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First, a bit of historical info: "It's The Little Things" was originally published in the fanzine Redemption 3, from the incredible wonderful zine workshops of Ashton Press. I've known ashton7 a loooong time ... back in the old Blake's 7 days, and then we ran into each other again when Highlander heated up, and finally we connected again with Stargate SG-1.

Annie's zines are AMAZINGLY well done -- well edited and gorgeously produced. In the world of electronic ephemera, Ashton Press remains that rarity, a zine you can hold in your hands, with original artwork and stories. No links to go dead, no sites to disappear ... and lots to love.

So if you enjoy this story, head on over to Ashton Press and check out the rest of Redemption 3, as well as the other great zines she has available.

And with no further ado ...

It's The Little Things


It felt strange to walk back in without anyone noticing, without any fanfare. Not that Captain Samantha Carter expected a big welcome, but there was something unsettling about walking into the Stargate Control Room and being ignored. As if, during her long absence, she’d ceased to be part of the thing she loved so much.

As if she’d become a ghost.

Klaxons sounded, cued to her arrival. Red lights flashed. Beyond the glass, the massive circle of the Stargate began its ponderous rotation as somebody dialed in.

SG-1 was coming home. On schedule.

“Incoming traveler,” said the lieutenant currently manning the station … a new kid, she realized. But then, she’d been gone for months. Things changed. “It’s SG-1’s signal, sir.”

“Excellent. Open the iris.” General Hammond was standing with his back to her in what was very near to parade rest, hands clasped behind his back, shoulders squared. “I’ll have to thank Colonel O’Neill for actually being on schedule for once.”

“What, he’s taken up punctuality without me?” Sam asked, and had the satisfaction of seeing them all turn toward her and break into smiles. Even the general abandoned military protocol for a quick fatherly embrace. The chill of being excluded disappeared as if it had never existed.

“Captain,” he said, and looked her up and down, taking her measure. “You’re back early.”

“Yes sir, I’m ready to get back to work,” she said. “Only so much recuperation I can take without going completely crazy.” When he continued to look at her, frowning, she felt compelled to convince him. “Really, sir, it was no big deal. Dr. Fraiser’s given the all clear, I’m fit to return to duty.”

Dr. Fraiser had given her a long, impassioned lecture about taking care of herself, but that was splitting hairs. And Sam wasn’t one to lie around with the latest issue of Cosmo—or Soldier of Fortune—while her teammates and friends were going out on missions without her. She could live with a little pain and some occasional right-side weakness. Any one of them had carried out missions with worse.

Hammond finally nodded. “All right, then. Let’s go welcome them home. I’m sure they’ll be thrilled to have you back.”

She followed the general down the stairs—military rank always took precedence over any civilian courtesies—and through the wide metal blast doors into the Gate Room. Four members of SG-1 were clanking down the metal ramp in chocolate chip desert gear. Sam surreptitiously checked the line of her crisp white shirt and Air Force blue skirt, and took up her station next to the general.

Daniel Jackson was the first off the ramp. Funny how time away brought all the tiny imperceptible changes to the forefront; Daniel’s auburn hair seemed longer, his face thinner. He had new glasses, she noticed. He’d probably crushed his last pair in some dust-up on the other side of the gate; he seemed to go through them with alarming speed.

She’d forgotten the sheer pleasure of just looking at him.

His eyes passed over her, did a double take, and focused.

“Sam!” His face lit up, and she felt a surge of answering joy. No military reserve for Daniel; he came right up and threw his arms around her in a full-body hug. He smelled, not surprisingly, like he’d been hiking a searing desert all day, but it wasn’t unpleasant ... in fact, it smelled more like home to her than all the potpourri and cookies her sister-in-law had tried to pawn off on her.

“God, Sam,” Daniel said, still holding on tight. “It’s so good see you. When did you get back?”

She pressed her cheek close to his and felt the burn of stubble. “Good to see you too, Daniel. And about five minutes ago.”

He let go to leave the runway clear for Colonel Jack O’Neill. The colonel had too much personal vanity to rush her like a linebacker, but the quiet light in his eyes, the smile on his lean face more than made up for the lack of showmanship. “Who let you out of bed?” he asked, and stepped in for a much more restrained embrace. She’d forgotten the tactile sensation of how he felt—lean, strong, full of suppressed energy. Having the colonel pressed against her was like a giant shot of adrenaline, right to the heart. “You planning on showing us your big ugly scars later?”

“Well, that all depends on how much alcohol there is at my welcome-back celebration,” she said. “Good to see you, colonel.”

He pulled back, but didn’t let go of her. His hands held her in place as—for the second time—she got the military x-ray. “You’ve lost weight.” To a woman, it might be a compliment, but to a military officer assessing fitness it wasn’t; she understood his concern.

“Not muscle. The rehab’s gone very well,” she said. “I’m almost back full strength. Qualified on all of my hand-to-hand levels.”

“Which means she can once again whip your ass,” Daniel said, tossing a look at O’Neill. He leaned forward, mock-confidential. “He’s feeling his age.”

“You’re going to feel the floor if you keep it up,” their CO snapped. Sam wondered when exactly the colonel’s seniority to them had become the subject of jokes. And what jokes she’d missed. God, it hurt to have been outside all this time, reduced to superficial phone calls and the occasional uncomfortable get-well-soon visit. “See what happens when you’re gone, Carter? Discipline just goes to hell.”

“Assuming there was any to begin with, sir.”

Teal’c was waiting quietly behind the other two, holding his staff weapon at a nonchalant parade rest that still conveyed the ability to fire at the first hint of trouble. He actually smiled, which was a rare gift from the Jaffa. She returned the gesture, then moved to put her arms around him. It was like embracing a statue; Teal’c was just plain solid. He was very careful about how he returned the gesture. Hugging was still a largely alien concept to him.

Sam stepped back and looked at the fourth man, who was standing awkwardly at the edges, very much the outsider.

She held out her hand to him. He smiled and took it. “Ma’am. Captain Rafael Salazar.”

“Captain Salazar has been filling in for you these last couple of months,” Hammond explained. Somehow, he managed to convey approval for Salazar, and dismissal, and comfort for Sam, all in the same warm sentence.

