Author's Note: I've written many "Stargate: SG1" stories, but I always loved this one. It was posted a million years ago when Sazz and I had a site, but Geocities went away, and so did our stories, for the most part.
This is a long story, almost 70,000 words, so I'll submit it in four chapters. It's completely finished, of course, and has been for some years.
This story takes place after season seven, when Daniel returned and was a little discombobulated. I wrote this for a couple reasons. 1. I hated writing Teal'c. With this story, I challenged myself to make him an integral character rather than sending him out to have an extended visit with R'yac. 2. I whumped up Daniel for years, so it was time to turn the tables on Jack. 3. I promised Sazz I wouldn't make it too angsty. I tried... 4. I was feeling old... I also wrote this before they killed off Janet, bah-stahds!
I don't own these characters.
Sursum Corda-Chapter One
He had to be here. There just...there wasn't anywhere else to look.
They all had been looking for Jack for six days. Six days of searching through primordial dwellings, through wastelands of long-dead trees, in and out of abandoned silos, across drought-stricken lands, and still there was no sign of him. Not one damn trace that he was anywhere to be found.
But he had to be somewhere on this planet. This God-forsaken planet-whose inhabitants skittered about like frightened, agitated rodents-had to offer up some clue.
The first thing Sam had done when they realized the colonel was missing was to radio back through the gate for reinforcements. Within an hour SG3 was outfitted and ready to assist. Since that time, two of the sergeants had maintained a patrol around the gate, ensuring that no gate activation would go unnoticed.
Colonel Ferretti, Major Deets and their new recruit, Sergeant Barrington, searched through all the dilapidated buildings, while Sam and Teal'c decided to backtrack through the outcropping of what was once a graceful stand of pines. Daniel stayed behind to think. While he thought, he found his mind racing through dark, gruesome "what-ifs." He jumped up and began to aimlessly stride, hoping that by moving, his mind would calm and he'd be able to get past the possibilities and onto the probabilities.
A week prior they had been on a meet-and-greet when, in the early evening, Jack announced he needed to, "see a man about a horse." Teal'c thought it was unwise to enquire about equines at that point, but Jack assured him that he really, really needed to make this meeting. In his wake, Jack was heard to say, "'Cause I gotta whiz like a race horse." Sam shook her head and tried to explain the colonel's exiting flourish to Teal'c.
And that was the last time they saw or heard from him.
Daniel plodded through the arid field, which had gone many seasons without being cultivated. He wondered why a once agrarian society had abandoned its way of life, because it was obvious that the furrowed rows hadn't just appeared. Daniel trekked over the rows, the hard ridges of dirt discordant against his natural gait. Pathetic sticks of straw poked out of the dirt. Daniel picked one bleached stalk from the dirt, rolled it between his fingers, and watched the chafe float through the gritty air. Like everything else on the planet, the grass had simply been left behind to wither and disappear. Daniel glanced up at the ochre sky and hoped one of their own wouldn't add to the desecration.
It was difficult to understand how something that had started out so easily, so benign, had turned to something so desperate. They had reached the planet on what they would find out later to be a day like every other day—hot, dry, resplendent with desolation. The natives-the few who had nervously flitted near them in those first few hours-barely stayed long enough for the team to take a look at them. Stooped, hirsute, grubby from pinched skulls to bare toes, these throwbacks to human antiquity never spoke, only rushed toward the four, swiped at their legs, and rushed away to places unseen.
"Helluva welcoming committee," Jack had said, cocking his head to the side, replacing the safety on his weapon. "I feel all warm inside."
"Yes, they seem rather…nervous." Daniel shoved his unused video camera back into this pocket.
"Carter, let's pretend I didn't read your report, shall we?" Jack began as he removed his glasses, took a quick peek Sam's way, and blew the dirt from his lenses. "Recap the major points, if you would, Major."
"Like what, sir?"
"Like why is it we decided we needed to come to this hotspot? I mean, aside from the obvious real estate potential."
Sam smiled and nodded. "Well, our initial readings showed significant levels of trinium in the environment, and you realize the importance of trinium to our program."
"I do?" Jack asked, which garnered him three incredulous looks. "I do. No, really, I do. I mean, you know, pretty much."
"However, it would seem this planet's inhabitants will need time to become familiar with our presence," Teal'c said, setting his focus on the barren land.
"Speaking of inhabitants, where'd they go?" Daniel asked.
"Who knows?" Jack grumbled. "Maybe they found some lint to line their nests."
More and more Jack had grown tired of the first-contact rituals. Just a week earlier he had suggested all SG teams carry a laminated sheet with them that simply stated who they were, why they were there, that they meant no harm, who to contact in the case of emergency, what the inhabitants were to be asked, and have the whole thing translated into Arabic, Goa'uld, and any other language Daniel thought pertinent. Upon initial contact, the team would pass the sheet to the alien and wait. If they didn't immediately start firing upon them, good. If, in the minutes to follow, there seemed to be no discernible comprehension, Jack's suggestion was that they leave and find a more hospitable planet. Screw the objectives, and screw the cost it took to activate the gate. Could they really put a price on Jack's time and patience?
Apparently, General Hammond could—right down to the penny of Jack's bi-weekly take-home pay.
"Look," Jack said, brushing the fine powder of grit from his hair, "call it a hunch, but I'm guessing we've seen the big musical number, so we might as well find a place to hunker down."
Which is exactly what they did. They found a relatively flat piece of ground at the edge of the scrub pines and made camp. Every couple hours, a native would dart out from behind a husk of a tree or a shell of a crumbling foundation, dash toward the camp, soundlessly inquisitive, and just as quickly scamper away. As long as they didn't propose a danger—and Jack was fairly sure they weren't capable of injuring anything other than themselves—they were allowed their up-close and personal observations. For much of the first day and evening, it went very much like that—unplanned visitations, Daniel attempting to communicate, and Jack shaking his head and blowing the dust off his glasses.
When all that was left of the day's heat radiated up from the hard dirt below their boots, Jack took a seat on a log positioned just outside his tent, a cup of coffee held between his hands. Teal'c had offered to assist Sam while she collected samples of rocks and minerals, which left Daniel time to fill in his daily journal entry, and Jack time to be bored.
"So, Daniel…" Jack began.
"So, Jack…" Daniel said, without interrupting his writing.
"I've had a chance to think—"
"Yeah? How'd that go for you?"
Jack smirked and went on. "We looking at missing links here, or what?"
"Well, if you're insinuating that our hosts are a little low on the evolutionary scale, then yes, I'd agree with you. Sort of."
"Doesn't it seem odd to you that they're running around like Bobo the Monkeyboy, and yet it looks like a John Deere 4080 just went through here?" Jack asked while he dabbed his finger into his coffee and pulled out an unidentifiable fiber.
Daniel looked up from his writing and asked, "A John Deere 4080?"
"It's a tractor, Daniel," Sam said, coming up behind the two. Jack peeked over his shoulder, surprised to find his 2IC back so soon, and even more surprised that he hadn't heard her approach. "Big tractor. PTO shaft on the back?"
Sam opened her mouth to continue with the explanation, but Jack shook his head. Was it really worth the effort? he silently conveyed.
"The point is, Daniel," Jack said, "I think it's strange—peculiar, if you will-that this place looks like it used to be a thriving agricultural society, and now all that's left is Curious George and friends." Jack poured his coffee onto the parched ground and watched the earth, greedy for its fluid, suck it in.
"What I find peculiar is that you came up with that sentence all on your own," Daniel said, crossing his arms across his legs and regarding Jack with skepticism.
"I would agree with O'Neill," Teal'c said, dropping a bag of geological specimens on the ground.
Again, Jack was taken aback by not having sensed Teal'c's advancement. "Hey," Jack said, poking his finger in his ear, "have any of guys heard of those cone things you put in your ear? Huh? You know, the ones you burn? Supposed to draw out the wax? Anyone?"
Daniel stared at Jack, frowned, and then turned to Teal'c. "Um, what is it that you agree with, Teal'c?"
"Should it not be our first point of order to understand the devolution of this planet's population?" he asked.
"Whip it. Whip it good," Jack muttered, his finger in his ear. When his gaze fell on his teammates' faces—beleaguered and confused—he realized they had actually heard his stream of consciousness performance of the old punk rock song. His finger slowed, and Jack cleared his throat. "That is to say, we should WHIP right into action…and…" A raised eyebrow on Teal'c; a complete lack of eye contact from Sam; Daniel left blinking-Jack shook his head, waved them off, and continued mining the wax out of his ear.
