Title: Rusted Wheel
Summary: Things were strained enough between them before they ended up prisoners on a desert planet. Only then there's an unexpected side effect to the technology keeping them trapped. This is helplessness neither thought they would ever have to experience.
Categorization: Angst, action/adventure, whump, hurt/comfort, Sam/Jack, Kanan/Shayla.
Season: 6, 'Abyss'
Warnings: Older teens for language, violence, and adult themes (reference to torture, death, sexuality, and suicide).
Author's Note: Written for Day of Indulgence 2010. Get out your cliché bingo card. Special thanks to Aurora for her invaluable help as always.
Sam wakes slowly, swimming gradually to the surface. Cracking her eyes open, she sees a girl kneeling over her. She gives Sam a wide-eyed stare, getting to her feet and disappearing out a cloth-covered doorway, a cry following in her wake. "She awakens!"
Sam winces against the volume of the girl's voice, shifting her body up off the floor. She glances around the unfamiliar space around her. It's a small cubicle of space with little more than the thin pile of blankets stretched out under her to form a crude bed. The only other furnishings in the cramped space are a rickety shelf and a ceramic urn that she can guess serves as the facilities. There is one rough-hewn wall with a window at her back, and thick canvas sheets hung from the ceiling forming the other three walls.
Turning her attention to herself, Sam notes that she's still in her fatigues. Predictably, her weapons are gone, as are her radio and knife. A quick pat down reveals that she isn't injured. She feels a few random items in pockets here and there, a ration bar, bandages, a pen. Obviously whoever disarmed her had been in too much of a hurry to be thorough.
Getting to her feet, Sam pulls back the canvas doorway the girl disappeared through. On the other side, a group of four women sit at the center of a large room that is lined on all sides with small chambers like the one Sam has left, like a rudimentary hospital. Or an asylum, she thinks wryly.
A few of the women look up as Sam enters, but just as quickly away. When no one seems inclined to stop her, she heads out the first door she finds.
It takes Sam's eyes a moment to adjust to the piercingly bright light outside, blinking against it and raising one hand to shade her eyes. Stretching in front of her is a flat, open dirt area lined on both sides with more buildings like the one she just left. They are all uniformly the worn, grey color of untreated wood left to the mercy of harsh sunlight.
Sam feels a trickle of sweat work its way down her neck. The heat is extreme, but with the slight hint of relenting that speaks to the lateness of the hour. Everything has a slight orange cast to it, as if the sun is a bit close, or at the end of its cycle.
Sam turns to see a worn woman of perhaps fifty standing nearby. She wears a simple blouse and skirt of some practical fabric and has a face that shows signs of faded beauty, thick brown hair with streaks of grey pulled back into a simple bun. The young girl who had been with Sam when she woke stands behind the woman, half-hiding.
"All is well, Beth," the woman says. "You may return to your work."
Beth flashes her a relieved smile and scurries across the compound into a different building.
"I am Hannah," the woman says.
"Are you in charge here?" Sam asks.
The question seems to confuse her. "No, I am not the warden," she says. "May I ask your name?"
"Sam," she supplies, deciding to play along for now. "Hannah, right?" The woman nods. "Can you tell me what this place is?"
Hannah is now looking at Sam like she's speaking gibberish, but seems willing enough to share. "This is Parramatta," she says like that should mean something.
Sam paces a step away, looking at the buildings again. "I was on Methos," she says, more to herself than Hannah. She'd been taking a tour of the city with Colonel O'Neill, hadn't she?
"I am not familiar with that place," Hannah says.
Sam shoves the fragmented thoughts away. 'Where' honestly isn't her first priority. "I had friends with me. Three men."
Hannah shakes her head. "You were alone when they brought you."
Sam glances at the sun where it's nearing the rocky horizon. "What about a Stargate?"
"A Stargate?" Hannah echoes.
Sam drops to the ground, drawing a circle in the dirt with her finger. "It's a giant metal ring like this. About two times the height of a man." She looks up at Hannah. "Have you ever seen anything like that?"
"No," she says, shaking her head. "I have not."
Sitting back on her heels, Sam sighs. "How does one…travel here?"
Hannah's brow furrows. "By wagon train, of course."
"Of course," Sam says. At least that means there may be some way out of here, wherever here is. "And how often does the wagon train come?"
"Only when there are prisoners to be transferred from the courthouse."
Prisoners? Sam thinks she would remember a trial or a courthouse. All she remembers is Mr. Shifty Eyes and someone jumping her from behind.
"We need to make them disappear."