She gave the poor guy as friendly a smile as she could muster. “Thanks, Captain. I’m sure you’ve been keeping these guys in line.”

“Trying, ma’am.” He took off his uniform cap and ran a hand through sweaty dark brush-cut hair. Standard-issue haircuts had a way of making men look hard and tough, but Salazar still had innocence in his eyes. “They’re a handful.”

O’Neill and Daniel were exchanging one of their looks. The colonel rolled his eyes. “He’s just mad because the princess didn’t give him the goodbye kiss,” Daniel said. At Sam’s look, he put on an expression of wounded innocence and pointed. “Not me, I swear. Jack.”

O’Neill looked smug. “No tongue, though. Hardly even counts.”

Seeing them include Salazar so easily ... it wasn’t that she expected them not to, just that it was disconcerting to see they’d closed ranks around him so quickly. “Sounds like you’ve been enjoying yourselves without me.” She kept a smile in front of it.

“Hey, not so much,” the colonel said kindly. “So. Tell me all about your vacation, Carter.”

“After debriefing,” Hammond reminded them. “I’ll see you gentlemen in fifteen.”

“Slavedriver.” O’Neill threw an arm over her shoulders and steered her toward the door. “C’mon, Captain. I have bad coffee with your name on it.”

###

There were times when the hours flew by for Janet Fraiser—in a crisis, of course, and when she was engaged by something new and puzzling, with lives resting on the outcome.

This was not one of those days.

In fact, it had dragged by as if every second had an anchor holding it back. She’d checked the clock so many times she’d finally turned the standard-issue timepiece face down on her desk and forced herself to concentrate on the medical supply inventory reconciliations. Boring work, but it had to get done.

It was something of a triumph to her that eventually she forgot to turn the clock face up and check the time.

“Hey, Doc. You busy?”

She looked up from the computer screen and blinked to focus on the man standing in the doorway. Jack O’Neill was in shadow, but she knew the rasp of his voice by heart.

“Busy, yes. Available for consultation, also yes,” she said, and pushed away from the screen. She stood up, working her lower back with both hands. “Is it morning or evening, colonel?”

“Evening. Couple of hours after shift change, to be exact. Can’t you tell? It used to be a glorious sunset somewhere oh, about a mile up there.” O’Neill gestured vaguely up at the ceiling and folded himself into a chair. He captured and squeezed a leftover therapeutic hand exercise ball.

She gave him a weary smile. “And I’ll bet you didn’t come down here to give me the weather report.”

“Absolutely not. I just came for the pleasure of your company.” He didn’t even wait for her snort of disbelief. “Okay, yeah. I also wanted to ask about Carter.”

Well, she’d known it was coming. Janet dug fingers into her tensed muscles. “Sam’s done very well, considering. The wounds she sustained were nothing to shrug off, but she’s worked very hard at her rehab, and I’m confident that she’ll be able to pull her weight on active duty.”

“Maybe I’m paranoid, but that sounds rehearsed.”

“Don’t you get tired of being right all the time?”

“Let me check … no. No, I don’t.” He cocked his head to one side and studied her as she pressed her fingers into her sore muscles. “Speaking of worker’s compensation ...”

“Too much paperwork.” She looked up and gave him an embarrassed smile. “Getting older.”

“Tell me about it.”

“I keep asking the general to put a masseuse on staff.”

“Now there’s an idea I could support.” He continued to watch her as she tried to stretch; her involuntary wince made him shake his head. “Need some help?”

“I need a back transplant.”

“Maybe not. May I?”

She gave him a guarded look. “May you what, colonel?”

He held up his hands and wiggled his fingers. “Acupressure.”

“You’re kidding, right? You actually know acupressure? How the hell did you learn that?”

“Special ops,” he said, and came around behind her. “Just so you know, this is totally therapeutic.”

“Oh, totally,” she deadpanned. He put his large, capable hands around her waist and dug his thumbs in, right where it ached. Slow, deliberate pressure that hurt at first that dissolved into absolute animal pleasure. She pulled in a slow breath, let it out, and felt tension leak out from her shoulders down to her toes. “You should charge for that, colonel.”

“Can’t. Against regs.” She could hear the smile in his voice. His thumbs continued to press more lightly now, in slow circles. “Better?”

“Any better I’d lose motor skills.” Which was much more clinical than what came to mind, but she understood the limits as well as he did. “You can torture me with therapy all you like, but I’m afraid my medical opinion stands. Sam’s cleared to rejoin the team.”

“I’m not trying to talk you out of it. I just want to be sure you’re sure.”

“I’m sure.” She’d put Sam through the ringer, the full range of motion tests, stamina, strength. And Sam had passed. Granted, not by nearly as much as she had before the injuries, but a respectable performance.

And yet, there’d been a niggling worm of doubt in Janet’s mind. She’d finally let Sam talk her out of it, but only because the hard data backed up a decision to clear her for duty. No, what she was afraid of was harder to quantify. A shadow in Sam’s eyes, a near-obsessive determination to finish her rehab in record time.

“Doc …” Jack’s hands moved up, chasing the tension. “She did almost die, you know.”

“So have you and Daniel, more times than I care to remember. Doesn’t stop you from walking through the event horizon every week.”

His voice was rock steady. “Not the same thing, and you know it. This was worse.” His hands made it to her shoulders and squeezed away hours of stress. She closed her eyes and let herself relax on a level she was unaccustomed to feeling, at least here, with her coworkers. If Jack felt anything more than professional, collegial concern, she couldn’t tell it from the slow, steady pressure of his fingers on pressure points.

“Well, medically, it is the same thing,” she said. “Sam’s medically fit to rejoin the team.”

“Okay. Good. I just wanted to be absolutely sure.” He let go, moving slowly, and she felt the heat of his body moving away.

She turned to look at him, both of them barely lit by the halogen desk lamp, and his eyes looked black in the shadows, his face absolutely still.

“Thanks, colonel,” she said.

He raised his eyebrows—his equivalent of a smile, she’d often noticed. “Anytime.”

She sank back down in the chair as he moved toward the door, rested her head in her hands. There were times … there were times when she was just too lonely for her own good. Hell of a life, buried miles deep under a mountain ...

“You planning on going home?” Jack asked. She raised her head too quickly. Yes, he was still there, in the doorway, watching her. She forced a smile.