"Okaaaaay," Daniel interjected, wide-eyed and aghast. He closed his journal and jammed it into his pack. "With that, I think I'm gonna hit the sack. Call me if…" But to finish the sentence seemed about as necessary as believing anything out of the ordinary would happen.
"We'll call should our little buddies decide to do more than play 'hide and go seek,'" Jack assured him.
Daniel nodded in appreciation and crawled into his tent, and had no reason to believe that that would be the last time he and Jack would talk for six days.
Walking through the field of kiln-dry dirt, Daniel never considered that six days later he'd be playing a decidedly more frantic game of "hide and go seek."
Jack had disappeared from their campsite, five hundred yards from the Stargate. The gate itself had not activated, at least not since they first realized Jack was missing, and because of their campsite's close proximity to the gate, they were sure they would have heard the familiar yaw and whoosh. So they could assume he was still on the planet. Or not. Who the hell knew? Teal'c saw no signs of a scuffle, no frenzied footprints, which would have indicated struggle. In fact, there were no footprints leading to or away from the spot in the woods where Jack had walked. Jack had simply vanished.
Six days later, time was vanishing. And so were hopes.
Daniel kicked a chunk of hard earth and tried to force his mind to trace their steps, systematically go over every place they had been. Try to do it in a calm, rational way. However, the power of fear eclipsed his ability to be systematic about anything but fear. That burden, that overwhelming need to run, tipping over walls, pulling down ragged shelters, knocking over trees, was powerful. Daniel forced himself to think. Think.
"Jack," he said to the whispering breeze, "give me a sign. I'm trying here, but you have to sort of help, too."
Another time, another dimension, and Daniel could tap into the rhythms, become one with the sinuous paths of all. In this dimension, all he could do was boot yet another large clump of clay. It grappled across the field, but as its velocity trailed off, the sound of the earth below it changed. Daniel stopped walking. He looked down at the field and kicked another chunk of earth. It tumbled through the scorched grass and settled with a hollow clunk, ten feet away. Daniel leapt to the place and fell to his knees. Digging with his bare hands through the arid dirt, Daniel quickly hit planks of wood. He stopped digging, caught his breath and reached for his radio.
"Sam! Teal'c! I think I may have found something!" he called with a tight, anxious voice.
"Stay put, Daniel. We're on our way," came Sam's voice.
Daniel paid no attention to the order. He frantically dug, working his way to one edge of the plank. With his fingertips alone, Daniel scored the earth along the edge, grappling along the ground on his knees until he had outlined the entire length of the wood. Jumping to one side of the board, Daniel burrowed his fingers under the surface and searched for the bottom of the board—an inch, maybe an inch and a half thick. Heavy. He squatted down, forced both hands down into the unforgiving earth, and grasped the edge of the wood. He leaned his weight back, felt the strain in his shoulders, was just about to give up, and suddenly the board let loose, tipping Daniel off balance. He landed heavily on his backside; the board pummeled the ground. He rushed back to his feet, pried up the loosened plank, and strained to heave it up and over. A swirl of dirt filtered down into a newly created dark void.
"Jack!" Daniel yelled down through the opening. He yanked at the next board, careful to leverage himself better. Sweat peppered his forehead and began to form rivulets down to his eyes. "Jack? You in there?" The board pulled away from the ground with a screaming creak. Daniel hoisted it to the side. Now two feet wide, the opening was large enough for him to fit through. He shined his flashlight down the hole, tried to find the floor. Ten feet. Maybe twelve. Okay, he could do this. He shoved the flashlight into his pocket and lowered his body slowly through the hole. He held tight to the edge of the last plank as his upper body slid through the opening. Hanging on and swinging, Daniel readied himself for the fall. He let go of the board and hoped to God his abilities to estimate depth were correct.
Striking the floor with a heavy thud, Daniel winced in pain as the bones in his feet crunched beneath his weight. More like fifteen feet, he decided, followed by a string of choice expletives. He sucked in air through his teeth and coughed as the choking dust tickled the back of his throat. He stood up, patted himself down, made sure everything was in place, and grabbed his flashlight out of his pocket.
"Jack? You down here?" he called out. Daniel flicked on the light and created a circular pattern against the strangely damp wall. Somewhere in the distance, water dripped incessantly. The dichotomy of environments—the arid earth above, the fetid underground—jangled his already frazzled nerves. The smell of organic decay penetrated Daniel's nostrils, made them drip almost immediately. He wiped his sleeve under his nose, and took slow, measured steps, his boots brushing against and often stumbling over detritus.
"Jack?" The flashlight illuminated small portions of what looked like a tunnel system, complete with corroded pipes running the length of the walls. Daniel looked down long, arched corridors, down deep, sunken trenches, as far as the beam of the flashlight could go. Noisome water dripped from fissures in the masonry.
"Jack?" Daniel yelled. The air was thick and damp, musty from an indefinite time out of sunlight. The mist clung to his skin, made him cold. Shadows shifted behind forgotten equipment as Daniel guided his way by flashlight. Remnants of a mining operation lay scattered on the floor and against the walls-a rusted coal box, molded wooden planks, piles of twisted and useless steel rails, a set of scraped, crossed ankles.
"Jack!" Daniel yelped, almost dropping the flashlight. He raced blindly to the place against the wall, falling over obstructions hidden in the dark. "Jack, I'm here," he called out from the slimy floor. Daniel pushed himself back up and scrambled toward the sight. He clamored to reach the partially exposed feet-soiled and bruised. Daniel dropped the flashlight to the ground, and with both hands tore at the debris covering the rest of Jack's body.
"Jack?" Daniel cried, yanking at the solid steel grate propped up against the wall, tenting the lifeless form. With a concussive crash it slammed against the hard floor. Miscellaneous cartons still covered the body, but with each layer gone, Daniel became more and more frightened that he would, in the end, find only a body. A dead body.
"Oh, God… Jack! Is that you?" Daniel cried, clawing at the garbage and exposing a naked body lying still against the wall. The casement of the flashlight rocked back and forth on the septic ground, throwing a rolling spot against the long, scratched thighs, the sullied hips. The beam painted the body in a ghastly silver sheen, the dancing shadows waving a macabre warning.
"Oh, Jack," Daniel whispered despairingly. The abused and battered geometry of jutting bones and scraped skin became visible by way of the carelessly angled flashlight.
Daniel's hands shook, his face set in an anguished, clenched expression. He batted away any remaining waste and crouched next to Jack. With the uneven lighting, Daniel couldn't be sure if Jack was conscious or not, so he lowered his ear to Jack's mouth.
"Jack?" he called, trying to get a response. "Talk to me, Jack!" When he felt rather than heard a warm breath against his ear, Daniel almost cried out in joy. "Good. Good. That's good. Okay. Okay. What's next?" Daniel rushed a hand across Jack's neck and felt for a pulse. Slow. Slow but there. What do I do now? What do I do? Stay calm.
"I'm here, Jack. Everything's okay," Daniel assured his friend, not believing a word of it. He swiped away poultices of filth from Jack's lifeless form. He knew from basic first aid and every hackneyed medical drama he'd ever watched that he shouldn't move the body in case of spinal injury, but Daniel also knew that in this dank, algid environment, the more imminent danger to Jack was hypothermia, and if Jack had been lucky enough to survive this long he wouldn't last for much longer given the conditions.
"Okay, well…" Daniel sighed, choosing between the two evils. With as much care as he could muster given his trepidation, Daniel lifted the dead weight of Jack's head off the ground and scooted in under him, his back to the moldy wall.
"Ah, Jack… Dammit," he whispered as he raised Jack's boneless torso from the damp floor. Jack's hands fell limp to the squalid foundation. Almost immediately, Daniel felt the moisture on the floor seep through his pants. He wrapped his arms around Jack's body and scoured his cold, wet skin.
"So, how the hell did you manage this?" Daniel asked, not actually expecting a reply. He massaged Jack's stubbled face, tried to warm it with the friction. Tried to smile down into the sickly gray features, cast in shadow. "Hmm? How'd this happen? Hmmm?"
A slight gurgling, followed by a sound as weak as air said, "Daniel…"
The voice startled Daniel. He drew Jack's body closer to his and pressed his cheek against Jack's. "Yeah, Jack. It's me."
"Don't what, Jack?" Daniel asked, washing his hand over his friend's back and finding it covered with turbid, wet sediment.
"I'm sorry-what?" Daniel asked, while he clung to the enervated body and wiped away as much of the sludge from Jack's bare back as possible. "What did you say?"
"At you? I don't…I don't…" He pulled back his face to search Jack's features for an answer.
