In slow motion, the blast is beautiful…
We were supposed to be in Denver that day. But I had insisted, wheedled and cajoled Jack into driving the extra hour to Greeley so I could get the Insight in the exact color I wanted. He had grumbled good-naturedly about having to take a whole day off work and then drive all that extra way. But, of course, when I reminded him that I was perfectly capable of purchasing a car on my own, he had shaken his head adamantly and claimed that I'd need his 'hard-ass glare' to make sure salesmen wouldn't try to take advantage of me.
Jack has always seemed to relish these moments when he could step into big brother/father mode, so I didn't have the heart to tell him that I had no intention of being taken advantage of. I knew my MSRPs and factory prices. They wouldn't have known what hit them.
But we were the ones who ended up blind-sided.
Jack's gas-guzzling, oversized truck looked almost comical parked next to all the electric and hybrid cars. I can only imagine that the salespeople must have thought we were lost. Of course, our first impression wasn't helped by Jack grumbling, quite loudly, "I still don't know why you want such a dinky little thing, Cass."
"It's not about size, Jack," I had said in my most adult voice. "It's about a little thing called environmental responsibility." I didn't mention that I also happened to think they were cute.
"Hey," he replied in an undertone. "After all I've done for this rock I think I deserve to burn a few fossil fuels."
Before I could think of a suitable comeback to that depressingly unecological statement, the salesman came up to us. "Buying your daughter a car?" he asked Jack brightly.
Jack looked over at me and smiled. "Yeah, something like that."
I was just about to take my test drive when the first blast came.
I can't understand why, when mass destruction strikes, I always manage to survive. It doesn't quite seem right.
We were supposed to be in Denver. It registered quietly in the back of my mind as we huddled around a small radio inside the dealership. People who were strangers only moments ago now clung to each other in disbelief. The skyline burned orange as the garbled voices piped through the speakers, panic and disbelief clear in their tone. There were whispers of other major cities gone in a flash. But the real shock came when the distant voices were suddenly hushed, a secondary blast filling the sky with light and smoke.
The radio seemed to damn us with its echoing silence.
Jack didn't linger. He propelled me quietly towards his truck. He pulled a gun from his glove compartment, methodically checking the ammo before tucking it into the waistband of his jeans. I dimly registered the holster at his ankle from which he pulled a second weapon. Next he reached for his cell phone, dialing through a mental list only to find all lines out. I could tell that he was moving through an inventory of standard procedures without giving it much conscious thought.
His eyes lingered only for a moment on the distant twin pillars of smoke and I knew he was registering the same thing I was. Two blasts could only mean one thing: Denver and Colorado Springs. I didn't let myself wonder if the SGC was deep enough under the earth to survive whatever catastrophe had happened. I didn't think of my cat, curled up in my Denver apartment.
Jack began to drive, but I couldn't detect any particular trajectory, we simply seemed to be fleeing populated areas. Maybe we were trying to avoid ground troops.
The absurdity of that idea almost made me laugh, but I choked it back, not wanting it to come out as a sob.
Long after the sun set, Jack drove off the main road, pulling into a dark forest of towering trees. A mile in, he pulled over and exited the truck. He still hadn't said a word to me. I thought maybe he was on auto-pilot as I watched him build a small fire.
We sat across from each other for long silent hours. I tried to pretend, like I did as a child, that I was on an SG team. We were camping off world, having just finished surveying one of Daniel's amazing discoveries: maybe an alien machine that solved world hunger or one that brought people back from the dead.
I find it harder to play make believe than I used to.
Sitting here now, I find it difficult to comprehend that mere hours ago, my biggest decision had been what color I wanted the upholstery of my new car to be. There is anger that I'd let myself get complacent. I'd been foolish enough to forget the threats I knew existed. I'd told myself that after Mom, there was nothing left to lose.
The back of mind briefly registers Tom, the kind faced boy who had taken me on a couple dates. He never made the earth move under my feet, but he'd had potential. He opened doors for me. I liked it more than I thought I would have.
He was working in the Denver University Library today.
But I can't think about that now. My only thoughts are for the last members of my family. The silent man sitting across from me and the missing ones: Sam, Daniel and Teal'c. Were they, even now, buried under this latest attack?
Jack thinks they are dead. I can tell from his inaction, from his impenetrable silence. He's torn, though. Part of him wants to get me to safety, away from the large cities and the Stargate that is sure to be a flashpoint if this is an alien attack of some kind. But that would mean accepting something that he can't. It would mean accepting that there is nothing left to fight for.
The rest of him desperately needs to get back to the Mountain. He needs proof, one way or the other. He needs to be there with them; he needs his fate to be theirs, even if it means his death.
That's the real reason we are sitting in this dark forest, not rest, food or even a need to regroup. We are here because of his indecision.
I'd be lying if I didn't say that part of me does want to run. I can probably convince myself that they all miraculously escaped off world, forever out of reach, but safe, if I never have to see the black crater that likely marks their graves. But if there is one thing I have learned from my Earth family, it's stubbornness. We don't stick our heads in the sand, especially when it comes to our friends' lives.
"It's okay, Jack," I finally say, the sound of my voice unnaturally loud after the long silence.
He jumps slightly at my words and I think he may have managed to forget about me for a moment. He looks up at me with unreadable eyes as if wondering how anything can be okay.