“Soon,” she said.

“Good,” he said, and clasped his hands behind his back and walked away. She counted pulsebeats. At ten, she opened the desk drawer, stripped off her lab coat, and grabbed her purse. She caught him at the elevator without seeming to hurry.

It was a long ride to the surface. They didn’t say much, and nothing that mattered. She checked out at the guard station. They walked separately to the security gates, went through the usual searches and signoffs. Out through the big curving tunnel into the glorious afterburn of a Colorado sunset. It was colder than she’d expected, and Janet shivered in the breeze. Turning fall, now. Winter coming soon.

Jack’s truck was parked in the first row, hers somewhere in the second.

“Goodnight, colonel,” she said, and kept walking, feeling for her keys. She fumbled them, heard them drop musically to the dark tarmac, and cursed under her breath.

Jack bent down and retrieved them with one neat gesture and hesitated, juggling them on the palm of his hand. They stared at each other for a few seconds, and she couldn’t tell, damn him, couldn’t tell anything at all from what she saw in his eyes.

“You know, Doc, we never really talk,” he said, and it was so utterly, nonsensically Jack that she had to laugh.

“Colonel, we talk all the time. You know that.”

“Sure, when I’m flat on my back and you’re sticking needles into my ... anatomy. I don’t call that bonding, Doc, and honestly, I’d like to talk to you about something.”

She controlled a flutter of unease and held her hand out for her keys. He dropped them into her palm without a moment’s hesitation.

“About the mission?” she asked. She didn’t have to say which one, even though there’d been too many to count.

His lips quirked, but it wasn’t quite a smile. “That obvious?”

She rolled her eyes. “Yes. That obvious.”

###

The bar was named the Wild Blue, and even though she’d never been in it before, Janet knew instinctively that it was the colonel’s kind of place. No pretty people assigning each other ratings while they sipped wine coolers. The folks in it were all real, over thirty, and she’d bet her license to practice that not one of them had ever tried a Jell-o shot in their lives, or would want to.

Table in the corner, near the heater. More of Jack’s insightfulness, because she’d seen no sign that he felt the chill outside. He didn’t try to order for her. From time to time her brain demanded to know what she was doing, but the truth was she didn’t know, and right at the moment didn’t particularly care.

“Since we’re off duty, can I call you Janet?” he asked, over the top of a glass brimming with foam.

“You sometimes call me Janet when we’re on duty.”

“Yeah, but now I can actually feel comfortable about it.”

“Knock yourself out.” She tasted her beer and was surprised how good it was; being a doctor on call 24/7, she didn’t indulge much, hadn’t since her days as a resident.

He turned his glass to the right, then left, as if unlocking a combination. “Did she tell you about it?”

She. Sam, of course. “Just the basics.” The basics had been frightening enough.

Jack looked past her, into memory. “It wasn’t her fault, you know. It was mine.”

And that was when she knew, with a little twinge of cold like something breaking inside, how much he’d held back from her, and all of them, since coming through the Stargate that bloody afternoon. Too strong for his own good, the colonel. Too brittle, sometimes.

“I doubt that,” she said quietly. “But tell me about it anyway.”

###

Ten weeks ago.

“Well, this is new,” Colonel O’Neill said, flopping into a conference room chair and spinning it to face the commander of SG-3. He nodded a businesslike greeting. “Colonel Makepeace.”

“Colonel O’Neill.” The other man nodded back. O’Neill and Makepeace hadn’t bonded, Sam thought as she took her customary seat next to her commanding officer; Makepeace’s by-the-book manner tended to bring out the worst excesses of O’Neill’s personality. Which, God knew, could be alarming at times.

At least for now, he was playing the professional. “Joint mission?”

“Not exactly,” Makepeace said, and looked around as the door opened behind him and General Hammond entered, followed by Daniel and the archaeologist/anthropologist for the SG-3 team, Dr. Cameron Fletcher. Fletcher looked—well—awful. Pale, shivering, with fever spots dotting his cheeks and nose. He half-slid, half-fell into a chair at the far end of the table.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we have a situation,” General Hammond said, and took his usual head-of-the-class position. He looked both grave and—oddly—stuffed with triumph.

O’Neill held up his hand, like a kid asking permission for a hall pass. Hammond sighed. “What is it, colonel?”

“Teal’c,” O’Neill said. “Not here yet.”

“No. He won’t be joining you for this mission.”

The colonel shot Sam a look, then continued it on to Daniel, who had paused in lowering himself into a chair next to her. “O–kay,” O’Neill finally said, not in any way indicating that it was. Hammond harrumphed and nodded to Makepeace, who stood up and slid briefing packets to the three SG-1 members.

“I’d like you to familiarize yourself with these materials,” Hammond said. “You’re shipping out as soon as possible.”

Sam opened hers and looked at the code number. PX9-332. Not one she was familiar with, but she skimmed the details. Earth-type atmosphere, nothing much noteworthy about the probe results. The next page, to her surprise, was a field report.

“You’ve already been there?” she asked, looking up. Makepeace nodded. “Okay, I’m confused. If you’ve already done the field survey, why are we in this meeting?”

Fletcher sneezed, down at the Gulag end of the table. “Flu,” he explained mournfully when they all looked at him. Makepeace’s lips twitched and might have tried to smile, except for protocol.

“Exactly. The problem is, we found something important, and given Dr. Fletcher’s condition, we can’t go back. So I asked General Hammond to assign it to another team, and he decided that SG-1 was the best fit.”

“Lucky us,” O’Neill said dryly. “I guess it would be too much to ask for it to be something easy for a change. Nice folks, good food, maybe a little golf ...”

But Sam had already skimmed the next page, and she felt her pulse beat faster. “Actually, sir, this could be really important. According to this, the indigenous people of PX9-332 have a way to fine tune their Stargate to block out certain kinds of incoming or outgoing travelers. Not a lockout, like our iris; more like a—a filter.”

“Saw it in action. It identified a Jaffa trying to come through,” Makepeace said. He sounded smug, but then, she supposed he deserved to. How long had they been looking for something like this? Just their luck that it would be somebody else to make the discovery ...

