That's what he'd said that time, right? Sam wasn't sure—exhaustion and concern had long since claimed her ability to do anything other than put one foot in front of the other. She had been studiously avoiding thinking about anything other than the task at hand for the past few hours. Ever since Teal'c had shaken her awake, handed her a bowl full of food and told her to get ready.
Sam leaned into a particularly odd angle on the edge of the mountain, using the weapon she'd been given to steady herself. Stepping sideways, she dug the ridged edges of her boots into the mud and climbed further upwards. She'd already missed a patch of loose ground under a fall of brush and slid backwards into Teal'c. Cursing under her breath, she'd righted herself and determined not to let it happen again.
Weakness. She couldn't be weak right now.
Allowing herself a glance to her left, Sam surveyed the wide expanse of green below that eventually turned into a wider field of blue. The clouds had wisped away, leaving the sky so blue that it seemed false, somehow. Cool, moist air buffeted the side of the mountain, and just below her, a few birds rode the winds ruffling the branches of the tallest of the valley's trees. Even after the devastating storm of the night before, the island glistened like a jewel. How that was possible, the Major couldn't guess. This place just seemed to defy reason.
Or maybe it was just the fact that they were here—in this paradise—fighting the Goa'uld.
Sucking in sigh, Carter returned her attention to the path in front of her. Wet, brown earth stretched up the side of the mountain, framed on either side by bright green foliage. Methodically, she made her way up the trail, avoiding the slicked places where her companions' feet had already fallen. Their bare feet gave them an advantage in the climb—deep holes in the path showed where their splayed toes had dug into the soil, giving the native men more stability in their ascent.
Those muddy footprint wells reminded her of something—another mission—another planet. Another group of native people and another impossible task. But really—wasn't that the norm these days? It would have been more alien to be in this situation in the mountains outside the Springs, rather than on a mountain a few billion light years away. How twisted, that this was more common for her than worrying about running out of milk or finding the perfect jeans.
When exactly had the Colonel said that? They'd been at the SGC. It had been a familiar moment—one of those light-hearted, teasing moments that they'd been able to have before they'd agreed to leave it all in the room. There hadn't been many of those times lately—staunch professionalism had taken over so maddeningly completely. But still, Sam had kept a precious few of those memories close—probably closer than she should. In those odd moments when she allowed herself to imagine impossibilities, she'd dust one off and let it fly, and then lose herself in the 'what ifs'. This particular phrase had poked at her for hours, now. She should have been able to figure it out, shouldn't she?
Five more steps. Ten. Thirteen. She followed the trail around the knee-shaped wedge at the top of the mountain and emerged at the top, then kept going until she'd passed by the small cadre of men who'd already reached the summit. Stopping at the edge of the meadow, she dragged her feet across the thick grass in an attempt to clean the worst of the mud off her boots.
"You may also need to clean off the blade of your weapon, Major Carter." Teal'c stopped just to her side, his large body angling between her and Aki's group of warriors.
"The machete." Teal'c nodded at the wooden instrument she held in her right hand. "It has become heavily soiled, which may negate its efficacy."
Sam lifted the long, broad knife to peer at the blade. Carved out of a solid piece of koa wood, the weapon was more like a machete than a sword—short of hilt with a wide blade that curved up into a wicked point. As if the heavy wedge wasn't already intimidating enough, the outward curve had been embedded with hundreds of pieces of broken shell and coral, creating a menacing serrated edge. The mud caking those little lethal bits, however, dulled its effect.
Without a word, she bent and swiped the blade with long strokes on the wet grass beneath her.
"I do not believe that their plan will work."
Sam glanced upward at her teammate. He stood easily, his staff weapon loose in his hands. Nothing in his manner would make anyone think that he doubted either his companions or his mission.
As plans went, though, she had to admit it hadn't been the greatest. Her main purpose in agreeing to it had been to get the group moving up the mountain. She'd hoped that a better plan would come to her during her climb, but so far no luck. Ducking her chin, she grimaced.
Too much thinking about other things.
"Me neither." Sam pulled a clump of grass from the ground and went to work on cleaning the caked mud from between the points on her blade. "But so far, I haven't been able to come up with anything better."
"Our focus should be on rescuing Colonel O'Neill and Daniel Jackson."
Her hand stilled, and Sam bit back a frown. "We can't let her get away with the child, Teal'c."
"Indeed not." He shifted, turning more fully towards her. "But neither can we sacrifice our friends in order to retrieve a child who may already be compromised."
"Compromised." The word felt wretched on her tongue.
"Nirrti may already have completed whatever experiments she was performing on the infant. It is possible that she is no longer the child she was."
She had to concede his point. With a tiny shrug, she nodded. "Okay, then what do you suggest?"
The current plan consisted mainly of entering the palace in groups of two and attempting to take out the guards before confronting the Goa'uld head-on. Sam had recognized the plan to be foolhardy immediately, but she'd agreed to it anyway. The plan came with a team, something she could not do without.
Sensing he had more to say, Sam tilted her head upward, squinting against the sun to see Teal'c better.
