Title: And All Those Disappeared Children
Genre: Character study/quiet angst.
Beta: I want to make a joke about the liberal elements preventing me, but I feel like there's only so many references to that poem I can get away with here.
Continuity: Plays well with canon.
Prerequisites: Orientation in Season 6. Tag to Full Circle. Also something of a tag to To Hold Us To Earth, an earlier story which was a tag to Unnatural Selection, an episode which was a tag, of a sort, to Menace, which... oh, you get the point.
Summary: Well, I wrote in the damn wrist beads; seems only fitting I should write them out. And Jack and Sam practice the fine art of not talking about what they're talking about.
Disclaimer: The stars are uncopyrightable. Pity I'm not writing about the stars. The opinions expressed herein are the properties of the characters and not of the President, who has private information on the Capitol of Wyoming. Objects in telescope may be farther than they appear. Not to be used for the other use. Questions, comments and cirrus clouds can be left in replies or directed to magistrata(at)gmail(dot)com. Thank you for reading.
Wordcount: About 2500.
How Jack finds himself in the parking lot of an old, dilapidated and long-abandoned gas-station is that after he got home, he made the mistake of stargazing.
He'd gone straight up. Hadn't even stepped inside the house before swinging around to the ladder and climbing to the roof, flipping the lens cap off the telescope, and pulling the lawn chair up to it. Then he'd aimed the scope at the partly-cloudy sky, and cursed at the clouds as they inched their way across. There was only one part of the sky he was interested in, and he fixed his telecope on it and waited for the ragged clouds to pass.
It took twelve minutes as he paced and muttered, but the universe gave him a glimpse, and he took it.
Abydos was still there. Its sun, at least, and it didn't make a lot of sense why he should have expected anything different. Even if Anubis had taken out the sun, the light from that near, dim star would have fallen through space for years yet. Traveling night after night to die on the lens of his telescope.
Why he should have expected anything different is the question he's trying not to answer.
He's parked in the lot of a gas station that's been out of business since the mid-90s because someone once mentioned that this little pullover down on 115 was an inordinately good spot for stargazing, if you wanted to get a few miles out of the city and let the light pollution die down. He can still see the haze of city lights drifting up from Colorado Springs, but the clouds to the south are a bit darker than the clouds to the north, and that's about as good as you get if you don't want to drive all night to get it. He wants to stargaze, wants that one little patch of sky because for seven years (weather allowing) he's been able to pick out that one little glimmer off to the north and above him, and it's been nice having part of the universe he can rely on.
Driving out here hasn't helped. It's not like he'd be able to drive out past the clouds by going a few miles and pulling into and old lot. But the thought of going home and sleeping, even in his own bed, feels like giving up, and it makes him want to set fire to the SGC. However those two things are related.
There's still sand in his hair, and he wonders if the sand he saw on the last check-in was some sort of ascended sand, like the ascended kickball, like the ascended Skaara. Wonders how much of the planet is glass, now. There's a word for that: vitrification. Carter mentioned it in the debriefing – Abydos's postmortem – and he'd resisted the urge to point out that her fascination with scientific processes was a lot more charming when she wasn't ignoring all the good people who'd died. At least it wasn't a black hole, this time.
He honestly doesn't know why he's out here.
He's considering a walk along the side of the highway when a motorcycle speeds by, then banks and breaks so hard he's reaching for his cell phone to phone in an accident before he processes that it hasn't crashed, it's turning, and it's heading his way.
Whoever it is pulls a set of highly illegal maneuvers and speeds back up the highway to slide into the parking lot facing his car. The bike's a naggingly familiar 1940-something Indian, red and gold detailing, with a throaty growl to its motor that lasts right up until its rider brings it to a stop and kills the engine.
"Colonel?" asks a voice from behind the helmet.
Oh, lovely, he thinks. Now he remembers where he'd gotten the tipoff on the stargazing grounds from.
Carter pulls off her helmet and looks at him, and you'd think that Colorado Springs and the surrounding area would be big enough for him to not run into anyone he knew. But this is probably her territory, patrolled on two wheels and marked with her exhaust, and he should have known he wasn't the only one having a bad night. "I wasn't expecting to run into you," Carter says.
