The locker room was quiet, the only sound emanating from a large vent in one corner that pushed out a monotone hum of recycled air. Major Samantha Carter sat on a bench in the center of the room, her head in her hands. Her eyes were clenched beneath the heels of her palms as she tried to push back her anguish. She had lost someone under her command, and the weight of the loss bore heavily on her mind and heart.
She tried to rationalize that people sometimes die in the heat of battle. That was just the way it went. She had seen good soldiers killed in the line of duty as far back as the Gulf, long before her involvement in the Stargate program. Until now, though, she never considered the ramifications of someone dying under her command. It had never happened before, and she was not sure how to handle the emotions she felt. The SGC had been running into close quarter combat situations more frequently of late. More than once in the days following the skirmish, she tried to reason that it was simply a matter of time before something like this would have happened. She never dreamed it would have been so distressing every minute of the day.
Don't leave me. Her mind pounded with the soldier's words, seeing his pleading eyes as he lay bleeding. He was going to die either way. That much she knew. She had to decide whether to make it to the gate and save what team members she could or drag the man and fight against whatever was coming toward them. O'Neill was yelling, everyone was yelling. There was so much noise. She made little headway dragging Wheeler. He was built and heavy with equipment. Dirt was flying, making it hard to see. And in that instant, she let go of him.
She had left him there to die. Her hands balled into fists as she pushed them tighter against her face. She could still see the look on his face as she dropped her grip on his vest. Even after a week off from missions, the image was clear, haunting her with every step she took in the SGC thereafter. Nearly anything triggered it. More and more, Sam found herself seeking someplace quiet where she could quell the emotions raging inside her. So far, the locker room was the most consistently empty since the SGC was comprised of a mostly male staff. At least here she could be alone, the sign on the door admonishing men from entering unannounced.
There was a knock, and she quickly rubbed at her eyes, trying to compose herself into something acceptable. She couldn't afford to have doubt cast upon her command abilities – not now with a recent promotion and what was expected of a decorated officer.
She reached down and began tightening the laces on her boots. "Come in."
The door opened, framing Colonel Jack O'Neill, SG-1's commanding officer. "Carter?"
"I'll be right there, sir," she said, avoiding eye contact with him.
"Anise, er Freya . . . " He shook his head in slight frustration. "Well, whoever the hell she is today – just came through the gate with her entourage. They're waiting in the briefing room with Hammond."
Sam nodded. "I'm just finishing up, sir. I'll be there in a minute."
There was an uncomfortable silence as O'Neill stood there. He finally stepped through the doorway and carefully sat down on the bench near her. He rested his elbows on his knees, folding his hands. "You okay?"
She feigned another lace being tightened. "I'm fine, sir. Just running a little late today."
His voice was low and calm, soothing and without accusation. "Y'know, word has it you've been on edge since P3X324."
She straightened then, not in the mood for psychoanalysis. She stared straight ahead at her locker, not daring to look at him. If she did, she was sure he would see the truth in her eyes. An ironic laugh escaped her, her head shaking. "Not exactly the best of missions, was it, sir?"
"No," he answered. "Kinda took us all by surprise."
Her elbows rested on her knees now, as well, as she rubbed absently at her right hand. She could feel Jack staring at her, not liking the tension it created. She wanted to scream at him, to tell him she was in anguish over leaving a man to die on that battlefield in order to save her own life. That would have sunk her career, she was sure. He wouldn't be able to trust her again. The fact was that she wasn't sure she could trust herself.
"I know about Wheeler," he said.
Carter looked at him with a brief glance, caught off guard at the mention of the name. Her concentration shifted back to her hands. She was sure he had read her report on the incident. Like the dutiful officer she was, she had noted the circumstances of Wheeler's death. It would have been easy to omit it because of the intense confusion of the battle. She knew better, though. There were rules, and Carter was good about following them. "So what does that mean?"
"It means that I know what that's like, and I see it eating at you." He looked at her intently. "It wasn't your fault."
She stood and slammed her locker door shut, pressing her head against it. Her eyes closed. "He was my responsibility, Colonel. All I can see is his face. I'm walking around here like a zombie thinking if only . . . " Carter's voice trailed off, unable to convey to him the number of times she had rerun the scenario. Every time, the result was the same. This was not the time to lose control.
She looked over at him, standing up straight. "I had two choices, sir, and I made the wrong decision that got a man killed."
He stood and walked to her side, his arm resting on top of the lockers. "Sam, there was no right decision that day. I was there, remember? We lost one man." He held up his index finger for emphasis. "One, out of twelve in one hell of a firefight. You're not the one who killed Wheeler. A Goa'uld did that. And if you hadn't run for the gate, you'd be dead, too."
