Beneath the Stains of Time
Things crawl to the surface slowly, piece by piece, moment by moment. The only constant is the liquid cold flowing where blood should be, a creak instead of a heartbeat. A tin man in desperate need of oil in his joints.
He knows he can't be dead because he doesn't remember death hurting this much.
"Hey, wake up."
There is insistent poking and he tries to move away, but it follows.
"That's it, open your eyes."
A sharper pinch somewhere near his shoulder and his eyes snap open with a mad rush of adrenaline.
"Ah, there you are. Welcome back."
A familiar face framed in dark, wild hair swims into focus and then eventually the rest of her body, perched on his chest.
"What?" he tries to ask, but the word dribbles out as little more than a moan.
The woman squirts liquid into his gaping mouth and he chokes against it, his bones rattling around in protest.
"I know this can't be fun," the woman says, placing warm hands on his forehead. "You've been a popsicle for fifty years or so."
His head lolls to the side, taking in his surroundings. He spots a blue and grey reclining chair in the distance and he feels a phantom flash of energy pouring through his body and out into the sky that he belatedly identifies as a memory.
"Ancient outpost," he mumbles, slightly more coherent now.
"Yes. They stuck you in the stasis chamber when they ran out of time to figure out what was wrong with you."
He's started to shiver violently and some part of his brain tells him that this is a good sign. His body is putting up a fight, working up friction to build heat.
She helps him to a sitting position, wrapping a thick blanket around his shoulders. A hot cup of something is pressed into his hands and he almost drops it from the pain that drives up his arm in reaction to such warmth.
"Look, I don't mean to rush you, but we don't have a lot of time here."
There is an urgency lacing her voice that he can't ignore, so he lets the woman help him to his feet and urge him towards a circle on the floor. A whoosh of light and everything around him changes. Ring platform. The new space that materializes is much smaller with tarnished, rusty brown walls.
As he looks around, words ping in his mind as he makes tentative associations with objects around him. The endless expanse of whiteness out the front windows brings the word Antarctica to the front of his mind. He feels the swoop as they lift off the ground, the ice beginning to flow past them at rapid speeds.
He stares hard at the woman's face as she flies the ship, a somewhat solid memory rising to the surface.
They're sitting across a table from each other, twenty different plastic bowls spread between them filled with various substances. She's smiling brightly, poking a fork into one bowl for a taste and then another and another.
A leg presses against his and he turns to see a different woman with golden hair spinning a bottle between her hands and watching the dark haired woman with amusement.
"Vala made Daniel buy one of every kind of deli salad at the supermarket," the blonde says with a smile.
"I think this red one is just fantastic. What's it called? Parfait?" Vala shoves a huge forkful into her mouth and Jack can't help but laugh, his knee bumping casually against Sam's.
"Sam," Jack rasps.
Vala's expression doesn't change as she stares straight ahead. "She's not here."
That's wrong. Somehow he knows that he is Jack and that this is all wrong. Words are no longer so elusive. "Vala," he says, trying the name out. "What's going on?"
She smiles at his use of her name, but it's just a pale ghost compared to the one from his memory. "What's the last thing you remember?"
Jack closes his eyes, trying to concentrate, but everything is swirled together, a giant jumble as if someone has taken a mixer to his brain. There had been pain, something terribly wrong with him, but it's little more than an echo of sensation. "I can't…"
"Your memory is probably a little spotty. To be expected, I imagine."
"From being defrosted, put on ice for half a century, infected with The Stain…take your pick."
"Infected?" That is a word he recognizes but instantly dislikes.
"A virus," she says.
The landscape around them has begun to change, white giving way to grey and then brown and green. The ship plunges down towards the ground, hovering just above the treetops. But then the trees give way to buildings and streets.
It takes Jack's over-stimulated, sluggish brain a while to recognize what's missing.
"People," he says. "Where are the people?"
Vala is staring straight ahead again, her eyes on the sky instead of the empty deserts that had once been cities. "The Stain," she says. "It spread."
"The SGC?" Jack asks, but Vala just shakes her head.
"They're all dead, Jack." Her voice is as hard as the ice in his bones and he would have thought her completely heartless if not for the way her hands whitened on the controls.
"Everyone but me. And Panos."
She jabs a finger at the back of her neck. "My little Tok'ra passenger. How else could I still look this good after fifty years?"
There is no disputing that she still looks young, but good is something else entirely. Jack wants to point out her gauntness and the flat, underused quality of her voice, but decides she probably doesn't want to hear it. "And this Panos, he kept you from dying from the virus thing?"
"No," Vala says with a shake of her head, "even the Tok'ra couldn't stop it. And without hosts…"
He knows he harbors no great affection for the Tok'ra, but word of their demise sits heavily in his stomach. "You're saying this has happened other places."
"When I said they're all dead, Jack, I meant everybody."
"As in we are the only two humans left in the entire galaxy?"
"Welcome to the future." He's not sure he remembers her being quite this bitter.
"But how did you survive?"
She shrugs. "I was never infected. It's sort of what I do, right? I survive. My own personal curse." Her tone is light and full of self-deprecation and it grates across Jack's skin as she pulls the ship up higher, altering their course.
When the familiar shape of Cheyenne Mountain appears, Vala lands the craft in an empty parking lot near the entrance. But instead of heading straight down into the SGC, she wordlessly leads Jack off to the side just beyond the first screen of trees.
Gesturing him forward, Vala stops short of the next hill. And when he steps out he finally understands why. The entire slope is covered in graves.
If he needs proof, here it is.
It's not until he's standing among the rough piles of stone and rotting wood that he really understands the passage of time, the complete desolation encompassing the planet, the galaxy.
"They turned on each other, in the end, trying to lay blame," Vala says, her voice thin and distant as she comes up behind him. "Humans and their fear helping to destroy themselves. But soon after there weren't even enough people left to fight."
Jack doesn't have to ask to know these words aren't hers. He can almost hear the ghostly cadence of Daniel's voice underneath, see her staying with him until the very end, watching as the world went to hell around them.
