There was a long and heavy silence that coated everything like setting concrete. Finally, Carter blinked and sighed.
"There is no quantum mirror," she said.
"Carter..." Jack closed his eyes.
"We used an inter-reality retrieval device," she continued, still looking at the floor. "I designed it, after... I designed it. In my head. But I never intended to build it, never intended to use it-"
Jack let his air out in a long, slow breath and scrubbed a hand over his face. "Until Thor showed up, with his very special eyes-only message," he filled in.
Her eyes beseeched him to understand. "The NID were talking about digging up your body, using acquired technology to... temporarily reanimate the flesh-"
"Not my body, Carter," he corrected, but grimaced nonetheless. He sighed and paced back and forth in frenetic activity. "And it didn't occur to you to just ask?" he said, whirling about to face her. "'Hey, Jack, you mind waltzing over to our reality for a couple of minutes so we can borrow your DNA?' 'Gee whizz, let me just check my appointments diary. Oh, it's okay - saving the world from the Goa'uld isn't pencilled in until Thursday. Sign me right up!'"
Carter looked miserable. "I truly am sorry, sir. It wasn't my decision."
He waved a hand by the side of his head. "So the whole... head wound scenario? Somebody whack me over the head with a sock full of sand to add a little... cinéma-vérité?" He still hadn't quite banished the remnants of that headache.
She pulled an awkward face. "The entropic side effects were stronger than I anticipated. The quantum mirror must have some kind of buffering mechanism that allows a traveller to breach the wall between realities without suffering an immediate-" She read from his face that it would probably be smart to switch tracks. "You completed the transfer unconscious," she finished. "You were in a coma for several days, and Janet wasn't certain if there would be any neurological damage when you woke up. The NID argued that given-" she swallowed, "-what happened to our Colonel O'Neill, your mental state had to be considered unpredictable and you might react badly if you were informed of the transfer between realities."
"Yadda, yadda, yadda." He could fill in the blanks from there, though whatever joker had decided that convincing him he was suicidal was the best way to go had a lot to answer for. Then a thought struck, and he froze, narrowing his eyes dangerously. "Is it reversible?"
"Yes, sir," she said, quiet but assured. Then she grimaced. "Most probably," she added, compelled by her usual field honesty.
Jack scowled. "I really wish you hadn't added that."
"Me too, sir," she said with a thin smile.
He couldn't help but smile back. In any universe, Carter was Carter.
He sighed, and ran a hand back through his hair. "Right. Let's go see what the Asgard left us in their gift bag."
The cave contained a holographic message from Thor. Apparently, in this particular reality, the Asgard had been forced to withdraw all presence from the Milky Way galaxy by the Replicators. Thor, unaware of the other Jack's demise, had left him a communicator for emergency contact. To Jack's relief, Carter didn't think the device itself was keyed exclusively to his DNA.
"Most likely Thor wasn't sure who was in charge at the SGC. We've been out of contact with the Asgard for... a while. Before we lost contact we were having problems with rogue elements stealing technology from our allies. The forcefield must have been a countermeasure to make sure we could only access this if you were still affiliated with the project."
Jack tucked his hands into his pockets and rocked on his heels. "So. No magic bullet?"
"No, sir," she said regretfully. She tucked the communicator carefully away in a padded box. "But even so, just knowing we have a means of contacting the Asgard in an emergency gives us more possibilities."
"Yeah." He couldn't help but think he'd have felt a whole lot better about this little cross-reality jaunt if it had ended in the retrieval of something that would have useful applications for his own reality, not just this one.
As it was, he just felt exceedingly tired.
"Come on, Carter," he sighed. "Let's boogie on back to base."
Pierce was emphatically not happy about Jack and Carter wandering off alone, but he was unhappy in a non-verbal, you're-still-nominally-in-charge way, so Jack didn't give a very large fraction of a damn. Especially since this particular chain of command wasn't technically his to screw up. Once the - somewhat edited - debriefing was over, Jack lingered behind to talk to the General.
Hammond met his eyes neutrally. "Major Carter told you the truth," he surmised. His tone gave no clue as to whether this was an annoyance, a relief, or very bad news for Major Carter.
Jack avoided giving confirmation. "You could have just asked for my cooperation," he said simply, tucking his hands into his pockets.