"I wasn't expecting to be out," he says, and it's a bit too revealing, but he keeps his poker face on and hopes it'll slide. He keeps his hands in his pockets, his shoulders set, his expression stony – every element of body language broadcasting Go away.
He's sure Carter can read that. She doesn't get off the bike, makes no attempt to deploy the kickstand, and doesn't even hang her helmet aside. It's just that she doesn't actually make a move to leave. She looks up, taking in the patchwork scraps of Milky Way, and says "Can't see much tonight, can you?"
"I hadn't noticed," Jack lies.
She looks back down at him, and gets a concerned expression. "Sir," she asks, and he knows he's not going to like this by the hang before the question. "...are you all right?"
No. Not really. No more than usual. A good handful of his friends and uncounted numbers of their countrymen just died, except they didn't really die, except they might as well be dead, and it was hard enough to work out how he was supposed to react to this the first time. Time has not been making it any easier. "I'm perfectly fine, Carter. Why wouldn't I be?"
Even he can hear the bitterness that turns the question flat.
Carter's eyebrows raise, and for a second she looks like she's going to answer him. She doesn't, though – just lets her eyebrows drop, grimaces, and says "You're lying, aren't you." That wasn't much of a question, either. "You just don't want to talk about it."
It's almost like she's heard this story before.
"Anyway, I was just heading back," he says, and fishes his keys out of his pocket. Carter looks down for a moment, reading the gauges on her bike.
"Colonel," she says.
Not going to be that easy, is it. "Carter, it's late. We've got–" ...absolutely nothing tomorrow, except for debriefings and reports to write and strategy meetings and official reviews and all the mundane, bureaucratic, dry, horrible wastes of time and resources that are mandated, after you manage to lose a planet and a lot of very valuable and very dangerous tech. And he still can't sleep, for all that tomorrow makes him tired just thinking about it. He doesn't finish the sentence.
She waits for him. A few seconds, that's it, then continues as if he'd never spoken. "When Anubis used the weapon against our Stargate," she says. He jumps a little, because he'd been sure the conversation was going to go straight on to Daniel and the Eye of Ra and the complete screaming mess of things they'd made. This is completely out of the blue. "There was discussion about having you dump in the ocean. Even if you'd ejected, you would have been right above an explosion that would have vaporized a good percentage of the world's water."
He hadn't approved of that plan, and he's not sure he likes the reminder. "I know."
"The point is," she says, "even if it had worked, there wouldn't have been much of Earth left. The ocean and ocean floor would have been irradiated. Water and debris would have been kicked up into the atmosphere in quantities that would have blocked out the sun. Even if we managed to use technology to survive the ensuing climate change, plant life would die at an unprecedented rate. With plant life would go both nutrition and oxygen; if any life survived, it might be something like the sulfur-vent feeders in the depths of the oceans that weren't directly affected, but even then, the seismic repercussions of a blast that size–"
He's already been wincing for a good eighty words before he says "Carter!" and cuts her off. She closes her mouth on the seismic activity, but doesn't give him a chance to ask her what her point is, already.
"Sir, we were sitting there in the SGC, thinking about directing you to do that," she said. Then, finally, the point at long last: "Do you think it's even possible to train someone to deal with that sort of decision?"
"Sure," he says flatly. "Why wouldn't it be?"
She shakes her head. "After a certain magnitude, humans aren't capable of comprehending large numbers in anything but abstract terms," she says. "I don't think any of us could comprehend what it would mean for an entire planet to die."
Oh. Oh. There she goes, and he puts two and two together – and then puts the sum of x together where x starts at two and ends at the number of forces driving in to create this clusterfuck, something like that, and here he'd just been used to Daniel taking the long way around all of his I-won't-talk-about-this defenses. "You think someone ascended might be able to?"
Carter shifts uneasily. "Oma ascended everyone on Abydos."
"And Daniel sold them out," Jack says. Daniel asked him to sell them out. Daniel had been so confident in his ability to keep them safe.
Quietly, with one hand, Jack works a string of beads off his right wrist, and pulls his hand free of his pocket. The beads are well-worn from the past several months, having soaked up sweat and blood and alien lakes and dirt, and they're grimy when he runs his thumbnail along them.