Now she stands here with Jack and the ghost of Daniel and a thousand others, staring as if to somehow absorb the enormity of what the small piles represent. But then she roughly shakes her head and averts her eyes from the graves, her voice becoming business-like once more. "We don't have a lot of time."
"You mean I don't have a lot of time." Jack knows he speaks the truth, he can already feel something crawling inside of him, sapping his energy.
"Yes. You're dying," she says in that same hard voice. "I can keep you going for a few hours with adrenaline shots, but no longer."
"There isn't one."
Jack turns his back on the graves, hoping to resist the torture of asking where in that jumble his closest friends lay. "Why? Why bother waking me if I'm just going to die? Did I really need to see all of this?"
For the first time, there is something of sadness in her eyes, maybe regret. "I need you to go back and fix this, make sure it doesn't happen."
Jack's head snaps up. "You had better not be talking about time travel, because I remember enough to know that never works."
She just smiles her empty smile again and pulls him underground to the lower levels of the SGC. He watches her manually dial the gate with her Tok'ra provided strength and tries not to notice the dead, stale air all around him or the evidence that something has taken up nesting in what was once the beating heart of the SGC.
When the wormhole swells into life, splashing the wrecked interior with cool, blue light, Jack wants nothing more than to escape the nightmare that the SGC has become. But his strength is failing him quickly. Vala returns to Jack's side to help him the rest of the way, pulling out another syringe as she goes, sliding it painfully into his arm. The resulting rush is enough to get him up the ramp and through the wormhole.
The world that materializes around them is far too familiar for Jack, stone altars in a sea of sand sitting under a moody orange sky. The goddamned time-looper. Vala hops down the steps and begins manipulating the altar's symbols as if she's done it a million times before.
Jack follows after her, his pace much more reluctant. "That doesn't work, Vala. Trust me, I should know."
She is unfazed by Jack's claim. "You didn't have half a century to figure it out. Not to mention a dozen more spent looped."
The sheer amount of time she's discussing causes Jack's head to hurt even more and makes him wonder about the wavering edge he sees in her, as if she's left bits of herself here and there over the centuries. He'd only looped for months and that had been enough to stretch his sanity thin. And he hadn't been alone.
But she misunderstands his appalled expression because she says, "What? It's not like there are humans out there to inconvenience."
"The Ancients couldn't even figure it out," Jack points out.
She shrugs again, the gesture worn as if by overuse. "I guess they still had something left to lose."
Jack feels her words impact him and he's once again painfully aware that everything around him is off kilter. This isn't right. But he tries to forget for a moment about all the death and focus hard on what Vala is asking of him, because he is sure that if he allows himself even a moment to wallow in it, to really consider it, he'll be stuck.
"Wait," he says. "If you really figured this machine out, then why didn't you just go back and fix this yourself?"
Her hands finally stall in their motions, hesitating just above the surface. "I've done enough," she says, eyes averted and voice cracked with anguish. "I can't go back there again. You didn't live through any of it, you can't possibly know…"
"You're not going back with me," Jack says.
She looks on the edge of confessing something when her hands suddenly resume their work in jerky gestures. Her head falls forward, eyes flashing on the way back up. "We both agreed the option to end your life should come from you."
The abrupt change from host to symbiote jars Jack, but not nearly as much as the way the snake ever so casually drops the idea. "Excuse me?"
"You were the first victim, General O'Neill. The disease started with you."
First to sicken, last to die. That's as wrong as everything else. "What's your point?"
Panos just looks at Jack in a way he supposes is meant to be meaningful.
"You're saying I did this," Jack says, no longer able to avoid giving voice to the lurking thought.
Panos simply nods.
Those graves and empty cities are his fault. Jack grabs on to the edge of the altar, locking his knees in an attempt to stay upright.
"I cannot know for sure if it was something you carried around for years before it manifested, or if someone was simply attempting to assassinate you, but either way, the stasis chamber acted as an incubator." Panos now watches him with a strangely kind look, as if that might soften the discovery that he caused of the extinction of his entire race. "I am certain that if you go back and stop this from happening you will prevent the extinction of our two races."
It sounds simple enough, which is exactly why Jack distrusts it. Simple never is. "What about Vala? What does she think?"
As Vala once again takes control, she suddenly looks every one of her endless years. "I think you're the one variable, Jack, the one detail left over," she says tiredly. "And you're pretty much dead either way. At least this way gives us a fighting chance."
He can feel the crackle of electricity building up around them and time feels like it's bleeding away from him far too quickly, the adrenaline fading as the disease crawls endlessly forward.
It's not a hard decision between dying here, the last of his kind, or in the past to save them from such a bleak future.
"How do I end the loop?" he asks.
She looks relieved that he will go along with their plan, but he can't be sure if that is Vala or Panos.
"If the events that lead up to this moment are changed, it will naturally end," Panos explains. "The only reason it kept repeating itself in your previous experience was because of the alien scientist. He was the one who chose to perpetuate the loop. This time, there will be no one but you. As long as you don't end up back in that stasis chamber, the loop will be broken."
As long as you die, he hears unspoken behind her explanation.
"But if you do get frozen again, we'll all just end up right back here again," Vala tacks on at the end, her eyes full of that strange luminosity again.
She doesn't say good luck or goodbye, just steps back from the altar as it begins to groan and move. The last thing Jack sees is Vala's face, hopefulness blending with something else he doesn't have time to identify.
For a moment, Jack is certain he's back in stasis, only there is far too much pain. He's on fire, sharp piercing pains like he's got a thousand bugs biting him all over. Above the agony there are voices and he forces himself to concentrate on them, anything that can distance him from the ache.
"Maybe if we had more time…the infection's just moving too fast." A man's voice.
"What if I could give you more time?" Sam. He recognizes that voice as Sam's.
He remembers this. There is a hand in his and he somehow works up the energy to squeeze it.
The light changes around him and he realizes his eyes are open. Sam leans over him, her face worn and so, so tired. But alive. So very alive. "Jack." He hates the desperate edge to her voice.
"No," he whispers, squeezing her hand again.
"He's delirious," offers the man's voice.
"Sam," he says, his eyes latching on to hers. "No ice."