The memory is fuzzy and half-formed. The harder she tries to latch on to it, the more indistinct it becomes. She lifts a hand to her head. There isn't any evidence of a head injury, but she isn't quite sure how else to account for her lack of memory.
Pushing back to her feet, Sam turns in a slow circle, eyes scanning her surroundings. Beyond a small cluster of sad, worn clapboard buildings, she can't see anything but sand and rock outcroppings. She'd be hard pressed to think of an environment more stellar opposite to the cosmopolitan city she'd just been in. She glances at the sun again, it's angry red light. Is this even the same planet?
"How far to the nearest city?" Sam asks, thinking that there must be something more sophisticated than this place.
Hannah's lips press into a thin line, her expression stern. "Many, many weeks by foot through dangerous terrain. It is impossible. Besides which, we are not permitted to leave the camp." She points to a low fence at least three hundred yards outside the camp, just beyond a shallow stream where a few women are filling buckets with water. "We cannot pass the boundary."
The fence is little more than flimsy pieces of wood with rope strung between them. Sam's pretty sure a stiff breeze could knock it over, let alone a grown woman, so she has to assume some other unseen barrier maintains the boundary.
She's about to ask Hannah to clarify what she means when the loud clatter of something like a cowbell echoes throughout the compound. The sleepy mood surrounding the buildings shatters at the sound, women pouring out of various buildings and disappearing just as quickly into others.
"The men return," Hannah says, picking up her skirts and hurrying back into the dormitory Sam just left.
Sam doesn't follow her, rather craning her neck to look down the worn path she is belatedly realizing is a road of some sort. Past the edge of camp Sam can make out wagons nearly swallowed in the distant haze of kicked up dust.
Sam steps back into the shadow of the nearest building's doorway to observe the incoming caravan.
About ten wagons pulled by pairs of some sort of enormous domestic animal come down the road. Each wagon is lightly guarded. She counts no more than one or two armed guards per wagonload of about a dozen men. They stand out, dressed in darker colors and seemingly better groomed than everyone else. The only armaments she sees are handguns and lassos or whips of some kind hanging from their belts.
The prisoners, on the other hand, don't wear anything close to a uniform, each man's attire unique in both color and cut. The only unifying element is the thick layer of grit that covers each of them and what looks like a dark collar of some sort encircling their necks.
Sam scans each wagon as it pulls past, looking through the throng of men for familiar profiles. She has no idea if the rest of SG-1 has been brought here or not. In the second to last wagon though, she catches sight of Colonel O'Neill, his own eyes actively scouring the camp.
When the wagons come to a stop, one of the guards grabs the Colonel's arm, pushing him off the back and holding him there. She can see that the Colonel's hands are bound in front of him with handcuffs, a guard holding a gun against his side as if expecting trouble. The guards don't seem to be giving any of the other male prisoners a second glance, and Sam wonders if the Colonel has done something to earn greater paranoia. The rest of the men jump off the wagons and disperse, most of them being met by a woman offering a beverage.
From the far end of the path, a man exits one of the nicer kept buildings. He's wearing a fancy black suit that is somehow completely untouched by the pervasive dust of this place, and carries what looks like an old, leather-bound ledger and a wooden box.
"That is the warden," Hannah supplies, reappearing by Sam's side with a cup of water in her hand.
The warden flips through the ledger until settling on a page and squinting down at it. "Samantha Carter, prisoner 4382-b, you will approach the wagon!" he calls out.
"Go, quickly," Hannah advises, giving Sam a push before walking up to one of the prisoners from a different wagon and giving him her cup.
Sam steps out into the light. The Colonel's eyes find her immediately, darting quickly over her as if looking for evidence of injury. She nods to indicate she's fine.
One of the guards crosses over to grab her arm as she approaches, pulling her to a stop in front of the warden.
The warden doesn't even look up at her approach, still reading from his book. "Jack O'Neill, prisoner 4382, you have been convicted of high crimes against the government of Dinan and have been sentenced to a life term of hard labor."
"I think there's been some sort of mistake," the Colonel says, body alert, but voice still congenial as if hoping they might be able to talk their way out of this.
The warden ignores the Colonel, instead nodding to the guards.
They are both shoved down to their knees so they are facing each other. Their eyes meet for a beat of communication, the Colonel shaking his head minutely. Considering the number of guards, their lack of weapons, and the Colonel's handcuffs, it seems pretty clear that fighting their way out of this isn't an option. They will just have to see where this goes for now.
The warden is taking something out his box, handing it over to a guard. It turns out to be a thing, dark collar, exactly like the ones she had seen on the other prisoners.
