Gazing Into the Abyss
Jack O'Neill let out a low whistle as he stepped off the ladder an SGC HazMat team had installed in the several hours since they'd moved in to allow access to the pit in Fraiser's livingroom. He was roughly forty feet down, standing on a ragged patch of black-lined bedrock where at least three tunnels intersected with the vertical shaft.
"Yeah," Daniel Jackson's voice reached his ears, filtered through the two-way radio, and echoing inside his decon-suit. "Impressive, isn't it?"
Jack twisted to look at the other man as he appeared out of a tunnel lined in ash so black it seemed to absorb every bit of light in the area. "In a horror movie sort of way, I guess," he murmured, a shudder of discomfort running through him, while a thin layer of sweat broke out on his skin, leaving him cold and clammy inside the plastic suit.
"That's probably as good a description as any," Daniel allowed, not liking their surroundings any better than Jack, though he was better at sublimating his fears into productive work ... at least when it came to studying anything new or unique. And this was definitely new and unique. Whereas Jack was much better at sublimating his fear into shooting things. Unfortunately for him, there was nothing left to shoot at. "Any word on Sam and Fraiser?"
Jack nodded quickly. "Talked to Warner after we got the cordon set around the house ... said they've got the worst of the bleeding stopped and both of 'em seem to coming around mentally. He thinks they're gonna be okay."
"Cass?" the younger man added.
"She's with that second lieuie that's been looking after her a lot ... Cardones ... there's no sign of any physical injuries and she's coherent ... just really, really quiet. I told her I'd take her over to the hospital as soon as Warner says she can see Carter and the doc."
"She give you any idea how she used the Sherxan?"
Jack shook his head. "Just kept repeating what she said when we got here ... that the spirits of her family came through the thing and saved 'em all." He paused, looking around them at the oily ash clinging to every surface in sight, flinching when he noticed that one of the 'rocks' was shaped like the creatures. There were several similar sculptures aboveground, each of them enough to make his skin crawl. "And who knows, maybe she's right." Something had definitely killed a whole lot of those things ... and it wasn't like the kid was carrying grenades like the team on the base.
Daniel raised a brow at that. "You don't actually believe that," he muttered.
Jack shrugged. "Hell-if-I-know," he exhaled, making it all one word. "I've seen weirder stuff through the gate." Another shrug. "Who knows? Maybe they were looking after the kid." A moment passed and then he shook his head, throwing off the sense that something had walked over his grave and quickly changing the subject. "So, you wanna show me what you guys have found? HazMat guys said it was major."
"Oh yeah," Daniel murmured and jerked his head to indicate Jack should follow him. "There was nothing like this where these creatures got in on the base ... nothing at all."
Jack noted a few more frozen creature as they passed a couple of hollowed out chambers off of the corridor they were in.
"They were just constructing a shallow depression in the rock," Daniel continued, sounding both excited and scared at the same time.
It occurred to Jack that the younger man was one of the few people he'd ever known who so frequently seemed to combine the two disparate emotions. It probably wasn't a good sign for his peace of mind that the other one was Carter.
"...this is...." Daniel shook his head as he trailed off, uncertain quite how to describe what they'd found. "Anyway, it's amazing." He pointed at the entrance to another chamber a few yards on down the corridor they were in. "In there ... Teal'c's ... uh ... well, you'll see." He waved Jack inside as they drew close.
Ducking to avoid banging his head on the low arch, Jack stepped into a hollowed out room, roughly ten feet by ten feet, quickly spotting Teal'c's broad frame where he stood with his back to the entrance, one hand brushing gritty, black tar away and studying the remaining rock under the bright light of a portable work lamp. "Hey, Teal'c, what'd you...." He trailed off as he drew close enough to get a glimpse at what the Jaffa was studying. Frowning, he did a slow pivot, picking out more details, filling in the blanks as he realized what he'd seen past Teal'c's shoulder. "It's writing ... everywhere...." He saw now that there were thousands of characters; some grouped together, most haphazard, jumbled here, in straight lines there, overlapping in many places until it was hard to tell where one pattern began and another ended. "What the hell?" he exhaled uneasily.
"Yeah." Stepping into the chamber, Daniel looked back and forth, plucking out the hints of regular shapes, just enough to make it obvious what lay beneath the obscuring layer of ash.
"It is Goa'uld," Teal'c said without turning, still working to brush the oily ash away from the patch directly in front of him. He turned his head, scanning both directions before coming back to study the area he'd cleared somewhat. "But much of it makes little sense ... like the rantings of a madman." His head canted to one side inside his helmet as he thoughtfully studied what he could make out. "Or many madmen," he added after a beat, "all ranting at the same time." He reached out, brushing aside the black coating on another section and studying it momentarily before continuing. "It is similar to certain ancient Goa'uld methods of record keeping ... they often had tribute rooms covered in writing, which recounted their exploits. But they were organized ... carefully laid out and worded.... This is...." He trailed off, unable to think of a sufficiently descriptive term.
Jack eyed the twisted array of lettering. "So it's the Bizarro World version of Goa'uld storytelling," he said acidly, ignoring Tea'c's blank look as he directed the next question at Daniel. "The question is, do you know what any of it says?"
"Yeah," Daniel said quickly, looking around them, his expression a little ill. "Most of it just recounts everything Sam, Fraiser, and Cass have been doing since Cass moved in ... figuring out their behavior I think ... listening in on their conversations--"
"These things could understand English?" Jack demanded.
"A little," Daniel admitted. "They seem to have been more aware of moods than actual words, though it could explain the Hankans taboo against talking about them or the Sherxan when you weren't protected. Didn't want to give them any clues. They also talk about what they were going to do to them ... in detail...." He swallowed hard, feeling a little nauseous after what they'd read.
Jack's hands fisted tightly at his sides. "Anything else?" he rasped.
"Yeah," the Egyptologist said quickly and traded a look with Teal'c as he pointed at the section the Jaffa had cleared. "That area seems to be something of a history. It's going to take a lot of analysis to really be certain about what it means since it's pretty disjointed...."
"But?" Jack prompted when Daniel didn't immediately continue.
"It looks like these are the creatures mentioned in the books we saw ... or rather their descendants...." Daniel trailed off again and Jack had to resist the urge to mutter impatiently while the other man gathered his thoughts. "Judging by this, Sam's right ... they can somehow surf between our space and the N-Space that the gates cut through ... moving in and out at will. They travel that way ... moving from world to world, feeding and moving on. They land when they breed ... use the event horizon to carve out a nest for their young ... feed them from the local populace, then move on when they're ready to fly. But sometime in their history, they visited a world I'm sure is Hanka ... it dovetails with the Hankan story you read. They landed and attacked ... fed on their prey at will while they built their nest ... then they fed on prey that had another creature living within it...."
O'Neill frowned, not liking the sound of that at all. He only knew of one creature within a creature, and they never came with good news. "A Goa'uld?" he exhaled, his voice tight with stress.
"I think so ... the description fits. It describes the creature as the 'snake within.'"
"Sounds like a damn Goa'uld to me," Jack ground out. But this wasn't making any sense at all.
Daniel nodded, still staring at the characters carved into the walls with fascination. "In any event, after they devoured that creature, they started to change ... to plan ... to understand their enemies in ways they never had before ... to strategize accordingly ... and to hate...." his voice trailed off.
Jack couldn't restrain the urge to glance around himself, hunting for any sign of unexpected shadows. "So, you're saying these things ate a Goa'uld ... and then turned into 'em?"
Shaking his head, Daniel pointed at another section of the wall. "No ... no parasitic tendencies ... but they seem to have gained a warped version of the Goa'uld's intelligence and knowledge ... and their rage ... while maintaining their own drives to breed and to feed."
"Great," Jack exhaled. "Just what we need, a warped version of the Goa'uld."
"Indeed," Teal'c said very softly, still staring at the carved figures, his eyes tracing over the roughly made shapes. "They had nearly wiped out their prey when the Hankans found a way to strike back."
"The Sherxan?" Jack murmured and both men nodded.
"I think so," Daniel said and continued to explain, "Apparently bright light kills them--"
"The flash-bangs," Jack said instantly as he put two and two together.
Another nod. "But light can't reach them if they enter their own universe ... and on a primitive world ... well, those people were sitting ducks for these creatures ... especially with added intelligence. They just had to disappear into their own space until nightfall, then feed at will ... until suddenly, their prey fought back ... hit them where they thought they were safe ... nearly wiping them out. Only a single breeding pair survived the conflagration ... and it's their young that came here. From this description I'd say they either live one hell of a long life or their time doesn't move the same way ours does." He reached out, brushing a few letters as though that might somehow make the message more coherent. "A lot of what they've written doesn't make much sense ... but somehow they knew about what happened on Hanka ... and they gloried in it. They tracked Cass when we brought her here ... because she was the last of their enemies ... and they wanted revenge. They knew she had no protection, so they stalked her ... as well as Doctor Fraiser and Sam...."