"Jack, how did you-."
"No. Ice," he repeats.
"It might be the only way to save your life." She's pleading and he knows now why he acquiesced that first time. He's never been able to say no to her, never been able to willingly leave her behind.
But this time it's her life he's trying to save.
"Promise me," he demands, his grip on her hand now almost painful.
Tears well up in her eyes, tears he knows she is too strong to actually let fall.
"Please," he says, his strength beginning to bleed away at a rate that tells him he has very little time left.
But just before he loses consciousness he sees her nod, lowering down to press her lips to his face. "I promise."
He's sorry. So sorry to be leaving her like this.
But then the familiar black descends and he's out of time for regrets.
The excruciating pain of ice breaking and flowing through his veins greets him, Vala's face looming above him.
It's not until they are on the ship, ripping towards the cemetery that was once Cheyenne Mountain that everything finally clicks.
This isn't right. He shouldn't be here. Not again.
Vala runs through the same routine she preformed the first time, but all Jack can think is: she lied.
When the wormhole surges into life, he turns to Vala and says, "Send me back further this time."
Vala doesn't look confused; she just stares intently at him for a long moment before nodding.
They don't speak again.
He's in the middle of digging through a drawer when the white flash recedes. His hands pause mid-motion as he tries to place himself. The room he recognizes as his own, the townhouse he had purchased in Washington. Pajama pants hang from his fingers, so he pulls them on, one hand coming to a stop on the small black smudge low on his hip and barely visible in the dim light.
They will call it The Stain.
Turning to the rest of the room, Jack notices a newspaper sitting on top of his bedside table. He clicks the lamp on, his eyes latching on to the date.
July 24, 2007.
If his spotty memory can be trusted, that date gives him one day until he first falls prey to the more undeniable effects of the disease.
Jack opens the single drawer in the bedside table and reaches in for his gun, still sitting right were he left it. He checks the ammo and sits on the edge of his bed in the small pool of light offered by his lamp, running through what he remembers.
Tomorrow, on the way to a budget meeting, he will stumble in the middle of a crowded hall. Hands of strangers, passing airmen, will reach out and grab him, but he won't feel them. He'll be too lost in oppressive buzzing, the ache of something crawling under his skin.
Later he will wake to find Sam by the side of his bed, her face drawn with lack of sleep. She'll try to smile, to hide the fact that no one knows anything other than the certainty that he will die. She will beg, he will acquiesce (or not) and enter the tomb of ice.
Suspended life, leeching death.
Jack lifts the gun, fighting off the deja vu of another time and place, of the familiar smell of gun oil and bile.
He's not afraid to die.
Sitting on the edge of his bed with a gun against his skin, he only thinks of what his death will do to them, the people he's leaving behind. He'll be saving them. But they'll never know.
I'm saving the future.
What a suicide note that would make.
A sudden sound somewhere behind him has Jack cursing under his breath. He's honestly managed to forget in all the chaos that she was staying with him this week.
He turns his head to find Sam in the doorway, framed by the light of the bathroom, staring frozen at the gun in Jack's hand.
Do it, part of his brain screams. Do it before it's too late!
But blowing his brains out while Sam watches was never part of the deal.
It's even worse, because suddenly he can remember with painful clarity how this evening had unfolded differently the first time.
She wraps her arms around him from behind, hands sliding across his chest and body curling up behind his. He imagines she can feel the rumble of his words as he speaks lowly. He knows that if he can make her laugh, she'll press her smile against the back of his neck, her laughter a warm whisper across his skin. He lifts her hand and presses his lips to her palm, breathing in the scent of her skin.
"Jack," she breathes, her other hand contracting against his stomach, nails trailing gently.
But the memory dissolves as quickly as it rose, leaving him with a gun in his hand and bitter words on his tongue. "What if I said the only way to save the future was to end my life right here?"
She takes a few careful steps toward him, her face betraying none of the panic he knows must be racing through her mind.
"I'd say we could find another way," she answers slowly.
"And if there isn't?"
She has no answer for that, and Jack is almost overwhelmed by the urge to tell her everything, to not carry this horrible responsibility by himself. He feels the gun slip, falling just a few inches.
"If I don't do this now, it could be too late," he explains, but he knows he's trying to convince himself more than her. "If I wait to see if that genius brain of yours can come up with another solution, I might be too far gone to do it myself. You'd have to do it."
Her gaze is almost painful now and he knows his words are little more than background noise to her, a layer of confusion building upon her panic.
"Do you think you could do that?" he asks.
"If I had to," she says, surprising him.
Jack doesn't even realize the anger is there until the harsh laugh escapes him. "You've made that promise before."
She's stunned by that remark, but her own frustration wins out. "Jack, what is going on?"
When he feels the gun fall uselessly to the mattress, he knows he's missed his chance. So instead he gives in to the urge to tell her, repeating everything he's experienced since first waking to find Vala kneeling over him.
She sits across the room in a plush chair, her face emotionless throughout the entire litany. He tries to remember that only five minutes ago she was living with an entirely different Jack, one ignorant of their future. He wishes he could remember who that was.
He wishes he could say he was kidding, erase this distance between them and let himself pretend. He wishes that wishes actually meant anything.
Sam believes him. She doesn't want to, but he can see that she does. She pushes to her feet, pacing the small room and asks question after question, ferreting out every small detail.
No matter how short he gets with her, or how obnoxious, she keeps her cool, jotting notes down and waking colleagues with phone calls about 'hypothetical situations.' And every time he leaves the room, he feels her eyes following him, judging, as if she expects him to pick up his gun to finish this if she lets him out of her sight.
The next morning he cancels his meetings, not unaware of the irony of calling in sick on this particular day of all days. He almost laughs at this, but he catches sight of Sam sitting at the kitchen table, staring blankly at scribbled sheets of paper. He begins to think it would have been kinder to blow his brains out.
They walk down the street to a small café, more out of a desire to escape being trapped with each other than a need for breakfast. It's a terrible idea, no matter the reason. The voices of the other patrons scratch against him and he feels penned in, under assault after the emptiness of the future and the chamber. He sits there, though, sits there sipping his coffee and thinks about how he killed all these people.