When Jack spoke again, the sound was barely more than dampened, unvoiced consonants. "Please, Daniel. Don't…"
Daniel peered down the battered length of Jack, and realized for the first time that his friend was completely naked. That Jack's body was covered only in muck and bruises. And then the pungent, ripe stench of body waste wafted across his palate. Daniel clapped the back of his hand to his nose and mouth and gagged.
"Don't...don't look," came the thin, despairing plea once again.
Daniel shook the nausea away, and said, "No, I won't look." He opened wide his mouth and tried not to breathe through his nose. "But I need to warm you up, okay? So I'm going to take off my jacket and cover you. Do you understand?" He leveraged Jack between his chest and his bent knees, and heard Jack begin to moan in pain.
"I'm sorry, Jack. God, I'm sorry." Daniel held Jack's head up with one hand and managed to shimmy one arm out of his jacket. Switching arms, Daniel somehow was able to free himself from the jacket. He draped it over and around Jack as far as it would go, even tucking the sleeves under Jack's midsection.
"I've got ya," he whispered, shifting his position, clutching Jack to the warmth of his own body. "You're gonna be okay now."
"Yeah, I know." He heard a meager groan escape Jack's cracked lips, and it tore at Daniel's heart. "You're gonna be just fine."
"Daniel!" Sam called out over the radio. Daniel jumped at the sudden noise, which only brought on renewed agony in Jack. "Report on your location!"
Daniel grappled with the jacket wrapped around Jack until he found his radio. "Sam! Teal'c! I've got him. We're here. Um, we're…" He scoped out the dripping ceiling of the place, searched his memory on how he arrived there. "Uhhhhhh, we're about two-hundred meters away from camp! In the middle of the field! You'll see a hole! You can't miss it!" His fear-laced statements bounced off the oozing walls.
"I copy that," Sam said. "How's the colonel?"
Daniel laid his face next to Jack's and felt him tremble, heard him puffing on small pockets of air. Daniel swallowed hard and pressed the button on the radio. "How long before you can get to us?" he asked, furtively.
There was a pause on the other end. And a moment later the radio crackled to life again. "We're in the field now. I think I see the hole. Hold tight."
Daniel released his finger from the callback button and wrapped his hand around Jack once more. "Believe me. I am."
"I don't…" Jack began, but stopped. Daniel didn't know if he was fading in and out of consciousness, if he was too weak, or if there was something else. Something more urgent. "Don't let…"
And suddenly he knew. Daniel gently shifted the jacket farther down Jack's filthy, exposed body. "I won't let them see you. We'll keep you covered."
In his arms, next to his chest where his heart thumped soundly against his ribs, Daniel felt Jack nod.
"Shhhh, Sam and Teal'c will be here soon," Daniel assured Jack, holding him, as if both their lives depended on it. "It's over. We're going home." And I won't look at you, he silently told his friend. I don't want to see anymore of this than I have to…
Sounds were muted, dull and distorted. The soft roll of his head against the cocooning gurney made the vertigo that much worse. But his skin felt warm. A deep, penetrating flow of heat radiated over his face, his body. He opened his eyes and saw a sheet of color—sallow and soft white. Clouds. The sky. The sky. Not a darkened room with glaring pinpoints of light. Not faces. Not the darting eyes. Sky.
Jack dabbed his tongue against his cracked lips and tried to swallow.
The sky. Not quite home, but not there, either. The sky. White puffs of clouds in the yellow sky. Clouds.
"Daniel," he whispered, or so he thought. Warped tones floated down toward him from the blurred images of faces above him, their movements too quick for his muddled consciousness. "Carter? Teal'c?" Had they heard him? Who was there? Strokes of color, swaths of texture, one undistinguishable from the other. But the sky…
Slowly crawling across the sky, silent and adrift, soft white clouds against a jaundiced sky calmed Jack. "Okay. I'm okay."
And then the colors went away. And then the warmth of the sun ceased to penetrate his skin. And his head rocked against the scratchy fabric. And the muted voices disappeared.
And Jack fell into a formless embrace.
"Are the lines in?"
"Lines are in, Doctor," a voice answered back from somewhere within the scrum. A nurse laid a towel over Jack's hips—a gift of modesty in the face of these most undignified proceedings.
Janet Fraiser snapped on a fresh pair of gloves, all the while scanning the colonel's body for signs of injury. ABCs were all good. He was responsive, but in and out—the contusion on the side of his head spoke volumes. He was hypothermic, but rallying, and the warmed fluids they were pumping through his impoverished system were doing the trick. The massive amounts of bruising, in particular the plum-colored bruise that tattooed Jack's hip, concerned her. She moved around the carefully choreographed procedures and took a spot at the head of the table. Janet removed the cervical collar, which had been placed around his neck before transport to the SGC, and began to run her fingers along the knobby bones in Jack's neck.
"Where are we, people?" she called out at the swirl of activity that surrounded him. Numbers and initials were tossed back to her, and Janet nodded, all the while envisioning each vertebra her fingers touched. Her mind worked in several different directions at one time, taking in all the information, orchestrating when to introduce this drug and that fluid, when to check the belly again, when to order more tests, when to begin to worry. "I'm going to need a picture of that hip."
"Ready and waiting, Doctor," said the x-ray technician, pushing the portable machine toward the table. The nurse in charge of the obligatory urine analysis and catheterization stepped aside and let the tech glide in beside the patient. An orderly helped the tech slide a plate under Jack.
"Colonel O'Neill?" Janet called out, pulling a penlight from her breast pocket. She lifted first one, then the other eyelid, uncovering bloodshot brown eyes. Janet flicked the beam of her penlight across the responsive pupils and watched as a glimmer of pain spread across his face. "Let's go, Colonel. Talk to me."
"X-ray," cried the tech, and the gathering instantly stepped back. A buzz of light filled the room, then just as quickly stopped, and the emergent care reconvened, hands working in synchronicity.
"Colonel O'Neill, tell me where you are," Janet said. "Colonel…" Suddenly, his eyes were wide. His chest began to buck, and the last of the color in his face drained away. "He's going to vomit," she warned the rest. Janet dunked the penlight into her pocket and grabbed the sides of Jack's head firmly with both hands. "Let's turn him over."
With great care and calm precision, the attending staff turned Jack's listless, heavy body to the side, and soon thereafter a quick shower of bile spilled onto the sheet. The force of his nausea brought him to full consciousness and washed his eyes with helpless tears. Jack panted on short gasps of air, blinking. Janet held his head in a neutral position and asked for the results of his CBC and chem panel. Another round of nausea, another spray of putrid liquid, and Janet brushed her thumb against his temple, offering him some comfort with neither the words nor time to do so. "Has CT been notified?"
"Yes, ma'am," the head nurse told her.
"Colonel O'Neill, how are you feeling? Do you think you need to throw up again?" Janet asked, watching Jack's blanched features. When his lips curved around the word no, Janet signaled for her staff to roll him back to a prone position. The towel was draped over his lap again, and the business of assessing his injuries began once more.
"Let's start cleaning him up. I need to know what I'm looking at," Janet said, wiping a thin line of vomit from the colonel's unshaven chin. Two sets of hands began swabbing cloths over his face, arms and legs. A moan escaped his lips, low and undulating, born of a hard, burning pain. Popping, clicking noises came from Jack's mouth as he tried to swallow, tried to speak.
"Colonel O'Neill, are you with us?" Janet called out, fastening the cervical collar around his neck. Janet pulled the otoscope from the wall and introduced it into Jack's ear. Once inside the canal, Janet found exactly what she knew she'd find: a streak of blood. "How ya doin', Colonel?" she asked, returning the otoscope to its holder. "We're going to need to get him to CT, ASAP. How are his vitals?"
"He's stable, ma'am."
What happened to the sky? Where are the clouds? Jack wondered, his sluggish concentration grasping to make sense of his surroundings.
"Colonel?" Janet called out, grabbing the film of his pelvis that had been offered to her. Janet placed the x-ray between her and the overhead lamp while she talked to Jack. "Oh, my, Colonel, I bet you're in some pain. I'm going to need a serial hemoglobin and hematocrit. We've got a fracture here, and I'm concerned about hematuria."
No clouds. Gray. Lights and eyes. Jesus. Not again.
"Colonel, how are you feeling?" Janet said, passing the film to the tech and looking down into Jack's face. His eyes, with lashes damp and spiked from tears, fluttered, and all he could see was an ethereal blur of backlit hair. "Help us out, sir," she said, "and tell us where it hurts."
"Doc?" Jack said, more an amalgamation of clicking consonants than tone.