"Why didn't they attack sooner?" Jack whispered, not understanding that at all.
"Because they wished revenge," Teal'c broke in.
"Yeah, I got that, but--"
"But they came here not merely for revenge," the Jaffa continued implacably, the only sign of his unusually grim mood, the muscle that pulsed in his jaw. "They came also to breed. As Daniel Jackson said, they need to land to hatch their young...."
"The other chambers," Daniel clarified, nodding to indicate the rooms they'd passed. "The HazMat team found evidence of what were probably some kind of eggs."
Teal'c nodded, reaching out to trace a particularly deeply cut line of lettering, his voice an angry rasp as he spoke. "They intended that their new hatchlings should make their first meal on the last of their enemy's children ... and those who cared for her."
Jack swallowed hard, unbelievably shaken as the reality of what they were telling him sank in. Those things would have killed the women and the child, then probably started spreading outward, feeding themselves and their young. "Does sound like the Goa'uld version of revenge," he ground out after a long moment. He reached up, pushing his helmet back so he could see better, and leaned closer to peer at the jagged lettering as an ugly thought occurred to him. "What about the ones on the base? Was it some kind of two pronged vengeance?" They hadn't had the Sherxan to fight those, just regular flash bang grenades. If Daniel was right about their ability to just merge back into their own universe and wait for another opportunity when faced with normal weapons, something was going to have to be done.
"They were not of the same flock," Teal'c said confidently and pivoted to point at another partially cleared section, this one lower to the ground and clearly overlapped by several other bouts of ranting.
"How do you know?" Jack asked, frowning behind his clear plastic face mask.
"The other flock followed Captain Carter and Doctor Fraiser from the wormhole ... it scented the bodies of the dead creatures ... and came to feed. A scout tasted their blood on the base ... and hungered for more. It attempted to follow them here ... and this flock devoured it before it could attack."
Swallowing hard, Jack felt a fresh flow of sweat slide down the line of his spine. "Cannibalism?" he exhaled in a voice sick with disgust.
Teal'c shook his head. "Since their change, they no longer consider themselves the same. They considered that flock to be a lower life form ... prey ... just as we are prey. They enjoyed killing it ... considered it unworthy of living."
Wondering if hiding under the bed was considered an inappropriate response for a decorated officer, Jack absorbed that flat explanation. "Great," he exhaled on a long note. Which meant the Outer Limits had joined the Twilight Zone on his list of things not to watch. At this rate he was going to be down to Full House reruns real soon. And now that he thought about it, there'd always been something a little spooky about those Olsen twins.
"We'll undoubtedly know more once we've had a better chance to go through it all," Daniel murmured, "but it looks like they were two very separate groups; one, feral predators ... the other, very intelligent ... if not entirely ... sane...." He trailed off.
Jack looked back and forth between his two teammates. "But how it is ... possible..." he exhaled, still hunting for some other explanation for what seemed impossible.
Daniel offered a shrug. "We know the Goa'uld have some kind of genetic ... or race memory ... as well as certain mutagenic properties since they meld their own genes with those of the host to create the new Goa'uld ... somehow, their genetic material must have ... bonded with these creatures."
"Assuming it is the Goa'uld they describe ... which seems most likely," Teal'c murmured. He looked back at the other two men. "However, if they were Goa'uld ... then it means they visited Hanka long before we knew."
A muscle pulsed in Jack's jaw. That hadn't occurred to him yet. "Why isn't that a comforting thought?" he exhaled after a beat.
"Because it opens up the possibility that the Sherxan is Goa'uld technology?" Daniel said very softly.
"If these creatures attacked one of them, they would logically have created a way to destroy them," Teal'c added.
"I think I like Cass' explanation better," O'Neill murmured, still staring at the writing as though it might suddenly be readable to him if he just concentrated hard enough.
With no more to offer, Daniel and Teal'c were both silent.
Another shudder of horror slid down Jack's spine. "Oh yeah, gotta love this job some days ... and then there are days like today...."
* * * * * *
When you weren't the doctor, Janet Fraiser mused as she stared at the bland acoustical tiles over her bed, hospitals really sucked big time. Not an eloquent thought, she realized, but true all the same. And doctors weren't such great shakes either, she decided as she heard the low mumble of Warner and Hawkins conferring. They were careful to keep their voices too low for her to eavesdrop, though in the hours since they'd been brought into the base hospital she'd managed to badger them hard enough to learn that the black ash appeared to be microbiologically benign and none of the tests on herself and Sam showed any sign of bacterial infection or contamination around the wounds. Tired of lying there uselessly, she opted for sitting up uselessly and pushed up on one elbow to peer at the neighboring bed. Sam raised an eyebrow as their eyes met and a wry smirk twisted her lips. The two men slipped out, still talking very softly, and Janet shook her head with an irritated sigh. "Am I that annoying when you come in hurt?" she muttered unhappily.
Thinking that the doctor was anything but annoying when she was hurt or scared, Sam shook her head. "A little pushy sometimes," she admitted, "but never annoying."
Janet lifted a bandaged hand to indicate the doorway the two men had disappeared through. "Well, if I ever just leave you hanging about your condition, feel free to kick me in the ass."
Nope, Janet wasn't handling being out of the loop well at all, Sam thought with an ironic smile.
"Hey, can anyone get in on that deal?" a sarcastic voice cut in as Jack O'Neill entered, a small figure tucked close to his side, one hand resting on her narrow shoulder.
Janet didn't bother to respond to his wry joke, just smiled at Cassandra. "Hey there, Cass," she said, her tone taking on a tender, coaxing note.
"How're you doing, kiddo?" Sam added while Janet studied the child, automatically checking her condition.
The child shrugged listlessly, her eyes downcast. "'Mokay," she mumbled, sounding and looking anything but.
Janet nodded to indicate O'Neill. "The colonel called earlier to let us know you'll be staying at his place till we're outa here ... said Lieutenant Cardones was looking after you while he was working...." She flashed O'Neill a grateful look, relieved to know the child would be staying with someone who genuinely cared for her and understood her unique situation. The various uniformed babysitters Hammond assigned were great, but it wasn't the same.
The child nodded in confirmation without looking up at the adults.
The two women traded worried looks, then Sam made another effort to break through the emotional barrier the child had erected around herself. "I hope you know how proud of you Janet and I both are ... how brave we think you were."
"Thanks," Cassie whispered, her voice so strangled it was nearly inaudible, her eyes still glued firmly on the floor.
Jack directed a surprisingly tender look at the child and gently ruffled her hair. "No news on Simon," he mouthed to the woman, which undoubtedly explained much of the child's depression.
Janet was surprised to find herself sniffing back on the threat of tears. She hadn't been crazy about adding the dumb mutt to her household when Jack had sprung it on her, but she had to admit, he'd grown on her. And god knew, Cassie adored the animal.
"You two are okay, right?" Cassandra asked in a small voice and risked a quick look up before she went back to studying her shoes with overbright intensity.
Janet nodded. "Yeah ... a little worse for the wear, but we're both gonna be just fine." The cuts were all superficial, the anti-coagulant had worn off quickly, and the drug haze was nearly gone. Thankfully, there were no signs of complications in herself, Sam, or the personnel who'd been injured on the base.
The child heaved a sigh of relief, and the colonel gently nudged her forward. She stepped between the two beds, her posture rigid, eyes downcast. Apparently emotionally shut down, she didn't seem to know what to say or do.
"Just fine," Sam echoed Janet's prediction and reached out to catch a small hand in her own, squeezing warmly. "Everything's gonna be okay." She glanced up, briefly meeting a pair of worried, brown eyes past Cassie's shoulder. A stiff nod from the child brought her attention back down as she tugged her closer. "I know it's probably all pretty scary, but you did really well." She slid an arm across narrow shoulders, pulling Cassie into a hug she didn't return, then glanced up as Janet slid out of her bed, dressings white against lightly tanned skin. Her full concentration on Cass, she stepped forward, the look on her face heart-stoppingly tender.
"Sam's right," the doctor whispered, petting the child's hair with a gentle hand, "and we're both really proud of you."
Cassandra just stood unmoving in Sam's hold and the two woman shared a worried look, then both glanced at O'Neill, who shrugged equally helplessly.