"Doesn't quite go with my outfit," the Colonel quips as they place it around his neck, the clasp clicking and turning before seamlessly disappearing back into the metal.
Sam gets her own collar next, hers slightly bulkier. Feeling it settle around her neck, heavy and clumsy against her collarbone, she begins to think that maybe they should have taken their chances fighting.
The warden steps up to the Colonel, holding a device, something alien looking and incongruously advanced in comparison to everything else Sam has seen so far. There's a beep like the sound of a barcode being read as the warden holds the device up to the Colonel's collar.
Behind her, a guard fists his hand in Sam's hair, pushing her head down to expose the back of her neck.
"Hey," the Colonel protests. "What are you-."
She can't see what they are doing, just hears another beep followed by pressure on the back of her neck.
Sam gasps as the collar around her neck tightens, followed by the unmistakable pinch of something penetrating her skin. It feels like the guard is drilling into her spine and she bites her tongue, but doesn't manage to completely muffle the scream building in her throat. When he lets go, her vision swims and she sways forward, both hands pressing into the dirt in front of her as she barely manages to save herself from slamming face first into the ground.
"Carter?" Colonel O'Neill demands. "Carter!"
She hisses against another spike of pain radiating down her neck, but forces herself to breathe deeply a few times, her vision clearing. "Sir," she manages to say.
"What the hell did you do to her?"
There's a scuffle as they drag the Colonel back up to his feet, but Sam is in no position to help. She's too busy trying not to throw up.
"Listen well," the warden says. "This woman is now your hearthmate. She is bound to you. If you should be foolish enough to brave the desert in an attempt to escape, she will pay the price in your stead. If you think to try to take her with you, know that her collar will not permit it. Her life shall continue only so long as she remains within the boundaries of the camp. There is no escape. Do you understand?"
Sam's not sure the warden sticks around to hear the Colonel's response. Beneath her hands, the ground is pitching and rolling and she closes her eyes tightly, trying not to submit to the dizziness. The next thing she knows, the Colonel is kneeling next to her, his hands unbound, the warden and guards having left them to their own devices.
Apparently he isn't a threat anymore.
"Carter?" he says, his hand tentative on her shoulder.
She doesn't answer, but feels him tense as a shadow falls across them both.
"Water," a voice says. Someone presses a cool hand to her forehead and Sam looks up to see Hannah holding out a cup, only now noticing the matching collar around her neck. "It will pass, I promise. Try to take a little water if you can."
Sam dutifully sips from the cup, and her stomach feels a bit more settled, even as her head continues to throb.
"Can you remember the way to your quarters?" Hannah asks.
At the moment, she's having a hard time remembering her own name.
"I will show you the way," Hannah says when she doesn't answer. "Can you walk?"
"I've got her," the Colonel says, putting his arm around her back and helping her to her feet.
"Sir-," Sam protests, but she doesn't manage to get the warning out before her vision blacks out around the edges. She will not pass out. She will not-.
The Methian markets are impressive, housed in a large glass and steel structure somewhat like a greenhouse. Sam cranes her neck to peer up at the layering of balconies above. The ceiling must be a good hundred feet off the ground.
Their guide is smiling and giving them a lesson about the building, the first of its kind in their rapidly growing industrial city. For the Methians, commerce is practically a religion, the spires of trade marking their city rather than temples. They are friendly, and open, and the only thing you can do to piss them off is to try to undercut their trade system. A capital offense.
"That certainly is a lot of windows," Colonel O'Neill observes wryly.
Their guide, apparently unaware or uncaring of the edge of sarcasm in the Colonel's voice, launches into an in depth explanation of the process used to manufacture the structure.
Outwardly, the Colonel seems relaxed, and Sam is glad to see it.
Pausing at one of the trade booths and letting the two men walk ahead, Sam smiles at the young woman behind the counter. She skims the selection of jewelry laid out on the table, mostly earrings and trinkets, the green stone popular on this planet sparkling here and there from various settings.
It's a small wooden box that catches Sam's attention for some reason, her hand hovering over it. There is a strangely beautiful, twisting symbol carved on the lid. She has no idea what language it might be from or what it might mean, but something makes her stop, one finger pressing down on the lid.
"What is this?" she asks.
There is a flicker of something in the trader's eyes as she takes in Sam's clothing, her eyes darting to the Colonel and their guide beyond her. "Nothing, ma'am," she says, pulling the box back. "A mistake."
Sam frowns at her. "Really, I'd like to-."
"Please," the woman says, beginning to look tense. "Do not-."
A man steps out of the shadows behind the booth. "Is there a problem?"