"We have to find out. It's the most important thing," I assure him.
Something changes in his eyes as he stares at me. For a while, I am convinced that he's going to overrule me with the 'you're just a kid' line, but he doesn't.
He nods silently, the decision finally made. He pulls the small gun from his ankle holster and quietly explains how to fire and reload before handing it to me. The weapon feels heavy and unfamiliar in my hand, but I grip it tightly. My mother may have been a healer, but she was also a soldier. A woman with enough conviction to do what it takes. I know what she nearly did to Nirtti to save me. I only hope I can be as strong as she was.
Jack leads me back to the truck, and I can tell that I've just had a sort of graduation; a milestone has slipped by. I am no longer a child.
The bombs have made me an adult.
It takes nearly a day of careful driving on long abandoned roads to circumvent Denver and enter the outskirts of Colorado Springs. We haven't seen another human being since we left the dealership, and I can't bring myself to ask Jack why. There are other inconsistencies, such as the quickness of the fallout. There should be smoldering wreckage, fires still burning out of control. But everything is cool and silent, as if years have passed and not simply hours.
The closer we move to Cheyenne Mountain, the more devastated the landscape becomes. After a while, I'm not even sure how Jack can know where we are, and for once I'm glad to be driving in his gas-guzzling beast of a truck as we heave to and fro on the uneven path.
He stops in a small, improbably untouched copse of trees protected in the shadow of a steep incline. He trudges off into the brush without a second glance, and I stumble to catch up with him. My hand hovers nervously by the gun tucked into my pocket.
Less than ten minutes of struggling up the unforgiving incline, the trees suddenly give way, offering us a wide open view of the valley below. I'm all turned around, and I can't remember a geographical formation like this one anywhere in the Colorado Springs area.
I'm about to ask Jack where we are when it hits me. I'm not looking at a deep valley. I'm looking at a crater.
It is so much worse than I ever could have imagined. It's not that the top of the mountain has simply been blown away; rather the whole area is gouged out, an inverse mountain left in its place. All twenty-eight levels of the SGC easily wiped away.
Nothing could have survived that.
I feel my knees turn to water, and I grab at a nearby charred stump to steady myself.
I can't even begin to process the people who have been lost. Instead I am overwhelmed by an absurd feeling of claustrophobia. I haven't been off world since I first came here to Earth, but there was always the possibility, the chance of maybe one day walking through that Stargate again. Of seeing Hanka just once more.
But it's all gone now, wiped away in a flash of light. Taking my adoptive family with it.
I don't know if it's shock or simply a symptom of the setting sun, but I find myself shivering uncontrollably.
"Jack," I say quietly.
He doesn't react to my voice. He simply continues to stare as if he could make the mountain reappear by the sheer power of his will.
"What do we do now?" I ask, not wanting to be pushy, but feeling more than a little lost in the face of his silence.
I hate that I have to take the keys from his hands and push him back down the hill and into the passenger seat. I want to scream that I don't know what to do next, that Jack just needs to snap out of it. But instead I get into the truck and just drive, my hands gripping the wheel until I can barely feel my fingers.
I take a turnoff without really thinking about it, the road winding into deep forest. After about 15 minutes the path finally opens up, revealing a silently looming behemoth of a building. A proud sign at the entrance proclaims the spot as the Broadmoor. I have vague memories of this place as an expensive resort, one of the finest in America.
Now the building stands broken. Half of the building is burned black, its windows blown out and staring like empty eyes. But the other half stands pristine as if waiting to welcome guests. I steer Jack's truck towards the back.
There is a room on the first floor with the door slightly ajar. Stepping cautiously inside, I am surprised by the sheer normality of the room. Soft cotton robes hang on the bathroom door. The comforter on an enormous king size bed has been carefully turned back and if I'm not mistaken, there are actually small chocolates resting on the pillow.
Jack follows me into the room, coming out of his lethargy long enough to peer into closets and pull the drapes rightly closed on the outside world. I don't know if he is following age-old instincts or just trying to hide.
He eventually settles on the edge of the bed, staring at a blank wall. Without comment I take his shoes off and gently push him down on the bed. I lay down next to him, my head cradled against his shoulder. I don't know if he sleeps. I just listen to the beat of his pulse and watch the colors of the room bleed and fade with the setting sun.
I must have fallen asleep, because next thing I know, I am alone on the bed, the comforter carefully tucked around me. The room is dark except for a shaft of bright light sneaking through a crack in the curtains.
Looking around the room, it is clear that Jack is no longer here. I shove at the covers and race out the door, skidding to a stop outside. Jack's truck is still parked where I left it. I chastise myself for even thinking that Jack would abandon me here.
As my pulse returns to normal I register the uncomfortable prick of gravel under my bare feet and retreat back to the room.
I wait for about an hour, nibbling on a power bar of sorts that Jack must have left for me. Another hour passes before my curiosity pushes me out of the room.
It's clear that this was once a very fine resort. Well stocked mini-bars, marble tubs and plush carpets. The hotel is empty, every thing left exactly where it lay. The rooms have luggage, hairdryers and half-full wastebaskets. I sort of expect people to return at any moment.
They never do.
I explore the rooms one by one, my fingers running gently over expensive gowns and rich leather furniture. By mid-afternoon I have discovered three restaurants, an indoor swimming pool and the main desk behind which all of the room keys hang carefully in a row.