Hammond gave him a tired smile. "If I'd been given any choice in the matter, son, I would have. But the NID insisted that you couldn't be trusted. They claimed that the... manner of your counterpart's death was evidence of an underlying mental instability." The lazy Texan drawl kept the words soft, but Jack could see the coals of anger burning behind the mask. "They managed to convince my superiors that a deception was in everyone's best interests."
Everyone's except Jack's, of course. But that wasn't the most pressing issue on his mind right now. He met Hammond's gaze seriously. "Sir... what really happened to the other O'Neill?"
Hammond closed his eyes for a long moment. When he opened them, they were laced with a grief that Jack felt voyeuristic seeing. "Exactly what you were told, Colonel," he said, letting out his breath in a puff. "Twenty-six months ago, Colonel Jack O'Neill locked himself in his office and shot himself dead with his own service weapon. Nobody knows why."
Jack kept one hand in his pocket and gestured uncomfortably with the other. "And there wasn't-?"
"Major Carter ran herself ragged looking for evidence of alien involvement or foul play," the General said, still holding his gaze. "The investigation found nothing untoward."
"Which could just mean it was very well hidden," Jack said, feeling strangely obliged to defend the duplicate that he knew nothing about.
Hammond sighed. "Which could mean that," he said slowly. "But we can never know." He met Jack's eyes again. "Unless you can tell me for certain...?"
Jack thought of Abydos, and felt a knot of guilt and misery settle deep in his stomach. He gave a single shake of his head that was more of a sharp jerk, and looked down at his shoes.
There was a thick silence, during which he wouldn't have looked up for anything in the world. Then Hammond shifted in his seat and cleared his throat. Jack felt a warm glow of affection blossom in his chest as the General returned to all business.
"Major Carter assures me that the transfer back to your own reality should be a relatively straightforward process," he said. "The retrieval device was designed to bridge between two specific realities only, so there's no danger of you being sent back to the wrong place."
Not that he'd been worried about that before the General brought it up.
"So no further O'Neill-napping for fun and profit?" he said.
"No." Hammond set his jaw. "I will be making my opinion very clear to the Pentagon and the White House about how this whole debacle could have been avoided if the NID had been prepared to extend reasonable trust to a good man and a good officer."
He stood up and came around the table to shake hands before Jack had a chance to make a quip about who those two guys were.
"I apologise for the harm that's been done to you here, son," he said. He clasped Jack's arm. "We'll send you back where you belong with all due speed, and our gratitude for your willingness to help us despite the deception."
Jack would be glad to get out of this reality, which was beginning to give him the uncomfortable feeling of being present at his own eulogy. He rubbed the back of his neck.
"Thank you, sir," he said, and pointed back over his shoulder. "If you don't mind, I'll just go find Carter and-"
Hammond dismissed him with an understanding nod. "God be with you, Jack," he said softly.
Jack straightened to attention as they exchanged salutes, and then turned to head for Carter's lab... and hopefully, home.
Carter's reality crossing device looked like the bastard son of a set of rings, a naquadah reactor and a metal toilet seat. She seemed determined to explain and apologise for its limitations, as if he would somehow be less impressed once he knew the specs.
"It was custom built to connect to one particular alternate reality," she told him. "It's far beyond our current technology to build a device that can switch between multiple realities like the quantum mirror. We don't have the naquadria resources for a second transfer, anyway: the device draws so much power that the link can only be established for microseconds before the power source is completely drained." She looked momentarily uncomfortable. "In order to provide the best odds of success I had to analyse your known past movements and calculate the highest probability time window for finding you in a consistent location."
Jack worked that one out. "You stole me from my own bed in the middle of the night?"
"Yes, sir." She gave an awkward grimace. "On a Tuesday. At four thirty-two a.m."
"Good to know I'm not predictable," he said wryly. "So, what, you're going to kick me back out in the same place?" That could make selling the explanation for his disappearance a lot more difficult. Great. Another mental health assessment to look forward to.
"Actually, sir, I can put you back anywhere we can reasonably move the device to," Carter said helpfully. "But it has to be somewhere with minimal traffic where you're not in danger of colliding with another human being."
"That sounds like my bed," he said.
Carter grinned. It was good to see it. "I was thinking the empty storage room on the corner of level twenty-two," she volunteered.
"That works too," he conceded.
Siler's people relocated the reality device for them. Carter tinkered with it for a while before pronouncing it good.
Then things got awkward.