"Yes, sir." Janet stopped her multitasking and concentrated on her patient, her friend. She lay her hand on his cheek, and felt the prickly whiskers through her glove. "Colonel, do you know where you are?"
Jack forced himself to swallow, and then over two blood-caked lips came the word, "Hell."
"Not quite," Janet said, smiling, "but close. Can you tell me where you hurt?"
"I'm sure. Anywhere in particular?"
Through the ever-present blossoms of pain, Jack was able to pinpoint the worst misery, and with it his worst fear. "Think I broke my hip."
"Well, your pelvis," she corrected him. Janet scooted to the side of the gurney and took his trembling hand in hers. "It looks like you have a fracture of the iliac wing."
"Not the hip?" he whispered, trying to breathe past the insurgent pain.
She stepped out of the way while one of her nurses changed a bag of warmed saline solution, connecting the new bag to Jack's IV. "No, sir. You can wait to do that when you're old and retired."
Jack closed his eyes and scowled. "Retired."
Janet patted his shoulder and read the report of his urinalysis. The nurse by her side spoke quietly to the CMO, and Janet nodded. "Well, Colonel, it's your lucky day. There's no blood in your urine."
"I don't have Syphilis?" Jack whispered, biting down on his lip.
"Not this time, sir," Janet replied, smiling at his characteristic humor, glad that it was at least intact. "Nor do you have any internal bleeding. That just saved you a rectal exam," Janet said, making way for the staff, which was preparing to take the wounded officer to the CT room.
"What? You'd like the rectal exam?" she joked, motioning for the young intern to grab a clean sheet.
"Maybe later. Doc?"
"We're taking you down the hall to get a picture of your head, sir," Janet said, helping the intern cover Jack's body with the creased sheet.
"Do you remember falling, Colonel? How do you think this happened?" Janet asked, assigning different tasks to the group of people in the room.
"Can't remember. Doc," Jack said again.
Janet stopped and leaned down. "Sir?"
A fresh wave of pain washed over his body, and Jack grabbed for her hand. Janet held tight, motioning for the others to halt a moment. When his eyes opened again, when his jaw trembled involuntarily from the exhaustion and the debilitating ache, he whispered, "All these people."
"What about these people, Colonel?" she asked, watching the clock, knowing full well they needed to get a look at his skull.
Jack swallowed and tried to breath against his scraped and raw throat. "Do they…all have…to be here?"
"They all paid the price of admission, sir. So, yes, they all have to be here," Janet told him, nodding for the group to continue on to radiology, never releasing his hand. "Colonel, is the pain tolerable?"
Jack closed his eyes and retreated to the solitude of darkness. Was the pain tolerable? he asked himself. Was the pulsing, searing fulmination of his injuries bearable? Oh, maybe. He'd been worse.
But what about the eyes? The constant gaping, the gawking, the studying of him—that is what he found unendurable. It was the never-ending parade of eyes on his body, on his naked and helpless body, that ate away at his stoicism. It was the soundless, weightless avalanche of intrusion that gored away at his tolerance.
His eyes shut tight, Jack refused to acknowledge the presence of anything else but the throb of agony all through his battered limbs. Physical pain, he could do. Shame, well…
Clouds. Open sky. Think of Minnesota. Think about home…
General Hammond, elbows planted into the blotter on his desk, rubbed one burly hand back and forth across his head.
"Yes, sir," he said, his hand continuing the oscillating pattern. At sixty-one years old, he was growing less and less impressed with the voices on the other side of his red phone. Still, it was his duty to report directly to the President, if not his honor to serve at the pleasure of the Commander in Chief. The double set of stars on his shoulder spoke to that honor every single day, and even if it wasn't the most pleasurable of conversations, it was still his honor to take part in it. Or so he reminded himself with each passing, grueling minute.
Still, General Hammond couldn't help but ponder that at sixty-one he could easily be retired, taking his granddaughters to the zoo, instead of entrenched in the depths of an old missile silo, giving the President a rundown on one Jack O'Neill. Yes, it was wonderful that the man had such high regard for the colonel. Yes, it also helped that the President was a flyboy himself. Of sorts. And yes, it made the general's professional life that much better that Senator Kinsey was going to attempt to oust the sitting president during the next election, and because of that, the President didn't think too kindly of the senator. These were all bonus points in George Hammond's book, but still…
"I appreciate that, Mister President, I surely do," the general said, pulling the tension away from the center of his brow. "I'll personally deliver the message to Colonel O'Neill, just as soon as my CMO gives me the okay to speak to him."
When that time was, General Hammond didn't know. Before the call had come in, he was pouring himself a glass of water in order to take some aspirin. But the red phone did ring, and so the three tablets lay unused next to the still glass. While he listened for any important words from the President other than the usual carefully crafted rhetoric, the general stacked the three tablets of analgesic on the desk.
"Yes, sir. As soon as I have any more information to pass along, I will call immediately. Thank you, sir. We here at the SGC greatly appreciate the time and support you've given us." General Hammond reconfigured the stack of aspirin and continued to nod along with each platitude the President offered, waiting for that moment when he'd receive the official "God bless, General," and he could swallow all three of the pills and hope that they'd at least make a dent in his headache.
"I understand, sir," he said. The zoo, the museum, the soccer field—hell, he pretty much would be tickled pink to help his granddaughters sort their Barbie Dolls if he were retired. Nope, instead he pushed three yellow tablets into a pile and continued to keep his voice even and sincere. "I am well aware of that, sir. It's not how we prefer to spend our time, either, but as you yourself know, we simply do not leave our people behind."
Out of the corner of his eye, the general saw someone standing in his doorway. He looked up, saw that it was Lieutenant Kolb from the infirmary, holding what the general hoped was a medical report on the colonel. General Hammond motioned for the lieutenant to enter, and continued his conversation with the Commander. "And I appreciate that you share that sentiment, Mister President."
Hearing the name of the person on the other end of the line, Lieutenant Kolb came to an abrupt stop. General Hammond took note of the lieutenant's reticence and scowled. He gesticulated more fervently that the young woman should just get in his office and give him the damn report. When she had worked up the nerve to hand over the papers to the man speaking the President of the United States, General Hammond ripped them from her hand and waved her away without regard. Which she was ever so happy to do.
"All right then, sir. I'll be sure to tell him. Thank you again." General Hammond scooted the water glass and the pills to the side of his blotter and placed the report in front of him. Concussion. Minor lacerations. Kane type I fracture of the anterior superior iliac. Why couldn't the woman just tell him what was wrong with the man?
"Yes, sir. Goodbye then. God bless you, too, sir." And it was over. General Hammond replaced the receiver on the hook and scooped up the three tablets, washed them down with a mouthful of water. He pushed away from his desk and rocked back into the supple leather chair. Easing his hand across his pate, glistening with tiny beads of sweat, the general closed his eyes and attempted to digest the trajectory of the future: Jack O'Neill, a brigadier general, and it was up to the two star general to break the news to the man with the birds on his shoulders.
They called it a promotion. Officers lower in rank clamored for the chance to rise from one level to the next, but the general knew Colonel O'Neill wouldn't see it as a promotion. He'd see it as —and he'd be correct—cleaning house. He'd see it as the Pentagon's way of taking him out of the action.
"Upwardly failing," the general muttered. "Some men would give their eye teeth for the promotion. Jack O'Neill is decidedly not one of them. And now I have to be the one to tell him." General Hammond reached into his desk and clapped two more tablets into his hand.
"Dear God in heaven, the things I do in the name of duty."
Sam held both cups of coffee in her hands, far enough away from her body that if she jostled them—again—they wouldn't spill on her BDU's—again. Her fingers still stung from the last bath of scalding liquid. When she reached Daniel's door, she glanced down at the cups, and decided to kick the door instead of trying to grasp both mugs in one hand.
"Daniel, hurry up. I've got coffee," she called through the metal.
The door opened a crack, and Daniel poked his head through. "Oh, hi, Sam. I wondered who was out there."
"Who did you think it was?" she asked, the fatigue clearly evident in her voice and lack of patience.
"Well, that's just it. I wasn't sure."
"You gonna let me in?"
Daniel blinked and allowed her to enter his office. "Oh, hey. Thanks for the coffee. You can…um, put it…Hold on." He moved to his lab table and stacked an assortment of books and papers. When his excavation uncovered a gyroscope, Daniel lifted it up to inspect it. "Oh, I forgot I had this."
"Daniel! Hot coffee," Sam reminded him.
"Sorry," he said, pushing aside the clutter. "Here. Put it ... yeah, I guess here."