Right before sunset, Jack tracks me down in the main foyer, his voice echoing faintly in the massive space.
"You find the kitchens, Cass?"
I nod, leading him unerringly towards the nearest restaurant. Jack gives the industrial kitchen a cursory glance before helping himself to some of the more perishable items.
Right, I think as I mimic his choices, don't break into the other food until we have to.
We eat silently, not even bothering to sit down. Jack leans against a counter, his attention everywhere but me.
There are maybe things we should be talking about. Like what, exactly, had happened yesterday. And what we are going to do about tomorrow. But Jack is silent, and I convince myself that he just doesn't want to burden me. And to be honest, I don't want to be burdened.
Jack will take care of me.
He catches me watching him and something of my faith in him must show, but he just smiles back in a way that seems more like a flinch before turning away to select more food.
We retreat back to our room again, and I spend most of the night watching him sleep.
After the end of the world, my days slip easily into routine. I swim laps in the indoor pool. I raid the pantry. I stroll down the halls, making up stories for the complex ceiling frescoes that cover every inch of this palace. I stumble upon a library one day and spend hours lost in other places, other lives.
It's a bit like one of those Earth fairytales of princesses locked away in enormous castles that I had thought were so strange when I first came here. But at the time, my friends seemed to have had some sort of fascination with a building that could be explored for the rest of their days and still surprise them with new rooms and secrets.
The reality is a bit different. I float through the empty halls, doing my best to ignore the strange black stains on the carpets. Jack could probably tell me what they are.
I don't ask.
Jack continues to disappear every day at dawn. I imagine he is scouting, checking the perimeters of our new temporary home, maybe making contact with other survivors, the military. But to be honest, I can't be sure. No matter how integral the SGC has been to my second life, I know nothing of soldiers or warriors.
Jack always returns each evening. He carefully cleans his guns and spends hours poring over complex maps with careful notations covering the surface. His concentration is complete, and I know it is only a matter of time until he figures a way out. Until he saves us.
After a month or so in the hotel, I stumble upon a suite of rooms on the sixth floor. It is enormous and even grander than anything I have found before. There are three bedrooms connected to a central room with a large fireplace. The views out of the windows are expansive.
I consider convincing Jack to move up here. He'd have more room for his work. An enormous desk sits in the middle of the room and I imagine Jack sitting behind it, face furrowed in steady concentration, only broken by the occasional hopeful smile in my direction.
I settle behind the desk and begin looking through the drawers. Typical stuff, mostly: hotel stationary, a Bible and free postcards. I admire the postcards and flip absently through the delicate pages of the Bible, reading from a random passage.
And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in Heaven for half an hour…
I set it aside when I notice a small envelope on top of the desk. It's full of photographs. Without thinking, I begin flipping though them. Smiling faces. Young, beautiful children held in their grandparent's arms. A young couple caught unaware, stealing a kiss. A baby screaming, red in the face, much to the bewilderment of its nearby siblings. A woman laughing so hard she's holding her sides in pain.
I don't know their names, but they must have had them. For a moment, they are no more real to me than the vacant faces painted on the foyer ceiling, and I'm already conjuring up stories about them. But there is a bassinet in the corner of the room I easily ignored before and now I know the face of the child that must have slept there.
I've spent weeks pilfering through drawers and trying on clothes. Living out the fantasy of a pampered, perfect life.
But I never let myself really think about the people.
I suddenly feel like a voyeur, a thief stealing into these people's rooms and lives.
But they are dead.
I push back abruptly from the desk, knocking the chair to the ground behind me. The photographs fall to the floor, faces floating and swirling around me.
I choke back nausea and retreat back to the first floor.
I spend the rest of the day in our room, waiting for Jack to return. I pace the small confines for hours, something building painfully in my chest, until my eyes finally fall on Jack's papers. Suddenly I just need to know. I need to know what is going on out there in the world, and what Jack has been devising for us.
I need to know that he is going to save us from this. Save us from becoming like them.
There are pages and pages of notations, written in some form of shorthand that makes no sense to me. My mind automatically begins to create explanations, visions of Jack meeting with secret contacts, puzzling out a plan. It's only when I look closer, beyond the marks that I realize the horrible truth.
They aren't even maps of Colorado.
I see symbols I vaguely recognize from the Stargate repeated over and over again on a map of San Francisco. Names like Abydos and Kawalsky overwrite street names on a map of Seattle, with what looks like some foreign language scribbled in the margins. Every map is the same as I desperately tear through them.
I shove them frantically from the table, fighting against clawing nausea.
I rake through my memories of all those evenings spent watching Jack work and it's only now that I allow myself to see the burdened set of his shoulders. The way my encouraging smiles evoked something resentful in his eyes.
When he finally returns, it's as if I'm seeing him for the first time. He's fading away, his hair more white than grey now, his flesh hanging from a lanky frame. I see his nightly rituals and indecipherable maps for what they really are. He's been putting on a show for me, trying to hide that he's breaking, day by day.
And it's really no different than my own rituals of living a life that no longer exists. Haunting the rooms of this empty beast like a wraith, pretending I am a guest by wearing these strangers' clothes and reading their books, like this is all just an extended vacation. Like all these people aren't dead, nothing but ashes ground into the carpet.