Sam's instincts tell her to let it go, to walk away, but she finally recognizes it, the tingle in her fingers. Her eyes narrow.
The man's hand closes on her arm.
When Sam wakes again, she is back in the small canvas cubicle lying on the thin pile of blankets. The light streaming in the small window has shifted, a weak white she suspects must be moonlight. Lifting her head to look around the room, she feels a twinge of pain shoot down her spine. Her vision swims again, and she lies back, sucking in a few deep breaths.
"Colonel?" she asks once she's sure she's not going to embarrass herself again.
"Carter," he says, his face appearing over hers. "How do you feel?"
Like someone shoved an ice pick into the back of her neck. "Better."
He eyes her like he doesn't believe her, but doesn't say anything. Feeling a bit more settled, Sam struggles up onto one elbow, and he helps her sit up.
"There's water, and some food that woman brought us," he says.
"Hannah," Sam supplies, pressing a hand to her forehead.
"Yeah." He passes her a bowl of what looks like stew with actual recognizable meat and vegetables. For prison food, it's not so bad, even if it's lukewarm and kind of congealed. They've certainly had worse. "You should eat. I survived it."
She doesn't mistake the order in that and dutifully picks up the rough-hewn spoon. The Colonel is quiet while she forces herself to eat and by the time she's done the nausea is almost completely gone. If only she could say the same for the headache.
"Any idea where we are, Carter?"
"Parramatta," she says, remembering what Hannah told her.
"What?" he asks, the word clearly not meaning any more to him that it had to her.
"That's the name of the prison," she clarifies, setting her bowl aside.
The Colonel leans back against the outer wall. "See, now the last thing I remember was a market or something." He rubs the back of hand against his forehead. "Did some guy…grab you?"
"Yeah," she says, wracking her brain for details. "It's really fuzzy after that." Not helped by the fact that her head is absolutely killing her.
"Here," he says, passing her two pills. She considers protesting, knowing they should conserve their supplies, but he's got his most obstinate expression on his face so she saves her breath, tossing back the pills with the last of her water. "So you don't remember getting here?"
"No," she says. "I woke up here. You?"
He shakes his head. "I woke up in the wagon bed with all the men."
"No sign of Teal'c or Jonas?"
The Colonel shakes his head. "I think we have to assume they are still back in the city."
Well, that's something at least. It leaves some small hope of rescue. Except none of this makes sense. "Something just doesn't add up, sir. Hannah said this prison is fourteen days by wagon train from the main courthouse."
The Colonel's eyebrows lift, one hand rubbing at to his chin covered with what looks like barely more than a day's growth. "You think we'd remember fourteen days on a wagon."
"Exactly. My memory is a little fuzzy, but it seems to me that we were in the city only yesterday, or possibly the day before that. But fourteen days?"
"What are you thinking?"
She glances out the small window. "That we didn't get here by wagon. But also that we're probably not on Methos, sir." It's not just the level of technology here that tells her that.
"Why?" he asks, the possibility apparently not anymore welcome to him than it is to her.
"The sun. I'm pretty sure it's not the same." Red giant if she isn't mistaken. It explains the slight orange cast to everything, the way the sun felt a bit too close this afternoon.
"Great. And I haven't seen any sign of a gate."
Sam shakes her head then immediately regrets it. She sucks in a deep breath. "Hannah had no idea what I was talking about when I asked her about a gate," she says. "What about you, sir? Where were you today?"
"Mines," he says. "Naquadah as far as I can tell. I guess that's the labor part of my life sentence."
"Naquadah," she repeats, feeling a memory stirring at the back of her mind. It slips away, everything way too hazy right now.
"Funny that they've never heard of a gate, but they're bothering to mine naquadah."
Sam nods. It's certainly something to give more thought to. When her head has stopped spinning maybe.
Taking her bowl, the Colonel gestures at the small pallet of blankets. "Get some rest, Carter. I'll take first watch."
She doesn't have to be told twice, lying back down. With the meal heavy in her stomach and her head still spinning, she's out almost as soon as she lies down.
It's their third day on Methos, this extended diplomatic mission that Sam suspects is meant to be a cakewalk, something to ease the battered, strained SG-1 back into mission mode. She thinks maybe it would have been kinder to give them something a bit more strenuous. It would give them all less time to sit and stew.
The Colonel appears in the breakfast room, Teal'c and Jonas greeting him.
"Ready for our fascinating tour of the markets, Teal'c?" the Colonel asks, swiping a piece of toast from the table.
"Actually, Colonel," Jonas pipes up. "I was hoping Teal'c could help me with some of these trickier translations today over at the academy."
