Jack's sides hurt, his lungs hurt, his head really hurt, and when he tried to do anything more complicated than quietly existing, everything hurt even more. On the plus side, that probably meant he wasn't dead. On the minus, being dead might have been orders of magnitude more pleasant.
Life in the SGC meant rarely going for the more pleasant option.
Something was telling him that keeping quiet probably wasn't necessary for survival – not for the moment, at least – and a soft, pained noise escaped the back of his throat. He opened his eyes, and a blur detached itself from the more general blur of his environment. A rather Carter-shaped blur, actually.
"Try not to move," she said.
He blinked at her. It came as a shock to see her alive, and it took a moment to realize why it should. It took longer to realize why it shouldn't. "What happened?" he croaked.
"Daniel's calling it somatic emotional shock," she said. "Combined with some bumps and bruises. You'll be fine, sir; you just need to let it pass."
"You'll be fine," Carter repeated.
He tried to sit up, got three degrees up from horizontal, and collapsed back. Carter settled in against the wall next to him, one hand's fingers brushing the side of her head, staring at nothing. He had no idea where her mind was. Certainly nowhere near explaining. (I could use some explaining right now. Even if I couldn't understand it, at least it would be something to hear.) "What's our status?"
Her eyebrows raised. "We're disabled, floating in space. Life support is down, but it will take a while for the temperature to drop and even longer for us to run out of oxygen. Everything is burnt out or fused. There's nothing left to repair."
He groaned, pulling a hand over his face. "Wait. That explosion was supposed to take out the planet."
He blinked at the ceiling. "How–"
"The entities," Carter said. "I assume. They must have redirected as much of the energy as they could."
His hand dropped. "This didn't go according to plan."
"Story of my life." His eyes searched the ceiling, moving from crack to scorch mark to crack. "So, you're just... what? Coming up with a Plan Z?"
"Daniel and Teal'c are checking the ha'tak's compliment of tel'taks and gliders," she said, and he mouthed Ah. So long as giving up wasn't the correct answer. "If one of them has an operational subspace transmitter, we might be able to signal for help."
Jack blinked again at the ceiling. "From who?"
For a moment, she seemed taken aback. "...I don't know," she admitted. "Anyone listening, I guess."
Jack closed his eyes, exhaled, and pushed himself up to at least the point where he could lean back against the wall. It wasn't pleasant, of course – his head spun, the world spun, and his stomach responded quite predictably by wondering whether it really needed its contents from his last few meals – but it was at least marginally more dignified than lying on his back, and dignity was one of those things he liked to avail himself of every once in a while.
When the nausea settled, he opened his eyes again. He had a feeling he was missing something; why Daniel had gone to check the child craft and Carter had stayed by to watch him be unconscious, for one. There was probably a story in that, but he didn't have anywhere near the brainpower to untangle it. "Any idea how long that'll take?"
She shook her head.
"But we're still good with the concept of time, right?" he asked. "I mean, we didn't have any more adventures with the whole ascend, forget everything, come back down again...?"
The hail came from the doorway. Jack turned his head, regretted it, put a hand out to steady himself, and wound up closing a fist in the upper arm of Carter's jacket. "Daniel," he called back. "Teal'c. Nice of you to stop by."
"You're awake," Daniel said, rather unnecessarily. Jack arched his eyebrows, taking his hand away from Carter's arm.
"So I am. What's the news?"
"Yyyeah. The news." Daniel stuck his hands into his pockets, and that alone told Jack everything he needed to know. "Everything's broken," Daniel said. "We couldn't even get into half of the bays, or into half of the ships in the bays we could get into, and of the ones we could get into, we were lucky if their lights came on. None of them are spaceworthy. Everything technological is fried. Even the al'kesh we brought."
"Of course," Jack said. "Far be it for us to actually keep one of our captured alien spaceships." He groaned, running a hand over his forehead and back through his hair. "Tell me again why we didn't have someone holding the al'kesh at a minimum safe distance?"
Daniel stalled for a moment. "...we were pretty sure that if the ha'tak didn't make it out, we'd be vaporized instead of stranded?"
"Right." Jack bit the inside of one cheek, thinking. Nothing came to mind. "So, what now?"
"Now?" Daniel asked. "Now..."
"We wait for rescue," Carter said.
Jack waited for a moment, but Carter didn't seem inclined to follow that with one of her trademark eleventh-hour plans. (Right. Guess it's in Hammond's court.)
It wasn't the worst situation. He had faith in Hammond, if nothing else. The man tended to come through for them.
"Well, in that case," Jack announced, "I think I know what I'm going to do."
Daniel inclined his head. "What?"