"Really, Cass," Sam whispered, "you did so well--"
"No," the girl said suddenly and shook her head stiffly, her whole body trembling ever so slightly.
"Cass," Janet began carefully, sensing there was more going on than they understood, "Sam and I both owe you our lives. If you hadn't acted so--"
"No!" the girl repeated more decisively, jerking back from Janet's touch as though it burned. She would have pulled away from Sam, but the blonde wouldn't let go, not even when Cass cried out and yanked wildly in an effort to get free.
"Cass--" Sam began, her tone low and soothing, but the girl shook her head, her tone cracking as she cried out.
"No! It's my fault!" She shook her head wildly while the adults looked on in horrified silence, caught too much by surprise to react in those first seconds. "Everything ... everything that's happened! It's all my fault!" And then it all came spilling out amid wracking, heart-breaking sobs; how she'd spied on the ceremony with Sam even though she wasn't supposed to, the legends that the gods would punish anyone who disobeyed their commands, even Rachel's parting words that the Devourers would eat her. Collapsing into a heap as she finished, she allowed Janet to tug her onto her lap as the woman sank down into a sitting position, her back nudged up against her bed.
"Shhhh, it's okay," the doctor soothed over and over, wrapping the child in a protective hold as she petted her hair gently. Glancing up, she shared a look with Sam as the other woman slid out of bed, crouching next to Janet and reaching out to massage Cass' shoulder lightly.
O'Neill stepped forward and dropped to a half crouch, a muscle pulsing in his jaw. "You want me to get a doctor?" he mouthed to Fraiser, wondering if maybe the kid should be sedated.
Janet shook her head, still petting Cass' hair soothingly. "No ... I think it's okay," she mouthed back. Cass had gone limp in her arms, burying her face in her shoulder as she continued to cry softly. Janet was hoping it was best to just let it burn itself out.
"God," Sam breathed almost inaudibly as she continued rub the child's back and arm lightly, "no wonder she was having nightmares. She blames herself." She thought she'd kept her voice low enough that the crying child wouldn't hear, but Cass stiffened.
"It is my fault. I disobeyed the rules ... brought the curse down on everyone--"
"No, Cass, no," Janet whispered, her voice creaking painfully, her eyes glossy with barely unshed tears. Resting her palm on the child's cheek and along her jawline, she guided her head up gently. "Sam, Colonel O'Neill, and I have seen what the Goa'uld have done ... over and over ... you didn't cause that ... you and your people were just caught in the middle of something you had no way to fight--"
"But if I hadn't--" the child sobbed, her chin quivering.
"It wouldn't have made a bit of difference," Sam broke in. She swallowed hard, sliding a hand up to stroke the child's hair. "It wasn't a curse." She pushed down a flood of helpless guilt that she couldn't afford to feel, reminding herself that none of them had had any idea the price the Hankans would pay for their willingness to help the SGC. "It was an evil act by power-mad creatures willing to do anything to get their way." She drew Cass' head up, holding her gaze. "There was nothing you could have done to stop it ... and nothing you did to cause it."
"But the Devourers came just like the legends say ... and you didn't believe in those either--"
"No, we didn't," Janet admitted, "and that was our mistake, but, Cass, they were real creatures...."
"Yeah, Cass," O'Neill confirmed, "we killed 'em with flash-bang grenades where they got on the base. They're not demons or anything like that. Just some weird lifeform we didn't know about before." He carefully didn't mention how weird. Hell, he was considering having a few nightmares over what Daniel had shown him. No need to scare the kid any more than necessary. "That's all ... just some nasty little beasties ... and between us, we got rid of 'em."
"And we probably led them back here," Sam added quietly, trading a look with Janet before she added. "The accident Janet and I had on Hanka ... it happened in the common house. The floor just crumpled right out from under me," she felt Cassie's tense under her hand, "and I fell--"
"Into the Abyss," the child whispered in a very tiny voice, her tone sick with horror. She twisted to stare up at Sam. "You didn't tell me that."
"We didn't want you to worry," Sam said softly and shrugged. "Didn't really think anything of it."
"They built the common house over the first nest of them ... where Priam destroyed them. The priests said they'd come back in search of vengeance one day ... that they could smell the bodies of their dead ... and they'd know if any of us didn't have the protection of the Sherxan."
"But, however they got here," Janet murmured, leaning her head forward until her forehead just brushed the child's temple, "they didn't really hurt anyone ... nothing permanent anyway ... and you helped drive them back." Her hand brushed Sam's as she reached up, fingers fluttering over baby-fine hair.
"But they were here before you went to Hanka ... I saw them," the child whispered raggedly.
Jack considered speaking up only to conclude it wasn't really the time. He could fill Carter and the doc in later -- when small ears weren't listening -- and give them a chance to figure out how best to tell Cass everything.
Janet started to disagree only to change her mind. After all, Cassie'd called it right more times than the rest of them put together so far. "Maybe," she allowed, "but you didn't have anything to do with that." She sighed softly, struggling to find a way to communicate on the child's level ... in terms she could understand and believe. "You said your family's souls are tied to the Sherxan, right?" she said at last.
Cass nodded ever so slightly, her chin just barely dipping in confirmation. "They watch over and protect the chégal...."
Janet nodded, absorbing the quiet confirmation. "And it ... they ... protected you when you needed protecting ... in fact, they protected all of us." She gently drew Cassie's chin back around until their eyes met. "Do you think they'd have done that if they thought you were at fault for any of this?"
The child had no answer for that question and was silent for a long moment. She glanced at Sam, who simply nodded, backing her friend up, sensing she might have found a way of reaching the girl. "But everybody died but me," she whispered at last, her voice painfully small.
Janet had to swallow hard and breathe deeply to control her own emotional response to nearly inaudible words. "Cass," she said at last, her voice a husky shadow of itself, "I never met your parents ... believe me, I wish I had..." she blinked at the tears that filled her eyes and made the world look like it was swimming, "...but even without meeting them, I can tell you something, they'd be grateful you're alive." She slid the fingers resting lightly on Cassie's cheek up and through the fine hair at her temple, brushing it back from her face. "And the only thing they'd want for you is for you to be happy and safe. They would never want you to suffer in any way."
Cassie tried to hold the tears back for a moment, then gradually ... almost muscle by muscle ... broke down, crumpling into quiet sobs. Janet pulled her close once again, tugging the child's head to her shoulder as she stroked baby-fine hair and whispered soothing nonsense phrases. Sam's hand joined her own in tenderly petting the child's hair, her voice soft and soothing as it blended with Janet's. Still holding the child carefully, Janet shifted fractionally, trying to find a more comfortable position on her back where the bedrail was biting into the injuries she'd gotten on Hanka. Realizing the problem, Sam shifted her own position and gently tugged the woman and child both into the protection of her arms.
"It's gonna be all right," the blond whispered over and over. Peering over Janet's shoulder, nearly cheek to cheek with the other woman. Her breath ruffling the child's hair, she held the two of them close, offering whatever comfort she was able. A minute or two passed before it occurred to her that the colonel was still there, and she looked up to find him watching silently, his expression unreadable. Before she could say anything, the soft sound of his cell phone drew his attention, forcing him to break eye contact as he retrieved it from the inner breast pocket of his coat. He answered, listened for a moment, then murmured something noncommital before hanging up. "That was Teal'c," he mouthed, then nodded toward the door, "I'm needed back at Fraiser's place." He indicated Cass. "She okay to stay here?"
Sam abruptly realized that Janet had looked up in time to catch his message as she nodded. "Yeah ... it may be for the best," she responded just as inaudibly. "It's the first time she's really let go ... she needs to cry it out."
He nodded, rising to his feet. "I'll call you and let you know what's going on when I know." A moment later, he was gone, leaving them alone.
Janet sighed softly, her expression soft, and pressed a small kiss to the top of Cass' head, then allowed Sam to tug her back until she was leaning against the taller woman, so tired she could barely move. She wasn't certain exactly when the child fell asleep, only that at some point, she was completely limp, her breathing slow and regular. She looked up at Sam, relief glittering in her eyes. "She's asleep," she breathed.
Sam nodded, peering past Janet's shoulder at the child. There was still worry in her eyes, but for the first time in weeks, she felt a measure of hope that they might get her through. "She's exhausted. This has been ripping her up.... God, why didn't I see it?" She blinked away a few tears, barely resisting the urge to follow Cassie's lead and hide her head in Janet's shoulder.
"None of us did," the doctor whispered, her fingers fluttering over the child's hair before settling on her upper back. "She couldn't even admit to herself until tonight." She shook her head. "Don't blame yourself."
