook her head again and sat back in her chair. "I never thought I'd say this but I think I agree." She sighed and crossed her hands over the report on her lap. "Have you submitted your report to General O'Neill? Told him what the Colonel plans to do?"
"No." Doctor Mackenzie allowed himself another small smile. "She requested that she be the one to tell him her plans, to explain that she's taking the time willingly and not because we recommend it. I gave her a copy of my report to give to him."
Her expression showing her surprise, Doctor Brightman sighed and shrugged her shoulders to ease the tension in them. "I don't know if I'd like to be in her shoes," she murmured as her companion stood and made a move to leave the office. "I don't think General O'Neill's going to be happy with her decision. He wasn't too happy when I suggested it before."
Doctor Mackenzie disagreed but didn't say anything. He nodded his goodbyes and left the office, closing the door behind him. He thought of the revelations he'd left out of his report, the ones made off-the-record, and thought that maybe the General wouldn't complain so much after all.
She stood at attention in front of his desk, the image of the perfect soldier as he read the report she'd hand delivered. Her gaze remained fixed on his face, studying his reaction as she clasped her hands behind her back and kept her back ramrod straight.
She knew when he got to the part about her volunteering to take leave. His eyes left the printed words and locked with his momentarily, questioning her, but when she said nothing, he went back to reading Mackenzie's carefully chosen words.
When he finished, he set the report down on the unusually uncluttered desk in front of him and folded his hands atop of it. He looked up at her, staring at her for several long minutes before motioning her to the chair opposite him. "Are you sure it's what you want?"
"It's just for a few months." She shrugged as she slipped into the chair, stifling a wince at the ache in her arm as she did. The Asgard had done their best in fixing the break but she still felt a twinge of pain every so often. "Just to give myself time to remember why we keep fighting and what we keep saving. To enjoy it without getting distracted by the end of the world."
Jack nodded slowly. He thought he understood. Lowering his gaze back to the report in front of him, he pretended to reread the last line. "You want to give the normal life another go, I get it. So are you and Shanahan giving it another go?"
"What? No." Sam shook her head, surprised at the conclusion he'd jumped to. "I haven't changed my mind about that. I know I did the right thing by breaking up with him and I think he knows it, too. It's just his pride.." She broke off and shrugged. "I spoke to him on the phone a few days ago, reassured him I was okay. He asked me to go away with him but I said no. It's over, for good."
He looked up from the report, leaned back in his chair. Studied her intently. "So you're going to..? What? You'd go crazy after a week, Carter, without something there to distract you."
"I've decide to move house," she agreed with a smile. "I don't know where but I think I want something big. Something I can renovate and make my own. That should take up a few weeks at least. Then I was wondering about going travelling, maybe seeing more of the sights Earth is famous for."
"New York, Paris, the leaning tower of pizza?"
"Possibly." Her smile faded slightly, her gaze lowering. "I don't know how confident I'll be travelling alone, though. You never know when someone might decide to beam me up again. So I might put those plans on hold for a while, maybe till Cassie's on spring break."
"You could do that." He kept his eyes on her face, watching her. Waiting for her reaction as he forced himself to speak. "Or I could keep you company, till you get sick of me anyway. I've been talking to the President and he's agreed to let me take a sabbatical of sorts. Kind of a trial retirement run to see how I cope."
"You're retiring?" The surprise on her face made him smile, gave him confidence. As did the way her eyes rose to meet his before flittering away.
"For a few months at least."
"Won't you want to spend your time with Agent Johnson?" The surprise was joined by a light flush and she still couldn't meet his gaze. "I mean, the company would be good but I don't think she'd be so happy about it."
Jack leaned forward, picking up a pen from his desk to fidget with. Outwardly, he retained a calm exterior but internally he was a wreck. A nervous wreck of a man someone of his age never thought he'd be. "It's got nothing to do with Kerry. She's.. That's over, too."
Her eyes travelled back to his face and for several seconds they just looked at each other.
Then the pen in his hand snapped under the pressure and the tension in the room deflated as she smiled at his forlorn expression as he cradled the broken pieces.
"So you'd go travelling with me? See the sights, leave your pager at home?" She folded her arms over her chest, tilting her head slightly as she chewed on her bottom lip, surveying him through lowered eyelashes. He didn't think he'd ever seen her look so shy, or so coy. "You won't get bored?"
"I'm sure we can find a way to keep ourselves entertained, Carter." He watched the blush darken on her cheeks, felt a matching one crawl up his neck. "I didn't mean.. Well, maybe I did but that's not to say.. I'm going to shut up now," he decided, mumbling and glancing back down at the twisted remains of his pen as she looked at him, amusement shining in her eyes. "So what do you say? Danny and T can help the new guy, assuming it's a guy, keep this place under control. Maybe I could even help you with the house hunting after we're done sight-seeing.."
"That'd be good, thank you. Sir." The rank was added as an after-thought, the smile it was delivered with taking the edge from the word.
Jack grinned and put the broken pen down, feeling the tension in his shoulders ease. "Now if we're gonna be travelling together, Carter, you really need to learn to call me Jack. People might think it's a bit weird for you to call your.. travelling companion.. Sir or General."
"Yes, Sir." Sam stood, her eyes never leaving his face as her smile grew slightly bigger, slightly more confident. "You'll probably have to learn to say Sam once in a while, too. Just, you know, so people don't think it's weird you call your "travelling companion" by her surname."
"I'll work on that, I promise." He copied the motion of getting to his feet, walking around to her side of the desk as casually as he could. "Want to try and contact Dad before we leave? Let him know what's going on?"
A small chuckle escaped her at the slightly horrified look that accompanied the suggestion. "It'll be fine, Sir. Jack. He likes you. I think he'll probably be pleased his little girl isn't going off into the big bad world alone."
"The big bad world, Carter?" An eyebrow raised in amusement as he took a step forward, a step closer. "You've been out in the big bad universe plenty of times."
"And he hates it, every single day. He told me as much." She tilted her head to the side again when he stopped. "Sir?"
"Jack," he corrected with a grin.
She took a deep breath before taking the plunge, forcing her gaze to still fixed on his. "Are you going to kiss me again? You know, now that you're officially possibly temporarily retired?"
His grin returned, stretching across his face. "Well, that depends, Sam," he drawled as he shuffled just a tiny bit closer.
"On whether you decide to hit me if I do." The embarrassment on her face only served to increase his amusement. He had a feeling he was going to like being responsible for the blush on her cheeks, the sheepish expression to her eyes. "It took a while to go down, you know. I had a hell of a time explaining it to the President.."
She smiled softly. "I won't hit you again, I promise."
"Good." The humour started fading. He took another half step forward, moved his arms so his fingers just brushed her bared skin. "Then I think I'll take my chances."
"You're a very brave man." Her eyes dropped to his lips, her voice barely a whisper.
"Aren't I just?"
And somewhere in the galaxy, a replicator smiled.
Her sister's death would not be in vain.