Jack let out a long breath. "I'm going to lie down again."
Time passed, and the temperature dropped.
Jack didn't doze off, though the unchanging atmosphere of the ha'tak neither rewarded nor encouraged wakefulness. The omnipresent ache receded to manageable levels and let him stand and walk around, marking the perimeter of the engine room.
He was no engineer, but even he could tell that the ship would never fly again.
On the third or fourth circuit – circuits punctuated with minor distractions, questions directed at Carter and Teal'c whose answers he wasn't interested in, games of kick-the-debris-across-the room – he stopped by Carter and Daniel, who seemed to be having a conversation impenetrable to anyone other than them. Something about criteria of truth, and something about teleology. He grimaced down at them.
"Don't you two ever talk about things like football scores?"
Daniel blinked, and a sentence about the fundamental coherence of the universe dissolved, itself, into incoherency. "...what frame of reference would she have for that?"
"The idea is to jog her memory," Jack said. "Not–"
He was interrupted by a thump. A rather large one, at that.
Daniel froze. "What was that?"
Teal'c, who'd been sitting in meditation across the room, stood. "It seems to have come from the direction of the bays."
"The bays, you say," Jack said. "Any chance something just fell over? An engine misfired?"
"We investigated the bays thoroughly," Teal'c said. "There was not anything that would explain what we have just heard."
Jack winced, and turned to Carter. "Is there any possibility that Anubis might have survived that blast?"
Carter looked at a loss for words. "...we couldn't even see the effects of the detonation," she said. "Our sensors were destroyed. But we're still alive, and we didn't manage to leave the system."
"So if we're alive, when technically that blast should have killed us..." Daniel said.
Of course. When he asked how bad things could get, it was usually the universe more than his team who provided the answer. "That's not what I wanted to hear."
Teal'c raised an eyebrow. "It is possible the entities were unable to detonate the star with as much force as we anticipated, crippling us but allowing Anubis as an ascended being to move freely."
"Right." He cast a glance toward the hallway, then checked his rifle and motioned out. "Teal'c, you're with me. You kids? Wait here. We'll go check it out."
"Be careful," Carter said. Daniel blinked, as though he'd been about to say that himself.
"You know me," Jack said. "Stay on radio."
"Um; yeah, about that," Daniel said quickly, pulling his radio out of his vest. "No radio. All we get is..."
He flipped the power on, and a cacophony of static and strange bursts of sound flooded out of it. Jack jumped, and turned back before clearing the door. "Jeez!"
"That's the remnants of the pulsar," Carter said. "The radio output of a dying star."
"You're just mentioning this now?" Jack asked.
Daniel drew back. "It didn't come up!"
"Right!" Jack hiked a thumb over his shoulder. "Teal'c and I are going to go check out the creepy noises coming from the docking bays. If you hear either of us screaming at the top of our lungs, do... something."
"Do something," Daniel repeated.
Jack made an exasperated gesture at him.
"Be careful," Daniel said. Jack gave him another annoyed look, and stepped into the hall.
If the ha'tak had been a ghost ship when SG-1 sans Jack had arrived, it had only upgraded its act upon seeing its expanded audience. Power conduits hidden behind bulkheads had overloaded, rupturing and twisting those bulkheads outward. Doors were stuck, half-open, with menacing darknesses pooling behind them. The air was heavy and not entirely clean.
They moved down toward the bays.
Without internal sensors, there was no way to tell which of the many rooms on this level the telltale thump had come from. Nor was there any way to be sure that whatever made it hadn't moved on. So, they were stuck searching hall by hall, room by room.
In theory. In reality, they'd barely made it into the bay hallways before Jack held up a hand; fist closed in the hold position signal. Both of them froze.
It hadn't been a trick of the ha'tak. Footsteps echoed from the hallway, coming steadily nearer.
Jack motioned again, and they fell back and took up positions behind two of the less-ruined pillars that studded the hall.
The footsteps rounded the corner.
(Whites of their eyes,) Jack thought, counting each step as it came nearer, until they came near enough.
He signaled. The two of them swung partway out of cover; just far enough to level their weapons and sight along them. "All right, don't move!"
The figure did move.
Specifically, he startled, taking one quick step back and raising both hands. One of them held a zat, but that seemed to be the only weapon he'd come in with. "Whoa, easy, easy!"
Jack lowered his rifle. "...Jacob?"
"Yeah." Jacob lowered his hands, looking between the two of them. "Good to see you, too; I take it you weren't expecting visitors. Everyone all right?"
(Fashionably late this time, then.) "Present and accounted for," Jack said, straightening up. "Thanks for asking. Nice timing, by the way. Where the hell were you? You were supposed to come help with the bait!"