But it's not a vacation. It's the end of the world. Again.
And he's supposed to be a hero.
This is not the Jack that filled my childhood with laughter and warm hugs, nor the soldier I imagined, saving the universe one snarky comment at a time. This man is a stranger.
I'm not sure where my anger finally comes from after weeks of living like a ghost. But it is there, filling me nearly to bursting. Jack is staring at the maps I have strewn carelessly about the room, and he barely looks at me as I approach him. He's not prepared for my attack. I shove him hard in the chest and he crumbles, falling to the floor. He's too stunned to do anything but stare at me as he recovers his breath. And that's more telling than anything.
"I'm sorry," I finally say roughly, my throat tight with long suppressed emotion.
I don't know if he thinks I am apologizing for pushing him. I'm not.
"I'm sorry I made you take that day off work," I expand in a raw voice. "I'm sorry they died under that damn mountain without you. I'm sorry we have to live through this."
He's looking away now, not wanting to hear my words or my hysteria. Fury drives me to the ground next to him, my fists curled in his shirt, shaking him roughly.
"I can't change this. And I won't be sorry that you survived with me, Jack."
He looks at me with dead eyes, and I feel myself crumbling. "You're all I have left," I say brokenly. "Maybe it's selfish or childish, but I need you. I can't do this alone. I can't be alone again…"
I can feel tears falling down my cheeks, and I realize with a start that these are the first ones I have shed. So much lost and neither of us ever even took a moment to grieve.
Jack slowly leans forward and pulls me into his chest. My fists are still clenched in his shirt, and I can't decide if I want to shove him away or bury myself in him.
"Please don't leave me to do this alone," I whisper into his shirt.
His arms tighten around me like steel bands, and for a moment, the Earth stops moving so uncertainly under me.
I wake some hours later to find myself curled tightly, my head on Jack's lap. His fingers play with my hair, and I am temporarily lost in memories of my father, humming Hankan lullabies and keeping me safe from the darkness.
"I'm pretty sure there's nothing left out there," he confesses.
Only two lights left, I think, flickering in the darkness.
My father had been the last to die, his head in my lap. I can feel it pressing near once again, my destiny to always be a survivor. It follows me wherever I go.
And I can't help but wonder if somehow I am a destroyer of worlds.
The next morning, Jack is still there when I wake up, all evidence of maps and papers swept away.
It is an unspoken agreement between us that today we will begin the business of surviving. There are supplies to be taken stock of, water sources to be secured and other general tasks that must be completed if we are in this for the long haul. Or so Jack informs me, his voice brusque and authoritative once more, as if he has slipped into General O'Neill mode sometime while I slept.
I'm only too happy to be his soldier.
I enjoy the mindlessness of the tasks. With fingers constantly busy, I am kept from thinking about things like ghosts or the future. There really is nothing left in me but the inescapable drive to survive, one hour at a time.
It's a strange impulse, the need to schedule our days, to set patterns based on factors that no longer exist or matter. Eight to five shouldn't have any meaning. But maybe thinking in increments of time is the only way not to drown in the endless progression of time ahead of us.
Two people alone. It's enough to make me think of questions like, 'What is the meaning of life?'
In the face of that, concentration on the next finite increment of time seems so much safer. It keeps me from wondering if maybe Jack didn't have the right idea.
Why bother living if this is it?
But something inside of me refuses to accept it, refuses to just lie down and abandon what might be a futile effort. Maybe it's the same something that kept me from wading out into my uncle's pond until the still, cool waters could cover my head and blot out the crystalline Hankan stars from my searching gaze.
It's a useless exercise, to compare my new life to those last hollow days on Hanka, but knowing that doesn't keep me from remembering. I think of it more and more every day.
I don't know if it is courage or weakness that keeps me moving, dragging Jack along with me. I only know that I don't have it in me to lie down.
The only remaining question is whether or not I have it in me to live this life.
The days move quickly in activity, but the nights continue to drag indeterminably long. Jack successfully works himself into exhaustion, but no matter how much I work, my insomnia continues unabated. Sleep is a bit too much like surrender.
Every day is a greater struggle for me, limbs heavy with exhaustion. But more unbearable is the fact that even though I finally feel that Jack actually sees me, I constantly get the sense that I never quite do what he expects. Like he catches himself expecting me to be someone else for a moment.
I just try harder to do things right.
But as the weeks pass, I feel that fleeting look building up on my skin like a residue that can't be washed away no matter how hard I try. I'm walking with sticky resistance between me and the air around us, and it wears away at whatever momentum I have left. After a while, I try only working on projects that keep me in opposite sides of the hotel from him, but the isolation is just another kind of torture.
It's only a matter of time until I succumb to the threatening immobility.
"Cass!" Jack's voice bites out, jerking me awake.
I must have finally fallen asleep out of pure, bone-aching exhaustion. My neck rests at a strange angle, and it takes a moment for my addled brain to register that I am leaning against the side of a garishly red sports car. The smell of gas hits me next, and my hand jerks on the hose I'm holding as it winds between the car and a gas can on the floor.
A sea of gas spreads around me, the can having filled to overflowing while I dozed.
"Oh!" I exclaim, belatedly yanking the hose vertical to stop the wasteful flow.
