The Price of One
For once, the infirmary wasn't crowded.
They had moved her from the isolation room to the general medical facility once her stats had stabilized. She'd wavered briefly between sleep and wakefulness only long enough for her team to smile forcedly at her—trying not to show their concern, their fears. In the end, it had been easier to let the darkness take hold than it was to try to reassure them. She'd allowed her lids to flicker shut, and then fallen back into an exhausted rest. Dreamless. Profound.
She'd woken on her side, the tubes connected to her arms stretched awkwardly across her body. She had lain quietly, gathering herself, placing her thoughts, her memories, back where they belonged.
She'd been within a machine—her body playing host not to a Goa'uld this time, or a Tok'ra, but to a computer program? Sam still didn't quite know how to explain it—how to put it into words so that it made any sense at all.
It had been singularly terrifying—to be conscious inside a mass of tangled wires and monitors and circuit boards. Movement impossible; no self control, no ability to affect anything.
To scream and only hear the whirring of fans and machinery.
Sam rolled her face into the pillow, if only to prove that she could. The fabric felt coarse—cool—too clean. Wonderful. Against her cheek—her cheek—the cheap industrial-strength cotton felt like silk—precious.
Eventually she became aware of how stiff her body was—the way the tape on the IV port pulled at the fine hair on the back of her hand. How her neck protested at its position, how even her toes felt too large, too unwieldy.
From far away, the droning of voices buoyed her. She welcomed them as what they seemed; a sign of humanity. The sound of hard wheels rolling on cement floors, the slide of shoes, a cough, a door opening and then clicking shut. Carter gathered and then placed a rolling squeak, accompanied by moving water and an odd shushing sound. Mopping—the maintenance crew worked somewhere near.
The forced sounds of machines—Sam tried to thrum those out of her head.
She eased her eyes open, and briefly viewed the world with distrust. She'd learned thoroughly that what appeared to be true sometimes wasn't. How many times in the past days had she been certain that she still existed—only to be proven wrong by the confines of motherboards and memory cards?
But for this moment, at least, she could move her fingers—her hands slid within each other, folded as they were under her cheek.
How odd that she'd reverted to this—in her rebirth, she'd slept as a child.
White filled her vision, and Sam searched for and placed the source—buttons, pockets—a lab coat. She focused upward at Janet's face. Her friend had put on her clinically efficient, doctor's face. Worry flitted around the edges—in the corner of her eyes, the crease between her brows, the tightness around her lips. She stoically assessed her patient, laid the backs of her fingers to Sam's cheek, and silently monitored her pulse.
"So, will I live?" Sam's voice sounded foreign, especially to herself.
"I don't think we'll be calling the morgue quite yet." Janet hooked a rolling stool with her foot and drew it close, then sat herself down. "I think you'll be fine—some more rest, a few more tests, and you can probably go home."
Sam regarded the little doctor for a time before moistening her lips with the tip of her dry tongue. "Is there water anywhere?"
Janet frowned and looked around, finally locating a white Styrofoam cup on a small table on the other side of the bed. She stood and reached across the bed, holding her stethoscope in place with her other hand as she grabbed the cup. Leaning, she held it for Sam, angling the straw. "The Colonel brought you some Jell-O earlier, too," she said as Sam took small, deliberate sips. "But you kept sleeping, and so I think he ended up eating it on his own."
Sam swallowed, turning onto her back. She searched for and found the remote and pushed the button that raised the head. As she drew more vertical, she watched Janet sit again. "He thinks Jell-O can cure the worst."
Janet smiled kindly, then ruefully shrugged her shoulders. "Who knows? He may be right."
"Stranger things have happened." Sam felt her chest constrict.
"Yes, they have."
"Many of those things quite recently, as a matter of fact."
"Weird stuff happens around here all the time. Usually to one or more members of your team." Janet's voice rang unnaturally light and cheerful.
"Like being sucked into a machine." She'd truthfully thought she could confront it—but the panic rose again, and her entire body felt hot, and Sam found herself fighting back the trembling that threatened.
Janet sobered, frowning. "Sam—I—"
But Carter was blinking rapidly, one hand hovering over her lips. "I shouldn't have said anything—"
"You need to talk about it."
"I don't want to."
"I know you don't want to." Janet shook her head, her eyes strangely bright. "But you need to."
Sam closed her eyes, lying back against the pillows under her head. Her jaw clenched and unclenched rhythmically as she stared at the ceiling.
"Sam." Janet abandoned her doctor role and allowed herself to speak as a friend. "It wasn't like anything I'd ever seen before. I can't even imagine being inside that—thing. And then when it was speaking—"
"It talked?" Sam's turned her head sharply.
"Using your body, yes. Sort of. We'd given it a machine so that it could communicate." At the look on Sam's face, Janet frowned. "It had chosen you specifically. It reasoned that none of us would endanger it in fear of harming you."
"Turns out it was wrong."