Jacob was already nodding, trying to brush that little detail off. "I know. But by the time we tried to dial the planet, the 'gate wouldn't open. It took me this long to get a tel'tak out here." Jacob made a short, inquisitive gesture. "What the hell happened? There's nothing left out there but a glowing asteroid cluster."
Jack raised both eyebrows. "It's glowing?"
"Some parts more than others. And weren't you supposed to be down on that planet, or something?"
"Change of plans," Jack said. "Got some uninvited guests. Ran before the cops arrived."
"Sounds like it was one hell of a party," Jacob said. Jack motioned to his head.
"I've still got the hangover."
"But anyway," Jack said, "I assume you're here to rescue us? Because I've gotta say, I've had about enough of this neighborhood. Right now, I just want to get off this ship and go home." He breathed out. "Home's still there, right?"
Jacob snorted. "Yeah, Jack, home's still there. Looks like we won the day."
It was on odd feeling, welling up from the depths of Jack's chest, and it took him a while to recognize it. It felt as though things were slotting back into place, rounding off a journey they had begun when he'd asked, Worth it? and Daniel had answered, Yeah. I'd say it was. Things were as they should be.
Or, if not there yet, then they were getting there. They were close. (We won.)
Jacob tilted his head, a bemused look playing over his face. "Are you smiling?"
Jack set his expression back to deadpan-arch. "Sorry?"
Jacob watched for a moment longer, right on the edge of calling him out, and then shook his head. "Well, come on," he said. "There was only one bay anywhere close to functional, and the airlock there might fail at any moment. Radio everyone to get out of here."
"...about the radios," Jack said.
They took the tel'tak to a planet Jacob called Niata, a scant two hours away at hyperlight. From there, it was one small step to Earth.
They set down in a wide and abandoned peristyle, built so that the world's Stargate formed the largest gateway in the perimeter. The colonnades were overgrown with ivy, or an alien equivalent; the blue sun, a pinprick in the bright sky, lit the leaves and saturated the area with color. Strange insects droned and trilled, occasionally rising in glinting clouds from the trees outside. It was a strange vista, after the desolation of '542, after the darkness and silence of space.
Jacob walked out with SG-1, shielding his eyes. Daniel went to the DHD, wrapping the sleeve of his jacket over his hand as protection from the hot metal, and Sam stared into the sky, squinting at the whorls of cloud. Jacob put a hand on her shoulder to catch her attention.
Before he could say anything, she turned to him and spoke. "You're not coming with us."
"No," Jacob admitted, and sighed. "It's all politics, kid. I've got a job to do."
"I'll stop in," Jacob said. "But it's gonna get crazy out there, if Anubis really is gone. And–"
"Ach!" Jack had been watching Daniel dial, but he couldn't help but turn. "Can't you wait ten minutes on the doom-and-gloom? I haven't even slept yet." Being knocked unconscious by a rampaging entity didn't count.
Jacob smiled. "Of course. Sorry, Jack. By all means, take the rest of the day off."
"Thank you," Jack said. "I think I will."
"After you clear it with George, of course," Jacob finished.
Jack gave him a mostly-joking but entirely heartfelt glare.
The wormhole flushed open. Daniel fished in his vest until he produced a GDO, and keyed in his code.
Then, all that was left was stepping through.
Jack looked to Carter, who looked to her father and then back to him. Jack looked to Daniel and Teal'c, and back to her again.
"When you're ready," he said, and walked through the 'gate.
There was a moment where he felt the event horizon washing over his skin, warmth without heat, and then there was nothing, and then he was through and the controlled air of the SGC closed around him, completing the journey from the base to the ha'tak to Niata to home.
Hammond stood at the base of the ramp, hands relaxed from loose fists. He looked like they all felt: tired, but with the relief that came from knowing it was only physical fatigue, not the restless weight of uncertainty and overwhelming odds. He was smiling, in his own, understated way, as he watched them come in.
When they were all through, he said "Welcome back, SG-1."
"General!" Jack couldn't help smiling in response. "You waited up."
Hammond chuckled. "What else is there to do on a Wednesday evening?" he asked.
"Thursday morning, now," Jack said, strolling down the ramp with his team – his full team – in tow. "General, I am pleased to announce: mission success."
"I know. I've already had one briefing," Hammond said, and gestured up. "Speaking of which, you have a friend waiting for you."
They looked up.
An entity detached itself from the ceiling, drifting down until it had settled on the Stargate like a gentle, luminous snow. Jack looked to Carter, nudging her forward with an elbow. "Think it's for you."