I look up at Jack to apologize, but I catch something in his briefly unguarded face that betrays something of his distaste for my lack of discipline. Just as quickly it is gone, replaced with a sick imitation of light-hearted amusement as he moves to help me clean the spill.
His shoulder bumps mine once or twice, but gas fumes and the scorched memory of that look fill my vision with dark spots, and I stumble, one hand splashing against the glistening liquid.
"I've got this," Jack says, helping me to my feet. "Why don't you go get some air?"
His tone is careful now, as if speaking to a young child. Like I'm twelve again and he's trying to convince me that somehow getting to have a dog is enough to erase the blatant fact that I have lost everything I've ever known.
It doesn't work any better today than it had all those years ago.
I retreat back to our room to clean up and change my soaked clothing. I should sleep, but the bed and this room with its stale air and close quarters only contribute to the churning of my stomach.
I have to get out. I have to get away from this damn place and its unbreathable air.
My feet carry me quickly out of the building, and I have no destination in mind other than the vague pull of the surrounding forest that has always been there, something bred into me, planted by Nirtti. For once, I don't resist.
I'm not prepared for the calm and heady relief that fills me the moment I step into the shade of the forest. The transition is abrupt, once manicured grass giving way to ancient trees, crowding together so that you can't see more than a dozen feet of the path. Behind me, the Broadmoor still looms tall, but less than five minutes walk, and it disappears altogether.
Eventually I stumble upon a worn dirt path, leading me parallel to the tree line. It's as clear a path as I've seen in weeks, and I allow my instincts to drag me forward.
After twenty minutes, a clearing opens up unexpectedly revealing a small house. It's barely more than a single roomed bungalow and has an abandoned, careworn feeling to it, but someone must have called this place home barely more than two months ago. Wide open windows face the small clearing and searching, winding vines cling to the shingled exterior. The small front yard is enclosed by a picket fence, its white paint chipped. I know from TV and magazines that the picket fence is supposed to be a symbol of family, domesticity and affluence, but I've always found them slightly menacing. Are the sharp pointed edges meant to keep people out? Or keep people trapped inside?
There is a smell in the air, though, something half-forgotten that is compelling enough to cause me to linger. The gate pulls open against weeds and overgrown plants with a groan. A small brick path winds the short distance to the front door, but I have absolutely no intention of going inside, not needing to disturb anymore ghosts. Instead, I veer off to the left where an Adirondack chair sits partially overgrown.
Maybe it's the scent or the feel of the chair against my back, but I feel my body surrender its carefully hoarded tension. Looking out over the garden to the towering wood, I feel my eyelids pulling downwards. I relent.
Good, solid hours of rest later, I slowly wake to the rich color of twilight. For a moment I don't know where I am, but out of the corner of my eye, there is movement. I jerk upright, all restfulness lost when I recognize the incongruity of motion on a dead world.
But all is still once more, the house untouched and the wood silent.
Reluctantly, I return to the Broadmoor, just as darkness descends. Jack doesn't comment on my disappearance, but I can't help but feel that I have yet again failed some unspoken test.
I return each afternoon to sit in the garden, hoping to gather my strength to face the fading of another day without change. Another day with Jack's distance and disappointments.
And if I sit there long enough, without making any noise, the movement in the forest will come back, slipping noiselessly just out of sight.
They are really no more than shadows flittering in and out of the corner of my eye, but I know they are there. I can feel them watching me as I cross the open clearing on the edge of the tree line.
I remember stories told around flickering fires deep in the forest, being held close against my mother's chest while my brother drew entangled circles in the dirt. Hankans didn't believe in ghosts so much as echoes. People, upon death, travel to the stars, becoming yet another pinprick of light in the sky. But they leave behind some skin of themselves to protect the living. I was always told that if you sit still long enough, you might just catch the profile of a loved one lost.
But I have no interest in ghosts and after weeks of waiting and watching. I am convinced these are people. Survivors, perhaps. People who have escaped the fires like us. Or people fleeing invaders, labor camps run by aliens. My mind runs wild with speculation, only clearly focusing on a single fact. There are people.
I venture into the woods some afternoons. That's how I discover the ancient tree with a large hollow at its base. It reminds me so much of the Offering Tree of my childhood. In my village, it was considered an act of personal devotion and selflessness to leave objects in the hollow in honor of the wood. It's a comforting ritual, one I had nearly forgotten.
All I have with me that first day is a half-full bottle of water, but I reverently place it against the trunk anyway, ancient prayers falling effortlessly from my lips.
When I next return, it's gone.
I salvage ribbons from the guest rooms in the hotel and tie them to the bending branches of the tree and once a week I bring offerings to the forest. But eventually I contribute more than just foodstuffs. I start bringing medicines, blankets and even books from the library. If Jack notices the dwindling supplies, he never says anything.
And in the back of mind, a plan begins to form as fleeting and gauzy as the echoes in the wood.
During our cataloging of the hotel's contents, Jack and I have discovered an amazing variety of objects. Camping equipment of every kind is quite prevalent, nestled in inharmoniously next to luxuries. So it is easy to supply myself with a sleeping bag and flashlight and sneak out after Jack has fallen asleep.
I creep as quietly as possible through the dark wood. Logically, part of my brain tells me that I should be scared, but the forest has a feel to it that I can't ignore, a benevolence that is in sharp contrast to the aching emptiness of the hotel.