The Colonel doesn't even blink, switching gears like it's no big deal. "Sure, whatever. Guess that means you're stuck with me today, Carter." He turns towards her, but as usual these days, she feels like his gaze doesn't quite connect.
Sam dutifully smiles, even though she gets the sense that he's the one feeling stuck. She's been on a lot of Jonas babysitting duty lately, which normally wouldn't bother her if it didn't feel quite so deliberate on the Colonel's part.
"Yes, sir," she says, getting up from the table and falling into step next to him to leave the boarding house. She glances back, catching Teal'c watching them as they leave.
He nods to her, and Sam has the insane thought that he orchestrated this. Maybe he's fed up with the tension too.
Sam turns, the Colonel watching her with that bland, distant expression she's come to expect from him. "Sorry, sir," she says, catching back up.
They head towards the markets in silence.
They are woken by the sound of a bell ringing, something similar to the one that announced the return of the men the previous evening. A few moments later, a guard unceremoniously sweeps back the curtain hanging in their doorway, whacking a wooden club against the posts as he passes.
Sam's eyes snap open at the intrusion, but she immediately regrets the movement as the light sears into her retinas. She groans, squeezing her eyes back shut.
"How are you feeling?" the Colonel asks.
It's too early in the morning to come up with a lie. "Like I've recently been acquainted with the bottom of a tequila bottle," she complains.
"That good, huh?" he asks.
There's a timid knock on the post that seems way too polite to be the guard. Sam braves opening her eyes to look. Hannah is standing in their doorway.
"Good morning, Sam." Hannah doesn't quite look at the Colonel. All of her words are carefully addressed to Sam, and Sam really, really doesn't like what that implies.
"Good morning, Hannah," Sam says, pushing up into a sitting position, trying to ignore the protest of her entire spine.
Hannah holds a hand out to stop her movement. "I came to suggest that you rest this morning," she says. "I will return at midday to show you around and explain your duties."
Sam is so not going to argue with that. "Okay, thanks," she says, trying not too worry too much about what her 'duties' might turn out to be.
Hannah nods, giving her a brief flinch of a smile before retreating from the doorway without giving the Colonel so much as a glance.
"Lucky you," the Colonel says, tossing her a ration bar. "I get to go break my back in a mine while you have breakfast in bed."
Sam catches the bar, feeling her stomach roll at the thought of food. Lying back down, she touches her collar, her fingers brushing against the tender flesh at the back of her neck. "I'd happily to trade, sir," she says.
He stares at her for a beat, just long enough for her to think she must look nearly as bad as she feels. "Yeah. On second thought, I'll take the mines."
She tries to be a good sport, to laugh at his attempt at humor, because he's trying at least, but something about this situation is overwhelming. This was supposed to be yet another cakewalk mission, something to ease them all back in.
But since when did intentions ever matter?
"Men to the wagons!" someone shouts.
The Colonel is still watching her with that expression again, like he wants to ask her something but is way too smart to actually do it. "Try to get a feel for the place today if you can," he says instead. "I don't want to be here a day longer than we have to be."
"Yes, sir," she says, watching him leave.
Hannah returns when the bells ring midday. A few more hours of sleep and another dose of painkillers have gone a long way towards making Sam feel more human.
The food in the dining hall is the same hearty, but simple fare they had the night before, and the room is full of boisterous chatter as women eat and move about the room. They seem rather cheerful for prisoners.
Hannah gets straight down to business, cataloging Sam's skills. From her questions, the prison is beginning to sound more factory than jail yard.
"Can you weave?" Hannah asks.
"Weave? Uh, no."
"Spin?" she asks, and Sam doesn't think she imagines the thread of exasperation in Hannah's voice. A dozen questions in to the interrogation, Sam has the feeling she's beginning to look useless.
Somehow she doesn't think her ability to calculate stellar drift and hit a moving target from seventy yards is going to be valued here. "No, sorry."
"Then you will work in the laundry." Hannah says this like it is a fate she has tried her hardest to save Sam from. Wonderful.
"Where do you work?" Sam asks.
"At the loom," Hannah says, a bit of pride sneaking into her voice. Sam watches her callused, thick fingers as she pulls apart a piece of bread. "Your hearthmate," she says, sliding Sam an assessing look. "He is…a good man?"
Sam puts down her spoon, surprised by the change in subject, especially since Hannah hasn't shown the Colonel enough attention to even look at him thus far. "Yes," she says, wondering if this explains Hannah's reticence around the Colonel. Maybe she's just scared of him. "He's a good man."
Hannah nods, looking relieved. "And he cares for you?"