She turned toward him, leaning up against the locker and folding her arms. "Would you have done the same, sir? I mean, what if that was me instead of Wheeler – would you have left me there?"
He looked down at the floor, reviewing his words carefully. "As bad as it sounds, he would have died anyway. And if it meant saving more lives than losing them," he said looking at her directly, "then yes, I probably would have done the same thing."
"And if it had been me?"
His mouth opened, trying to voice a difficult answer when base's paging system sounded. "Colonel O'Neill and Major Carter to the briefing room."
Her head dropped, silently damning the sound of Hammond's voice summoning them. She wanted O'Neill's answer, but the call effectively ended the debate. "I think that's our cue, Colonel," she said softly.
He sighed. "Yeah." Without another word, he turned and headed out of the locker room.
She waited for a moment after O'Neill's departure. Even though he was trying to help, she wasn't up to continuing the conversation on the way to a briefing. She needed time to collect herself and calm down. She ran a hand through her hair and took time to check her appearance in the mirror before entering the hallway.
Stargate Command, a secret program nestled like an underworld in the belly of Cheyenne Mountain Complex, was the United States Air Force's quiet little project. It had come about a thousand years after the last use of the Stargate, an ancient ring standing over two stories tall that allowed travel to other planets.
Carter had been working on classified projects at the Pentagon when the offer to work with the newly formed Stargate Command was tossed her way. She jumped on it faster than she realized, eager to explore the unknown. She knew she was smart. There were constant reminders of her level of intelligence and of how it exceeded that of those around her. Jack O'Neill had felt intimidated by her when they first met.
It was ironic how that had changed in just a short time. He no longer held her brain against her. He appreciated it, and they both valued the strong bonds that had formed among the members of SG-1, bonds that made it unique among all the Stargate exploration teams. So, it was not that unexpected that he would try to talk to Sam about Wheeler's death. That was his job. His team was his job, and it was one he took seriously. He was the one who took the first steps through the gate onto Abydos, coming back to the military against all odds. And it was he that accepted Carter for who she was, giving her the chance to prove her worth.
The facility, though running twenty-four hour shifts, had a light complement in the late evening hours. Or, in this case, the early morning hours. It was 0200. Carter's footsteps echoed off the bunker's walls with staccato clicks that emphasized how alone she was, how alone she felt. She turned left and came to the elevator that would take her to the command level where the gate itself was housed. She reached for her security card and slid it through the reader. The doors opened, and she stepped inside. She pushed the button for Level 27, leaning back against the wall of the car. The familiar shift in gravity made her knees buckle slightly as the car rose.
When the doors opened, she was in the gate control room. Here, Carter found a full staff manning the gate and its sensors. They gave no notice of her arrival as she stepped out and headed up the stairs to the briefing room.
When she entered, the only empty seat was the one reserved for her. O'Neill, Doctor Daniel Jackson and Teal'c were already present and waiting. She moved in quickly and seated herself. Across from her sat Freya, dressed in her provocative style meant solely for O'Neill's amusement. Or perhaps it was Anise amusing Daniel. Whoever was the intended target, the Tok'ra's sense of fashion left something to be desired by the average female observer.
Flanked by two male assistants, she smiled in Carter's direction with a nod. A chill crept up Carter's spine at the gesture. She could think of no one in the SGC who really liked Freya or Anise. Both entities were bitterly loyal to the secrecy surrounding Tok'ra operations, and neither was going to bend any time soon. Carter's heart stung with the loss of Martouf, missing him truly for the first time since she had made her choice. It should be him in the chair, not Freya.
She quickly pushed the notion out of her mind. There was no more room for pain that day. Time to concentrate, Carter sighed inwardly.
Hammond spoke, bringing the room to attention. "Now that everyone is here, I think we should get started." He opened the file folder in front of him, examining notes. He then looked up, his memory refreshed. "As you know, SG-8 returned three days ago from P8X227. What you may not know is that they returned with information provided by the Tok'ra concerning the situation we are here to discuss. This time," he said, closing the folder, "they need our help."
Hammond nodded at Freya. She looked toward O'Neill, concentrating her speech. "We received a distress signal from an operative we inserted on a planet called Beman. A lesser system lord named Neja controls it. We suspect a weapon of great power is being constructed there that could have devastating consequences on any factions opposing the Goa'uld."
"Sounds intense," said Jack, the weariness of the hour showing in his level of excitement over the matter. "Could you possibly elaborate for us a bit? The hour's late, and my telepathic abilities seem to be a little on the fritz."