His expression changed slightly—moving from disapproval to speculation. "The force shield must require a great deal of energy to sustain it."
"I looked, Teal'c. So did you." Sam chucked the soiled grass to one side and pulled some more. "We couldn't find any kind of control panel anywhere near the cell."
"Then it stands to reason that the device is controlled remotely, and that there is a central power source within the palace."
"A central—" Frowning, Sam tossed a look at their companions, who were waiting with scarcely-veiled impatience. She forced back the tang of shame that threatened at the back of her throat. Well, hell. "A power plant. I should have thought of that."
The Jaffa's expression turned intimate. "Your mind has been much engaged of late. Of that I have no doubt."
He saw so much. And of course, he'd seen so much. Carter knew without a doubt that Teal'c had been following her thoughts all the way up the mountain—had known she'd been thinking not so much about solutions as about how much she had to lose. With his dark, quick eyes on her, she found that she had no words with which to respond, so she simply waited for him to continue.
"I am also certain that were we to find the main power supply to the palace, we would be able to destroy it. The crystals are notoriously fragile and can be disabled with the most primitive of weapons. This would serve to free Colonel O'Neill and Daniel Jackson."
"The Jaffa will keep watch on the power room."
He showed his agreement with a slight tilt of his head. "However, they are arrogant."
Carter considered this, feeling the beginnings of hope. "Meaning that they probably won't have the place very well guarded. They'll rely heavily on the outer contingent to keep us from getting into the building, leaving the inner sanctums relatively easy to breach."
"I have seen it many times."
With a final swipe of her weapon on the grass, Sam tilted a look upward at her friend and teammate. "What are the chances that they've stowed our gear and weapons in the same room as the power core? If we could get it all in one fell swoop—"
"That would indeed be an advantage."
"It would." She stood, swiping the knife dry on her pants. "But we'd have no idea where to begin. We didn't get any further into the building than that one corridor and those few rooms. There has to be much more to the place than that."
Teal'c inclined his head. "Unfortunately, we are not familiar with the palace."
Carter tugged at her bottom lip with her teeth, frowning. After a long breath, she looked up at Teal'c and gestured toward the group milling around the grass a few yards away. "No. We're not. But they are."
She still wasn't sure of their names.
Aki, she knew, of course. He was the most familiar of the men who had chosen to accompany Sam and Teal'c back up the mountain. Even now, half covered in the mud that seemed to cling to everything, his tattoos set him apart from the rest. The other men she recognized, but didn't know their names with any certainty. Six in all. Six men willing to defy their priests and God and journey into the heart of the island to try to rescue two strangers and a half-breed infant.
Sam approached the group deliberately, her weapon held easily at her side. The rough hemp-like rope covering the handle tickled at her palm, and she adjusted her grip before stopping at Aki's side.
The chief raised a brow at her. "Are you prepared to continue?"
"Yes—thank you." Sam nodded, offering a smile. "I just have a few questions about the palace."
"We have told you all we know, Nohea."
"I know." Scanning the rest of the group, the Major continued. "But I've been thinking as we climbed up here, and I recalled that you told me that you'd lost a friend in the palace."
Aki looked towards his feet before focusing back on her. "We did. He was overtaken by whatever demon resides there."
"I know what that's like." Sam raised a hand to rifle through the mess of her hair. "I've lost many friends in the last few years."
"Then you know that we can take no chance that this demon escapes. We must destroy her and her guards."
"And we'll try to do that." Eyes widening, Carter looked at each of the men in turn. "But we'll have a better chance of succeeding if we have more help."
One of the other men shook his head, exhaling roughly. Taller and broader than Aki, the young man held not a machete in his hand, but a sinister barbed spear. "But there was no one else in the village who would come to the palace with us. I came only because the baby still missing is ohana to me."
"Peko is right. No one else could come." Lifting a hand, Aki gestured back towards the village. "We could not leave the women and children unguarded. We could not spare any more of our people."
"I'm not talking about your people, Aki. I'm talking about mine."
Silence punctuated her words. Sam bit her lip and turned her head into the winds that seemed omnipresent.
"They have been taken captive, have they not? Trapped in a chamber in the palace." Aki scowled. "How could they be of help? How do you know they are even still alive?"
"They aren't dead."
"How do you know?"
"We need to free them." The statement sounded simplistic, even to Sam's ears. "But to do that, we need to cut the power to the shield holding them in their cell. There has to be a room within the building that has a machine in it that generates power. The problem is that Teal'c and I didn't get far enough into the place to see where that room might be."
"You believe that we might know of such a room?"
"You and your men have been in there. You must have seen more of it than we have. All we have to do is to find the power center and neutralize it, and the shield that keeps the Colonel and Daniel in their cell will disappear. They'll be able to help us find the child."
The chief's dark eyes narrowed. "But what of the guards?"
"We find a way to distract them—a diversion. Something to get them out of the palace." Sam scanned the group before continuing. "The room that we're looking for will be deep within the walls of the building, but it probably won't be too heavily guarded. The Goa'uld are arrogant that way. If you can draw the outer palace guards away from the building, then Teal'c and I should be able to get deep enough into it in order to find the power core. It'll be easier if one of you has seen it and can tell us where to go."