Sam rolled her eyes and set the cups down. It had been a long week, a stressful day, and an excruciating night waiting to hear about Colonel O'Neill's injuries. They had camped out for a while in the hall outside the infirmary until Janet got sick of the three of them and threw them out, placing an airman under order to keep the three ten clicks away.
So they transferred their vigil to Sam's office. When Daniel broke the second petri dish, they decided to move to his office, at which point Teal'c informed them that he was in need of Kel-no-reem. At least in his own office, Daniel could busy his mind and hands with something constructive, something that would keep him from nervously fidgeting and offering up all sorts of doomsday scenarios. At least for five minutes.
Daniel opened his desk drawer and pulled out a scalpel. Sam stopped in mid-sip to question him. "Daniel, is that what I think it is?"
Daniel turned the knife in his hand several times before answering. "It's a scalpel. Is that what you thought it was?"
"Um, yeah." Sam shot him a peevish glare. "Why do you have a scalpel?"
Daniel's eyelashes fluttered for a moment, and Sam knew she was in store for a whitewashing, the kind only Daniel could muster up. "Um, you know, for…this and that. Mostly that." He tipped his head to the side and smiled, knowing he was guilty of having pilfered a surgical instrument from the infirmary. He shrugged his shoulders and put the knife back in his desk drawer. "Actually, this one is getting kind of dull."
Sam peered into the drawer just as it was being closed, and caught a glimpse of all sorts of illegally acquired tools. "Daniel, what the hell else do you have in there?"
Daniel pressed the drawer shut, jumped to his feet and leaned against the edge of his desk. "So, Sam," he said, coiling his arms across his chest, "have you eaten? 'Cause I haven't eaten, and I bet-"
"Daniel, I lost a set of tuning forks last week. Black leather case? About eight inches by three. Have you, by chance, seen them?" she asked, rounding the table toward Daniel.
"No. No. Eight by three, you say?" Daniel pushed his glasses up and scratched his jaw. "No. Can't say that I—"
"Because, I think I just saw it in your desk." Sam sidled up in front of Daniel, her hands in her back pockets, her gaze heated. "Did you-oh, I don't know-maybe walk into my lab and…take them?"
"I think you did," she said, glancing sidelong at him.
Daniel pursed his lips and tipped his head, not able to meet her focus. "No I didn't."
"Daniel, I want my forks back." Sam held her hands out in front of her, demanding he place her stolen goods there.
"I'm not…I don't…" Daniel stammered, a last ditch effort to preserve his perforated honor. Letting his head and the charade drop, he said, "Fine." Daniel spun to face his desk, yanked open the drawer, and pulled out Sam's set of tuning forks. "How the hell did you even see them?" Slamming his drawer shut, he plopped the set in her hand and walked away.
"Thank you," she said, holding tight to her reacquired lab equipment. "What else have you stolen from me?"
"Don't you think we should be focusing on Jack, hmm?" Daniel said, skirting the issue along with his lab table.
"Maybe you're right," Sam said. She bobbed her head up and down. "And we will, just as soon as you explain why you have a stack of cafeteria trays under your desk."
"They're very good for sorting things," Daniel tried to explain. "Say, Sam, how about a fresh cup of coffee?"
"I just brought you a fresh cup." Sam peered under his table for more shanghaied goods.
"Look, you already found everything, okay?" Daniel said, closing in behind her as she poked her head under tables and into niches. "You're not going to find anything else. Well, okay, maybe one more thing, but I can explain that!" he stated, pointed at the hibachi.
"I don't think I want to know," Sam said, scooting the mini grill back between his file cabinet and the wall. "But I think we may need to talk about this five-finger discount problem later."
Daniel rolled his eyes and walked away. "Can we just talk about Jack instead?"
"Yeah, I suppose we should. After all, it's been a whole ten minutes since we last talked about him." Sam entwined her fingers behind her back and stretched out her torso.
"See, here's what I don't understand," Daniel said, spinning around, his hands deep inside his pockets, grateful to have the inquisition over. Just to be sure, though, he glanced over to Sam to make sure she wasn't rifling through his shelves. "Why bother to throw him in a…in a…God, I'm not even sure what the hell it was."
"It looked like some sort of service bay to the underground sewage system." Sam wrapped her hands around the coffee mug and blew a curl of steam off its top.
"Right. And I guess that's my point. Why, I mean, why have a sewage system if the people on the planet presumably don't even use it? You saw the land. They haven't used any sort of irrigation, so…why have it? Things just don't add up," Daniel said, picking a pencil up from his desk and tapping it against his metal chair. "And then there's the bothersome question of how'd Jack get down there? And…"
Sam looked up from her coffee to see Daniel shaking his head, his mouth set in a straight, tight edge. "What?"
Daniel bounced the eraser side of the pencil on the chair, threw the pencil onto his desk, and rubbed his neck. "It just…why naked? What the hell, I mean, why…why did they just…" Daniel gripped the back of his desk chair with both hands and let his head drop between his arms, tired, exhausted. "It's like they were throwing him away, you know? Like he was some kind of…of garbage."
Sam nodded in agreement. That was the part of it all that bothered her the most. She'd seen her colonel injured. Hell, she'd been with him in a fissure, barely able to keep each other alive, and yet he did live. They both had. She'd seen him shot, zatted, tortured, poisoned, impaled, but this…
"And there's something else, Sam," Daniel said, his face obscured behind his arm. "I didn't mention this before because I didn't think Jack would want me to say anything, but…" Daniel turned to Sam, pulled his glasses off, and scoured the image of Jack's pleading eyes from his own. "Before you and Teal'c got to us, Jack insisted that I cover him up. I mean, I would have done it anyway, but…there was something about the way he said it. It was as if…I don't know. As if the thought of having anyone see him in that state was more than he could deal with."
"I guess I'd feel the same. I wouldn't necessarily want you guys to see me naked." Sam took a seat on Daniel's lab chair, her forearms resting on the table. "Maybe it was a matter of modesty."
"Jack, modest? I don't think so. No, see, you've never had the privilege of sharing a locker room with Jack. No, modesty isn't a word I would ever associate with him," Daniel told her, his brow heavy over his eyes. "It was more like…like he was trying to hide. Like I said, I'm not really sure what it was all about."
"Okay, but…why?" Sam asked, shrugging her shoulders.
"I don't know, but I think the answer is down in those tunnels." Daniel reached for his cup of coffee and turned it first one way, then the other, absently manipulating the mug while he thought about what might be in the tunnels, beneath the parched earth, on a planet he hoped never to return.
With the final candle lit, the lights turned off, Teal'c lowered his body to the ground and prepared the journey toward healing.
His hands draped over his crossed legs, his core centered, aligned with the powers of the universal continuum, he began to breathe. Deep, substantial breaths that poured into his lungs, and funneled out again. His ribcage expanding out, pulling in. The warmth of the candlelight clothed his skin, encased it.
In through the nose; out through the mouth. Deeper and richer. Center…
And in that space, where each muscle group was told to relax, where each limb was reminded to loosen, Teal'c began to release the burdens of the days, the tensions of the hours. He began to place aside the heart-cramping sight of his friend, his comrade, stripped of the very essence of dignity.
In through the nose; out through the mouth…
Set it aside. O'Neill was home. SG1 was a unit.
In through the nose; out through the mouth…
His friend was being well cared for. His injuries attended to. All was well, once again.
In through the nose; out through the mouth…
But the eyes, beseeching, silent in their petition, remained.
Focus, he reminded himself. All is well. Focus…
In through the nose; out through the mouth…
The eyes that opened to beg for assistance, and closed in humiliation and in pain.
In through the…through the nose; out through the mouth…
The body, the repository of the soul and all its experiences, was in and of itself a thing of great creation. Teal'c took pride in his own musculature. The perfect machine. Nudity had never shocked him, nor had it ever been cause for indignation. The celebration of the body, especially the body of a warrior, was part of his culture. But there was no celebratory aspect of his friend's exposed body. No glorification of the soldier's physique. It was stripped, a thing to be discarded, a husk of the man Teal'c respected and admired. It was the insouciance, the unabashed way in which they, whoever they were, had left O'Neill displayed, stripped of his honor, scathed and scarred. It was the vulnerability that took the place of the grandiosity.
In through the mouth; out through the…
Teal'c's eyes flew open. There was far too much disturbance in the room. Far too many dark, foreboding images. Kel-no-reem would not be reached under such circumstances. Not until he could find peace in his eyes, in O'Neill's eyes.
The clouds were gone. But so were the orange, glowing eyes. Pairs of them, always flickering, always staring.