"This isn't fair," Sam says suddenly, breaking at least two solid hours of silence.
"Nothing ever is when the fate of the galaxy is in the balance," Jack replies, shooting for humor and missing the mark by a mile.
She lifts her eyes from the table. "That's not what I'm talking about."
He looks at her in confusion.
"You're angry with me for something I haven't done."
"Not yet," he qualifies before he can stop himself.
She straightens abruptly as if he's just reached across the table and struck her. After one last long stare, she abandons the table, leaving him sitting there, staring at her untouched coffee and wondering if maybe Vala messed up the thawing process. Because feeling anything at all is suddenly a terrible chore.
She doesn't go far, just back to his townhouse and her table covered in theories.
He sits across from her, wanting to apologize, to reach out and soften the harsh angles of her shoulders. He doesn't do either, his hands remaining frozen in his lap.
"I've been trying to make sense of this, over and over again," Sam eventually says, pushing up from the table and wrenching open the refrigerator just to stare at the contents. "How could you have been infectious in stasis? And how did the disease spread so completely, so quickly? Even to worlds never visited by us? Not to mention the isolated populations that don't even have Stargates."
She slams the door back shut, leaning against it. "It doesn't sound like a disease, Jack. It sounds like genocide."
Jack feels his pulse increase, though whether from the implication of her words or the rising heat of his sickening body that he's trying to hide from her, he can't be sure. "You're saying someone did this on purpose?"
"It wouldn't be the first time."
It certainly wouldn't. But right now it doesn't really matter why or how. All that matters is Jack's place in this. "So do you think they might be right? Did my stasis do this?"
Sam turns her back on Jack, leaning over the sink and staring out the window. "I just need more time. Maybe some blood samples."
He takes her non-answer to mean yes. "That's what you always say."
When he tries to stand, it's pretty clear that time is the one thing they don't have anymore. He stumbles, his legs refusing to bear his weight. Before he can hit the floor, Sam's hand is on his arm, and he prays she'll keep her promise this time, tries to beg for it, but his tongue is thick in his mouth as everything fades.
When he wakes up in a hospital bed, he feels rage building, tearing at his skin. Apparently anger is an emotion not beyond the abilities of his empty chest.
Sam sits by his bed, unapologetic. His visible fury doesn't crack her emotionless façade, but she does pull back the sleeve of her shirt, revealing a black stain forming on her flesh.
"It already spread," he rasps.
She pulls a gun from somewhere and leans over him. "Just tell me to, and I'll do it. I'll keep my damn promise."
The burning fire in her eyes is like a shot to the gut for him. His mouth opens and closes on words he knows he should say, but he can't ignore the fact that even if he dies right now, it won't save her.
He finds that unacceptable, no matter the confusion, distance and anger that make everything about her cloudy in his mind. He won't be responsible for her death.
He places his hand on the muzzle and pushes down, the gun dropping to her side. He slides up to touch her hand, but her skin is ice under his.
"Put me back in the stasis chamber," he says.
He'll go back even earlier. And next time he has a gun in his hand, he won't hesitate. He won't be weak enough to burden her with this again.
Maybe he'll actually learn from his mistakes.
He's tired. So damn tired. But something is slapping at his face, chasing away sleep.
His eyes peel open to find Sam's face wavering just inches from his, a black stain now covering a large part of her once creamy skin. How much time has passed? Where, when is he?
He can see her lips moving, the sound trailing behind as if distorted. She says it at least three times before the consonants finally tumble together and begin to make sense.
"It's not you, Jack. You didn't do this."
He tries to move his mouth, to lean into the warmth he is finally beginning to realize is Sam's hand cupping his face. He's so tired of being cold.
"You're not the source of the disease, Jack."
Her eyes burn an intense blue as she repeats it over and over again, urgently. He knows these words are important somehow. But then there is a flash, the press of coldness and blackness.
In the ice, time means nothing. It's a bit like anesthesia, decades passing in a flash, but capped with a period of fever, opaque ghostly images in the moment before consciousness.
Sam's stained face, the glint of gun metal, Vala's empty eyes. Eyes he's seen somewhere before.
There's a thump and muffled gasp from behind the partially ajar door of Daniel's study. Jack pauses in the hallway, listening a moment before pushing the door open.
Vala sits at Daniel's desk, her hands flat and white across the surface, her gaze unfocused.
"You okay, Vala? I thought I heard something."
She looks stricken for a moment, but it passes so quickly, morphing into a smile, that Jack just assumes he imagined it. Crossing the room, she takes his arm, her hand tucking smoothly around his elbow, clenching briefly against his skin.
"I'm fine," she says, pressing her body just a little too close. "But we should probably rejoin the party before we start to give people the wrong idea." She winks up at him and Jack chuckles.
"Right," he says. "We certainly wouldn't want to do that."
The haze lifts gradually, but the memory sticks, a prickling in his mind that makes it impossible to ignore. He worries it over and over again, flipping it around, shifting all the information he's gathered into various piles, searching for patterns, answers.
Part of him listens to Vala and reenacts the reprisal of his original trip from Antarctica to the SGC and then the planet with the ancient machine. They are standing in front of the altar once again when something finally clicks into place.
He places his hand on hers, pressing down and stalling her from manipulating the time machine.
"What happened that day?" he asks. "The last time we were all together?"
She looks frightened and eager all at once. "At Daniel's?"
"Yes. Something happened that day, didn't it?"
"I'm not sure." He's certain she's hedging. "It was a long time ago, Jack."
The empty smile is back, a weak attempt to imitate her old self. He recognizes it now for what it is--an attempt to distract--but he's not taking the bait. Not this time.
"What happened that day?" Jack demands again, penning her in against the altar, giving her no room to escape.
She tries to shove past him, but even with the virus running rampant through him and her Tok'ra strength, the thin ghost she has become can't overcome the force lent by Jack's certainty.
"I don't remember!" she finally yells, her free hand slapping against his chest as her empty smile cracks into panic. She's frantic now, almost crazed and Jack stumbles back a few steps.