“Identified the Jaffa, and what? Gave it a spanking? Used harsh language?” O’Neill sat back, studying the other colonel. Sam could tell from the closed look on his face he’d already made up his mind not to like anything about this, and couldn’t control a surge of irritation. He could be such a stubborn jerk sometimes. Usually, it turned out, for the right reasons, but still ...

“Killed it,” Makepeace said. A muscle twitched in his clenched jaw.

“Let’s be specific, colonel. Killed the snake, or killed the Jaffa?”

“Both parasite and host were DOA.”

“Sweet.” O’Neill’s tone was heavy on the sarcasm. “Don’t suppose the folks on Chulak will be exactly overjoyed.”

Hammond had been letting his 2IC do the dirty work, but now he leaned forward, rested his elbows on the table, and said, “All right, let’s talk about that. We do have allies—Tok’ra and Jaffa alike. If this thing kills without distinction, it lessens any strategic value it might have.”

Sam cleared her throat and drew their attention. “Well, that’s true, sir, but surely we can install some kind of on-off switch. If we warned our allies about the device, I think it would be safe enough. And it would certainly be a huge tactical defensive advantage.”

O’Neill made a rude noise. She felt her face heat up, and refused to even consider letting him embarrass her. Again.

“It would also prevent what happened to Major Kawalsky from happening again,” she said.

Daniel poured himself a glass of water from the steel carafe. “Yeah, that’s true. It’s also true that you’d be dead now.” When she looked at him, he shrugged. “Jolinar? Hitched a ride inside you and came back through the Stargate? You’d be dead, Sam. This thing would have killed you and Jolinar both.”

“Do I need to bring up Hathor, and how she got her claws into every man at this table?” Sam shot back. Daniel winced and leaned back. Even the colonel looked queasy at the memory. “We’ve come awfully close to being ground zero for a Goa’uld invasion at least a half dozen times. This could be a way to make sure that never happens.”

Daniel half-raised a hand in objection. "Not that you're not ... correct ... but technically, Hathor was already here on Earth."

"And now she's not. How do you think she'll plan to get back?"

No arguments to that. O’Neill spread his hands and looked at the general, clearly an it’s-your-call expression. Hammond squinted into the distance for about a half a minute, then sighed and nodded.

“All right. Colonel Makepeace? What kind of chance do we have to trade for a prototype?”

“Sir, there’s only one of these things, and they’re being pretty firm about not letting us borrow it. Any research on the device has to be done there, on-site. Even then, we have to trade for the privilege. Our preliminary conversations with them indicated they’d be willing to trade one day of full access to the device for medical supplies, food, and one hundred standard-issue Beretta M9 sidearms.”

O’Neill opened his mouth, but was overridden by Daniel, who jumped ahead. “Whoa. Time out. We don’t trade for guns. Been there, done that, bad idea … right, Jack?”

At the end of the table, Dr. Fletcher sneezed, honked into a tissue, and cleared his throat. “I’d agree with you, Dr. Jackson, under normal circumstances. But based on my observations—” He stopped to sneeze again, muttered something apologetic. “Based on my observations this is a culture in pretty serious decline from what was once a highly technological state. A beautiful city, for instance, but there’s evidence that the basic sanitation’s broken down and nobody’s repairing it. Rusting automated transportation stalled on tracks, and they’re using horses and carts on paved streets. Lots of battle damage. I’m a little concerned that there’s not much holding this civilization away from chaos, but the truth is, they already have weapons, even leftover Goa’uld technology.”

“Will they make the deal without the sidearms?” Hammond asked Makepeace. Makepeace shook his head. “Any indication of what they plan to be using our weapons for?”

“The man we dealt with is a local warlord. It’s all a feudal system, far as we could tell. They’d probably go to keeping him in power.”

“Good thinking,” O’Neill said, sarcasm dripping from the words. “ ‘Cause that strategy’s been so successful in the past. Arming warlords.”

Daniel leaned forward, looking at O’Neill and Hammond both. “I just don’t like it. The guns.”

“Neither do I, but I think we should take the risk,” Sam said.

“Yeah, except it’s not our risk,” her CO pointed out. “The risk’s to the poor bastard at the wrong end of the guns we leave behind.”

Hammond stirred. “And sensitive as I am to that, colonel, we’re not working for the Peace Corps. We’re at war with a technologically superior enemy and we’d damn well better not overlook whatever advantages we can lay our hands on.”

O’Neill put on his poker face, the one he used when he knew there was no point in arguing but he’d never be persuaded to agree. “Point taken, sir.”

“Then you’re authorized to take SG-1 to PX9-332 and make the exchange as detailed by Colonel Makepeace for access to this device. Note that we're not providing anything but the most basic supply of ammunition. I’m assuming you’ll want to make a full photographic record, take instruments and sensors with you. I’ll sign off on whatever you feel you need, Captain Carter.”

“Sir, I don’t know what I’ll need until I can get a look at this thing.”

“Then pack heavy.” Hammond shuffled papers together. “Anything else?”

Daniel raised his hand. “Language.”

“Please say it’s English,” O’Neill said. “I’m getting real tired of sign language and learning curves. No offense, Daniel.”

“None taken, I’m getting tired of having to repeat everything to you.” Daniel hesitated a bare second. “Twice.”

O’Neill might not have let the dig slide, but Fletcher jumped into the opening. “Well, it’s not English, but Dr. Jackson should be able to handle it. It’s a root variant of Turkish. You spent some time in Ankara, right?”

“Yeah, three years of field excavation all over Turkey,” Daniel said. “I’m pretty comfortable with it. How far is the variation?”

“Not substantial.” Fletcher wiped his nose and obviously fought back another sneeze. “I muddled through, and Turkish isn’t exactly my mother tongue.”

It all looked really straightforward to Sam. Too straightforward, in fact. She could sense that O’Neill was traveling on the same train of thought. “This device, sir, it sounds a lot like Thor’s Hammer. Maybe something the Asgard put together?”

Makepeace exchanged a look with his teammate. “Maybe. I don’t get the sense that these people had the technological know-how to build it. Or repair it, come to that. Like the city that’s falling to pieces around them, it’s something they’ve inherited.”

“Great,” O’Neill said. He turned and looked directly at Hammond. “Sir, permission to utter a cliché and say I have a bad feeling about this?”