Freya nodded, ignoring O'Neill's interminable nature. "Stargates thus far accommodate only one-way travel. This has provided the origin of travel with a means of protection against counterattacks while the gate is open. However, our operatives have reported that a new weapon being constructed on Beman would compromise this protection."
O'Neill's enthusiasm was not up to par. "And you want us to go knock it out?"
"Not exactly, Colonel," Freya answered. "The Tok'ra are more than prepared to do that. However, we are almost certain our operative has been captured." Her gaze passed randomly over those at the table. "You must understand that the Tok'ra are fiercely independent. We do not ask others to fight our battles for us. If it were within our power to resolve this, we would."
"And it's not because . . . ?" O'Neill asked, his eyebrows raised and his impatience mounting.
"Our level of risk is too great to attempt a rescue."
"Ah," O'Neill said, nodding in a mocked understanding. "So, let me see if I got this straight," he said, not bothering to hide his sarcasm, "you want us to take a trip to Beman and bail your guy out but leave this new thing that can zap us through our own gate intact?"
Hammond shifted in his chair, turning slightly to face O'Neill. "That's exactly what they're asking, Colonel."
O'Neill turned toward Hammond in exasperation. "Sir, with all due respect, doesn't it seem a bit of a waste of time if we're going into the heart of this thing only to let it live? That's a hell of a risk to have us zoom on out there to get their boy without at least putting a dent in this Neja's toy."
"Colonel, I assure you that the Tok'ra want the same," Freya said, "but, this weapon may be more valuable intact than destroyed."
Hammond sighed. "While I fully understand and share your concerns, Colonel O'Neill, our orders have been made clear to me by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the President of the United States." The general looked matter-of-factly at O'Neill. "You've been outvoted on this matter."
O'Neill wanted to argue, his mouth open to say the words; but the look on Hammond's face and the tone of his voice left little room for discussion.
Daniel reached for the pot of coffee in front of him. There were small blessings to meetings at ungodly hours. One of them was the gourmet coffee. "Freya," he said, "I'm still a little confused as to why the Tok'ra are asking the SGC for help."
"There are circumstances that complicate the efforts of the Tok'ra retrieving the operative."
"Here it comes," said O'Neill quietly as he reclined in his chair, rubbing at his eyes with his thumb and forefinger.
Freya was undaunted. "The Tok'ra have secured a new location for our people. We believe it to be a stronghold that will give us a number of advantages in the future if we can maintain its secrecy. To risk additional capture of operatives in a rescue attempt would endanger the movement as a whole should the location be revealed under torture or by other means."
Sam's curiosity was piqued. "What's to say they haven't already found out by now? We know Goa'ulds don't waste time interrogating prisoners."
An almost imperceptible smile crept across Freya's face, like a bipedal Cheshire cat. She looked at Carter, as if there was a secret to be told that would not be revealed. "Our operative is unaware of the Tok'ra's new home world. He has not yet blended with a symbiote."
"I thought all Tok'ra were blended," Daniel said, sounding like a student in an anthropology lecture.
"Most are, but we also have candidates awaiting the process. Before blending takes place, we must be sure the potential host is compatible with the beliefs and practices of the Tok'ra. Avedra chose to prove his loyalty by volunteering to gather information on the new weapon. He is an engineer and was most qualified to seek information that would help bring about an end to Neja's weapons."
"So," O'Neill continued, "this Avedra – he goes in to snoop around and winds up getting caught?"
"He issued a distress beacon just hours before he was to be picked up," she explained. "We are certain he is still alive and carries the knowledge of the weapon's design. Without him, we may be defenseless and the resistance movement will be in peril."
"Neja," Daniel said, as though thinking aloud. "Teal'c, correct me if I'm wrong, but he's not a system lord we've heard of. I mean, he's not in the who's who of ancient gods."
Teal'c frowned. "I am not familiar with his name, Daniel Jackson."
"Neja does not originate from the powerful circle of system lords," Freya supplied. "He is considered an outsider by most."
Taking Daniel's cue, Jack sat up and reached for a second pot of coffee on the table. "What – he doesn't work and play well with others?"
"Neja is fond of invention," Freya went on, unfazed by O'Neill's barrage of barbs. "His host, Granthem, was a designer of weapons before being captured and pressed into service as an unwilling host. It is Neja's intention to rise within the caste of system lords with these weapons, becoming more powerful than any lord in a position to challenge him."