Then her eyes flash, another voice struggling towards the surface, thin and reedy as if aged. "She is not lying. She truly does not remember."
Vala's head inclines. "There is a large empty spot in her memory from that time. May I ask why this particular moment interests you?"
"It just feels important," Jack says, unable to put into words the lingering memory and the certainty that he clings to as his body continues to fail.
"I can't think how," Panos replies. "I always found Vala's fascination with that particular moment in her life unfathomable."
Panos tilts her head to one side as if remembering. "When we finally deciphered how to work this machine, she first chose to revisit that day. In fact, she spent many decades of time in that afternoon."
"I am not sure. There is obviously some sort of a deep-seated personal trauma that her mind is suppressing." She says this dismissively, as if humans and their mental woes were something below consideration of any rational being.
"And what makes you say that?" Jack asks.
"Because every time we looped, I was sent back in my own past. But when she showed up as my host lay dying and allowed me to blend with her, as she had before, she still had no memory of that time. It was as if something had wiped her mind clean."
"And yet you blended with her again and again, even knowing what was going to happen?" Jack asks, beginning to wonder if the snake is entirely all there either.
"I was able to finally persuade her towards more important pursuits. After all, have I not lost just as much as you?"
Jack doubts that, but doesn't think telling the snake that will help.
"I am sorry to be blunt," Panos says, "but I don't see what this has to do with anything. We are here to stop the extinction of our races, not relive Vala's admittedly colorful past."
"And if they're somehow the same?"
Panos' brow furrowed. "What do you mean?"
"Look," Jack says, suddenly wishing he was dealing with the slightly frantic Vala again rather than this unmovable Tok'ra. "I know I'm not the source of this disease, so preventing my stasis is not going to fix this."
"How can you be sure?"
"Because Sam told me and frankly, I trust her judgment a lot more than any of ours right now." He discovers as he says it that he really does mean it. Sam obviously knew something that he didn't, and if she told him that it wasn't him, then he believes her.
"If that is the case, then we are truly out of options."
That is such a Tok'ra reaction that Jack can't quite stop sighing with annoyance. "I'm beginning to think we've been going about this all wrong. I want you to send me even further back."
"I fail to see what her sentimentality has to do with anything, General. Her weak need to relive a happier time with her friends, to see them again, neither brought them back nor made her feel any better. It changed nothing."
Jack's flooded with great sympathy for Vala. Putting up with Panos for so long could not have been fun. "That's the problem with you Tok'ra, you've always confused sentiment with instinct. Now dial it up or whatever."
For a moment Jack is certain that Panos will put up a fight, but then she begins slowly moving through the sequence to start up the machine. This time, Jack watches closely.
Jack is standing in Daniel's driveway in the process of shutting the door to his truck. It takes a few moments for everything to slide back together and he's intensely grateful to have escaped coming back in the middle of driving somewhere.
"Jack?" Daniel asks in a tone that implies it hasn't been the first time.
"What?" Jack says, slipping the keys into his pocket.
"I asked if you could help Cam unload his truck."
"Right," Jack says. "Of course."
He turns and heads back down the driveway where he sees Mitchell pulling bags out of the bed of a dark blue truck. Jack reaches over and grabs a large cooler.
"Sir," Mitchell says, straightening a little too much. "You really don't have to do that."
An automatic retort rises on Jack's tongue, memories of this day flowing over him.
"I thought we talked about this 'sir' bit, Mitchell," Jack says, letting a little bit of a bark into his tone just to be perverse.
"Yes, sir, we did."
"Good. Now let me carry the damn cooler."
But this time, Mitchell refuses to be flustered, not only letting Jack lug the cooler, but adding an enormous bag of briquettes on top for good measure. "Thanks for the help, Jack."
Yup. Mitchell has definitely been on SG-1 too long.
Jack absolutely refuses to stumble under the weight, but despite himself, he is definitely short of breath by the time he makes it to Daniel's backyard. To buy himself time, he pops open the cooler, only to gasp.
"Okay," Jack says loudly. "Who let Mitchell buy the beer?"
"I didn't hear you volunteer, Jack," Daniel says.
Jack hefts up the bottle of Bud, shaking it for emphasis. "But it's American!"
Everyone continues on as if Jack had never spoken. Spoilsports.
"That reminds me of a joke Gary in the commissary told me!" Vala chirps, leaning over the cooler to snatch out a beer. "What do American beer and sex in a boat have in common?"
Daniel's hand appears over her mouth before she can enlighten the rest of them. "I'm sure we've all heard it before," he says, giving Vala a stern look before pulling his hand back away. But Jack can see the way his fingers deliberately trail along her skin as he moves away.
Vala pouts, but then Teal'c says, "I have, in fact, not heard this joke."
Vala runs up to him and Teal'c helpfully leans down in order to better hear her whisper. After a moment Teal'c's eyebrow pops up and he smiles. "That is most amusing, Vala Mal Doran."
Vala looks smug, doing a little jig before setting herself down to the serious task of laying out each of her hard-won deli salads.
"That gives me an idea," Jack says lowly to Sam as he snaps the lid shut on the cooler, "for the next time we go up to the cabin."
Sam just gives Jack an impertinent little smirk before stealing his beer and abandoning him to help Vala unload.
Jack shakes his head to free himself of the memory, looking up to find Mitchell watching him closely. "Everything ok, sir?"
No. Nothing is okay.
Jack leaves the cooler sitting where it is, picking up the bag of briquettes instead. "Fine, Mitchell," he says, leaving the younger man standing by his truck.
The cheerful flow of levity is all around Jack as he watches people who should be familiar move around the yard, old jokes and easy camaraderie between them. For Jack, it feels like a séance and he tries to remember feeling something as stupid as caring what brand his beer is. Abandoning it as a lost cause, he watches Vala's every move instead, waiting for that final clue to drop into place.
Less than twenty minutes later, he's sitting across the table, watching Vala eat when it finally happens. He sees the moment Vala loops, the fork suddenly clenched in her hand, her eyes empty where they had just been full.
Jack reaches across the table and grabs her wrist, heedless of the bowls he knocks from the table.