“Denied, colonel. These people have something we want. Just get it and return home. That shouldn’t be too difficult.”

The colonel shot Sam a look, and she could almost read his mind in the ironic flash.

I wish he hadn’t said that.

###

It all started out according to plan. Gearing up was entirely normal, except for the extra supplies they were taking for the exchange, and the fact that Teal’c wasn’t at their backs. It weighed on Sam’s mind. The colonel’s pessimism was tough to resist.

On schedule, the Stargate completed its ponderous cycle of turns. The plasma eruption tongued into the room, then snapped back to a glittering vertical pond. Sam checked her weapon and nodded to the colonel that she was ready to move out. On the other side of him, Daniel did the same. After so many departures, they didn’t need anything more formal.

And then they were falling into something that wasn’t space, wasn’t time, wasn’t anything, and then Sam’s feet found ground and she put her weight on the surface of a new world.

She blinked and slid on sunglasses; it was full day, either the dead of summer or a really intemperate climate, and the glare was ruthless. So was the heat; it settled on top of her like a microwaved wool blanket. She adjusted the khaki cap on her head and followed O’Neill down the steps, halting just a bit behind him.

The welcoming committee was already there, about fifty strong, swathed in the dust-colored robes that were pretty standard for desert worlds. Behind them rose a city that still looked graceful, but there were signs here and there of burned-out buildings, decaying structures leaning in the sky. A sense of things rotting. Makepeace’s report hadn’t gone in-depth into the culture, but as she scanned the crowd she didn’t like the hard-bitten look, or the prevalence of weapons.

From the rigid set of his shoulders, neither did the colonel. He was keeping his weapons close and ready. She followed suit.

Her gaze settled on the Dial Home Device. On the back of it there clung a weirdly shaped, almost circular addition—bumps, ridges, nothing that looked machined. It almost looked ... grown. Was that the anti-Goa’uld device?

The leader—warlord?—was a big guy, dark-skinned though lighter than Teal’c. He advanced on the colonel, hand outstretched, and said something in a language Sam assumed was Turkish. Daniel took a step forward and translated. “He says welcome to Sarada. Which I guess is the name of the place. Or maybe the city.”

“Tell him happy to be here,” O’Neill said. Which was one of his blatant diplomatic lies. “You know the drill, try to avoid getting us committed to any dinners or duels or complimentary girlfriends.”

Daniel began to chatter on in his bright, energetic way, and the leader listened politely. Dialogue back and forth, none of it comprehensible. Daniel brought out the packs and showed examples of everything from MREs to the supply of Berettas and ammunition. Ten minutes passed while they talked. Fifteen. Daniel occasionally asked the colonel for clarification on something, but it was pretty much a boring wall of sound.

She stayed at parade rest and watched the crowd as they milled around. Some of them were looking at her oddly, nudging each other. Whispering. She felt a prickle of alarm along the back of her neck and realized what it was her pattern recognition kept returning as odd.

No women in the crowd.

Fletcher and Makepeace should have picked up on it. Damn it. She remembered one of the colonel’s favorite aphorisms, now uncomfortably applicable: it’s the little things that kill ya.

If this turned out to be a repressive society, one that locked up its women behind closed doors ...

“Okay,” Daniel said, drawing her attention. “Sam, I think he’s okay with the trade. We can get what we need, so long as we don’t, ah, steal it or break it.”

She stepped out from behind O’Neill and knelt down next to the DHD. The bumpy round thing was cool to the touch; no obvious seams to it. The colonel came to crouch down next to her.

“Whoa,” she said, looking at it from all sides. “Uh, sir? This is something new.”

He barely glanced at it. He was still scanning the crowd. “Yeah, great, whatever. Look, I just noticed—”

She kept her voice low, just between the two of them. “I did too.”

“Okay, we’ve been here before. Let’s keep your head down, your voice down, and let’s do this fast.” He was, she knew, thinking of one of their early missions, where she’d been lucky not to get herself killed before she even understood the ground rules. “And hey, cheer up! Maybe it’s the women who rule here, don’t lift a finger all day long, and keep their love slaves hanging on every little word.”

“Well, that’d be a welcome change,” she said, and suppressed a grin. “Though probably not for you, sir.”

He shrugged. “You never know. Look, how much longer ...”

She knew what he was about to ask. “Sir, I don’t even know what this is, much less how to start analyzing it. At a guess, it’s some kind of bioengineered organism. Maybe cybernetic. Best I can do is get some video of it, maybe run some basic conductivity tests, things like that. Truth is, this is so alien, it might take years of study to figure it out.”

“Great. Just get the basics, Carter. We can send back an all-male team for a second look.”

She stared at the—thing—clinging to the DHD like a tick to a dog. “Boy, I hate to take a chance, but I think I’m going to have to try to pull it off.”

“Wait.” He reached out and carefully touched a fingertip to it.

Nothing happened.

He gave her a shrug. “Go for it.”

“Right.” She reached out with both hands and took hold of it.

It was like grabbing a lightning bolt. Power ripped down every nerve ending, and she heard herself scream, felt herself twitching.

Something—probably O’Neill—knocked her away to fall full-length on the sand. She couldn’t get her breath. Everything looked—sounded—tasted—

“Sam!” Daniel loomed over her on one side, grabbed her hand and checked for a pulse. She blinked slowly and felt a lurch in her chest, like her heart restarting. “Sam, are you okay?”

“Carter?” The colonel had moved to a kneeling position next to her. She felt the pressure of his palm against her forehead. “She’s burning up.”

“Some kind of electrical shock.”

“Can’t be. I touched it first.”

“Look at the burns on her hands!”

“Okay, that’s it. Dial us the hell out of here.” The colonel got to his feet, and she saw him turn toward the crowd.

The crowd was moving forward. The warlord was, too, his whole body stiff with outrage.

Daniel slowly got to his feet and tried asking the warlord something in Turkish. When he got the answer, he shot Carter a quick downward glance. He didn’t need to say anything, she saw the look of alarm in his eyes. The man tried to move toward her. Daniel got in the way.

She finally got a clean mouthful of air, let it out in a hacking cough, and rolled slowly on her side. Everything seemed to be working inside, at least for now. She climbed to her feet.