Jack's finger scratched at the table, his eyes cast down. "Freya, forgive me for making an observation, but I'm getting the ominous feeling you know this Neja a little more than your average lord."
Freya paused, then her head dropped for a moment. When it rose again, her eyes lit up and emanated a dull white light. Sam's back stiffened. It was disconcerting every time she saw it, even from a Tok'ra. She was certainly not used to seeing it happen with her own father. The room was deathly silent, those in it aware that it was not Freya about to speak but Anise, her symbiote.
"Neja was once a Tok'ra," Anise said. Her voice resonated with an eerie basso tone that was heard when symbiotes assumed control of their hosts. "He betrayed our people nearly a year ago by succumbing to the temptations of power the Tok'ra oppose."
"So, you're trying to set things right by taking him out of commission?" O'Neill asked. "Or are you trying to protect other interests?"
"Colonel O'Neill," Hammond interjected, knowing where O'Neill was headed with the comment.
"Sir," O'Neill complained, turning to Hammond, "the mission to P3X324 was not the most successful of plans. If memory serves, the Tok'ra provided the intel on that one. We came back with one less man than we went in with." He looked back at Anise. "I'm not prepared to allow that to happen again, not for an ally who doesn't play fair."
The tension in the room grew. For Sam, it was almost unbearable. She knew where O'Neill wanted blame placed. That much was clear. Facts had filtered in that led Jack to believe the Tok'ra had another agenda by sending SG-1 and 7 to P3X324. There was no way to prove it, of course, but O'Neill knew dirty pool playing when he saw it. The mission to P3X324 had been under the guidance of the Tok'ra resistance. Somewhere in the flow of information, something was either missed or never sent because they had all walked into the firefight of their lives. They had not only lost a team member, but it someone they had known.
Anise paused a moment, then spoke. "We deeply regret the incident and the loss of that man. The Tok'ra are not blind to the pain and anguish war brings. We have lost much in our fight against the Goa'uld, as well. But know this - more lives will be lost if we do not fully comprehend the operations of this new weapon. As such, it is more valuable to us intact than destroyed. Even now, you are venturing to worlds you see as journeys for knowledge when they are, in fact, most dangerous. Your ignorance in these matters will be your undoing. Allow us to handle this circumstance in the way we see fit so that both our peoples may not perish."
Anise bowed her head, her eyes closing. When she looked up again, it was clear Freya was back. There was a noticeable smile on her face, as though she felt embarrassment when Anise surfaced. "Colonel O'Neill, please believe that the Tok'ra would never ask this of you if we were not in such need. Avedra is the key to successfully defending against Neja's weapon. If we do not receive the information soon, Neja will rise in power and the battle among the system lords will escalate."
Then Teal'c spoke. "Can you be more specific about this weapon?"
Freya seemed energetic with her explanation. "Unfortunately, our information is limited. We do know that it produces a pulse of energy that is directed through an incoming wormhole. Theoretically, this pulse allows for matter reintegration on the other side."
"Wait a minute," Sam said, shaking her head in disagreement. "Stargate travel is only one way. It's impossible to send something through the gate to the origin from the destination. You'd have to invert the particle acceleration in order to create two-way travel. And, theoretically, that's not possible. It would be like a head-on collision at the atomic and even subatomic levels."
Freya nodded, conceding the point. "Until now, it has not been possible. However, Neja's host is considered by some to be the top mind in weapons development and Stargate technology. So, you see, it is vital that Avedra be recovered. It is for this reason that we desire the return of our acolyte. It is our hope Avedra has learned the design of this weapon and can explain its construction. The few that remain of the Beman people will have no hope of salvation if no action is taken."
Jack's senses perked, and his sarcasm came in another wave. "'The few that remain'? What does that mean?"
"It means, Colonel," Freya said, her exasperation finally showing, "that most of Beman's people were killed by a virus similar to your influenza. When Neja began mining the planet, a virus that had been dormant in the frost layers of the ground was released. When the ice melted, it was released into the water supply. Beman was not technologically advanced enough to combat the illness. As such, many died before the spread of the disease was stopped."
Freya looked around the room, taking in the alarmed glances of all present. "I assure you that you should be well within safety if you do not drink the water."
Daniel looked up from his mug. "Yeah, we say the same thing about Mexico," he said brightly and with an irony that was completely lost on the Tok'ra representative.
Freya addressed Hammond directly. "General Hammond, it is imperative that Avedra is returned to us, for both our peoples. I cannot stress enough the importance of his mission to Beman."
Hammond leaned back in his chair slightly. "Do the Tok'ra have any plan as to how SG-1 is to find him?"