"Describe this room to us."
Teal'c's deep baritone rose from just over Carter's shoulder. "The power core is an array of crystals. The stones glow as they give power to the facility. There will be many of them in a variety of different colors. They will be arranged in the walls, perhaps, or on racks in the center of the room. It is possible that a noise might emanate from this room—like a constant drone or a hum."
"I know the room of which you speak." One of the men, slightly smaller than the rest, shoved his hair behind his shoulder and stepped forward. "I believe I have seen it."
Carter stepped toward him. "You've seen the power room?"
"A'e." The man nodded. "It is within the ground, but not so deep as the ana kahe pele."
"Makani means that is not as far down as the lava tubes. It will be no more than ten feet below the surface." Aki offered the clarification to Sam and Teal'c before gesturing for his friend to continue.
"There are steps down to it, and in the center of the chamber, stones on a pillar shine brightly like bits of the sun."
"That has to be it." Allowing herself a tiny smile, Sam ran a hand through her hair. "Are there any other rooms in the palace like that one?"
Quickly, Makani shook his head. "Out of many rooms, it is the only one with stones such as this."
This time, Teal'c asked the question. "From where do these steps descend?"
"At the front of the palace, there is a grand room. At the back of it there is a smaller one. To the right—on the side of the mountains—there is a passage. Follow the passage and you will come to the steps."
"Is there any other way in?"
"A'e." Another man, tall, thin, with hair cropped short, stepped forward. "Behind the pillar there is a hidden portal in the wall. It is covered with a strange kapa cloth. If you follow that passage, you will find yourself outside the palace, on the mauka side."
It only took Sam a moment to figure that out. "So, the mountain side?"
After a long, thoughtful pause, Aki nodded. "It appears that we have a new plan."
"It does." Shifting his staff weapon in his hand, Teal'c moved closer. "Major Carter and I will enter the palace as soon as you and your men have enacted your diversion. We will free Colonel O'Neill and Daniel Jackson and find the infant the Goa'uld Nirrti has taken."
"And do you think that it is possible to accomplish all of that?" Skepticism mixed evenly with the resolve on the chief's face. "We are outnumbered and our weapons are not as powerful."
"We've done it before, Aki." Sam looked down at her muddy feet before lifting her gaze back up to her companions. "On this planet, and on many others. We've beat them before and we can do it again."
Sam jogged close to Teal'c as they made their way towards the palace. They were taking a longer path into the forest, avoiding the path in favor of a more shielded route. The native men had already peeled off towards the mountains, their plans made swiftly and in their own language as they angled off into the denser forestation further inland. Carter and Teal'c had a general idea of their scheme, but they were both prepared to wing it if necessary.
Because that's what they did, right? Instances like this were what her career, her life, had become over the past four years. A seemingly unending series of moments when nothing went right followed by moments of blinding greatness, all accompanied by fear so deep and disturbing that she felt at times that she could no longer keep her head above it.
The key was to turn the anxiety into motivation.
How many times had she pulled that particular trick out of her hat? And how many times could she expect to succeed in the future? This is where the panic had started lately—the fear that eventually her luck would run out and she would lose everything that she cared about. Her nightmares weren't about the monsters she'd encountered at the other end of wormholes, nor about being killed or stranded off world. She didn't dread what she'd find in the far-distant reaches of the galaxy.
What terrified Sam Carter was returning home alone.
Her feet sliced through the long grasses as they neared the outer most edges of the woods surrounding the palace. Bending low, Sam trailed Teal'c as he made his way from shadow to shadow, using the trees to conceal their passage through the vegetation and towards a predetermined spot near the entrance of the palace.
When Teal'c stopped, so did she, crouching low behind a large hibiscus bush. Her heart pounded within her, and she took a moment to concentrate on her breathing, trying to calm down. It would take time for Aki and his men to bring their plan to fruition, and she intended to recoup as much strength as possible in the interim.
O'Neill had said it wrong on purpose, trying to be funny. He knew the correct pronunciation, of course. Just yesterday he'd used it while he'd been on the other side of the strange orange force field. As he'd reminded her of another time they'd stood so separated.
Fishing. That was it. The Colonel had just invited her to go fishing with him again, and she'd declined—for the second time. He'd left her lab and made his way down the corridor—and she'd run after him just as she had days earlier. Only, he hadn't been beamed away by the Asgard this time. Instead, he'd been summoned by the General to help take care of the doomed submarine while she'd gone to help Thor with the replicators in his home galaxy.
She'd arrived back at Earth just in time to help save him. Just in time to lock a signal on the Colonel and Teal'c and pull them away from certain death.
She'd felt this same panic then, too, as she'd realized the situation. The thought of losing her team, of losing him, was terror itself, a bilious thing that rose up in her gut and threatened to destroy her from the inside out.
And what had pulled her through it that time had been the thought—the hope—that someday if the Colonel offered again, she'd be able to say 'yes'.
So she crouched hidden, waiting for the cue to go forth and vanquish yet another bad guy.