Vala meets his eyes and he sees her calculating, working out the unexpected twist in a far too familiar situation. She tries to tug her arm free. "What are you doing, Jack?" she asks in a passable imitation of the woman she once was.
Jack ignores her struggles and her empty words and grips her arm even tighter, feeling the fragility of her bones under his fingers. "It's you, Vala," he says.
"What are you talking about?" Her head tilts to the side in the perfect picture of confusion.
But he's done with her games. Done with being manipulated. "It was always you."
"Jack, what are you doing?" Sam asks, having pushed to her feet. Jack can feel the whole team pressing forward around the table, Teal'c just over Sam's shoulder, Daniel and Mitchell flanking Vala. He hates the feeling that he is the odd man out here in more ways than one.
"Sir," Mitchell interjects, but Jack silences him with a stern glare.
Vala throws a desperate glance over her shoulder at Daniel and he takes a few steps closer, looking between Jack and Vala, obviously torn.
"Go ahead, Vala," Jack says. "Tell them why we're here."
Her composure slips enough to betray her mounting panic and she tugs against his grip again.
"You brought it down on them," Jack says.
"No!" she says, her forced nonchalance shattering. "You were the first victim!"
"First victim, yes. But not the source."
"But Panos is certain! I promised him this would be the last time I came back here."
Jack can see it now, the edge of madness that has settled over her during the centuries of witnessing an immutable future. The missing memory that gnawed away at her, piece by piece until she had no course but to listen to the insidious whispers of her parasite.
"You were the only person left in the entire Galaxy, Vala. Didn't that ever make you a little suspicious?"
"Forget Panos. It's just you and me, Vala, just the way you planned it."
"I didn't!" she protests, but there is doubt in her voice now.
"Not yet, but you will." Jack circles around the table to stand next to her, sliding his hand up her arm to grip her shoulder. "You watched every single person you've ever known drop, one by one, over and over again. You didn't even get to die with them, because for you, death has never been an option."
"I'm not scared of death," Vala snaps.
"Really? Then why the snake? Why the endless centuries spent looping? Hell, why not just put a bullet in your brain and leave me frozen and forgotten?"
"Because I have to fix it! I have to bring them all back!"
"If you really thought you could fix it, you would have. You never would have hesitated to kill me yourself. But you didn't because part of you has always known that I wasn't the answer, no matter how much the snake tried to convince you."
She's openly crying now, hands hiding her face. "I tried. I tried over and over again."
He knows she did. Century after century of trying, of failing, of watching them all die again and again.
"You woke me for a reason, Vala," Jack says, his voice softening of its own accord. "You knew I would find what you were hiding."
"I can't remember," she whispers, looking up at him through her tears.
Jack finally loosens his grip, sliding one hand around her back. "But I can."
"Jack. What the hell is going on?" Daniel asks, breaking the astonished silence of the others.
Jack doesn't really have the patience to get into it, but he knows he might need their help. "Reader's Digest version? We've both traveled back fifty years because sometime soon, the entire human race will go the way of the dinosaur. And I think today is when it started."
He can see Sam's mouth pop open to ask what he knows will be a million questions. But Jack shakes his head at her, stalling her words. Turning back to Vala, he leads her towards the house, the others following behind.
"I remember you in Daniel's office," Jack says. "Why do you go in there?"
"I…I'll go inside to use the bathroom." She glances at her watch. "Twelve minutes from now."
She's not quite meeting his eye. "You mean you'll go in to snoop around."
She shrugs, not bothering to deny it.
Jack gestures for her to precede him into the house and follows her in, aware that Daniel and the others are close on his heels.
Vala strolls through the house making various stops as if following an oft-practiced routine only she knows the steps to. Her hands run over the back of the couch, flick on and off switches and flip through a stack of mail by the door. Then she turns down the hall, pausing in front of the door to Daniel's study.
"I'm not even sure why I went in," she says, her hand hovering just over the knob. "As soon as I walk in…" She squeezes her eyes shut in deep concentration. "It's just gone. The next thing I remember is you coming in."
Jack steps in front of her, walking into Daniel's study first. Everything is just as he remembered, the walls covered in overburdened bookshelves, a couch under the window and a desk in the center of the room. The surface is cluttered with piles of papers, open books and various bizarre objects.
He looks back at Vala hovering in the open doorway and she slowly raises one arm to point at the desk.
At first glance, Jack doesn't see anything remotely out of place. Gingerly pushing a notepad to the side, he uncovers a metal box about the size of a tennis ball. The dull green-black surface is covered in broad writing and solidly set in the lid is a brilliant, clear stone that looks an awful lot like a diamond.
From behind him, Vala makes a rough sound, her hand gripping white knuckled at the doorjamb.
"What is this?" Jack demands, turning to Daniel.
"Oh. I usually keep things locked up in the safe, I must have forgotten," Daniel stutters. "Not that I make a habit of taking things home from the SGC."
"Daniel," Jack says. "We can talk about your dubious treatment of classified materials later. I'm more interested in what the hell this thing is."
"Of course," Daniel says, grabbing a file from his desk. "It's an artifact from my last mission with SG-6. I never could figure out how to open it."
Jack glances at Vala again to see that Teal'c has shifted slightly closer to her. "What about this writing, Daniel. Did you translate it?"
"Some," he says, his voice gaining animation. "It mostly talks about the 'The Hand of God.'"
Jack hefts the small object, wondering if he imagines the hum of power emanating from it. "Could it be Ori?"
"Ori," Daniel repeats. "What makes you think-."
"It was never a disease. It was genocide," Jack quotes. When everyone just stares at him as if he's just sprouted a second head, he shrugs. "Something Sam said to me. Or will say," he corrects when they all turn to look at Sam.
"Like an Ori plague?" Sam asks.
Jack nods. "Only this one couldn't be stopped, and only one person in the whole galaxy was immune." He turns back to the silent woman hovering near the door. "You, Vala. The sole survivor, forced to watch helplessly, never able to do anything, no matter how many times you relived it."
"Jesus," Mitchell swears. "That sounds like torture."