"Not necessarily a plan, but we do have a certain resource," Freya answered. "Before leaving to infiltrate the complex, Avedra was implanted with a tracking device. Its signal can be received on this within a certain range."
One of the assistants flanking her withdrew a device from under his tunic and handed it across to O'Neill. "You should be able to detect him once this device is close enough to receive the signal. It will give you the general direction of his current location," he said.
O'Neill turned the small black box around, trying to find which end was up, then handed it to Carter. "And exactly how close do we need to be?"
Freya paused just enough to cause concern. "Thirty meters, depending upon the interference generated by the operations in the complex."
"So, in other words, this thing is useless, right?" he said, thumbing at the box.
Sam tapped the keypad on the box. A gridded mapping display appeared, generating an image of three separate buildings with compartments outlined in red. "This is a map of Neja's complex?" she asked.
"To the best of our knowledge, yes," Freya answered. "The plans represent the information we have learned from past reconnaissance. The red areas you see are holding facilities for workers, prisoners and those too sick to continue work on the project. Most are underground cells, which resemble dungeons at best. Those who are weak when they enter are at great odds to come out alive."
Sam's thoughts were suddenly flooded with images of Socar's hell world - dark, hot, dirty. Were they Jolinar's memories or hers? She couldn't tell but was willing to concede that perhaps they shared the same visions. She forced herself to lock away the images, returning her attention to the present.
Daniel shifted in his chair. "So, how exactly are we to get to Avedra if he's in one of these cells?"
Freya's head bowed once more, allowing Anise to speak. "Provided his identity is not discovered, Neja will most likely put him to work with the others in the fields where the hardest labor is required. This will give you a timeframe in which to act."
Jack smiled. "Let me guess – the acting part is up to us? The Tok'ra haven't come up with any brilliant plans for that, have they?"
"Colonel O'Neill," Anise said, fully frustrated now, "SG-1 has proven its worth in these situations. The success of this mission benefits both our peoples. You have made it clear you do not appreciate Tok'ra involvement in such areas. Therefore, we shall do as you wish and put this part of the task in your more than capable hands."
"All except blowing up the energy thing, right?" O'Neill shook his head in frustration. "We'll just leave that intact."
Teal'c sat impassively, seemingly unfazed by the exchanges. "And what becomes of Neja?"
Anise turned to Teal'c. "Neja is a concern for the Tok'ra, not the Tau'ri. He is one of our own who has betrayed the cause. We will exact a proper justice upon him when the time comes. I guarantee you that time will be soon once Avedra can provide the additional intelligence we require to carry out such action."
Jack's face was deadpan. "Going to send him to bed without supper?"
Hammond cleared his throat to ward off any additional wisecracks from his senior officer. He referred back to his folder. "Before I approve any action, I must have assurances from you of the Tok'ra's intentions to destroy this grid. I won't risk my people only to have it remain operational." He looked up from the folder. "If I send them in, it will be for one purpose only, and that is to retrieve your man and bring him back to the SGC alive and well. After that, we want to see it destroyed without exception. If the Tok'ra don't do it, we will."
Anise lowered her head, allowing Freya's sugary sweet disposition to return. "General Hammond, the Tok'ra are committed to destroying this weapon once we have learned its design. Avedra's knowledge will increase the chances of our success and will most likely save lives in the process. The Tok'ra are well aware of the skills of SG-1, which is why we have called upon you to help us in this endeavor."
O'Neill and Hammond exchanged glances. Hammond nodded at the colonel, reluctantly satisfied with Freya's explanation. More importantly, he had to follow the direct orders of the Joint Chiefs of Staff if he had any intention of keeping his position within the SGC.
Hammond turned to Freya once more. "I have been instructed by the Joint Chiefs to remind you that all information is to be shared with us. We expect full cooperation from the Tok'ra in this matter. We will not accept anything less."
"Of course, General Hammond," Freya promised.
Sam watched O'Neill's face. Sure enough, his eyes rolled in exasperation. "Yeah, we've heard that one before," he muttered quietly.
Hammond shot a glare in O'Neill's direction, then closed his folder for the last time. "Colonel, following a mission briefing with Freya and her people, SG-1 will ship out to Beman to find Avedra and return him to the Tok'ra. You will have twenty-four hours planetside to find him and get him out. The ship will be ordered to leave the system, and your GDOs will be locked out after thirty-six hours."
O'Neill took a deep breath, obviously not satisfied with the general's orders. However, he was not one to defy an order or neglect duty. "Pack your bags, kids," he said to the team members seated around him. "We're taking little trip."