Gray. Which meant he was…
Jack turned his head to the side, and a soft whisper of sound met his ear, two jumping green lines across a black screen came into his focus. He closed his burning eyes once more and felt an unwanted tightening of his throat. Infirmary gray. Be it ever so…bland. Talk about your sights for sore…everything…
He ground his teeth together, not willing even for a moment to let any sappy emotion spring to the surface. Yeah, it was nice to be on base, and it was nice to be safe, but he always knew he'd get there. Eventually. He had hoped. Prayed. Cursed.
The SGC. It was nice to be back. Wow…
Jack lifted his hand to his forehead, an IV tube trailing behind. He rubbed his brow and began to understand one of the reasons for his latest stay in Doc Fraiser's House of Fun: his head throbbed. With every pulse of his blood, he could feel the cardio-rhythms pound against his skull. He grasped his brow in the palm of his hand and felt like if he exerted just the right amount of pressure the relentless thumping would end. Or not…
"How's the head feel, Colonel?" Janet asked, sliding his chart from the basket at the end of the bed.
"Doc?" he asked, opening one eye, trying to see her through his fingers.
"You took a nasty bump on the head, sir," she said, satisfied that his chart was in order. "I'm sure I don't have to tell you that it's a concussion."
"Another concussion, huh?" Jack said, sloughing his hand over his face. He opened his eyes and blinked, waiting for the focus to return. "One more, and my career in the NHL is over."
"Yes, sir." Janet stepped to the side of his bed and offered him a warm smile, her hands tucked in her jacket pockets, her concern for his apparent short-term memory loss tucked in her mind. He had made the same comment not two hours earlier, the last time he floated to the surface of consciousness. Fairly common-memory problems and head injuries. Still, she made a mental note to catalogue the conversation in the event that his amnesia continued. "How's the pain elsewhere?"
Jack stared at the conduits and pipes, blue, green and red, which crisscrossed the ceiling. His entire body ached, but if he had to pick one point of worse than average pain, aside from the entire percussion section in his head, he thought maybe his leg ached. No, not his leg. It was higher than that. His…
"Doc?" he whispered, searching her face.
Janet could plainly see the fear in his eyes, something she was unaccustomed to experiencing where Colonel O'Neill was concerned. She grasped his hand and made a second mental note to have a follow-up CT of his skull performed. "Yes, sir," she said, stroking the vascular, raised routes mapped out across his hand.
"Did I break my hip?" he asked, his focus darting from one of her eyes to the next.
Janet patted his trembling hand and smiled. "No, sir. It's your pelvis. Do you remember falling?"
Jack loosened his grip on Janet and brought his palm to his eye, forced himself to think. Falling? No, he didn't remember. Hell, he couldn't remember how he came to be lying on his back in the infirmary again, let alone what happened to make the trip possible. "No," he told her. "I don't remember anything. But…not the hip?"
"No, sir. Your hip is fine. There's a crack on the side of your pelvis, right above your hip. That's probably why you're confused. Feels pretty much the same. Not very comfortable, but still, it could have been much worse. Luck of the Irish, I guess."
"Yeah, whatever," Jack muttered, relieved that he hadn't become a non-walking, AARP card-carrying poster boy for old age clichés. Not yet, anyhow.
Janet checked the paper feed spilling out of the cardiac monitor, tore off the latest section, and rolled it in her hand. "Oh, your team was here checking in on you. I told them to come back later."
"Thanks." Jack draped his arm across his midsection and closed his eyes. So tired, and the burning pain kept building. "Hey, Doc?"
Jack screwed up his eyes trying to gather enough saliva in his mouth to swallow, and when he was finished, said, "Kind of keep the parade of people down to a minimum."
"I can do that," she said, grasping the bedrails and smiling down at her most curmudgeonly patient. "Any particular reason?"
"No." He shifted his weight just enough to take the pressure off his bruised tailbone, and just enough to torque the mending bones in his pelvis. "Ooooh, man," he groaned.
"You okay, sir?" Janet asked, laying a hand on his shoulder.
"I will be if you keep everyone out of here." His jaw trembled with pain. His head pushed deeper into the pillow. Every muscle in his frame tight, every nerve ending firing.
"I can have the nurse give you something, Colonel." Janet reached for the wall phone.
"No. Just…" Jack drew in a deep breath, held it a moment, and let it go, slowly, deliberately, through round, shuddering lips. "I just need to rest, that's all."
Janet frowned and said, "Well, why don't you let me decide about your meds. You just concentrate on trying to relax."
"Dammit, Doc," he began, his dark eyes shimmering with pain, "I don't want a bunch of people in here. Got it?"
Janet was well acquainted with the stubborn O'Neill act, and this latest manifestation didn't faze her at all. Still, to express her frustration, she jammed her fists into her waist and sighed. "Would it make a difference if I were the one giving you the morphine?"
Jack glanced at her, his features softening. He sucked in his upper lip, dappled with sweat, and nodded.
"All right," Janet said. She grasped his hand and made a third mental note to talk over this recent development with General Hammond. "Then why don't I go get some morphine for you?"
Jack continued to breathe through his pain, never looking directly at her. "Fine," he managed to whisper. Janet turned from his bed and began to walk toward her office. Jack closed his eyes and told himself he could stand the agonizing torment a little longer. Just a little longer. Just a few more minutes, and then he'd be fine…
"Hurry up, would ya, Doc?" he uttered, causing Janet to stop where she was and face him once again. His outburst, his display of weakness surprised him even more than Janet, and he forced his voice to soften. "Just make it fast, okay?"
"Yes, sir," she said, nodding, spinning back around. By the time she reached the hallway, she was in full stride.
General Hammond marched down the hall toward the infirmary. He'd given the medical staff twelve full hours to coalesce and form some sort of opinion on when he'd be able to debrief the colonel, and he had seen neither hide nor hair of any of them in that time. Well, the military waited for no one, and since he was one hundred percent military, General Hammond wasn't about to wait any longer. Reports had to be filled out, questions needed to be answered, messages were to be relayed. In short, life went on. It was a brutal fact, this business of the expendable soldier, that men and women were trained to pick up a dying man's weapon and keep charging a hill.
And that's exactly what General Hammond did—he charged that hill, that metaphorical hill to the infirmary, where he wasn't at all sure what he'd find, but, dammit, he was going to get there, nonetheless.
After all, it was his responsibility to find out just what in Sam Hill went on over there. His responsibility to be able to answer the questions being tossed at him hourly via a certain red phone sitting on his desk next to a near empty bottle of aspirin. It was his damnable responsibility to tell Jack O'Neill that his name was being kicked around for promotion. It was his goddamn responsibility to do it all, whether he liked it or not, because he was military, by God, and if the Pentagon says jump, well, the general's response was…well, he supposed that it depended on who was asking…
Still, it was his ranking privilege to be given information when he needed it, when he demanded it, and at his discretion. Did it matter that he was charging in to find out if his friend, his at times confidante was well? No, sir, it did not. In this instance, if he allowed himself the indulgence to be concerned about his friend, he knew it would be information riddled with emotion, and there just wasn't time for that kind of pantywaist thinking, not when there were so many questions that needed to be answered, and needed to be answered yesterday. No, sir.
He chuffed down that hall, skin red as boiled lobster, fist clenched alongside his rigid posture, working like pistons to propel his fury. There would be no halting his progression. He would take that hill, and he would, dammit, be given the intel.
"Doctor Fraiser," he said, breeching her office door, "I need to know when I can speak to Colonel O'Neill, and I need to know now."
The tall leather chair spun around, and the general, his hands planted firmly at his beltline, waited for the physician's assessment. Which he didn't get.
"Oh, hi, General," Daniel said, leaping from the seat. "I was just…um…waiting to talk to Janet." Daniel gesticulated toward the officer with a scalpel he had found in Janet's office. He glanced at the knife, tried to find a place to set it down, and began to stammer. "This probably looks…um, well, rather…"
"Where is Doctor Fraiser?" the general demanded, his chest rising with indignation.
"She's in the ward," Daniel said, pointing out the door with the knife. When he observed the veins beginning to throb in the general's temple, Daniel lowered his hand. "Say, General, is it possible to, um, maybe requisition a few…"
"When will she be back?" asked General Hammond, clearly growing impatient with Daniel's tangential subject matter.
"Um, well, I'm not sure," Daniel told him, placing the knife, blade down, in Janet's pencil cup. "I think she said something about taking Jack to radiology again."
General Hammond stared at Daniel a moment, taking in the implication of a second trip to radiology. He pulled his hand across his skull and clucked his tongue against his cheek. Nothing like an unsuspecting civilian to take the bombast out of your sails…Nothing like the reality of injury to take the wind out of your lungs…
"How is he?" the general asked, finally indulging his worrisome inklings, and finding that a bittersweet indulgence indeed.