"Yeah, it does," Jack says. "And who, exactly, might be pissed enough to not only leave the galaxy barren, but to force Vala to watch?"
Sam's eyes widen. "If you mean Adria…"
"But she's dead. Ascended, whatever," Mitchell says.
"Yeah, but she left a little something behind, didn't she?" Jack lifts the box with its lustrous diamond square and center. "It was the only way she could get to us. She used you, Vala. She made you the vehicle of death, and then left you to live with it. And she did it the only way she could without the Ancients stepping in to stop her."
Jack crosses the room to stand in front of Vala. "Did she whisper to you in your dreams? Give you the key to the puzzle, banking on your one greatest weakness?"
"I don't know," she whispers, her eyes latched on the box.
"You're a survivor, Vala. No matter how horrible life gets, you survive. She poisoned you and set you on the entire galaxy, knowing you would. A wandering Typhoid Mary with no memory of having ever done it."
Jack hands the box back to Daniel, who wastes no time carrying the offending item to his safe.
"I opened it," Vala says, her voice distant and her back pressed back against the doorjamb. "I killed them."
She looks ready to crumble under the slightest touch, but Jack still finds himself crossing the room, reaching for her face.
"Yes," he says, the feel of her cheek cool under his fingers. "But you also woke me up. The one leftover detail."
She looks up at him with those luminous, broken eyes and leans into him, his arms automatically wrapping around her slender frame, holding her up when she begins to slip.
He can feel the eyes of the others on them, their collective confusion, horror and helplessness a tangible presence. But then Mitchell flips open his phone, loudly demanding that a recovery team be sent from the SGC as soon as possible. Sam turns to Daniel, quizzing him on every detail about the artifact, turning to the security of work in the face of the unknown.
Jack and Vala stay were they are, the others moving around them, flowing past like the blinding ice of the Antarctic beneath the hull of a tel'tac. There is the distinct sound of a safe snapping soundly shut, a reverberating gong leaving nothing behind but the feel of Vala's fingers digging into his back.
"It's over," she whispers into his shoulder.
There's a flash of lightening striking a nearby tree before a rampant downpour rains out their little family barbeque.
Maybe it's just Jack, but he doesn't think wrath and revenge seem like very enlightened, ascended-y traits.
With the Ori plague box contained and scheduled for destruction, Jack waits for the days to pass, one hand pressed searchingly to that spot low on his hip where The Stain first took hold. When the prophesized date comes and goes with no sign, Jack tries to understand the strange wistfulness that fills him.
He decides it must be due to Vala. Because they may have saved the human race, but Vala is far from deliverance.
Jack and Vala share a special bond, which is not surprising considering what they experienced. But Jack can't be sure their relationship isn't really about the great gulf between them and the rest of the team. Artificial or not, Jack spends a great deal of time with her in her cozy white room with a wall of mirror-like, one-way glass where she undergoes a sort of permanent 'psychological observation.'
Jack visits her every day, listening to her talk about a thousand different things or perhaps nothing at all. They both find it amusing that she's on suicide watch, considering everything they know.
"You were right," she says one day as she stares out her tiny, barred window onto the grounds below. "Death is something I've never been able to face."
She traces strange symbols on the glass, her fingers dancing over the surface. "There was always that tiny suspicion, knowledge that something had happened that day, even if I couldn't remember it. But even with it, I couldn't bring myself to end my own life."
Jack nods even though she can't see him.
"My mother did," she confesses. "Isn't that trite? Poor Vala with her pathetic, weak mother who would rather be dead than care for her."
"Thanks to her I learned early exactly how much I was worth," Vala says. "She died, leaving me with a chronically absent father, but even that was preferable to the woman he brought home to replace her. My stepmother didn't like having me around. Maybe she thought I split my father's affections, or she just didn't want the burden of caring for me. I don't know. She sold me to a passing trader. That's how I ended up a palace servant in Qetesh's court.
"I think that's what these psychiatrists want to hear, but they just don't get it. It's not about my pathetic family life or being held hostage to a goa'uld for decades and decades while everyone else grew old and died.
"It's the fact that I thought I was trying to save them, but I was really just trying to survive. And that's what destroyed them in the end."
Her head falls against the bars, the small shaft of daylight streaking through her hair.
"I couldn't do it either," Jack says, the confession catching him off guard. "I thought I had it in me, I really did, but I just tried to foist the responsibility on to other people." On to Sam. And then he had the gall to hate her for not doing something he couldn't bring himself to do.
But maybe the anger just makes the distance easier to deal with.
"I don't know why I couldn't," Jack says. He'd been so close for so long, right there on the edge.
"It was SG-1, the team. They made you want to live." Her voice is wistful, but all Jack can hear is the past tense she uses to talk about living, breathing people.
"I'm glad you didn't go through with it," Vala says, finally leaving the window to wrap her arms around his waist and press her head to his chest.
He doesn't tell her that most days he isn't. He just absently pats at her hair and listens to her stories. Always in the past. That's all she seems to have left.
Once your curiosity gets your entire race killed off, though, he guesses you can never quite be the same.
When Vala finally drifts off to sleep, Jack quietly leaves the room and finds Daniel standing in front of the observation window. He's here most days as Jack leaves.
"You're the only one she'll speak to," Daniel says, his eyes on her small form curled in sleep. "She treats the rest of us as if we're already dead."
Jack forces himself to ignore the instinct to flee, instead coming to a stop by Daniel's side. He knows Daniel deserves something, and he's not going to get it from her.
"For her, you already are," Jack explains. "She buried you, Daniel. She buried all of you, over and over again. Even Vala has her limits for what she can bounce back from."
That's the problem with the loops. They take a little more away each time. It's way worse this time and Jack doesn't know if it's the combination of freezing with the disease on top of it, or if it's just the greater chunk of time, like the effort to jump back that far eats away at you. It's probably the latter, if Vala is anything to judge by. She has trouble now knowing when she is. The relief of finally escaping the endless repetition of time seems to have snapped her last tentative connection with reality.
"What about you?" Daniel asks, staring intently at him, but Jack just feels it pass straight through him, like he's not quite in synch with everyone else around him.