Janet sat back on her stool, focusing in on Sam's face. "What do you mean, Sam?"
"Didn't he shoot me?" There was no need to clarify further. No need to enunciate who had shot twice.
Janet regarded Sam for several long, coarse moments before nodding. "Yes. Twice."
"So I should be dead."
Sam worried at her bottom lip. Her expression shuttered. A glance at Janet revealed a friend fiercely divided between what to say and what to hide.
"I need to know the truth." Sam's voice sounded abnormally low, emotionally mechanical. "What exactly happened?"
Janet scooted closer with a sigh. "How much do you remember?"
"Not much—I put my hands on the keyboard, and then I just—wasn't there anymore."
"Could you hear anything?"
Sam grimaced. "It was more like feeling voices. Lots of voices. Millions." She closed her eyes against the memory, her jaw clenching against a wave of nausea and tense despair. "Like standing on a busy city street in a foreign country with people rushing all around you—but you're not important, and you don't understand. And they just keep passing you by without noticing you're there. And the noise—" And here, Sam found her limit. Her lips tightened, and she fell silent.
Janet reached out and placed a hand on Sam's, her touch light. "You don't have to do this, Sam. Get some rest, and we'll talk more later."
"Yes." A new voice intruded. "Talk later. Eat now."
Sam opened her eyes slowly and found the newcomer. His hair seemed grayer, somehow, his clothing wrinkled beyond normal. He stood near the foot of the bed, hesitant, one hand in his pocket, the other holding a parfait dish.
"You brought more Jell-O?"
"Well," the Colonel's mouth curved slightly. "I deprived you of the last serving, so I came to replace it."
"Thank you, sir."
Janet stood and pushed the stool away. With a lingering touch on Sam's hand, she looked her friend over one more time. Pointing a meaningful glance over her shoulder at O'Neill, she squeezed briefly on Sam's fingers. "I'll be in the office if you need me. Just call."
Sam nodded, and watched as she clicked away.
The Colonel pulled his hand out of his pocket and caught the stool as it neared him. Guiding it back towards the bed, he threw a look at Janet's departing form. "She letting you out of here soon?"
"I guess." Carter watched as he reached into the breast pocket of his shirt and withdrew a plastic spoon wrapped in a napkin. "I'm really not certain, sir. She said that there would be more tests."
"Ah—tests." The Colonel chunked the spoon into the contents of the parfait dish, then placed it on the little table next to the bed, beside the cup of water. He stared at it for a moment. "Mother's milk to our good doctor."
"She's very thorough."
"Yes." A shadow passed over his expression, his lips flattening. "She is that."
But his face had already re-masked itself, and his eyes gave nothing away. "So. When is she going to spring you?"
"I don't know." Sam frowned. "And you already asked me that, sir."
"Oh. Right." He shoved his hands into his pockets, standing next to the bed, staring at her without quite looking at her. For long, silent moments, he held his pose, as the crevice between his eyebrows deepened.
"Was there something else, sir?"
He caught her gaze, and something deep and brooding flickered in his expressive eyes before being shuttered. "No. I just thought you might want some company."
"Yes. Thank you." Sam watched as he found the stool that Janet had vacated earlier. "Although, if there's something else you need to do, sir. Feel free."
"No." He shook his head, looking down at his own hands. "Nothing at all."
"Because I'm fine. Really."
"Really?" O'Neill looked up at her, and as usual, he saw too much. "Because I don't see how that's possible, given the circumstances."
"Carter—I zatted you twice."
"So, all that crap about being fine." He stopped himself, his lips and jaw impossibly tight.
"It's not crap, sir." Sam shook her head, and grimaced at the pain the movement caused. Stilling her movements, she frowned at her commanding officer. "I'll be fine."
He leaned over and picked up the parfait dish and held it out to her. "Here. I brought grub."
Sam reached out and grasped the dish when he thrust it at her, then half-heartedly spooned up a bite. She wasn't hungry, even though she knew she needed to eat. It felt foreign, the process of inserting a portion and processing it with her parched tongue.
He must have noted her hesitation. "I should have brought you something else."
Sam swallowed. "No, sir. Thanks for this. I appreciate it."
"It's the least I could do." He looked down at his hands, his forearms resting on his thighs. "After all that's happened."
"Please don't, sir."
"Blame yourself for any of this."
He tilted his head to one side. "Carter, do you even know what happened?"
"Yes—sort of—but it wasn't your fault."
"And you know this how?"
She fell silent. And, feeling like a coward, she averted her gaze from his and stared down at the Jell-O instead.
"Carter—things need to be said." His voice was low, almost a whisper. "About how this went down."
Carter frowned at the dish still in her hands. The blue of the gelatin caught at the light overhead, and Sam was momentarily struck by how pretty it was—like sunshine on smooth water, or like the gentle glisten of the event horizon in an active 'Gate. She forced herself to look away, though, and turned her head to see the Colonel sitting closer than she'd realized, his whole attention on her. She closed her eyes briefly, bringing herself back into the present. "I understand why you did it, sir."