"But I..." Sam started to argue only to trail off, her throat so tight it made speech nearly impossible.
Janet patted Sam's thigh lightly. "She's gonna be okay. Now that we know what's going on in her head, we can help her."
Sam slid her fingers over Cassie's hair, then let them drift on, the tips just brushing Janet's hair to smooth a few strands back from her cheek. "I just hate it that she's hurting so much," she exhaled, leaning her cheek closer to Janet's. "I wish I knew some way to fix it all."
Unable to move for fear of waking Cassandra, Janet settled in, leaning more heavily against the taller woman as her exhausted body threatened to collapse altogether. "There's no magic bullet for this one. It's gonna take time." She pressed another kiss to the top of Cassie's head, the last of her energy draining out her. Magically, Sam's shoulder just happened to be in just the right place, and she leaned her head against the welcome support, feeling incredibly safe and comforted.
"I just can't stand feeling so damn helpless." Sam leaned forward, just barely resting her chin on Janet's shoulder, her eyelids fluttering as she fought the fatigue threatening to turn her into a puddle on the floor.
An ironic smile touched the doctor's mouth. "Sometimes I think that's what I do most," she sighed, "wait for my patients to heal themselves."
"Which is why I'd make one hell of a lousy doctor," Sam murmured, no longer able to fight the urge to close her eyes. The hand fluttering over Cassie's hair slowly slid down, settling over Janet's where it rested on the child's upper back.
"Y'know, I'd bet falling asleep on the floor wasn't on Warner's plan for either of us," Fraiser murmured through a strained yawn, thinking they really should get up and do something about that, but far too tired to act on that very rational idea.
Sam's mouth twisted in a hint of a smile. "No way am I dumb enough to take that bet." She settled in a little more comfortably, happy to stay right where she was, far more relaxed than she had been in weeks. "So, why don't you just lean back and rest until he returns and kicks both our butts back into bed."
Already half asleep, Janet just sank a little more heavily into the arms wrapped around her, content to simply hold Cass while being held by Sam. It seemed so completely natural to remain that way that she didn't think about it, just slid off into unconsciousness.
"I do not believe you should be sleeping on the floor," a deep voice knocked both women and the child in their arms out of a sound sleep an unknown amount of time later.
Shaking off the pleasant daze, Sam blinked owlishly up at Teal'c and then a smile curved her lips. Cass was still shaking her head and groaning softly, her forehead resting against Janet's shoulder. "Hey, Cass," she murmured, reaching out to guide the child's head around. "Take a look."
The colonel and Teal'c were both standing there, but Cassie's eyes locked on the Jaffa ... or rather the squirming bundle in his arms.
"Simon!" The girl vaulted out of Janet's arms, leaping forward as Teal'c crouched down to hold the pup out to her.
"He was so covered in that black stuff that they only found him because he was quivering so hard. He was just terrified, so Teal'c called me to come over and help catch him, get him cleaned up, and get him back here. He figured Cass'd want to see the little guy asap."
Janet was amazed to find herself fighting tears as she watched the child accept the dog from Teal'c, hugging the squirmy animal close while he happily bathed her face in slobbery licks. She pushed to her feet, still less graceful than normal, but far steadier. A watery smile curved her lips as Teal'c inclined his head in acknowledgment of the grateful look she threw his way. A warm hand settled on her shoulder as Sam joined them, reaching past her to ruffle Cass' hair tenderly with her other hand.
"Looks like everything really did come out okay, Cass," the blonde murmured.
The girl continued hugging the excited puppy for a long time, her face buried in the nape of his neck. Finally, she looked up, eyes wet with tears. "My mom and dad ... I know you don't believe they were there ... but I think they were ... that they still love me...." She trailed off, her voice too tight to continue.
"I know they do," Janet began no more than a syllable before Sam said the same thing, "I know they do," the words overlapping, then blending together in an oddly reassuring medley.
"All right," Warner broke in as he entered the room, a clipboard tucked under one arm. He eyed the small crowd with a jaundiced look. "I overlooked the inquisition about the test results," he turned a hard look on Fraiser and continued, "as well as a certain amount of rudeness, and having my patients falling asleep on the floor ... but a dog?" He shook his head, clearly annoyed with the latest development. "Even this project has to have one or two limits." He turned a glower on O'Neill, quite certain he knew who was responsible for the situation. He pointed at the colonel, then hooked his thumb toward the door. "You ... out ... and take the pooch with you." He turned a far gentler look on Cassandra. "You ... may stay," he flicked a look at the two women, "assuming you want to ... and it meets with their approval ... and ... providing we move another bed in here ... and that the bed -- rather than the floor -- is used for sleeping." It was Carter's turn to be on the receiving end of his pointed glare.
Sam reached out, resting a hand on Cass's shoulder. "So, you want to stay here ... or spend the night at the colonel's with Simon?"
The child looked back and forth between the adults, then down at her pet for a long moment, hesitant to let him out of her sight, but.... "Here," she said at last in a very small voice.
Janet flicked a glance at Warner, who nodded. "I'll order another bed brought in," he said without being prompted. After flashing another warning glare at O'Neill, he stepped out.
"Well, kiddo, I think that's our clue," the colonel said as he crouched down in front of the girl.
"Indeed," Teal'c confirmed with a raised brow.
Jack patted Simon's head lightly. "Don't worry, I'll look after him," he assured her when she cast a worried look his way. "He'll be okay until you can pick him up ... I promise."
She nodded a little uncertainly, but handed the puppy over as Jack reached out for him. Cassie kept her hand stretched out, petting Simon as if to reassure herself he really was okay until Warner returned with a couple of attendants pushing a hospital bed between them. The doctor allowed her one last pat, then shooed the colonel and Teal'c on their way.
A few minutes later, Cass was tucked safely into the spare bed, her eyes already sliding shut. She was asleep in moments. Warner stood in the doorway, arms folded in as forbidding a stance as he was capable of. "You two ... in bed ... now," he mouthed and nodded toward the empty hospital beds.
Janet held up a hand in surrender and rolled her eyes. Nonetheless, he stayed there until they were both in bed, then flicked out the lights and slipped out.
"We're gonna be okay, huh?" Sam whispered after a long moment, folding her hands behind her head to stare at the ceiling thoughtfully.
Janet rolled onto her side, folding her arm under her head and peering at Sam, the bright badge of her hair easily visible even in the faint light. "I think so." She glanced over her shoulder at Cass' bed, a hint of a frown touching her brow. "I guess tonight will be the first test." She settled more deeply into the mattress as she looked back at Sam.
"Yeah," Sam sighed. She closed her eyes tightly, her voice little more than a breath as she whispered, "Please, God, no more nightmares."
Suddenly exhausted beyond measure, Janet couldn't think of anything to improve on that plea, so she simply exhaled, "Ditto from me."
Within minutes, they were both sound asleep.
They slept the entire night through, undisturbed.
* * * * * *
Four Days Later
Sam reached up to rub eyes gone blurry from too many hours of staring at a computer monitor, staving off a yawn only with considerable effort. She should probably still have been in bed, but with the base vulnerable, rest was a luxury she couldn't afford, no matter how much she might need it. She twisted her head this way and that until a pair of vertebrae high in her spine shifted into a more comfortable position with a satisfying pop.
"That sounded like it either felt really good or really bad," a measured drawl reached her ears as a bandaged hand appeared over her left shoulder, bearing a steaming mug.
"A little of both," Sam admitted as she accepted the cup and took an experimental sniff. "Herbal tea?" she murmured doubtfully.
Janet stepped around Sam, leaning her hip against the counter as she turned to face her friend. "I don't think any stimulants -- caffeine included -- are such a great idea for a few more days." They were both doing amazingly well all things considered, but she saw no reason to push things any more than was absolutely necessary.
A dark blonde brow rose in polite disbelief. "Since when are you Miss 'Just say no' to caffeine?" Janet's version of coffee could probably be used as an alternate power source if they could ever find a way to safely harness it.
"Since we both got dosed with an alien anti-coagulant and narcotic," the doctor reminded Sam. "I just think it's best if you not stress your system for a little while," one eyebrow arched in an ironic pose, "particularly since you've only gotten one decent night's sleep since all hell broke loose ... and you weren't exactly top heavy on that front before that."