“Carter? You okay?” O’Neill called over his shoulder.

“M’ okay,” she mumbled, and wiped her forehead. The palms of her hands were bright red, streaked and puffy. Her legs didn’t want to support her, but she willed them into something like steadiness.

It started in the crowd as a murmur, but within ten seconds it was a chant, a roar, fists in the air.

“Okay, this is going south,” O’Neill said, in that soft, reasonable way he had when things were turning from danger to crisis. “Carter, back up toward the gate. We can battle for women’s lib some other day.”

Sam shuffled backwards, trying to swallow the taste of ozone and fear. O’Neill took her six, covering her retreat. He wasn’t firing yet, but he was definitely ready.

“Okay, Daniel, let’s just dial us back home. Nice and easy.”

Daniel kept talking in Turkish, but he nodded and eased around the glaring warlord to the DHD. Smiling. Playing the goofy, well-meaning scientist to the hilt.

The warlord took a quick step forward, stiff-armed Daniel back from the DHD and into the crowd. He let out a surprised yell and went down.

“Daniel!” O’Neill didn’t wait. He aimed his MP-5 over the heads of the crowd and fired a short, controlled burst. Sam shook off her dizziness and did the same, aiming toward their right flank, where some of the crowd were trying to get behind them. The mob ducked and broke into chaos, but it wasn’t quite the effect Sam knew the colonel had hoped for—they were running around, not running away. And too many of them had clubs, rocks, even corroded old Goa’uld staff weapons. “Carter, stay here! Shoot to kill if you have to!”

He plunged into the chaos, reached down and wrestled Daniel to his feet. Sam felt her vision blur again and wiped her forehead with the back of her hand. Dizziness grabbed her and pulled.

That single moment of weakness was enough. She turned at a blur of movement to her right. A man moved in, swinging his rifle like a club as he lunged straight for her.

She saw it coming like a speeding car, with no time to stumble out of the way.

Wood and steel connected with the side of her head, and the impact was so huge, so all-consuming that she didn’t even feel pain, just disorientation, a loss of gravity. Then she was down, blinking away something that clouded her vision, and a booted foot caught her in the ribs and she rolled, tasted sand and blood. More impacts, too many to count, too many to feel, things going wrong in her head. Military instinct took over, and she felt for her gun, but it wasn’t in her hands anymore.

People were yelling. No, the colonel was yelling, the words just a red smear, and she blinked and saw him standing over her, his weapon raised. Daniel was there, too, crouched at her side, fending off hands trying to grab at her, shouting at the top of his lungs in that language she didn’t know, telling them ... telling them ...

She gasped, coughed, felt the wet unsteadiness of trauma taking hold. Needed to get hold of herself. Needed to think.

O’Neill fired over the heads of the crowd in a loud staccato burst. It sent a wave of screaming faces and clenched fists stumbling backwards. He took advantage of the lull to shout something to Daniel. Daniel rushed for the DHD and slapped symbols, faster than Sam had ever seen him move.

A rush of blue-white light seared her eyes. Stargate open. Thank God ...

She must have blacked out, briefly, because the next thing she knew she was in Daniel’s arms, being carried up the steps toward the peaceful shimmering glow that meant home and safety and an end to this merciless confusion.

And then, inexplicably, she and Daniel hit the ground. Hard. She gagged on blood and pain and rolled on her side, unable to move or force herself to do anything but tremble.

What the hell ....? She reached out and touched something cool and hard like glass instead of the surface of the event horizon.

The Stargate wouldn’t let her go.

Daniel lunged forward and reached out to the plasma; his hand slid in effortlessly, but even when he grabbed hers and tried to pull it through she kept running into a barrier, hard as steel.

“Jack! I can’t get her through!” Daniel yelled. His blue eyes were huge with panic behind his glasses.

“Go! I’ll bring her!” O’Neill yelled back. He raked another burst of fire into the crowd, this one straight on; bodies spasmed and fell back, but not enough, they were all rushing at once, and he was too far away. The tide broke over him.

“Go!” Sam screamed at Daniel, and shoved, trying to force him through the gate. He looked down at her, back at the colonel, who was still firing but just seconds away from being engulfed. “Daniel, go!”

He stayed on his knees next to her. He met her eyes and said, very softly, “God, Sam, I can’t.”

The gunfire stopped. Sam gasped and twisted around to look, saw the colonel’s dun-and-brown uniform down in the dirt, covered by writhing bodies. Daniel saw it too; his face was pale and set. She knew that look. She’d seen it on the faces of men about to die. Oh, God, Daniel, why didn’t you leave ...

The Stargate’s wormhole snapped closed, and for just a second, she could have sworn she smelled the air of home in its wake.

She didn’t want to look death in the face, but she was too much of a solider not to. She shifted around, cradling an arm that felt broken, ribs that definitely were, and tried not to breathe too deeply against the stabbing pain in her side. Her head throbbed with every beat of her heart, and she could feel the wet slick heat of blood trickling down the side of her face from the scalp wound.

The crowd stopped at the base of the Stargate steps, growling, milling around. She felt the force of their fury like a blowtorch, but they didn’t come up to the top.

Daniel put his arm around her and moved her closer to him. He still had his pistol, she saw, and he held it ready. Not that it could possibly help, except as their final escape from this hellhole.

She couldn’t see O’Neill until the Warlord came striding through the mob, dragging the colonel behind him. Sam had a brief horrible flashback of film footage of Somalia, uniformed bodies dragged down the streets, oh God what had happened, what had they done wrong, how had it all gone so horribly ...

The warlord said something. Daniel spat something back. One of the new Beretta pistols was in the warlord’s hand—no, not one of the new ones, the colonel’s sidearm, she saw the scratches on the matte black barrel from when he’d used it to keep the steel door open on PX2 ... PX ...

Colonel O’Neill, down on the ground, hands tied behind his back, raised his head. She felt an unreasonable surge of joy. He wasn’t dead, at least. Not yet.

Even now, in this kind of chaos, he gave her a pained, quirky smile. “How ya doin’, Carter?”

Sam forced a smile. “I’ve had worse, sir.”

At the sound of her voice, the warlord shouted and rushed up three steps, close enough to touch. He lifted the Beretta and she saw the muzzle flash one, two, three times. No sound to it, but she could feel the impacts like fists on flesh. Oh God he shot Daniel he shot Daniel no no no ...