Jack turned and headed for the hall, already dipping into the easy banter with Hammond as he accompanied them away. Teal'c followed.
Sam walked back up the ramp, stopping halfway to the entity's perch. Daniel followed, but Colonel O'Neill had been right. It only reached out to her.
She closed her eyes, dropping into the echoes of its cognition. (We have overcome our great enemy,) the entity said. (Such would not have been possible without you.)
(Or without you,) she responded. (Thank you.)
(It was our pleasure.) The entity shifted its thoughts; she could feel its regard flow over her, then turn away. (We must begin the process of recreating your resumption of physical form. Some have already begun.)
(Be careful,) she said – and the concerns flurried up from the back of her mind. The lost Jaffa of the ha'taks, their symbiotes, the cold genetic evil that threatened to be reborn. The entity took the memories and regarded her, flooding back assent.
(We shall be vigilant.)
It held her.
The sensations shifted: alien compassion, alien anticipation, a common wonder at the state of things and at that state's impermanence. A sense of loss and melancholy. (Duration,) the entity whispered – a holy concept, a lost one. (The universe moved on without us.)
"I know," she said, and surprised herself by speaking aloud. That was the way of the world – it kept moving, kept going, left you behind. It re-formed itself into something strange and new. No one could halt that. But by the same token, it meant there was hope yet: life went on. It would adjust to their presence in the same way it had adjusted to their absence, and in turn, they would adjust to it. "You'll be all right."
Warmth wreathed around her like a benediction, a fond farewell. (You have our gratitude and our welcome. In our memories and our records you will be preserved.)
"And in ours." Sam breathed in, letting the energy wash through her. "I'll miss you," she whispered.
It pulsed, suffusing her with the thrum of its life. The beat of her heart, of the old beating star – for a moment they coincided. It was the best and only farewell the entity knew how to offer.
Then it withdrew, turning the Stargate's ring. Soon enough the Stargate on the other side would fall into PSR-PV1-542, impacting the cooling core with a force equal to a thousand-megaton bomb. What was left of the planet would follow or drift into orbit or drift away, scattering into asteroid groups. Yes, the universe had changed. That chapter of her life had closed forever.
"They'll be all right?" Daniel asked, edging in on what little of the conversation he had heard.
"We all will," Sam answered, certain this time.
The wormhole flashed open, and Daniel winced at the light. Sam stared into it, letting its glow play across her face, watching as the entity passed through.
Then the event horizon dissolved, leaving only cool air in its wake.
She inhaled, feeling her lungs fill and her diaphragm stretch. She was the forerunner. The entities would reclaim their physical forms, and in part, she had made that possible. And the pure questioning innocence, the wild symbiosis with stellar fusion, the unbounded freedom of their energetic forms would be traded for a sense of identity which was to them far more precious.
And then they would live. The entities on some far world, and her here.
She turned back to Daniel. She couldn't put a name to what she was feeling, but she knew she was smiling.
"We already are," she said.
The problem wasn't that Jack needed to change into civvies before heading home. The problem was that someone had staked out the door to the locker room. Three someones, specifically, complete with a boom mic and a camera at least two sizes larger than Jack thought necessary.
The red REC light turned on as soon as said someones saw him.
"Congratulations, Colonel," Bregman said. His tone, miracle of miracles, actually had something approaching respect. "We hear you saved the world."
"Well, it was a team effort," Jack said, and stepped to one side. Bregman stepped along with him, placing himself between Jack and the door again. Jack gave him a flat look. "Let me guess: I tell you my life story, or you're not letting me go home."
"General Hammond promised you'd be made accessible to us," Bregman said.
Jack glanced to the camera, then back to Bregman again. "It's three in the morning!"
Bregman chuckled, possibly at the plaintive tone to Jack's voice, possibly by way of saying Fool me once. "We just wanted to get the breaking news."
"Won't take more than an hour of your time, Colonel," Bregman said. And Jack had the feeling that Bregman was lying, but he also had the feeling he didn't have a choice. "Promise."
He exhaled again, somewhat more pointedly. "Fine."
"Good! Good." Bregman nodded. "Right this way."
And Bregman was even motioning Jack to precede him. (Not taking any chances, this guy,) Jack thought, and made a wide, acquiescing gesture.
He headed down the hall to the only door left open, and took the first unoccupied chair. Bregman's camera man moved to set up the tripod, and the sound guy produced a lapel mic and came to fix it on Jack's collar. It was interesting, Jack noted, in the corner of his mind that noticed things he didn't really care about. They seemed to have this down.
"I want to congratulate you before we begin," Bregman said, though before we begin was debatable, as so far as Jack could tell, the camera hadn't been off since he'd been spotted. "And thank you, I guess. One more, kind of, Goa'uld silhouette to paint on the fuselage, right?"