Sam studied her friend, noting the bandages that stood out starkly against her pale tan and thinking the doctor was the last one who had room for lectures on that front. They'd both gone straight from the hospital to work the moment Warner had released them -- under duress, or perhaps because it was either that or kill his less than cooperative superior -- Sam, working on a way to protect the base, Janet buried in tests on the samples taken from both the base and her home as well as monitoring all of the victims of the incursion. Unless she was vastly mistaken, Fraiser was the only one at the SGC who'd put in more hours than she had since then. "So, do those rules apply to you too," she enquired pertly.
An annoyed look filtered through dark brown eyes as Janet scowled at the question. "Yes," she ground out, "they do."
Sam resisted the urge to chuckle softly, knowing the sentiment wouldn't be well received and purposely changed the subject. "General Hammond said he'd arranged for temp quarters for you and Cass on Peterson."
"Yeah, the HazMat team has officially condemned my place ... guess it makes it easier for them to do what they need for the cleanup ... though even if they hadn't, I don't think my landlord would be renewing my lease." She'd spoken to the woman briefly after the incident and been made well aware that she was far too much trouble for the rent she was paying. She couldn't even blame the woman for feeling that way. Only there a few months and the place had already been trashed twice ... and now condemned. Definitely not a likely reference for her next rental.
"Sorry." Sam winced sympathetically.
Slim shoulders dipped a philosophical shrug. "Fortunes of the job. I wasn't that crazy about the place anyway. At least the HazMat guys think they'll be able to decontaminate most of my stuff so I can get it back ... eventually."
"Well, that's good news anyway." Sam glanced at the computer, shielding a hesitant frown before looking back at her friend. "Y'know I was thinking ... the temp quarters they've assigned you are probably pretty cramped since they're not really set up for kids ... and ... well ... I was wondering if you'd rather stay at my place until you can find something new."
The offer came completely by surprise, though it occurred to Janet that it shouldn't have. Tempting as the idea was, instinct told her it was just a bad idea. After all, she reminded herself, she was supposed to be pulling back from the friendship a little, not doing everything in her power to intensify things, though god knew, fate seemed to be doing enough of that without her help. She needed Sam in her life for Cass' sake -- and her own if she was honest -- but she also needed a little space to regain her equilibrium before it was too late. That wasn't likely to happen if they were living in the same house -- as the last couple of weeks had already taught her. "I ... uh ... I appreciate the offer," she said when she regained the power of speech, "but your place is pretty small ... and it may take a little while for me to find a new house. I don't want to put you out ... or be an inconvenience."
"You wouldn't be," Sam assured her instantly, her tone so sincere Janet nearly relented. "And ... well, I'm probably gonna wind up at your place all the time to see Cass anyway--"
"She's doing a lot better now," Janet broke in, realizing too late how that sounded when Sam's expression fell at to the unintentional implication that she was only needed if something was wrong. Unable to stand that hurt look, she quickly tried to repair the damage. "I just mean, I know how important your space is to you ... and Cass ... she's a kid ... she's not always good with boundaries." It was a painfully weak excuse at best. "I just don't want too much togetherness to cause a problem. When you were staying at my place you could always go home now and then and get away from ... things...." Great, Fraiser, she thought acidly, maybe you should buy a shovel, then you could dig your way in a little faster ... or maybe not. It would probably take a steam shovel to improve on what your disconnected mouth and brain are managing.
Sam frowned, struggling to decode the gentle rejection and understand the meaning behind what she sensed Janet wasn't saying. "Are you afraid I'll resent your being there?" she asked after a long moment when that was the only answer she could come up with.
Feeling like she was swimming against a tidal wave, Janet shook her head. "No, I know you wouldn't be like that," she said, neatly blasting one of her own excuses to smithereens before she could think better of it, but it was the truth. Sam had her issues, but when it came to her friends, she was also one of the most open people that Janet had ever known. "It's just...." She shook her head, the look in wide, blue eyes making her want to beg for Sam's forgiveness then cut out her own tongue because she just wasn't doing this well at all. Her eyes slid away, searching the room as though she might come up with some magic answer if she just hunted hard enough. "I don't want to impose--"
"You wouldn't," Sam said instantly, then caught herself and backed off a little. "I mean, despite everything, it was nice being at your place ... not all of it obviously," she quickly added, thinking how idiotic she probably sounded considering Cass' nightmares and the fact that they'd all damn near been killed, "but getting to spend time together ... all of us, I mean ... off duty ... it was nice," she repeated, wondering if her friend thought she'd lost her mind yet, "and it would be nice," could she use that word a few more times, a distant part of her brain mused, "having you both." She could see Janet's intention to refuse reflected in her eyes, so she used the one weapon she had left. "And I think Cass would probably be happier. I know she's doing a lot better, but she'd have both of us full time ... and I think that'd be good for her." She glanced down at the floor, taking a tiny beat to gather her thoughts together before she continued. "I know I screwed up before ... and I don't want to make that mistake again."
As she stared helplessly at Sam, Janet found herself wondering if the other woman sat around during her scant free time thinking up ways to get to her or if it was just another of the native talents she utilized so effortlessly. "I..." she began uncertainly, resolved to find a way to reject the offer right up until the words were actually leaving her mouth, "If you're certain...." she said hesitantly. She just couldn't refuse the entreaty directed her way. If Sam could package that look and sell it, she'd make a fortune.
"I am," Sam said decisively. "I'd be glad to have you both," she added, putting the final touches on Janet's doom.
The doctor couldn't refuse ... literally. "Well," she exhaled after a beat, then unhooked her hand to make a small, reticent gesture toward the door. "I'm supposed to pick Cass up from Colonel O'Neill's place when I get off duty ... Lieutenant Cardones is babysitting her today." She and Sam had both had to go straight from the hospital to their duties aboard the base, both too important to stay out of things while Cass and Simon had been safely ensconced with their usual array of uniformed babysitters at the colonel's place. However, having ordered a battery of tests and overseen the beginning of things as well as checked on assorted patients, she fully intended on getting the hell out of the base, if only for a few hours.
"I'm going to be a couple more hours," Sam said, "but if you're ready to leave before I am, just grab me and I'll give you the keys and the codes for the security." She thought about it for a moment. "Actually, if you want, I'll give you the keys now and you can take them down to Mackey in the machine shop and have him make you a set."
The tidal wave was just getting deeper. "Are you sure?" Janet murmured, uncertain exactly what answer she was hoping for.
"Yeah ... you might as well have 'em if you're going to be staying." She fished in her pants pocket, pulling out a huge ring of heavy base keys that she laid aside, then a much smaller personal ring. She held two of them up. "These are what you'll need."
With little else she could do, Janet took the keys and dropped them into her pants pocket. "I'll get these back to you as soon as possible." Not knowing what else to say, she turned her head to look at what Sam was doing "So you're working on a monitoring system that can warn us if anymore of those things show up?" she said to change the subject.
Sam glanced at the monitor, then back at her friend, her eyes gleaming with the kind of excitement she showed whenever presented with a scientific challenge ... or explaining a scientific challenge ... or just thinking about a scientific challenge. Sam was big on scientific challenges. "Yeah," she said quickly, "I analyzed the records from the power grid for the last four months, starting well before our first trip to Hanka, and found evidence of two major incursions ... starting with minor glitches in the stargate and including various unexplained power fluctuations, and other odd events ... the first period began when we brought Cass back, and was so mild no one noticed it. I would never have been looking for it if not for the later events. It lasted approximately thirty six hours ... and then ended abruptly."
"That's how long Cass was on the base," Janet murmured, a tiny shiver working its way down her spine as it was once again driven home what the creatures had come for. Daniel was still translating the chaotic rantings in the room he'd found, but he'd learned enough to be certain those creatures had come for the child, and had gingerly sat she and Sam down to explain what he knew to them.
"Yeah," Carter confirmed on a tiny sigh, her own awareness of their near miss gleaming in her eyes. She cleared her throat, taking a moment to regain her mental equilibrium before continuing, "The second incursion occurred when we came back from retrieving the Sherxan ... that one was a lot more noticeable...."
"All the power problems you were trying to fix."
"Right." Sam nodded. "I'm sure the creatures caused them ... their method of entering our universe must create some EM fluctuations that in turn can affect the power grid." One hand sketched the air. "We see the same effect on a larger scale with the gate. That's why we keep the gateroom so shielded."
A slim hand rose and Janet massaged her temple as she absorbed the news. "And I've been having random electrical problems for a couple of weeks," she exhaled as she suddenly remembered the minor flickering of lights and screeching of electrical motors that she'd assumed was just normal wear and tear.
Another nod from Carter. "The ones under your house. According to Daniel, they were watching us while they were ... breeding.... It was all written in that room he found ... what they intended ... what they wanted--"
"Cass," Janet exhaled, her tone sick with realization.