And then she saw the bright misting spray from below her vest, in her lower abdomen, felt the hot burn as things ruptured and shattered and tore apart. A vast and terrible sense of something being wrong ...

Daniel screamed and threw himself across her body but it was too late, all too late. Pain, and pain, and pain, it was all pain and there was nothing right anymore, nothing ...

God, she thought in surprise as it all fell away. That was stupid.

###

The Wild Blue.

Jack adjusted his beer a quarter turn to one side, a quarter turn to the other, and said, “He just—shot her. Just like that. Three pops, right below the vest, point blank.”

He demonstrated, pointing his finger at an angle below the table, and Janet felt an answering shiver in her abdomen. “My God. Why?”

He tilted his head, and the sand-and silver of his hair caught the dim lights. “She didn’t tell you?”

“She didn’t tell me much. Sam … can be just about as closemouthed as you, colonel.” And as physician, Janet wasn’t normally included in the debriefings, unless they contained medical data General Hammond designated need-to-know. Sam usually talked about things, though. But not about this mission.

None of them did, not even Daniel.

Jack sipped his beer, but his dark eyes never left her. “He shot her because she was a woman.”

“Oh.” She went still, thinking. “You’ve run into this before.”

He shook his head. “Not like this. There’s a difference between oppression and out-and-out murder,” Jack said. He adjusted his beer glass in precise quarter turns, still watching her. “You know the thing about combat situations? You have to not just read what’s there, but what’s not there. Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s not. But it’s the little things that’ll kill ya.”

She made the logical connection. “You feel guilty that you didn’t see it earlier.”

“Guilty? Hell, no.” He lifted the glass and drank. “I feel angry.”

###

He’d watched people die before, so close he’d tasted the blood and felt the wind of the bullet’s passage. But this was Carter, dammit.

Jack threw himself forward, but a foot came down on his spine and slammed him down hard. He felt something snap, but the pain was just so much static at the edges and the center of the picture was so horribly clear. The front of Carter’s uniform soaking dark red. Blood lacing the stone around her.

The bastard had—accidentally or deliberately—shot her below the vest.

Daniel threw himself across her to protect her but it was too late, too late, damn it, far too late for anything now. There was a word coming out of Jack’s mouth and it might have been NO or it might have been STOP or it might have been her name that burned in the back of his throat like lava.

And then instinct kicked in, and he went cold and very, very still.

He stopped fighting and let them drag him back up to his knees, saw the warlord turn to frown at him, Jack’s sidearm dangling from his hand. He shot her with my gun. He shut that thought down, cut it off, buried it in ice.

The warlord barked a question. Jack looked past him at Daniel, but Daniel wasn’t responding. His eyes were squeezed shut. “Daniel,” he said, and raised his voice when he got no response. “Daniel! Is she breathing?”

“I don’t know.” Daniel sounded like he was having trouble breathing himself. “It’s bad, Jack. She’s—she’s bad.”

It was information, just information, something to feed into the strategic picture. Strengths, weaknesses, assets, liabilities. “What did he say?”

“What?” Daniel was going into shock, maybe already there. He was so white Jack wondered if he hadn’t been shot as well. That would be a liability, having Daniel down too. Unacceptable, strategically.

“The guy who shot her. What did he say?” Jack said, very slowly. Daniel looked up at the warlord, and the shock slid away, replaced with something primitive and way too hot. “Yo! Daniel! I need you to talk to him.”

“Talk to him!” He hadn’t really known the younger man had that level of fury in him, but there it was. Dangerous. Another liability. “You want me to talk to him?”

“Yes,” Jack said softly. Daniel stared at him. Fury turned to contempt, and Jack shoved that aside, too; what Daniel felt or thought was unimportant, except in terms of how it aided or impeded the outcome. “Just tell me what he’s saying.”

It was a long wait. Jack stared at Carter, who wasn’t moving. It was a good sign that she was still bleeding—at least her heart was still pumping. Life, and hope, and all that crap. Trickles of blood dripped down one step, crawled toward the edge of the second.

“Oh God, Jack.” The dawning horror in Daniel’s voice drew his attention. “He says—he thinks she was fooling us. Spying on us. He thinks he did us a favor.”

“Explain it to him.” Jack’s dislocated arm sent spasms of fire up into his neck, but he didn’t let it distract him. “Daniel. Stay cool. Just explain.”

And to his credit, Daniel tried. His blue eyes were still shimmering with fury, but he kept his voice steady and his tone sounded reasonable. The warlord answered, and whatever he said, he laughed at the end of it. Daniel swallowed hard. He tensed all over. Jack murmured, “Daniel. Keep it together. Report.”

“He—thinks we’re under some kind of evil influence. From Sam.”

The warlord snapped his fingers, and two men surged forward. Daniel threw himself back over Carter’s body. His eyes were wild. “Jack—!”

Split second decision. “Thank him for shooting her,” Jack said. “Tell him you see the truth now.”

That did it. Daniel jerked like he’d been slapped and spat, “Jack, I will not—”

Thank him. Tell him she’s an evil bitch demon from outer space who eats brains. Tell him whatever the hell you think he wants to hear, I don’t care.” Jack kept his voice down, but he knew there was something rabid in his eyes. “We opened the gate, we sent the code through. When we don’t make it, Hammond will send the MALP. Just keep this asshole talking.”

The look between them went on, and on, and on, beating in Jack’s temples like blows from a steel bar. Finally, without looking away from him, Daniel pushed himself to his knees and away from Carter. The front of his jacket was soaked with her blood.

“She’s bleeding so much ...” he said, staring down at her.

“Put pressure on the wounds. And whatever you do, keep these bastards talking.” Because if he kept them talking, they wouldn’t feel the urge to finish what they’d started. Maybe.

Daniel’s eyes burned a hole in him for several long seconds, and then the man started doing what had to be done. Jack made himself still, calm, cold.

He watched Carter’s blood slowly drip down stone, soaking into the thirsty sand, and didn’t allow himself to feel the agony.

###

The Wild Blue.

Janet watched the colonel turning his beer, keeping it precisely inside the water ring. There was something hypnotic about it, almost ritualistic. He came back to the starting position, drank a sip, put it down, and started the process all over again.