"I get the feeling that ascension doesn't make you any better at dealing with the universe than you already were," he says. "Sure doesn't keep you from making massive mistakes."
Carter eyes the beads like she's not sure where they came from.
On impulse, he tosses them toward her. "Catch."
She catches. "What–?"
"Daniel gave them to me," he says, and shrugs like it's not important. It wasn't important. He's sure as hell not keeping it important now. "You never counted on him at all, did you?"
She looks surprised. "Colonel?"
"Daniel," he says. "You said you weren't sure we could count on Daniel for anything, any more. But you never did in the first place, did you?"
Another pause. "I–"
"I mean after he ascended." Before, it wouldn't have been a question. But it seems like there were two different Daniels, and one of them has actually died. Who knows where the other is off to.
Carter's quiet for a moment. Then she says "I'm sorry, sir. You were heading home."
Oh, no you don't. Not that easily. "I asked you a question, Major."
Her hands tighten on the handles of her bike. She's probably eager to get away – judging from the speed she was taking the Indian when she first passed by him, he's guessing that her preferred mode of dealing with all of this is to get on the highway and not stop until she reaches Penrose or Cañon City.
Tough shit. She's the one who wanted to talk.
"I thought, when he ascended," she begins, and looks down at the dials again, at the speedometer which must be implacably resting at zero. "I thought things would change, but he'd still be... I don't know. Available to us, somehow. That he might stop by, once in a while. And then I never saw him. I started accepting the fact that he was dead, even if he was still out there somewhere. So, no. I'm not used to counting on dead people for anything."
There's a note of humor in her tone, even if it is a dry, black note. He snorts.
She looks up at him again, tilting her head to one side. Her tone is tentative. "Are your parents still alive?"
An odd change of topic. He wonders what fence she's trying to sneak around this time. "No," he answers. "Natural causes. Old age. O'Neills have..." He turns up one palm, gestures widely. "...long generations."
"My mother used to tell us how dangerous being in the Air Force was," Carter explains. "If a pair of officers in dress blues ever showed up at our door, she wanted us prepared for what that would mean. Mark thinks that warped him."
"Your brother," Jack says.
She nods. "I think it just confused us both, when she died. She wasn't the right person."
Okay. It feels like a peace offering; he's not sure why. He's trying to think of something to ask, about her mother or her father or even how her brother handled things, but she doesn't let him.
"At what point do we admit that he's gone?"
"Daniel?" he asks. She nods. "Well, that's always the question, isn't it?"
"Yeah," she agrees.
Neither of them knows what to say, after that.
Carter's heel comes up and slides along the rocker clutch, and one gloved thumb caresses the throttle. "I never knew the people of Abydos," she says. "You and Daniel – even Teal'c got to spend time with them. I never did."
A pang goes through him when he realizes that's true. Yeah, she's been to Abydos, but always on one in-and-out mission or another: bring Daniel to the SGC, pick up Daniel from his short vacation home, attend the burial of Daniel's wife, find Shifu in the desert, find and lose the Eye of Ra. She and Skaara had shared a laugh at his expense in the temple, and that was the closest she'd come to the living, breathing soul of the Abydonians.
How many people are left who remember them?
"I'm sorry," she says, and drops the string of beads into her jacket pocket. She rocks her foot back on the bike, ready to throttle and take off again. "I wanted to say that."
"They've got their journey," Jack says, and starts toward his truck again. "And we've got ours. Where are you headed?"
She catches the accidental double-meaning with a smile. "At the moment, south," she says. "You, sir?"
"Home." He waves a finger at the sky. "It's better out here when it's clear out, isn't it?"
"And there's a ladder up to the roof of the store, around back, where the air pump is," Carter says, pointing with one long arm toward the side of the building. "Jonas says it'll be mostly cloudy all week, but it's not forecasted to rain."
"Jonas needs to learn about ESPN," Jack says, opening the truck door. "Have a good ride, Major."
She nods, pulls her helmet back on, and kick-starts her engine. "Good night, Colonel."
He's flipping on his headlights when she pulls out of the lot and rejoins the highway, leaning on the throttle until the bike growls and speeds her on toward the horizon. He pulls out and turns north, toward the star of Abydos, heading the other way on the road.