"Yeah," Sam said, not knowing what else to say. Janet had unfolded her arms, bracing one hand on the counter at her back as though she needed the support. Sam reached out, twining her fingers with the other woman's free hand, squeezing firmly, needing comfort as much as she needed to offer it. "They were hunting all of us." Her fingers tightened on the hand bound to her own.
A frisson of very primal fear slid down the doctor's spine. "What about the ones on the base," she asked to distract herself from the pathways her mind was threatening to travel. She didn't want to think too closely about the things that had been stalking them all in her own house.
Grateful for a chance to change the subject to safer topics -- Sam was no more sanguine than Janet about what they'd faced and how vulnerable they'd all been -- Carter put on a more objective face as she explained, "The electrical patterns were a lot more obvious ... as though they had no idea we would notice them ... and, according to the reports, the cave they were building was much simpler...."
"Meaning?" Janet pressed when Sam didn't immediately continue.
"Their behavior is much closer to what the Hankans describe when these ... Devourers ... first arrived ... before they changed. I think they were just testing their environs ... like any predator ... probably the thing that saved us was they were getting ready to breed ... and the station doesn't have many dark corners. They caused some havoc and managed to draw a few drops of blood, but thankfully, that's it."
"Which confirms what Daniel read ... that they were the primitive version," Janet murmured thoughtfully and Sam nodded.
"Which means they probably really did follow us back here." Janet shook her head, her expression bitter. "Cass said the priests always told them the Devourers could smell their dead. Guess they were right again." She made a small, disgusted sound in the back of her throat. "Think maybe we should chuck science out the window and go with superstition? It seems to have had a better hit rate this time around."
Sam couldn't contain a tiny flinch. "Yeah, it did," she had to admit, then straightened her shoulders, putting her serious face back on. "Any evidence to indicate if he was right about his supposition that the Goa'uld were somehow involved in their ... evolution?" she asked after a beat.
"No, no results on those tests yet." The doctor couldn't contain an annoyed snort. "And I don't know how much we'll get anyway. Whatever that thing did, those samples were almost fried. Short of being at ground zero at a nuclear blast, I can't think of anything that would have degraded them more."
"So we may never know?" Sam whispered uncertainly.
Janet offered a shrug. "Will you ever know to a certainty that they were somehow creating their own gates and using the event horizon to chew up the earth?" she asked philosophically.
"No," Sam had to admit. She could amass the evidence and know in her heart that was what they'd been doing, but they just didn't have the scientific capacity to do much more than that -- at least not yet.
"I've already warned the cleanup teams to make sure none of that stuff gets anywhere near the gate," Janet said to fill the gap while Sam slid off into her own thoughts.
Carter simply nodded, her gaze distant, thoughts elsewhere.
Finally, Janet cleared her throat, purposely changing the subject somewhat as she indicated the computer monitor. "So can you detect these things?" she asked, hoping for an affirmative answer. Otherwise, she might just take Cass' place in the nightmare brigade.
Sam took a deep breath, clearing her thoughts and struggling to restore her normal scientific objectivity before she began again. "I think so. I've got the engineers putting together and installing what are basically EM sensors to pick up any localized fluctuations, plus I'm adding a subroutine to the program that monitors the base power grid to look for any unusual spikes or drops in the lines and notify central command immediately.."
"You think it'll work?" the doctor asked, her head canting to one side as she studied the code Sam was working on, though it was largely meaningless to her. She understood enough to get the gist of the idea, but little more than that.
"Good question," Carter allowed and shrugged. "Unfortunately, we won't know for certain unless we have another incursion."
"I hope you won't take this as any lack of faith in your abilities," Janet murmured after a beat, "but I really hope we never find out."
"You and me both," Sam admitted.
A moment passed while they were both lost in their thoughts, then Janet abruptly straightened away from the counter, gently untangling her fingers from Sam's. "I ... uh ... should probably get back to the lab." She ran a hand over her hair, wincing as she encountered one of the bandages. She dropped her arm back to her side. "I just wanted to check on you ... make sure you're okay ... after everything ... and since you're not being monitored like the others who got hit," she explained haltingly, wondering if she sounded as much like a blithering idiot as she suspected.
If she did, Sam didn't seem to care because her answering smile was surprisingly lighthearted. "I'm fine," she said quickly, then added equally haltingly, "and I'm really glad you're okay too."
"Thanks," the doctor said, then straightened herself, nodding toward the door. "I really should get back to the lab. I'll let you know if anything comes up ... or if I'm delayed for any reason."
Sam nodded. "Same here."
Janet patted her pocket where Sam's keys jingled softly. "And I'll get these back to you ASAP."
Another nod, then Janet made her goodbyes and slipped out.
A courier dropped an envelope with her keys back by an hour later, then an hour after that -- just as she was finishing on the computer -- the doctor called down to her lab to apologetically explain that several tests had come in, and she was going to be a little longer, leaving Sam the logical choice to pick Cassandra up from the colonel's, since she was leaving anyway.
A short time later, Sam coasted her Mustang to a halt in her superior's driveway, climbing out just in time to meet an eager charge from Cassie as the child came bounding out of the house. She hugged the girl hard, grinning as O'Neill stepped out a few paces behind her.
"Hey there, kiddo," Sam laughed as she held onto the child for a long moment. "How's it going?"
Cass tipped her head back on her shoulders, peering up at Sam and grinning. "Good," she assured her. "No nightmares or anything."
Sam smoothed honey colored hair back from the girl's brow with a gentle hand and smiled down at her. "That's wonderful, Cass." She heaved a sigh of relief, raw tension she hadn't even been aware of suddenly draining out of her. "Really wonderful." She blinked to clear her eyes of the threat of tears.
"Hey there, Carter," O'Neill greeted her as he ambled forward, though his expression was a little mystified. "I thought Fraiser was picking Cass up on her way to the officer's quarters at Peterson."
Sam shook her head and gave Cass another hard hug, then shooed her toward the house. "Why don't you go pack up your stuff, honey, so we can get going." One of her babysitters had arranged to buy several changes of clothes to tide her over until the HazMat team released her things.
"Sure, Sam," the girl giggled happily, then hurried into Jack's rustically yuppie house, leaving the two adults alone.
Jack stared after the girl for a moment, then looked back at his 2IC. "So, what's up?" he asked curiously.
"Oh," Sam said, shaking herself out of a momentary haze and turning to look at him, her tone nonchalant as she explained, "Cass and Janet are gonna stay at my place while Janet's househunting." She offered a small shrug. "I figured it makes sense. Cass'll have us both there that way ... and she could use some stability."
O'Neill glanced back toward the house, shoving his hands in the front pockets of his jeans, then looked back at Sam. "Carter," he began hesitantly after a beat, glancing back again, "you sure that's a good idea?"
Sam did a quick doubletake, startled to hear her superior sounding so doubtful about the plan. She'd expected the colonel to be all for the idea. God knew, he'd been pushing her to be there more for the child and the woman caring for her. And he'd certainly do the same thing if Daniel or Teal'c needed a place to stay. "Sir?" she said, uncertain how to even phrase the question.
Jack looked a little uncomfortable. "It's just ... well ... that's a lot of togetherness," he said, unknowingly echoing Fraiser's earlier comments, and leaving Sam with the same sense that he wasn't really saying what he meant.
Narrow shoulders dipped in a faintly mystified shrug. "Yeah, but I've been all but living at her place since Cass had so many problems and everything was okay. I really don't think it'll be a problem."
"Right." Jack nodded, gnawing on his lower lip, his expression leaving Sam with the distinct impression that the gears were turning in his brain as he tried to come up with a way to say what was on his mind. "It's just that things were pretty tense then. Cass needed you so it made sense for you to be there...."
"Yeah," Sam murmured, brows climbing toward her hairline as she stared at her superior in confusion. "And now Cass and Janet need a place to stay ... and hopefully I can actually get some sleep this time." A tiny, nervous laugh escaped her lips, then fell away uncomfortably when Jack didn't respond to the weak joke.
"Sleep," Jack repeated and ran a hand over his hair, muttering something incoherent under his breath before he tried again. "Carter, has it occurred to you that the sleeping arrangements could be ... part of ... the problem?" he asked haltingly.
Sam looked blank. "I know I don't have that much room," she admitted after a beat. "But my new couch pulls out into a bed, and I borrowed a bunk from the base for Cass."
It was O'Neill's turn to look blank, his mouth hanging open for a long moment before he snapped it shut, and made an annoyed sound in the back of his throat. "That's not really what I meant," he explained quickly, then took a deep breath and tried again, dropping the subtle technique this time. He was no good at subtle, and his 2IC was no good at picking up on subtle. "Carter, has it occurred to you that all but living with Fraiser could be misunderstood by some people?"