Seven turns, some right, some left. Seven, then lift the glass for a drink.

He was dialing home.

She pulled in a deep breath to point it out, then squashed the impulse. “I can’t imagine what kind of presence of mind it takes to watch a friend dying and just—focus on the priorities.”

“Sure you can. Same thing you do every day. If Carter rolled in on a crash cart, you’d put everything aside and do your job.” Jack shrugged, picked up the beer, and drank. “Nothing to it, right?”

“Sam did roll in on a crash cart. And I did do my job, but I can’t exactly say I put everything aside. If I’d been there, seen it happen ... “ She shook her head and tucked loose strands of short auburn hair behind her ear. “I don’t think I could have been as objective as you.”

He had the bitterest, sweetest smile she had ever seen. “Doc, if I’d had so much as a sharp stick to use, I’d have killed every one of ‘em I could lay my hands on. I wasn’t objective. I was helpless. Big difference.”

Nothing she could say to that. It had been months since the mission, but she wasn’t surprised his feelings had taken this long to rise to the surface. Even pain didn’t come easily to him. She changed the subject. “There was a lot of initial reluctance in the military to putting women in combat situations. You know why?”

He gave her that half-staff, mocking smile. “Fear you’d whip our macho asses?”

“I’m being serious, colonel,” she said. “Under extreme combat situations, men tended to put the safety of female combatants ahead of their own. Bad tactics. It resulted in stress factors on commanding officers. Training says you can’t feel protective of the soldiers you send into battle, but instinct says different.”

“Bullshit.” Jack raised the glass to his lips and put it down without drinking. Went through another series of Stargate dialing motions. “That might have been true then, but it isn’t now. As a commanding officer you’re trained to recognize strengths and weaknesses. Carter doesn’t have many weaknesses. She’s good in a fight, she’s steady, she’s smart. A tactical thinker.”

“She’s also a woman,” Janet said, and reached across the table to take his hand in hers. The contrast was startling, as she’d meant it to be—his hands were twice the size of hers, the strength in them palpable. “You tend to overlook it, colonel, just so you don’t have to deal with those instincts—everyone does. When you say she’s a good fighter, somewhere at the back of your mind you also know that she’ll never be half as physically strong as you, or even Dr. Jackson. And that little voice is right. She’s not designed for it, structurally. There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging it. It’s just another strategic factor to consider.”

“Somehow, I never expected to hear a female officer say that,” he said. “As hard as you’ve have had to fight to get where you are.”

“I’m a realist, colonel. Upper body strength isn’t my advantage. If you give me the technology, I’m an equal if not superior combatant; if you take it away and reduce me to the basics, I’m not.” She squeezed his hand. “Sam knows that. She’s a realist, too. You don’t have to be worried she’s going to try to prove anything, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“I’m not.” He didn’t try to draw back, as she’d expected; he looked down at their clasped hands. He looked up at her, eyes dark and undefended. Janet felt a lurch of sorrow and pity, but she knew he’d never accept either one. "When I asked you if Carter was fit for duty, I was hoping you’d say no. She might be ready. I’m … not so much.”

She decided to put it on the table between them. “Because she's a member of your team, or because she's female?"

To his credit, he didn’t look away. He deliberately took a drink. "I never want to see it happen like that again."

"You didn't answer my question."

He gave her a bleak half-smile. "Refill?"

###

Jack’s senses were operating at full stretch; he could smell the sweat and sour odor of the men crowding around him, smell his own rancid fear, smell the metallic tang of Carter’s blood. Daniel’s strained, barely-under-control voice as he lilted through whatever argument he was posing to keep them alive.

I should’ve been able to keep order, Jack thought, and immediately stomped the thought silent. No second-guessing in a crisis. First rule of command.

But he should’ve been able to keep order, get them into an orderly withdrawal, delay with some well-placed suppressing fire while Daniel dialed them home. If he’d done that, Carter would’ve gotten through the Stargate. They’d all be grinning and shaking Hammond’s hand right about now, and Jack would have the Joke of the Day ready at Daniel’s expense ...

Focus, damn it. His mind was wandering, probably from the pain that radiated out of his dislocated shoulder and bruised ribs. These bastards weren’t taking chances with him; every time he tried a twitch, they were on him, holding him down.

Daniel was losing their interest. Ah, God, no, they were looking at Carter again, staring at her. Stay still. Unconsciousness was her best protection just now.

She twitched and gasped in a breath, and opened her eyes.

The warlord gestured to his men. A group of them lunged up the stairs and grabbed for any part of her they could reach.

“No!” Daniel yelled, and tried to hang onto her; one of them punched him hard and kept punching until Daniel let go. Jack winced when Daniel shook his head, wiped blood from his mouth, and crawled after them. His glasses were shattered, but he saw well enough to follow the bright gleam of Carter’s hair, or her blood, as they dragged her down the steps.

They were laughing at him, hooting and pointing, kicking at him when he came close. God, Danny, just lie down. Lie down. Jack wanted to scream it at him, but it would be a waste of breath. No matter what the cost, Daniel couldn’t save himself and let others suffer. That was who he was. It was comforting, and cruel, and as bright as a star.

Please God, Danny, give up.

He didn’t, until they kicked him unconscious.

Carter tried to pull away from the men dragging her, clawed at the sand, but there was nothing she could do to save herself. Nothing Jack could do to save her. He didn’t allow himself to feel the rage and anguish that was boiling up underneath; instead, he calculated how long she could survive with the kind of gut wound she’d suffered. Hours, probably, unless an artery was nicked. Days, maybe. If they survived to be taken to some kind of prison, they could ride out what was coming.

No, the truth was, he and Daniel could. Carter …

... hurting her was entertainment to these bastards.

They dragged her away, into the crowd, and he swallowed a scream that was clawing at the back of his throat to get out. He stared at the hollow, cold arch of the Stargate and thought he heard, somewhere behind him, Carter yelling for help.

Please. He didn’t even know who he was calling on … God, the general, the Tok’ra.

Please.

Oddly, somebody heard that prayer.

It was not who he expected. At all.



-- continued in Part 2 --

Comments

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( 3 rants — Rant )