"Do you?" His tone reeked of his disbelief. "Because I don't think you do."
"What don't you think, Jack?" The curtain swooshed wide, revealing Daniel standing just behind the Colonel. He stepped into the opening between Sam's bed and the neighboring one, turned slightly, and then hopped up so that he was sitting on the empty bed. "Hey, Sam."
"Hi, Daniel." Sam offered him a smile of sorts. She turned her attention to her CO, waiting for him to respond to Daniel's question. But the Colonel only stared down at his hands, his eyes narrowed, his mouth tight.
"Jack?" Daniel scowled. "What don't you think?"
The Colonel sat silent, unmoving. Sam could see his jaw working, knew that he was fighting for control.
"Jack?" Daniel needled. "If you have something to say—just say it." He paused, and rolled his eyes at the O'Neill's continued silence. "I mean—you've had so much to opine about everything else lately. Or is it just that you know that Sam wouldn't approve?"
"Shut up, Daniel." Jack's eyes slid closed, then opened quickly to focus in on Carter frowning at him—confused. He dropped his gaze again to his feet.
"Nope. Not shutting up." Daniel shifted on the bed, casting a look towards Sam that almost bled triumph. "Not when I'm right. Not when I know she'll agree with me."
The Colonel didn't answer. He stood suddenly, sending the stool sliding backwards with such force that it hit the far wall. Glaring pointedly at Daniel, he then captured Carter's attention for a breathless, silent instant before pivoting and stalking from the room.
"Wow." Daniel shrugged. "I guess he knows that I'm going to win this one."
"This one what?" Carter turned toward him, adjusting the tube going into her arm as she moved. "What are you going to win, Daniel?"
Daniel sighed heavily and adjusted his glasses. "Well, he and I had a difference of opinion about what to do."
"About the thing—the machine."
"We didn't know what to call it. We started calling it the 'entity' after a while." Daniel's eyes went wide. "Well, we couldn't call it 'Sam'—it wasn't you." Sam's look prompted him to continue. "Anyway, it didn't want to leave your body, so I tried to talk to it. To reason with it."
"Reason with it?" Sam couldn't keep the incredulity out of her voice.
"It was making conscious decisions—it was intelligent." Daniel squinted, cocking his head to one side. "What do you remember of it, anyway?"
Sam closed her eyelids and took a deep breath, trying to quell the coldness seeping back into her body. She started speaking quietly, finally able to reopen her eyes and focus on Daniel. "I remember putting my hands on the keyboard—I remember trying to do things and not being able to. I couldn't see or hear—touch—I could only think. I remember a feeling like a rushing—I'm not sure how to explain it." Sam raised a hand to her eyes, covering them, as if to return to the void. "It was dark before, and after the rush there was heat, and lights—and I could think, and the machine responded."
"That was when you figured out how to send the message?"
"Yeah." She moved her fingers down towards her mouth. Her single bite of Jell-O was threatening at the back of her throat.
"Good thing—Jack and General Hammond were about to blow up the mainframe thing."
"They were setting the claymores when your message came through."
"How did I get back here?" She didn't need to indicate her own body—Daniel knew precisely what she meant.
"Janet figured out a conduit."
"And the entity?"
"It was gone by then."
Daniel scrunched up his face. "Yeah—well, that's the part where Jack and I disagreed. I proposed sending it back through the 'Gate if it left your body."
"And the Colonel?"
"He threatened to destroy its entire civilization."
Sam frowned. "I don't—"
"Radio signals—waves—whatever—are harmful in its world. When we sent the probe, it apparently did some major destruction. The entity piggy-backed back through on our own signal in order to stop us so that we couldn't do any more to the civilization."
"But it left voluntarily?"
"Only after Jack threatened to send hundreds of probes back to finish what the first one started."
Sam couldn't speak. She'd been in favor of communication—had even sympathized as to where the entity had been coming from. Her words had been in earnest when she'd spoken about understanding the being's plight—stranded, and fighting for survival. But then she'd been overcome by it—had felt the cold disinterest of it invading her body. She shuddered, convulsed, fought for breath. She wondered if this is how the Jaffa felt as she and her teammates blew them all to hell. Terrified. Helpless. A wave of compassion surged through her—combined with a healthy dose of disgust. She couldn't make sense of her feelings—didn't understand herself at all.
"Sam? You all right?"
But she couldn't answer. She caught at Daniel's gaze with eyes that were full, gleaming, and pained.
Daniel slid off the bed and took a few steps to stand next to her. He lowered his hand and rubbed some warmth back into her bare arm. "Sam—do you need me to get Janet?"
"No." Her voice cracked. "Just tell me he didn't do it."
"Do what?" Daniel knelt at her bedside, stroking her arm, calming, soothing. "Sam? Talk to me."
She looked at him, a stark awareness in her eyes. "Tell me that Colonel O'Neill didn't destroy them all just to save me."