It took Sam a moment to realize what he saying, and then she stiffened in outrage. "Sir, if you're implying--"
He held up a hand. "I'm not implying anything," he quickly assured her. "Look, I know you and Fraiser are friends, and I think it's great, but some people ... well...." He trailed off for a moment, then began again, his tone worried but conciliatory. "I just don't want to see either of you get hurt because something is misinterpreted."
Sam's mouth silently worked for a moment, then she shook her head. "That's not gonna happen, sir," she insisted, fighting to ignore the coil of tension suddenly pulling tighter in the pit of her stomach. She wouldn't let it happen, she thought with unspoken determination.
"Carter--" O'Neill began, but she cut him off, her voice far harder than any she'd ever used in addressing him before.
"Sir, she's my friend and I don't let my friends twist in the wind ... particularly not because I'm afraid some idiot might decide to gossip. I wouldn't do that to Daniel, Teal'c ... or you," she added pointedly enough to make him flinch. She ran a hand over her hair, fighting to keep this on a purely professional level. "Janet's my friend ... and what about Cass? She's just been through hell. Yeah, things are a little smoother, but am I supposed to just dump her now that she's not having nightmares?"
"No, of course not," O'Neill said instantly. "I just meant--"
"That a few horny guys are gonna make some obscene comments?" she demanded, then answered her own question, her tone faintly bitter, but utterly practical. "They're gonna do that anyway ... hell, they probably already are," she added, ignoring the anger that flared in her gut at the thought of the leering comments probably being made when she wasn't around to hear. "But, sir, I work my ass off for this project ... and I have never been accused of any inappropriate behavior--"
"Of course not," the colonel agreed quickly, realizing he'd hit a nerve and just trying to back out of the situation as gracefully as possible. "I was just trying to--"
"I know what you were trying to do, sir," she bit out impatiently, then added a more placating, "and I appreciate it ... and probably you're right, but I just can't ditch them ... especially not after everything that's happened. Hell, weren't you the one who was just telling me I needed to pay more attention to them?" she demanded and flashed a pointed look his way.
O'Neill had the grace to wilt ever so slightly. "Point taken," he sighed. He was silent for a moment, then nodded understandingly and clapped her on the shoulder. "Yeah ... I probably should have expected as much," he admitted. "Hell, I wouldn't expect any less of you." His expression cleared, though a hint of worry still lived in his eyes to anyone who cared to look close enough to see it.
"C'mon," O'Neill said, his tone conciliatory. "Better go get the rugrat and the pooch while my house is still standing." The subject dismissed, they both hurried after Cass.
* * * * * *
It was nearly midnight by the time Janet stumbled through Sam's front door. She cursed softly as she struggled to disarm Carter's high tech alarm system, thinking that nothing she was expected to deal with on that little sleep should be that complicated. Of course, Sam could probably deal with it in her sleep. Numbers and technology were her friends, whereas Janet was fine with one or the other, but there were times when both at once were a bit much. She punched in the last set of numbers, then closed and locked the front door, rearmed the alarm and stepped into the livingroom. A soft smile touched her lips as her eyes fell on the military issue cot set up in one corner of the room, then faded away as she suddenly realized it was empty. Her briefcase landed on the floor with a soft thud, but she barely noticed as she started to rush for Sam's bedroom to wake the other woman.
Janet abruptly pulled up short as she realized the sliding glass door to the back yard was open, the curtains fluttering gently on a soft breeze. Her heart suddenly in her throat, she stepped toward it, breathing slowing, braced for anything, fully expecting to find something awful on the other side. Since joining the SGC, she'd found that unexpected events rarely turned out to be of the positive variety ... particularly in the last few weeks.
Edging up to the open door, she could hear her heart hammering in ears as she peered out, frowning to separate the shadows. Her relief was palpable when she recognized a tall, slightly lanky shadow standing next to the distinct outline of a telescope. A second later, she spotted a pair of small lumps -- one child sized, one dog sized -- lying on the grass nearby, apparently sprawled on a blanket, Sam's jacket thrown over the top of them. "They're okay," she assured herself, momentarily gripping the doorframe to steady her shaking legs. Throwing off the momentary scare, she stepped out, moving on light feet to join them. She hadn't spoken yet when Sam turned so her profile was visible and held a finger to her lips, then pointed at the child and her pet.
Slightly startled to realize the other woman had heard her coming when she'd thought she was being so quiet, Janet nodded to indicate she'd seen them while Sam finished making an adjustment on the telescope. After a moment, the blonde turned to face her, then waved for Janet to follow her as she crossed the short distance to the small porch attached to the back of her house. A low wall surrounded the covered area and she took a seat, one foot braced on the wall, the other on the ground, and leaned back against one of the uprights. "I expected you earlier," she murmured, keeping her voice low even though they were some distance from Cass now. The question about what had delayed the doctor was implicit in her tone.
Janet took a seat, leaning back against another upright with a tired groan and mimicking Sam's pose. "Yeah, I'd hoped to be, but we got some of the tests results ... and I ordered a few more ... stayed to see the prelims."
Sam cocked her head to one side, a hint of a frown touching her brow as she dissected Fraiser's tone. "Anything you want to talk about?"
"The latest round of tests came in from the ash samples." Janet linked her fingers together, staring down at them to distract herself as she quietly added, "there were traces of naquada in the samples from my place."
"And the samples from the base?" Sam asked almost instantly.
Sam froze and couldn't think for a moment. She should have been expecting it in a sense. Daniel's findings had already established the probability that the Goa'uld were involved. It was just that this was concrete evidence, not merely the rantings of a creature driven insane by hatred. Naquada was the Goa'uld wonder metal. The gate was made of it, it had been a key component in the bomb in Cassie's chest, and was found in trace amounts in the blood of the Goa'uld themselves. Wherever they found naquada, they inevitably seemed to find the parasitic creatures that had haunted them all. She knew they'd killed Cassie's family -- her whole world -- but she didn't want it to be any more than that, didn't want the ramifications that might be involved if the Goa'uld turned out to be more involved in Hankan history than they'd thought. "Any genetic information?" she asked after a long moment.
The doctor shook her head. "No. The samples were too degraded to retrieve anything biological."
"But if you found naquada, it means the Goa'uld were almost certainly involved somewhere along the way," Sam whispered, her voice painfully tight.
Janet nodded. "I spoke to Teal'c and Daniel ... and that's definitely their opinion." She tipped her head back against the porch support, releasing a tired sigh. "And since Daniel is guessing from his research that Priam lived about a thousand years ago...." She trailed off and didn't finish the sentence, no more eager than Sam to consider the possible ramifications.
"The Goa'uld must have had some involvement with Hanka at least that long," Sam finished for Fraiser when she didn't continue. She massaged her temple, feeling slightly ill at the thought. Both women glanced toward the sleeping child who was the last legacy of her world. "Begs the question why they just left them alone. They obviously knew they were there ... must have been monitoring somehow because they knew enough to realize we were building the observatory...."
"Yeah," Janet said very softly and let her head fall forward until her cheek was resting on her upthrust knee as she continued to watch Cassie sleep.
"They appeared to have left the Argosians alone, but they were really experimenting on them," Sam said, her voice rough and scared. "Using them as goddamned guinea pigs in an effort to create the perfect hosts."
"Other than the bomb, I can't find anything unusual about Cass," Janet said as much to reassure herself as Sam. "Biologically, she appears to be a perfectly normal child."
"But you're not sure, are you?" Sam rasped.
The doctor was silent for a long moment before she quietly admitted, "Technologically, I don't have their resources." She paused for another long moment. "There's no way to be certain."
Blue eyes snapped closed and Sam swallowed hard. "God," she exhaled, her voice nearly inaudible before she managed to firm her voice enough to ask, "What do we do?"
"Nothing," Janet admitted, looking at Sam as she felt the impact of the blonde's gaze like a sledgehammer. "But I needed you to know." She made a small gesture with one hand. "It'll all be in the next briefing report." But that would be dry facts and figures ... without the emotional support they both needed at that point. "But I thought I should tell you first."
"What about tests ... maybe we could...." Sam trailed off, uncertain what she was trying to say.
The doctor shook her head. "No," she said firmly and felt her friend's confused look with palpable intensity. "She's a child, Sam ... and she's faced more than any of us. She's finally got a little peace. Let her enjoy it."