Maybe Jack's problem is just the opposite. For him, he's the dead one.
"I'm not the same man anymore," he says, walking away.
Daniel's soft words follow him down the hall as Jack leaves him to watch Vala crumble on his own.
They all mourn her, watch her with sad eyes as they try to figure out what happened to her levity and off-color jokes from only weeks before. As for Jack, he's beginning to realize that he may not be able to do anything about his own disconnect, but there is still one last chance for Vala.
Jack already feels thinner somehow, like vapor. Another trip back would be risky, but he can't help but consider it, even knowing that nothing in the universe ever comes for free.
In the end, Sam is the one to suspect, waiting for him outside Vala's room the next time he comes out. Jack is surprised that as much as he's changed, she can still read him this well. He wonders if she suspects that when he looks at her, he struggles to feel anything at all.
He stops a careful distance away from her, his hands stuck deep in his pockets. "I'm going back, one last time," he says.
Sam nods. "To save her?"
"She never wanted to remember. I don't really blame her."
"And what about you?"
"Someone has to remember," he says with a shrug.
They stand in silence for a while, watching Vala in her sterile cage.
"Let me go instead."
Jack stares at Sam in a mix of horror and shock, hating that part of him desperately wants to take her up on the offer. It would be so nice to just forget, to let someone else carry the burden of remembering. But he recalls all too clearly the sight of Sam sitting in silent desperation at his table, trying to save a man who seemed to hate her for something she'd never even done.
He can't let any of this bleed onto anyone else. He won't be that weak this time.
"Not going to happen, Sam."
She doesn't argue or look surprised, and he has to wonder if her offer had simply been a test.
"Will you tell me about all this?" she asks.
He won't, he knows, because having her know makes it worse. Maybe he could forget, someday, if no one else ever knew. He's ashamed to admit that he's even considered going back far enough to stop them from ever being together. She deserves so much more than a man who might never properly defrost.
He also knows that she more than suspects this, knows he's hurting her again, keeping that cold distance between them.
She steps forward, though, her touch hesitant but warm, one hand wrapping around his arm. "Just…try not to shut me out, Jack. I won't understand, but I'll want to."
Jack feels himself sway ever so slightly towards her, catching the soft scent of her hair. "Sam…," he whispers, feeling something creaking inside.
She tries to smile, but the gesture doesn't stick and she pulls abruptly away, leaving him standing alone in the hall.
Jack loops one last time, going back far enough to eliminate every jump ever taken by Vala. He struggles, though, to ignore the part of him that doesn't want to let her go, knowing that broken, ghostly Vala is the only person who could ever properly understand. The last bit of connection he feels with anyone.
He's also tempted to change things. To warn someone about a tornado he knows will strike, to stop SG-12 from going to PX3-729 where one of them will come back paralyzed. But he can't risk the victory over the Ori. He lets events slide past him, making decisions exactly as he has before.
The only small blessing is that everything is so rushed that he never has to spend any real time with any of them. He doesn't see Sam, doesn't have to pretend to be that other man. He doesn't see Vala. He worries about it though, because a meeting is inevitable, the war drawing necessarily towards its end.
And then the time comes. The Ori die, Adria ascends and Jack takes a trip out to the SGC in the middle of the night, dialing the gate himself. The box is right where Daniel said it would be, its enormous gem glittering brilliantly.
Jack dials the gate once more and tosses the alluring booby trap into the outward flush of the connecting wormhole, evaporating it instantly, erasing the future with it. So little effort to achieve something that had taken so many lives, so many centuries to work out.
Back on Earth, he's faced with the daunting task of attending Daniel's get-together one final time.
He considers not going, letting the future finally divert its path.
In the end he goes, remembering Sam's last request, her hand warm on his arm. He's tired of thinking of them all in the past tense, of being made of ice. But he finds himself hugging the edges when he gets there, watching them together and wondering if this distance he feels will always be there.
He'd visited Vala one last time before the final loop, getting instructions on how to work the altar. She'd laid her head on his shoulder, her fingers dancing on his thigh. "Don't turn into me, Jack. You shouldn't have to pay for my mistakes."
He'd left her there, her head lowered to her arms, eyes staring.
Now he watches her pick up a fork, an almost blinding sparkle in her eye as she throws Daniel a saucy smirk over her shoulder. He knows there is a lot hidden behind that smile, and it's both strange and comforting to know so much about her. The sheer force of life emanating from her feels a bit like that first cup of warmth pressed into his freezing fingers, sharply painful, but necessary.
Just as he remembers, Sam sits across from Vala, occasionally pointing at one of the bowls and saying something that makes Vala laugh. Mitchell stops by, a hand on Sam's shoulder as he offers her a beer. And when Sam catches Jack's eye, beckoning him closer with a playful toss of her head, he forces his feet to move, to cross the distance and sit down next to her.
She offers him her beer, but after a moment of consideration, he passes up the chilled bottle in favor of her hand. He watches their fingers twine together, staring a little too long at this simple contact, because when he finally looks up, Sam's expression has subtly shifted, now curious and slightly concerned.
He moves a little closer to her, letting her scent and the glint of her hair in sunlight creep into his skin, willing the familiar feel of her to bring back everything they had been, would be, could maybe be again.
He recognizes the slight canting of her head as a question. You okay? He answers with a small half smile and a squeeze of her hand that seem to satisfy her.
Across the table, Vala is still systematically exploring the dishes in front of them, Mitchell and Teal'c watching on when not razzing a harried-looking Daniel over by the barbeque. When Sam turns her head into Jack's shoulder to muffle a laugh at Vala's appalled look after a large bite of seafood salad, he is pretty sure he hears an audible thump where a creak used to be.
"Try the parfait, Vala," Jack says. "I think you'll like it."
Full of broken thoughts I cannot repair,
Beneath the stains of time the feelings disappear.
You are someone else, I am still right here.
What have I become, my sweetest friend?
Everyone I know goes away in the end.
And you could have it all, my empire of dirt.
I will let you down, I will make you hurt.
If I could start again, a million miles away,
I would keep myself, I would find a way.
-"Hurt" by Johnny Cash