Sam thinks that is a bizarre question, unless there is more to this hearthmate thing than they know about. This could get awkward really fast. "Is that important?"
The bells ring, announcing the beginning of the second work shift. Hannah gives her a smile. "All will be well," she says, patting the back of Sam's hand before picking up her dishes to clear them away.
Sam doesn't feel particularly comforted.
Hannah drops Sam off at a large building near the stream on the outskirts of the compound. Inside is an enormous courtyard. One half is full of large copper tubs on open fires, the other half almost completely obscured by huge sheets of cloth in a rainbow of colors hung on a complex system of slats.
Hannah passes Sam off to a blunt, broad woman by the name of Hattie. Sam had briefly wondered, in light of Hannah's mode of dress, whether her own uniform would be out of place, but Hattie's got a pair of trousers on, a thick rope cinched in about her ample waist. Glancing around the laundry, Sam sees that the women seem equally dressed in pants and skirts, many with heavy skirts hitched up on the sides well above their knees. It relaxes the small knot of anxiety that Hannah's careful modesty and reticence had created. The last thing Sam needs is to stand out anymore than she already does.
Hattie leads Sam through a no-nonsense explanation of her duties, pointing out the various stations. "Here is where the cloth is washed and pressed after it is dyed."
Sam can't help but notice that the women on laundry duty seem to fall into two distinct groups: the freeloading bullies and the quiet, sickly looking women, some appallingly young.
"You will start here," Hattie says, gesturing at the giant vats of water boiling over open flames. "Grab a bucket and get moving."
With that, Sam is put to work dragging buckets of water up to the vats from the stream that no longer seems nearly as close as it had. It doesn't take a genius to realize this is the most unappealing of all jobs. It's just her and the more timid looking women. Sam doesn't mind. The simple task leaves lots of time for paying attention to more important things, like the layout of the compound.
She's worked in peace for two hours before the women make their move on the newest inmate.
Sam has been keeping her eye on the short blond woman who seems to be the leader of the loudest of the bullies. She's got long blond hair swept up under a brightly colored bandana, and like most of the women here has hard eyes and worn features under her quick smile. It's the way she moves that really gives her away as trouble in Sam's mind. She's walking around like she owns the place.
Falling into step across the row of vats from Sam, the woman shadows her as she makes her way with her empty bucket. At the end of the row, Sam pauses, forced to acknowledge the other woman as their paths converge. She looks Sam straight in the eye and then deliberately slams her foot into the side of the tub, not even bothering to make it look like an accident. Sam jerks back, saving her body from the brunt of the contact, but the near-boiling water still splashes on Sam's nearest hand. She hisses, dropping her bucket as her hand flushes red in protest.
The other woman still stands on the other side of the tub with three of her buddies nearby for backup. "Oops, clumsy me," she says, the wry twist of her lips belying any attempt at mollifying Sam.
Sam is not stupid, she knows what this is and has no intention of going off half-cocked. Every place has its pecking order, and she's the freshest blood tossed into the system. They're trying to figure her out, gauge her reaction. It's tempting to demonstrate just how much they have picked on the wrong person, but Sam needs to get the lay of the land, figure out their best avenues of escape. She doesn't have time for grudge matches and watching her back every moment. Neither is she going to lie down for this bully, or they will never leave her in peace.
Grabbing a cloth from a nearby cold-water bath, Sam wraps it around her hand to soothe the throbbing. Gritting her teeth, she turns to the woman, stepping up close to her and looking her straight in the eye.
"Anyone can make a mistake," she says offhandedly, her voice casual even as she draws herself up to her considerably greater height. "Once."
The woman raises an eyebrow, as if amused by her pluck.
'Don't push me, or I will sure as hell push back,' is the unspoken threat Sam layers into her body language, the hardness of her expression.
The strategy seems to work well enough, the bully giving her an appraising smirk and leaving her alone for the rest of the shift. Not that Sam doesn't notice them eying her from across the compound from time to time. She thinks she's going to have to deal with this more head on if they are here long enough.
Just one more thing to look forward to.
A long afternoon spent bent over boiling vats of water and lugging buckets from the stream does nothing for the pain in Sam's neck. Even the throb of her burnt hand seems only secondary. When the bell sounds for end of shift, she forces herself to take the long way back to the living quarters, adding to the map of the compound building in her mind. Reaching their cubicle, she pulls out her precious notepad and pen, and begins sketching out the locations of the buildings she's seen.
She hears the bell tolling for the return of the men, but doesn't get up. Frankly the energy to get back to her feet completely escapes her. The Colonel will know where to find her.
He's carrying two bowls of food when he finally appears. "Hey."