"He's in and out. Cracked pelvis, slight skull fracture—you know, the basics. All in all, I think he's doing quite well." Daniel tossed around his appraisal inside his mind, glanced up toward the ceiling and nodded. "You know, considering."
The general shook his head, his temper simmering. "Do we know what happened yet?"
Daniel wove his arms around his chest and stared off in the distance, beyond the general's slackened posture, into a world of unfinished sentences, unqualified explanations. "I haven't been able to talk to him yet, sir. None of us have. Janet's been with him, but she says he's not really…chatty."
"I'd be more concerned if he were," said the general.
Daniel peered into the older man's face, and inspected the tension, the stress in his features. "He looked a whole lot worse when he came in, sir. He doesn't look that bad now," Daniel told him.
General Hammond nodded, and realized his usually stoic demeanor was breaking down. "I realize that, son. Thank you for reminding me, all the same." The general nodded again, cursed under his breath, and turned his suddenly tired frame toward the door. "If you see Doctor Fraiser, have her give me a call, won't you?"
"Yes. Yes, sir, I will," Daniel said, watching the ranking officer plod down the hall. He tapped his knuckles atop the doctor's desk, thought about the weight of anticipation, and felt he understood what kind of limbo hell the general was suffering in. He thought, perhaps, he and Teal'c, Sam and all the rest of the SGC were all roommates in that hell. What they did to deserve entrance into it, he didn't know.
He pulled the scalpel out of the pencil cup and trudged back to his office.
Teal'c stood as tall and silent as a cedar outside the radiology room. His expression, guarded; his concern, a bubbling well. Through the small window he could see the outline of feet under a white sheet. The rest of the body was enveloped inside the MRI machine.
Still, Teal'c waited. He did not seek out O'Neill's status, nor did he require the latest information on the colonel's condition. O'Neill's physical wellness was of no consequence to him. He was certain O'Neill's bodily injuries would heal.
Teal'c stood outside the room, his fingers laced behind his back, and waited until that time when he could look his friend in the eye and see, it was hoped, the return of O'Neill's tenacity, which had been excoriated somehow on that barren planet.
Teal'c turned to find Janet Fraiser walking toward him. Her white lab coat rippled behind her.
"Doctor Fraiser," Teal'c said, bowing slightly.
"I'm sorry, but you can't go in there."
"I had no intention of entering."
Janet stood next to him, his size dwarfing her. She crossed her arms, looked through the same window that his eyes seemed to be fixed on, and said, "It's just precautionary."
"To what are you referring?" Teal'c asked.
"We're taking a new set of pictures of his head. It's common."
"Do you believe that I am questioning your initial diagnosis?"
Janet blinked and paused. "No. I just…I just thought you were wondering why the colonel was in radiology again."
"I recall that you have told me on many occasions that after a patient is admitted to the infirmary, the first twenty-four hours are the most crucial. Is that not the case here?"
Janet nodded and smiled. "That is correct."
A soft buzz of energy, and Jack's draped figure began to slide out of the machine.
"It looks like he's finished," Janet said, preparing to enter the room.
"May I speak with him momentarily?" Teal'c asked, his voice a low rumble.
Janet looked at her patient, quiet and anesthetized, and remembered that she had promised to keep the visits down. Still, it might do him good to see his teammate, if only for a brief time, she thought.
"You can walk back with us toward the bays, if you'd like," she said over her shoulder, half way through the doors.
Teal'c deferred to her offering with a nod and waited while Fraiser and her staff readied the colonel for the walk back to the infirmary.
The doors to radiology popped open, and Colonel O'Neill's gurney was guided through the opening. Janet, one hand grasping the bed rail, the other holding onto the back of the bed, kept her focus on navigating the cumbersome bed down the halls, always mindful that a careless airman might come hammering through the corridor and ram into the patient. Doctor Janet Fraiser had a list of expletives on which to call for just such an occasion.
Teal'c edged in next to his friend and walked alongside, glancing down at the colonel from time to time.
"He's sleeping, sir," the orderly told Teal'c.
"Yes." Teal'c continued to walk beside them, careful to turn his torso for passing staff members.
It was no more than a whisper, but it lit like a birdsong on Teal'c's ear. He bowed his head and offered Jack a gentle smile.
"How are you, my friend?" he asked.
Jack, lethargic from morphine and exhaustion, trailed his tongue across his lip and shrugged.
"It is good to see you doing so well."
Jack smirked and rolled his eyes. The medication that pervaded his body rolled them a second time.
"I wish only to accompany you to the infirmary. I shall call on you again when you are, as you say, back in the saddle." Teal'c smiled down to Jack, his eyes soft and warm.
"Okay," Jack whispered back, and he let his heavy lids close.
Janet hit the button on the wall that opened the infirmary doors and let the gurney glide past her. "Give him a day or two, okay? I'll keep you all informed."
Jack's hand slid out from between the rails, drooped over the side, searching for Teal'c's hand. "T."
Janet brought the procession to a halt. Teal'c took hold of Jack's hand and allowed his friend a moment to call upon the strength needed to overcome the powerful listlessness that had taken hold of his body. The Jaffa gave Jack's hand a tender squeeze and waited.
"Tell Daniel," Jack started, unable to speak and open his eyes at the same time. "Tell Daniel…thanks."
Jack's chest lifted the slightest amount, his eyes pinched, and his cheeks colored. Teal'c enveloped the colonel's hand in both of his and waited.
"I…" Jack whispered and stopped. He swallowed hard and shook his head. Looking up at Teal'c through a gauzy focus, his lids insistently pulling over his eyes, Jack was overcome by a feeling of deep despair. His heart was clenched with a shame he couldn't account for. He shook his head, let his sight become blinded, and said, "Forget it."
And Teal'c saw that which he knew he'd see, but hoped he wouldn't-the emptiness of a warrior whose spirit had been abandoned by its owner.
"Teal'c, we need to let the colonel rest," Janet said.
Teal'c refused to release Jack's hand for a moment, hoping his friend would open his eyes yet again and show the indomitable machismo that only O'Neill could conjure up in the face of impossible circumstances. But he didn't. Jack turned his face to the side and let the morphine pull him away.
Janet reached across the gurney and placed her hand on Teal'c's forearm. "He'll be fine. Let us take him inside now."
Teal'c saw the small hand on his arm, and bowed. He placed Jack's hand on the sheets and watched while the physician and an orderly pushed the steel and cotton gurney through the waiting doors of the infirmary. To a place where O'Neill could find health. To a place where O'Neill could further peruse his undoing.
Sometimes military protocol came before patients' rights.
General Hammond had a longstanding policy that whatever recommendations his CMO gave him about a patient's care the general would stick to. Within reason.
With Washington all over him like scales on a rattlesnake and a headache the size of the mountain itself, General Hammond had to concede that this was one of those times when his rank would simply have to override his CMO's. He made the unpleasant decision with no joy.
When Janet Fraiser noticed her CO hovering outside the colonel's door and took in his dour expression, she knew she'd better allow the general a wide berth. She had tried to keep the world at bay, had tried to give the colonel as much time as possible to regain his tenuous hold on self-assuredness, but seeing her commanding officer's stance, she knew. She knew. Janet draped the stethoscope around her neck and met General Hammond at the door.
"I'm not sure how communicative he is, sir," she said, holding the door open for him. "The drugs are wearing off, but his head injury is interfering with his lucidity."
"Understood," General Hammond said, never taking his eyes off the colonel.
Janet stepped to Jack's side and clasped his hand. "Colonel? Sir, General Hammond is here. Can you wake up for a while?"
His Adam's apple bobbed in his neck. His lips parted. Jack pulled his hand to his chest and crooked his finger, beckoning in a listless way for the physician to meet him at his level.
"Sir?" Janet said, leaning toward him, accepting his whispered message. She shot a look of concern toward the general while listening to the colonel's words. And then she smiled. "No, sir, I don't believe the general brought beer."
"Pie?" Jack said.
General Hammond tipped his face and chuckled. "No, Colonel, but I did bring greetings and hopes for a speedy recovery from Washington."
"I'd rather have the beer." Jack dug an elbow into his bed and struggled to reposition himself.
"Can I help you, sir?" Janet asked.
"No." Jack's face was etched, pinched with discomfort. He found a more tolerable position and dissolved into the mattress, his upper lip speckled with dots of perspiration. Stabbing pain radiated from his left side, shot spiraling bolts of electric agony through his legs and up into his abdomen. "Hip?"