Twenty yards from the Offering Tree, I settle down against the rough bark of a pine, the fallen needles cushioning my body. I pull sleeping bag up over my lap.
And I wait.
For three nights I stake out the hollowed tree until I am woken from my light slumber by a change in the sound of the forest. Someone is collecting my offering from the base of the tree.
My heart pounding loudly, I throw back the sleeping bag, fumbling for the switch on my flashlight.
"Sam?" I cry, the name torn from my lips.
The light finally flips on, illuminating brightly a single figure, half huddled by the tree.
It's a man, dressed in what look like rags, half wild and scruffy. He growls at me and hugs the package tighter to his chest as if I am about to steal from him. We stare at each other under the shuffling branches of the dark forest. His eyes are accusatory, as if I have broken some unspoken covenant between us.
"I'm sorry," I whisper, turning off the light and dropping it to the soft earth with a thump.
I listen to the retreat of his footsteps and slide down the rough trunk of the Offering Tree until I am sitting in the hollow.
I found my echo.
Part of me had clung to the thought of survivors. I had let myself believe that it was Sam or Teal'c in the woods, people working to fix things. Anything other than a homeless man who probably doesn't even realize what's happened.
I can't ignore it anymore, though. I'm still looking to the skies, waiting for rescue. For salvation that will never come.
"They're dead," I confess to the enclosing sacred grove.
No one is ever going to come.
Sitting in the hollow base of my tree that night, I dream of Moonbeam, bounding in and out of my mother's small garden, the morning frost sparkling in her fur.
Moonbeam was my first pet. I was six the year my father brought the small silver furred animal home to me. She snuck out the first night I had her, through a window I had foolishly left open. Every night for two weeks I went outside, calling her name and leaving a small bowl of food, hoping to entice her home. And every night my Papa would tuck me in, brush the hair back from my face and kiss me softly on the forehead.
Almost two weeks after she first disappeared, I woke in the middle of the night to find her nestled against my legs, half buried in the blankets.
"Papa," I had asked the next morning, "Why did she leave for so long, just to come back again?"
He calmly filled my bowl with porridge before looking at the small animal curled contentedly on my lap for a moment as if considering the question. "Maybe she was just testing her boundaries. She wanted to prove to herself that she wasn't trapped."
I haven't thought about Moonbeam in years. On Hanka, even the animals had fallen victim to Nirtti's plague. My father's voice, ringing so clearly in my mind a decade later and half a galaxy away, feels like it slips into my mind, shoring up tentative connections.
I trudge back to the mansion and lay in bed listening to Jack's breathing from the other side of the bed. I can feel his heat against my side even with the distance between us.
And I think about boundaries.
I spend the next week mired in listlessness. I thought I had accepted what's happened, but I'm forced to realize that I always expected to be rescued. Where was my SG-1 miracle? I feel cheated and angry, and no matter how hard I try, I'm trapped by my own rage.
It's almost like losing everything all over again, a searing pain that lances through my every move. I contemplate lying down and not bothering to get up until this passes. But there's no promise that it ever will.
I need to move past this.
The end of the week marks a dubious anniversary. It's been four months since the end of the world.
"I'm going back," I say over breakfast.
Jack doesn't ask where, almost as if he had just been waiting for me to reach this point, because I'm slipping, losing whatever tenuous ground we have gained and there is only one anchor. The crater. The flashpoint from which everything radiates.
I need it to be real, because in some strange way, that black soil and stale air are the only things I really trust to be concrete any more.
I refuse to take the truck, wanting to cover the distance on my own two feet, because I'm filled with the need to escape every last dependence on the Earth that was.
Jack pulls out a map, marking a route well off the main roads, proving once again that there is more going on in the world outside than he's sharing with me. He makes sure I pack a first aid kit and the second gun.
He doesn't offer to come with me.
"Whatever you're looking for," he says by way of farewell, "you're not going to find it there."
I think maybe I will. Jack is allowed to be wrong.
Setting into the hike I feel my legs stretch out into a comfortable pace and as each mile passes my skin feels more and more like my own.
Less than a mile from the crater that was once the SGC, I find a low running stream full of smooth river rocks. I pick one up, carefully brushing it off with the sleeve of my coat.
"Sam," I whisper to the grey rock that casts the barest shimmer of blue.
I carry the rock the last distance to the edge overlooking the valley. All is quiet here and the scorched black of the earth has already given way to small patches of green in places as if even the landscape itself is doing its best to move on, to ease past injury.
Reaching into my pack, I pull out a bottle of liquid paper I had acquired from a well stocked office supply closet. I carefully write Sam's name on the surface of the softly rounded blue stone. Placing it snugly in the earth right on the lip of the cliff, the stone becomes the first cornerstone of what will be my monument to those lost.
I spend three days on the cliff, collecting stones and carefully labeling each one. Some of the names are very familiar, others simply people I remember passing in the halls at school. Others are generic, like SG-14, because while I know there were at least twenty teams, I don't really know any personal names. But I don't think any of them deserve to be forgotten.
A pyramid slowly forms four feet high and at least as long on each edge. At the very top, I add five special stones. Janet. Mother. Father. Brother. Moonbeam.
It's a little overwhelming to see my loss quantified in such a physical way, but at the same time, I feel a weak sort of clarity, as if the meticulous construction of this monument has leeched out my sorrow, leaving me lighter.