"Hey," she says, looking up from her rudimentary map. He looks a little damp around the edges like he's just washed up, his clothes still tinged dark with the dust of ore, but brushed off as best as can be hoped. "How were the mines?"
"Peachy," he says, holding out a bowl to her.
She puts aside the map, reaching for the food.
"What happened to your hand?" he asks.
"Ah, that," she says, glancing down at the angry welt on the back of her hand. She shrugs. "There's a bit of a learning curve, training to be a laundress."
"Carter," he presses, clearly not buying it. Despite the off-hand disparaging of her domestic skills, he knows she's not clumsy by nature.
She grimaces. "Just making new friends, sir."
He raises an eyebrow as if waiting to see if she will expand on that. "Is this going to be a problem?" he says when she doesn't.
"No, sir," she says. "I've got it under control."
"You'll let me know if that changes."
"Of course, sir."
He sits down next to her, leaning over the map and filling in a few blank areas on the paper. The fading light glints off his collar and she notices that his is a bit different than the ones she's seen on the women. It's thinner, more elegant, with a delicate ornate pattern engraved on the metal.
"Sir, let me take a look at your collar," she says, itching to get her fingers on this technology. She moves around behind him, taking advantage of what light they have. There's a small panel on the back, probably what the guards accessed the first day. She runs her fingernail around the edge, loosening it.
"Are you sure you should be messing with that thing?" the Colonel asks.
"It looks Goa'uld," she says. "There aren't any controls here, but there is a slot that looks like something might attach. I think I remember the warden having something like that." To be honest, a lot about their first afternoon in Parramatta is unclear.
"Yeah," he says. "He brought it out with him in a box."
Sam files that tidbit away. Maybe if they could get into the warden's offices-.
The smell hits her first, a soft puff of smoke that gives off a scent like charred ozone. The Colonel grunts in pain, and then there's a tingle in her fingers, surging brutally up her arm, pain exploding behind her eyes.
Everything goes black.
Something cool is pressed against her forehead and she focuses in on the soothing sensation, anything to distract her from the throbbing ache that is the rest of her body. God, she feels like she's been hit by a bus.
"Carter," she hears again, fingers tapping her cheeks.
"Sir," she says, but it's more an incoherent slur of sound than a word, her tongue thick in her mouth.
"Open your eyes," he says and some part of her brain tries to follow the command. "Come on, Carter. Open your damn eyes."
Her eyes roll open, sliding across the room and it takes her a moment to focus in on his face.
"That's it, Carter," he encourages.
She licks her lips, struggling to find words through the faint buzzing in her ears. "What happened?"
Short sentence or not, he seems relieved by her ability to string words together. God, her brain really feels like it's been pureed in a blender. And why is she lying on the floor? There's something digging into her shoulder.
"I don't know," the Colonel says, pulling her attention back. "You were futzing with my collar and there was some sort of spark and then… It was like you were having a seizure or something."
Right, Sam thinks, the collars. "How long?"
He glances at his watch. "About two minutes." From the way he says it, it sounds like a lifetime. It feels like it too.
Her jaw aches from clenching her teeth and she forces herself to relax, taking a deep breath. "Okay," she says, her voice still a little shaky. "So no tinkering with the collars."
He lets out a huff, somewhere between relief and exasperation. "I'd say not, Carter." He sits back on his heels, dragging his hands over his face. He looks like he's just had twenty years scared off his life.
Letting her eyes close, she shifts away from the sharp object under her shoulder, her hand bumping up against his knee.
He doesn't move away.
It's SG-1's first briefing with the Colonel back in almost three months. Three months since he left the SGC to be cured by the Tok'ra. Two months since he returned, battered and shaken, from Baal's fortress. A few weeks since he disappeared off base to recuperate without so much as a word to SG-1.
Sam doesn't know what to expect from him. On the surface, he's the same man he's always been. He smiles and makes jokes, and she understands that it's all supposed to be okay now. Safely in the past. Forgotten and forgiven.
"The planet is called Methos," Jonas begins, voice eager as he brings up a slide on the screen.
Sam looks away from the hardness hiding in the Colonel's eyes, focusing her attention on the mission file in front of her.
Back to normal.
Sam barely manages to drag herself to the laundry the next morning, more out of an attempt to show the Colonel that she is fine rather than any sense of work ethic. She took the last of the painkillers that morning, but they aren't even touching the ache running through her entire body.
Luckily the head bully, Tess—as Hannah informed her over breakfast—doesn't bother her this morning, and Sam thinks she must look really pathetic if even the bullies are leaving her alone. It's not the relief it should be, especially when Hattie pulls her off water schlepping duty to the much less arduous job of running cloth through the ringers after they come out of the cold baths. Sam's not about to complain though, taking her place with the frail and the young.