"But if we could find answers--"
"We've run every test we can and found nothing. She's already spent enough time in hospitals. I won't see her spend any more just to see the same tests repeated over and over .... most likely with exactly the same results. If there's something there, we don't have the technology to see it." Janet shook her head and exhaled another heavy sigh.
"Meaning?" Sam demanded on a frustrated rasp.
The doctor shrugged, her tone practical. "Sometimes you don't get answers in this life," she said simply. It was one of the hardest lessons she'd had to learn in medicine. She couldn't always find the answers, just like she couldn't save every patient.
Carter looked down at her linked hands, that answer particularly difficult for her to accept even though she could see the wisdom behind it. Searching for answers to life's questions was virtually her life's mission. "Dammit," she whispered, her voice ragged. "I hoped Daniel was wrong." She didn't want the Goa'uld to be any more a part of the child's life than was absolutely necessary.
"We both did," Janet admitted, then took a deep breath before continuing, her voice low, but decisive. "Daniel feels it's very probable that the Sherxan is of Goa'uld origin ... that it's some kind of weapon they either used or gave to the Hankans after one of their own was devoured...."
Sam swallowed hard, uncertain where this was leading, but comfortably certain she wasn't going to like it. "We've run every kind of test we can without destroying it," she ran a hand over her hair, "and we can't find anything. That's why I okayed giving it back to her." Another thought struck her, making her chest hurt at the thought of the pain it would cause. "Should we take it away from her?"
"I don't see any reason to," Janet said softly, holding up a hand when she saw Sam draw breath to argue. "We know it's been in people's homes for hundreds of years without hurting anyone ... and she needs it." Her voice was strained as she added, "and neither of us can watch her go through that again." She reached up, ruffling her hair and shaking it loose from the pins that held it up in back, plucking them out automatically until it fell down around her shoulders. "Which is why I don't want Cass to know that Daniel thinks it might be of Goa'uld origin."
"You want to lie to her?" Sam asked uncertainly.
Fraiser shook her head. "No, but we've found nothing to contradict what she believes about the device itself ... which is that it was some kind of ... conduit ... for her family to save her. She needs that, Sam. With the guilt she's carrying, she needs to believe she's forgiven ... that they still love her. I don't want anything to make her doubt that. I've already spoken to Daniel and he's agreed to keep quiet...." She trailed off meaningfully and Sam got the point.
Fascinated by all things technological and anything mysterious in general, Sam was more than eager to take the thing apart, try and figure it out, sit and philosophize, throw out every theory she could come up with, and generally lose herself in the discussion of what it could be. If she could do all of that maybe she could insert some of her usual objectivity and avoid her own emotions about the whole situation. Janet was firmly putting the kibosh on that idea ... at least when Cass was around. She glanced at Cass, thinking of her own adolescence -- the way she'd lost her mother and all of the attendant angers and guilts that went with that kind of trauma in someone so young.... And she hadn't lost anywhere near as much as Cass had. How might it have soothed the hurt if she'd had some concrete proof that her mother was still there, watching over her and making sure she was safe?
"She needs this," Janet reiterated when Sam didn't respond.
Another moment passed and then Sam nodded stiffly as she blinked back a few gathered tears. "Yeah ... she does," she agreed at last, then took a deep breath and let it out on a five count before looking back at her friend. "She won't hear anything from me."
They were both silent for several minutes, lost in their own thoughts or perhaps simply at a loss for words. Finally, Janet cleared her throat, her voice still a little husky, but mostly back to normal. "I thought you'd both be in bed by the time I got in," she murmured to change the subject to safer pathways.
Sam shrugged, tipping her head back on her shoulders to stare at the night sky. "Couldn't sleep," she said simply, "and Cass wanted to look at the stars." She glanced at Janet. "I figured it would be good for both of us."
"You have fun?"
A moment passed before Sam answered. "Yeah," she gnawed on her lower lip as a grin snuck through, "we did."
Full lips tipped in a genuine smile. "I'm glad."
"In fact..." Sam murmured and rose, reaching back to grab one of Janet's hands in her own as it struck her what they both needed to forget the horrors of the last few days, "C'mere." She tugged the smaller woman to her feet, steadying her when she unbalanced ever so slightly. They both froze for a second, then Sam carefully set Janet back. "You okay?" she asked breathlessly.
Fraiser nodded. "I just ... uh ... my knee just protested. It's still sore."
"Can you walk okay?"
"Just fine," the doctor said quickly.
Sam grinned, tightening her hold on the hand still wrapped in hers. "Then you've gotta see this," she murmured, pulling the doctor along behind her as she hurried back to the telescope. She tugged Janet forward so she was standing in front of the scope, her voice little more than a whisper as she gestured to the eyepiece. "Take a look."
Janet looked at her friend, taking in eyes that were bright even in the dark and a broad grin. Carter's happiness was infectious and despite the difficult time she'd had -- or maybe because of it -- she found herself grinning back. "So, what am I supposed to be looking at," she whispered, careful to keep her voice low in order to avoid waking Cass.
"You'll see," Carter exhaled and made a tiny shooing motion with her free hand. She reached out, long fingers brushing the eyepiece. "You adjust the focus like this." She quickly demonstrated, then pulled her hand back as Janet leaned forward, peering through the lens.
A moment passed, then the blonde's grin widened as she heard her friend's low exhalation. "That's amazing."
Carter leaned closer, her mouth near Janet's ear, the hand that had been twined with her friend's resting comfortably on the curve of her waist. "That's Jupiter. You can see the four brightest moons ... and storms raging on the planet itself ... those are the dark bands."
Fascinated by the sight as well as the realization that she was staring at another world, Janet continued to watch, picking out tiny details. "It's incredible," she whispered and tipped her head up, eyes tracking the night sky until she spotted a bright light that had to be the telescope's focus, but the difference was so vast, it was hard to be certain. She pointed. "It's that one, right?" she asked to be certain.
Sam followed the line of her arm and nodded. "That's it."
The doctor leaned back down, peering through the telescope once again. "I can see why you love it," she admitted, transfixed by the sight.
"See," Sam whispered, "it's not just little points of light." She'd purposely chosen something more concrete to show Cass ... and Janet if she was honest. Some part of her wanted the other woman to appreciate something she loved so much. Her head tipped back on her shoulders, and she stared at the sky, automatically categorizing the visible stars and resolving them with the image in her head ... seeing so many details others missed, the knowledge deepening the sight for her.
Janet straightened, following the line of Sam's gaze across the sky, amazed to find herself feeling more at peace than she had in ages. "It is beautiful," she whispered very softly.
Sam nodded, resting her free hand on a slim shoulder and gently tugging the smaller woman back against her chest as she whispered near her ear, careful to keep her voice low to avoid waking Cass. "So, can I talk you into finishing that astronomy lesson that was so rudely interrupted?" she asked hopefully.
"We should both get some sleep," Janet sighed practically, though the note of longing in her voice was impossible to miss. There was something incredibly relaxing about Sam's gentle lectures. And God knew, she could use some relaxation in her life ... even if the side effects of this form of relaxation were decidedly unrelaxing. She avoided that thought almost as quickly as it came to her, shoving it away in an emotional lockbox where it couldn't come out and haunt her for a little while. And right next to it, she put the sudden nagging question that maybe it was already too late to avoid the nasty impact of her continued inability to pull away from Sam Carter. She'd already managed to avoid worrying too much about things for so long that one more night wasn't likely to make much of a difference.
"I know," Sam admitted, completely oblivious to the complex trail of the other woman's thoughts. She cast an affectionate glance at the child sleeping nearby. "But I think we'd both do well to unwind a little ... just forget the world for a while ... let it go away until the only real thing is the stars in the sky."
It was appealing notion, one Janet found she couldn't resist. "Okay," she agreed before she could think better of it.
Sam grinned, folding an arm around Janet's shoulders, her forearm resting on the other woman's upper chest as she tugged her back into a loose hug. Her voice a low whisper, she picked up where she'd left off only a few nights before, using her free hand to point things out as she gave a ranging lecture that was every bit as likely to stray off into physics, history, mathematics, and astrophysics, as pure astronomy.
Truly content for the first time in weeks, Janet just leaned back, losing herself in the universe Sam painted with little more than words and knowledge, voicing an occasional question, but mostly just listening to the soft timbre of the other woman's voice as she explained the things she loved more than life itself.
At some point, Cassie opened one eye, listening for a moment to the soft sound of familiar voices, their tones soothing, giving her a comfortable sense of home and family. She snuggled Simon a little closer, burying her nose in the warmth of his fur before sliding back into sleep. For now, at least, everything was okay.