When the sun dawns on the fourth morning, I slip my pack on and walk away from the destruction.
Upon returning to the Broadmoor, everything seems cast in startling clarity.
"I'd like to show you something, Jack."
I lead him into the forest and my hidden garden home. I show him the hollow tree and explain what I have seen. Together, we force open the front door and step over the threshold into the abandoned house. The large front room contains a kitchen, table and small living room around a wood burning stove. Two doors lead off the main room, the first a small bathroom, the other a bedroom. And up above was a loft, looking down over the main room.
Beneath the dust, I can see that this was once a place of comfort, maybe even joy. I have to admit that I was wrong; there are no ghosts here to haunt us.
In an unspoken agreement, we decide to move to this welcoming home, leaving the cavernous hotel to the phantoms that rest there. We only ever return for more supplies.
Sleep comes easy to me now, my days filled with purposeful labor, rather than inane chores meant to pass the time. I scrub the house from top to bottom, but leave the front garden as it lay.
Off the back of the house I discover a small potting shed. The shelves are lined with small seedlings that against all odds have survived months of neglect. In the clearing behind the house I begin planting our first garden, crops to be put up for the winter.
In our magical little clearing, I have a bit of a dialog running at the back of my mind, but for once, rather than little mini Sams, Daniels, Teal'cs, Janets and Jacks each telling me what they would do, I hear my father's steady baritone. My mother reminds me of lessons taught and my brother teases me gently. They are voices I suppressed for so long. And I am left to wonder why that is.
It is thanks to them that this barren life doesn't break me. Bustling cities, electricity and machines had merely been fill-ins for me. Oddities that part of me always stood back from in curiosity. A life I was never meant to live.
My life on Earth was blessed in many ways. I had people who loved me. I never wanted for anything. TVs, cars, jobs, friends, even a built-in set of childhood heroes. And yet, kneeling here with my fingers digging into the soil of a decimated planet, I feel, for the first time, like I truly belong. I can imagine my mother's sure fingers wrapped around mine, guiding them through the practiced motion of seeding the soil.
I spent most of my life on Earth distancing myself from who I had been. Becoming what I thought I should be, anything to be less alien. But now, with no future left, I don't have to work to be anything, let alone fulfill long held expectations. I will never be a soldier, explorer or doctor.
Here, in this moment, I am just me, no longer haunted by the memory of my birth.
I wonder, if the world hadn't ended, how long I might have continued to pretend to be something I am not. Something I was never meant to be. I don't know quite how to feel, finding peace in such horrific circumstance.
I glance over at Jack, sitting in the shade, his eyes invisible under his cap. He's only holding it together for my sake, I finally realize as my mother's voice whispers softly in the background.
Every day he works harder and sleeps less, and my worry for him only increases with each passing week. In some ways he is the Jack I have always known. He's sarcastic and dependable, but he never smiles. He's still sleepwalking, and I am desperate to find a way to make him live again.
As I grow stronger he seems to let go more and more. A few weeks after I plant the garden he begins disappearing again.
"When I first discovered there were people out there," I confess to him one evening when he returns from an unannounced walkabout, "I convinced myself it was Sam. That Teal'c and Daniel had come back to save us."
Jack stands abruptly, turning away from me as if I had physically attacked him. I am painfully aware that this is the first time those names have ever been uttered between us since Greeley.
"But they're never coming," I say, coming around to stand in front of Jack.
Slowly Jack lifts his head to look at me, and I can't hold back a soft gasp at what I see there. His dark eyes betray nothing but absolute torment. Trickling up and down my spine is the thought that maybe Jack is already an echo, nothing but a shade left behind to protect me.
"No," he finally says in response to my question. "They're not."
Then he strides across the garden, carefully stepping between rows and exits through the gate. I watch him disappear into the forest and something I've been valiantly, or selfishly, trying to ignore finally surfaces.
One evening he won't return at all, because his worst nightmare has already come true. Not the destruction of this planet, not his forced inactivity in the face of 'nothing left to do,' but the simple, brutal fact that he has out-survived his team. And maybe he leaves here everyday not to find a way out, but because he can't even stand to look at me. Can't stand that I am the one who survived.
And there's no one left to save him.
No one but me.
The morning six months after the end of the world dawns bright and warm. The light is slowly turning golden with the approaching autumn, but for now the wide azure sky holds strong. I rise very early and pack a small bag. By the time Jack stirs I have everything we need for a few days away from the house.
When he walks into the kitchen he looks at the bags with those dead eyes and says nothing.
He doesn't want to go, I know.
You're not going to find what you're looking for…
"Please, Jack," is all I can say.
Part of me is surprised when he agrees without any real pressure, but I'm convinced now that I can save him, if I can just get him to mourn properly. I think maybe that if he would stand on the ravaged lip next to my monument and murmur their names just once more in farewell that he could find some thread of peace as I have. That maybe he could find a way to survive with me.
Maybe it was selfish of me to go alone all those months ago.
He lets me lead the way, falling into single file without comment. For a moment I remember my early childhood fantasies of hiking alien forests with Jack, but it doesn't fit the way it used to. In many ways this is a pilgrimage, not a mission.
We take it slow, stopping often for me to leave small packages at various drop points I have created for whoever may still be lurking out there. We spend a night in a small clearing under the stars a few miles away from my memorial. I can't sleep and I hate that my insomnia appears to be linked to my fear that if I close my eyes, Jack might not be there when I wake.