It's mid-morning when one of the women in Sam's work detail—a particularly frail, downtrodden one—faints. All activity in the courtyard halts for a moment, as if waiting for something. But when the woman does nothing other than lie pale and unmoving on the slatted wooden floor, everyone returns to work. Two women pause by the unconscious woman, but only to carry her to the shade. Sam gets the sense that this is more to keep her out of everyone's way than any sense of decency or care.
Sam wants to ask someone what the hell is going on, why they haven't gone to get the poor woman medical attention, but the quiet women are too scared to talk to her, and the bullies haven't made up their mind about her yet, so she just keeps working.
When the guards eventually cycle through on their routine check, they don't bat an eye at the woman's distress. Not even the loss of productivity seems to concern them.
By lunch, the woman has roused again, but looks even worse if possible. Sam manages to catch sight of Hannah, sidling up next to her in the food line.
"What's happening to her?" Sam asks quietly with a jut of her chin towards the woman now huddled in the corner. She's shaking, her skin dewy with sweat, and everyone seems to be making a huge effort to pretend she doesn't exist, the laughter and chatter a bit forced.
Hannah's eyes dart in the indicated direction and just as quickly away again. "Her hearthmate has often spoken of escaping," she murmurs barely loud enough for Sam to hear, something like horror lacing her voice.
The warden's words rise in her mind. If you should be foolish enough to brave the desert in an attempt to escape, she will pay the price in your stead. She looks at the woman again, sees the unmistakable signs. "Is she going to…die?"
Hannah looks away. "If they catch him and return him in time, there is a chance for her."
Four hours later though, the woman takes one last rasping breath, her body finally stilling. It almost feels like a blessing, this sudden silence.
The guards remove the body.
Work continues uninterrupted.
When second shift ends, rather than taking the back way to the dormitory, Sam follows the rest of the women to the road. She watches them, the way their boisterous talk begins to subside, voices quieting, behavior shifting with each step towards the wagons conveying their hearthmates.
They line up in near silence to retrieve cups, filling them with water fresh from the stream. Even loud, crass Tess seems to shrink a bit, her swagger disappearing as she walks up to a dark, scraggly man Sam assumes to be her mate. It's only watching this strange ritual transformation that Sam really gets what it means for these women that they are only thing holding these men here—their tether.
It's the same backward co-dependence she's seen off world in many cultures taken to the nth degree. The men are ostensibly protecting these women by remaining, and in exchange, the women compliantly care for all their needs. These women are afraid, if not of their men specifically, than of their tenuous situation. If you piss off your mate, what's to say he won't just run off on you? Decide you aren't worth laboring away in a mine day after day for?
Their only answer is complete submission.
Having reached the front of the line, Sam grabs a cup of water. She skims the crowd for the Colonel, appearing by his side and offering him the cup.
He gives her a look of surprise. "Uh, thanks," he says, swallowing it down in one go.
Taking her arm, he pulls her towards the edge of camp, his voice quiet. "One of the men ran for it today," he says.
"I know," Sam says, feeling her stomach churn. She nods towards the cloth-covered body resting near the edge of camp where it waits for burial.
The Colonel curses, taking a step towards the body. "His hearthmate?" he asks.
So much for the guards bluffing them.
"There must be a kill switch of some kind," Sam says to his back, keeping her voice even, treating it like she's in the briefing room, filling him in on dry facts. Pretending she hadn't had to watch that woman die increment by increment. Ignoring the thud of pain still radiating from the back of her neck and what it means. "If the two collars lose their connection, if either gets too far away…"
"Jesus," he swears, and there's that same horror that's been crawling across her skin all day.
Sam thinks this must be why Hannah was so insistent on knowing if her hearthmate 'cared' for her. She wasn't being nosey. She just didn't want to bother getting attached to someone who was about to die anyway. Sam wonders how often that happens, how often a man here is bonded to a woman he doesn't care enough about not to kill.
The Colonel turns back to look at her and she can feel his eyes on her, assessing. "Carter?"
Taking a deep breath, Sam forces herself to look away from the body. "It wasn't…quick," she says, meeting his eyes. This isn't the first time her life has been in his hands, but this is nothing like trusting him to watch her six, different from having to follow his orders.
They stare at each other for a moment before he nods. "Yeah. Okay."
They spend the rest of the evening comparing notes, building maps of the terrain, and discussing the movements of guards.
Anything not to think about that body sitting out in the dark.