"So, I... guess I'll toddle on back to my reality then," Jack said, running a hand through his hair. Carter gave him an abortive smile in response. The silence stretched on, thick and lumpy.
Finally he had to break it. "Carter-"
"Sir-" she said, at exactly the same time. He waved a hand, surrendering the floor to her, but she didn't continue.
Okay, this was getting them nowhere. "Spit it out, Carter," he suggested, not unkindly.
She shook her head. "Nothing, sir. I'll just go and set up the controls outside the room."
She made it as far as the doorway before stopping and turning abruptly. "I just need to know why you did it," she blurted out. "Why-?"
Jack stepped forward and caught both of her forearms. "Carter..." He shook his head helplessly. "I didn't do it. And I don't know why he did. But I know there wasn't anything you could have done to stop him."
Her face crumpled into an expression on the knife-edge between smile and tears. This time, he didn't resist the impulse to pull her forward into a hug.
Funny how you forgot how warm other human beings were, and how substantial. From a distance, they might as well be holograms, as unreal as Daniel standing in the cell. Hugging Carter was a world of awkward for numerous different reasons, but it was also the most grounded he'd felt, since... well, before the whole mess with Baal went down, and maybe months before it. From the outside, Carter looked fragile, but if she was this solid, then maybe he was too.
Jack cupped the back of her head for a moment, then stepped back and released her. The smile she gave him glittered with unshed tears, but it was strong and genuine. He smiled back.
Carter broke the moment first and turned away, brisk professionalism back in place. "I'll start the machine from outside. The transfer will be instantaneous, so you need to be standing within the taped-off area." She smirked at his undignified hop-shuffle backward. "Hopefully, the entropic side effects should be less severe this time, as you're crossing the barrier between realities in the normative direction."
"Yes. That," he said wisely. Carter grinned.
"Good luck, sir," she said, and stepped over to activate the controls. Jack was pretty sure that she deserved some kind of emotional admission as a parting gesture, although the idea made his chest seize up with panic.
"Carter..." he began awkwardly.
Her smile took on a wistful flavour. "I know, sir," she said. She flipped the switch.
The world fuzzed away into static.
Jack opened his eyes to a vision of the infirmary ceiling. Still. Again. Some more. He heaved a weighty sigh and didn't bother with the effort of sitting up. "Any idea if we're in Kansas, Toto?" he asked the room in general.
"O'Neill." Teal'c loomed into view. He was unsmiling, but in a pleased way. "You have returned."
"Good to see you, T." He lifted one arm in a lazy thumbs-up.
"Sir!" Carter appeared at Teal'c's shoulder, smiling broadly. His Carter, this time, if he trusted other-Carter to be right about the impossibility of having dumped him in a third reality. And he did. This Carter looked tired, but nowhere near as worn-down and hollowed out as the Carter of the other reality.
A third face popped up, grinning inanely. "Colonel! You're awake."
He was even glad to see Jonas.
"Hey, kids." Jack converted the thumbs-up into a minimalistic wave. "What's happening?"
Carter apparently took this as a request for a status report rather than a greeting. "You've been unconscious for a couple of hours." She vacillated. "Er, that we know of. You were found in a storage closet on level twenty-two, but we're not sure how long you were in there. You went missing after signing out and returning home nine days ago. We still don't know how you got back on the base."
"Yeah. Funny story, that," he said wryly.
Doctor Fraiser bustled in. "Well, I'm afraid it's going to have to wait, Colonel." She ushered the rest of SG-1 toward the door. "We have no way of knowing how long you may have been unconscious before you were found, and I need to do a thorough examination."
"Joy," he said, and shot a dark look at his rapidly departing teammates. Where was their sense of solidarity now?
He groaned as Fraiser produced the ever-present penlight.
"Doc, do you have to keep poking that thing in my eyeball every ten minutes?" he complained. "I can guarantee you, there is nothing wrong with the inside of my head."
And for the first time in a while, he thought that might really be true.
The sarcophagus opens onto-
-His front room. The couch faces the rippling circle of an open Stargate.
"That all that's on?" He takes a beer from Daniel.
"You want to change the channel?"
He's in his BDUs, but the GDO is missing. "I lost the remote."
Daniel stretches out a hand, and the chevrons start to rotate. "I know where you're going."
He's glad someone does. "What if I don't get there?"
A smile. "Oh, I think you will."
The chevrons lock into position. Jack adjusts his cap. "Let's move it out."
They step through the Stargate together.