The next day the sky is full of steely grey clouds pressing low against the mountains by the time we reach our destination.
The small wall of stones still rests on the very edge of the cliff with nothing but the charred valley and clouds behind them. Jack stops as soon as he sees it as if unable or unwilling to move any closer. Even across the distance that separates them, I know he can see the names written in clear view of the sky.
"I didn't think they should be forgotten," I say softly in explanation.
He looks like he wants to turn and flee but is only kept still by the complete lack of strength. There is a whisper in my mind that what I am doing to him is cruel, but it must be done.
Reaching into my pack, I pull out one last stone with a single name carefully painted across it. Charlie.
I hold it out to him, but before he can react, a guttural tearing sound fills the landscape, the ground rumbling under our feet.
An unbearably bright light fills the sky and Jack is instantly by my side, flinging me to the ground, covering my body with his. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see my careful memorial topple haphazardly in the wake of a concussive force that makes the trees around us groan in complaint.
A few moments later the radiance retreats, leaving a brilliant light show high in the sky. Trailing embers like shooting stars fall through the heavy clouds.
"Jack," I mumble uncertainly. Was this finally the end?
"I don't know, Cass," he says tersely.
There is something in his voice I haven't heard since that day in Greeley. His body is tense with awareness of his surroundings, and his hand snakes almost effortlessly into his pack, pulling out his gun.
I'm stunned when I realize he is excited, his heart beating loudly against my cheek. Jack O'Neill in action, and I can't remember ever seeing him so vibrantly alive. This is the Jack O'Neill I hadn't been able to grasp, the aspect of his life I have never been able to touch.
He rolls off me eventually, apparently appeased that there is no immediate threat. He motions to me in a language I don't understand and he almost looks confused when I don't comply.
"Get your weapon out and stay low behind me," he whispers impatiently.
I brush my hands off on my pants, but before I can reach into my pack another sound fills the silence of the forest. I almost stumble as I turn towards the noise.
A huge silver ship descends to hover calmly just below the cloud line. I hold my breath, a burning sensation stretching across my chest as I wait for the next attack to fall upon us. But the ship does nothing more than float, seemingly inactive. All is quiet and Jack hasn't moved from his position of staring up at the sky.
"Are these…good guys?" I manage to ask, still off balance from the abrupt change in Jack.
But before he can answer me, movement further down the valley catches my eye, in the crater that had once been Cheyenne Mountain.
"Jack," I say, tugging at his sleeve. "Look."
He tears his eyes from the gleaming ship and looks in the direction I indicate. He whips out a pair of binoculars I found in the library and scans the area.
He stares for so long that I impatiently pull the binoculars from his fingers.
"What is it?" I ask.
But Jack doesn't need to answer. I can see small groups of people walking carefully through the debris. They all wear green fatigues and carry weapons.
"SGC?" I ask carefully, not daring to even hope.
Jack nods numbly.
I know he is fighting the same internal battle I am. Pressing down heart wrenching hope. But really…who else but SG-1 would come back with such a bang, after all this time?
"There's only one way to find out," I note with more calm than I feel. I take Jack's hand in mine and start down the barren hill towards the valley below.
We are noticed long before we cover even half the distance.
Everything is a blur to me as people begin running, shouts filling the long silent air, more and more figures appearing in flashes of white light. Something about Asgard and evil aliens' domination from orbit, last minute evacuations through the gate and late nights spent searching for solutions.
But then SG-1 is there, standing in front of us, looking at us like we are the ghosts.
Daniel. Sam. Teal'c. As they rush towards us, I feel Jack's hand slip gently from mine.
I'm enveloped in hugs, hands running through my hair and they are so tangibly solid that everything in my mind shudders to a brutal stop. Only in the face of something so right does the wrongness surface.
I'm pulling back from Sam, her uncharacteristically thin frame under my fingers when I notice him.
Jack is striding towards me from the wrong direction, wearing black BDUs. His eyes are on me, but he's talking into a radio strapped to his chest.
It's like a sudden avalanche filling my brain, a strange double vision of what is and what I remember.
Jack's voice, over the phone.
I'm sorry, Cass, but I can't take the day off. Something's come up at the SGC. Take my truck to Greeley. And don't pay a penny more than what we talked about!
My own voice, laughing and carefree.
Don't worry. I can take care of myself.
Something heavy is still clutched in my hand. It's a river stone with deep brown veins running across the smooth surface. I turn it over slowly, my whole body trembling. Written in clear bold letters is a single name.
A raspy sob rips out of my throat and I reach blindly behind me, but part of me already knows there is no one there.
There never was.
"You did it, Cass," someone is whispering to me. "You survived."
It's Jack. A warm, solid Jack who smells of sweat, soap and a thousand other things I can't define. Things I couldn't recreate.
My knees buckle, finally unable to bear an instant more of the weight.
But I don't need to. Strong arms sweep me up, lifting my burden. Looking back over the real Jack's shoulder, I see my companion, standing on the distant lip of the valley with his hand raised in farewell.
I can't do this alone. I can't be alone again…
"Thank you," I whisper to the fading form.
My name is Cassandra Fraiser of Hanka and I have survived the end of two worlds.
But I am not alone.