"No, sir." Janet crossed her arms over her chest and observed him cautiously. "It's your—"
"Pelvis," Jack stated, raising his finger and pointing it at her, assuring her that, yes, he remembered. Janet took a deep breath and nodded. Jack cocked his finger toward his head. "And this headache?"
"Ah. Of course." He brought his hand, shaking and weak, to his forehead and sighed. "One more cracked skull, and the NHL may not think I'm playable."
"Yes, sir. You've said that before," Janet told him.
"I realize that, Doc," Jack said, grimacing, "but by your lack of response, I thought you might not have heard it. These are the jokes, people. Work with me."
"Okaaaay," Janet sang, turning away, wide-eyed with feigned frustration, yet relieved. "He's all yours, General. Call if you need anything."
"Will do," the general said.
"So, General," Jack began, wiping his hand over his face, hoping to scrape away the last of the ether-like numbness, "is this a social call, or is this a debriefing?"
"I suppose a little of one, more of the other," the general said, pulling a stool close to the bed. "How are you feeling, Jack?"
"Like a twenty-five year old, sir," Jack stated, "who's lived two lives. Maybe three."
"Glad to hear that." General Hammond's eyes narrowed, and a gentle smile warmed his expression. "So, all in all you're doing well, is that correct?"
"Yes, sir. Well, you know, within reason."
"Could you explain that?" the general coyly asked.
Jack paused to glance at the older man. "So much for the social call."
"Jack, I'm under a certain amount of pressure to provide the White House with the details of your mission." The General twined his arms around his chest and let the timbre of his voice evoke the weight of his words, let the lilt of his accent carry the heavy load of their meaning. "You've been in the Air Force long enough to know how these things work. This isn't official, this debriefing—"
"I sorta noticed the lack of video cameras," Jack said.
"Exactly. This is more of a chance for me to begin to understand what happened out there." General Hammond paused to let his message sink in. "So, why don't you tell me whatever you can remember?"
Jack stared at the concrete ceiling and labored to come up with a timeline of events. How many debriefings had be gone through in his career? How many times had he been required to account for his time, every moment away from the base, away from his platoon, away from his comfort level?
"Colonel?" the general prodded. "Can we start from where you first went missing?"
Jack pressed his fingers to his forehead and blinked. "Uh, sir, the last thing I remember is that I was venturing into the trees in order to…find relief, as it were."
The general nodded and said, "Right. Doctor Jackson and Major Carter have supplied me with the information to this point. I need to know what happened after that."
"Yes, sir," Jack said, wading through the bog of memory. "Well, all I can tell you is one minute I was topside, the next I wasn't."
"Meaning," he began, and stopped. What did he mean?
"Take your time, Colonel."
"I'm not sure, sir. I have this memory of…of tumbling." Jack dropped his hand to his chest and felt the insistent beat of his heart under the white gown. "With all due respect, sir, maybe we could do this another time."
"I'm afraid we can't, Jack," General Hammond told him, voicing not only the urgency of the situation, but his profound displeasure at having to coax a memory from an injured man. "To the best of your recollection, what happened to you those six days you were missing?"
"Six days?" Jack repeated, searching the general's expression for the missing information. He knew he had been out of contact for a day or two, but six? The new information troubled him that much more. Six days…
"Do you have any memory of those days?"
Eyes. Pin dots of light. The sickening sensation of being constantly turned, of being on display. Jack ground his teeth together and forced himself to put into words, into dry, pedantic words, those visceral, brilliant fears that clawed at his memory. It was important to get the words right. It was important to be clear, yet evasive, for his own sake. Never let a superior officer see your weakness. Never let him know you doubted yourself, your team, your training. Never let them know you were afraid.
"Not much to tell, General," he said, refusing to look anywhere but the apathetic ceiling. "I was placed in some sort of force field. I have a vague recollection of feeling like a…rotisserie chicken. Without the skewer, which was nice. And without the side dishes, which kind of sucked."
"Is it fair to say, Colonel, that you were placed in some sort of stasis?"
General Hammond shook his head, confounded once again by the lack of humanity in the universe. "For what purpose?"
"Ya got me hanging," Jack said. "Actually, they had me hanging, but you get the general idea, General. Sir…" Jack quirked his brow, a small gesture of apology for having used his commanding officer's rank in vain.
"During this time, were you in communication with your captors?"
"No, sir. I can't recall any dialogue." Jack dug his hands and bruised elbows to the mattress and lifted his hips. General Hammond, seeing Jack's discomfort, thrust out his hand to assist, but Jack waved it off. Once repositioned, Jack gave his trembling body time to calm, and when he felt that he could speak without advertising his true level of agony, he said, "As far as I can remember, I was on exhibit."
"Yes, sir. That's why I wasn't sure how long I had been missing, because I had lost track of time." Jack stopped and thought about what he had said. Was it safe to admit that he had lost track of time? Would this admonition in anyway come back to haunt him? No, no, it was easy to do. After all, the room never changed—it was always dark, the temperature was constant, there were no physical binds on his body. He was simply aloft and helpless, and without as much as a watch on, utterly exposed to the ever-present eyes.
"Doctor Fraiser has reported to me that by the time you were brought to the infirmary, you were fairly dehydrated." The general wrung his hands together and continued. "Were you given nourishment or fluids in those six days, Colonel?"
"Are you telling me that for six days you…"
"I was just sort of floating around in this dark room, kind of like…"
"A rotisserie chicken," the general supplied, nodding.
"I was going to say piñata, but the chicken image works, too."
General Hammond drew his hand across his mouth and found it difficult to believe that, had the tables been turned, he'd be able to lay in Jack's condition and recount a story so calmly. He shook his head and with it the nagging that he just might be getting too old for all the intensity. "So, while you were…in this stasis, was there anything else that happened?"
Six days, Jack thought to himself. Six days of being ogled, of being a specimen, of having no control whatsoever to change the fact that he was nothing more than a science exhibit, levitated in a dark room for the silent, peering masses to gape at him, stare at his body. At his body that thrummed with a chance to leap away, to brandish a weapon and bring some hurt to the room. They leered at him, at his helpless, naked form, no doubt pitying the poor creature.
At the sound of his title, Jack released the balled sheet in his hand and said, "No, sir. Nothing happened. Nothing at all." At least nothing the Air Force or the Pentagon had to know about.
"I would have to say that something most certainly did happen, Colonel," the general said, "otherwise you wouldn't be in the infirmary with a cracked pelvis and a concussion." General Hammond waited for Jack's response, and while he waited, he observed his 21C's features tighten, his hand reaching to grasp hold of the cool, metal handrail.
"I wouldn't know. Sir." Jack grasped and grasped again at the rail. He stared at the pockmarks in the concrete above him.
"You don't remember how you received these injuries?"
"Were you tortured?"
"Were you in any way physically assaulted?"
"Well, what the hell happened, Jack?" the general demanded, coming to the limits of his patience.
Jack's heart began to race, pound like the hands of a prisoner hammering at his cell's iron bars. He squeezed the railing and swallowed against his suddenly parched mouth. He hadn't been omitting anything from his report. In fact, the Doc had asked him that same question, at least once. Like so much of his memory from those six days, the specifics were veiled, a thin, impenetrable gauze seemed to obscure them. It was when the veil lifted, when the stranglehold on his memory gave way that the fear began to surface, as well. The memory of that moment, when the force field ceased to exist, came to him like pricks of blood through newly scraped skin. He closed his eyes and filled his lungs with air, desperate to remain in control.
"I…I remember…falling," he said. "Jesus…"
Jack rubbed his closed eyelids and crushed his jaw shut. It took only a moment, the freefall, but that memory, that terrifying sensation of being in an uncontrollable descent, looped in his mind.
Jack pulled his hand over his face and found it damp with sweat. He inhaled through his nose and shook his head. "Falling, sir," Jack stated, much more forcefully than his true emotions gave rise to. "Falling. I don't remember anything else. I swear."
"All right," the general said, patting Jack's hand, which choked the bedrail. "That's all I need to know for now."
"I'm sorry, sir," Jack whispered, shaking his head. "That's all there is."
The general rose from his seat and placed his hand on Jack's shoulder. He had the basics. He had enough to appease the brass. He had more than he personally wanted to know. It was time to let the man sleep. "Get some rest, Jack. I'll come check on you another time."
Jack never let his focus leave the gray ceiling, only nodded, croaked out, "Yes, sir."
When the general had gone and when the silence of the infirmary surrounded him once again, Jack screwed shut his eyes and concentrated on the one thing he could handle: the intense throb of pain that scourged his body and kept his mind from recalling anything else.