It was either too early or too late for this. Possibly both. "Yes. ...the fuselage."
The sound guy stepped back, and both technicians glanced to Bregman. He glanced back at both of them, then re-settled in his seat and flipped open his folder.
"First question," Bregman said.
Night above Cheyenne Mountain brought clear skies, temperature a cool sixty degrees Fahrenheit, and a momentary freedom from the press of demands, obligations, and situations which were always found inside. It was freedom well-earned, in Jack's opinion.
His plan was simple: head home, fall into bed without changing out of his day clothes, sleep until that afternoon, and maybe fire up a grill if he felt motivated. Call for pizza and badger Daniel to show up, if he didn't. Hammond had given them downtime to recuperate, and he didn't intend to squander it.
He was a little concerned that his plans were getting another early derailment when he made his way down to the parking lot, only to find a note in Daniel's handwriting in his truck – not on his truck, but inside, taped to the steering wheel – reading only I tried. Head up to the clearing on the mountain, would you? -D.
He turned back and headed up the mountain.
There was only one clearing of any importance to SG-1, just upslope from the SGC's emergency access point. It was a good spot for the occasional escape, whether watching fireworks on the Fourth of July or helping the Tollan signal for allies – but it wasn't the Fourth, and the Tollan were long gone. Of course, that didn't mean no one would find any use for it. Just that Jack had no idea who or for what.
The answer really shouldn't have surprised him.
Carter was sitting on the patchy grass when he got there, head turned to watch him approach and showing no more interest in sleep than she had the last few times he'd run into her late at night. And if he had to guess, what Daniel had tried had been convincing her to take a nap, at least, and if he hadn't managed it, Jack doubted even an order would get through to her. The ones about getting a life never had.
He strolled up, hands in his pockets. "What are you doing up here?"
It took a moment to get an answer. "I don't know," she realized aloud. "Stargazing, I guess."
"Stargazing." Something brushed against his memory – some familiar ring to that answer, the scrubgrass and a much-more-open sky – but he pushed it aside, and looked up. "Find Polaris yet?"
Without thinking, she singled out the star and pointed toward it. "Alpha Ursae Minoris," she said. "Trinary system with a large Cepheid variable and two dwarf stars." She shifted. "Cepheids expand and contract with regular periods. They beat. But Polaris A's oscillation has been decreasing for several years – soon it'll be virtually constant."
Jack couldn't help smiling. "All coming back, isn't it?"
"Some. I recognize a little of what I'm reading, now." She paused, then dipped her head. "When we left for PSR-PV1 I came outside and I was surprised to see the parking lot. I didn't remember cars. It's things like that. But the important stuff is coming back."
"Oh, cars are important," Jack said. "Trust me, cars are important. And fishing poles, and German beer. Well, Dutch."
She laughed. "Yes, sir."
"The latter two of which I'd be more than happy to reintroduce you to," he said.
She gave him an odd look. "...has that ever worked before, Colonel?"
He feigned affront. "I thought you said you remembered the important stuff."
"I do," she said. "I'm getting there."
"And 'sleep' still doesn't qualify."
She responded with a smile, but little else.
He looked up at the sky, then down toward the entrance and the road out. "They haven't secured your house again?"
Carter shook her head. "Not yet. I still don't miss it."
"So you're just staying on base?"
"Daniel offered me his spare room," she said, with a shrug of one shoulder. Jack's lips turned up at the corner.
"Of course he did. You didn't take him up on it?"
"I'd rather stay here." Carter tilted her head up, searching amongst the constellations again. "For a while, anyway. It's familiar."
"Like all of this," Jack said, gesturing at the stars. "Too early in the year for Orion." More was the pity. It was a good, familiar constellation, and one she probably could recognize. Still, at least there were constellations to recognize, here. He pointed. "There's old snakehead, though."
"Serpens Caput," Sam agreed.
They were quiet for a moment.
Jack jangled his keys in his pocket. It was late – implacable hours were passing them by, each one putting the ha'tak and the battle and PV1-542 a little further behind them. Where they were headed next, he had no idea. That was life in the SGC.
Still, for the moment, he knew where he was.
He motioned down at the grass. "Mind if I join you?"
Carter echoed the gesture. He wondered, for a moment, if that was unconscious or not – a thing she was reclaiming, or a thing she'd reclaimed. "I don't mind."
He settled down nearby her, following her gaze into the waning night, and they lapsed out of language. Then, for a while, it was just the two of them; two breathing bodies, two beating hearts, basking in the slow, unsteady glimmer of the faraway stars.