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X is for Xenophobia

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Little Jake Carter was never a science fiction fan, growing up. Instead of bug-eyed aliens, he dreamed of cowboys and Indians. He was always a cowboy, of course; who'd want to be an Indian? Sure, they got to wear buckskin and feathers, but Davy Crockett got buckskin and a coon-skin cap. And John Wayne got guns! Jake could see himself as a cowboy, riding the range. He couldn't see himself as an Indian. They weren't like his family. Jake knew all about people who Weren't Like Us.

"Damn wetbacks, taking jobs from decent hard-working Americans," Jake's Dad would say, frowning at the farm next door. It was a large farm, a big commercial operation, and every year it hired Mexicans from across the border and paid them off the books, and every year Dad had to do the same if he wanted to make any kind of profit on their small piece of land, and every year he muttered under his breath as he paid them, handing out white envelopes full of carefully-counted cash. "Lazy bastards. Gonna spend it all on booze, I know, living in those dirty shanties of theirs." And on, and on. By the time Jake was fifteen and working full time on the place in the summers, he'd heard it so many times he could recite it in his sleep.

To his father's disappointment, instead of staying home to take over the farm, Jake did Air Force ROTC. The two of them sat on the back porch smoking the day Jake announced it. "Look, Dad," Jake said, "I know you can't pay for college and I want to go. With scholarships and a job, I'll be able to pay my own way."

"You'll have to serve after college, though," Dad said. "That worth it? I had some jackasses of officers in the Army, made life hell. Don't suppose that's much different for a brand-new lieutenant. And I knew I only had to serve until we whipped the Jerries." He didn't say a word about the apple trees stretching out in front of him that Jake wouldn't be there to help him pick that year, or the Farmall tractor that might have to be sent to the mechanic if it broke because Jake wouldn't be around to fix it.

"I think I can handle it," Jake said. "There's other threats out there today, Dad. The Russians aren't just sitting at home playing nice. They're not like us. They'd rather build an army to attack us than get their own country straightened out. When they think they can win, they're gonna attack. Somebody's got to fight them, when they come, and I figure it might as well be me."

"I suppose," Dad said, and that was the end of it.

Jake's college experience was fairly normal, as was his marriage to a girl he met there. Once in the service, he rose through the ranks on schedule, and decided to stay in once his basic commitment had been met. He rose through the ranks steadily but unremarkably, the very picture of a model officer. His personal life, too, was perfectly ordinary American home life. Married, two children, a succession of ordinary suburban houses near each base he was stationed at. When his wife died, he grieved, and when his son stopped talking to him, he grumbled but took an obscure kind of comfort in the fact that so many of his fellow officers had similar stories. He made General, and his daughter became a fine officer, and even if he didn't understand his children he loved them and was proud of them, and the life he'd lived. When he was diagnosed with cancer he had regrets of course—who wouldn't?—but the kind of life he'd lived and the service he'd given weren't among them.

The Tok'ra weren't anything he could ever have imagined in his wildest dreams. By the time they'd evacuated to their next base and gotten everything set up and had time to breathe, Selmak had integrated so comfortably into the back of Jake's head that it was hard to remember what life was like without—her? it? him?

Whichever you prefer, Selmak said. It makes little difference to me—I have no gender, as you think of it.

"I think I'll call you a 'he,'" Jake said. He lay back, trying to make himself comfortable. Tok'ra travelled light, and while some furniture such as chairs could be grown out of the same crystals that formed the eerie blue tunnels, mattresses were asking a bit much. So Jake was spread out on an out-of-the-way stretch of floor with a blanket and thin pillow. "You're not a thing, and the only woman I've lived with as an adult was my wife. No offence, but I don't put you in the same category."

None taken, Selmak said with a burst of warm humor. It tickled a little, and felt like laughter. You should know, you don't need to speak aloud for me to know what you think. I try not to pry into my host's thoughts, but a certain degree of overlap is unavoidable. It would be advantageous for you to be fully conversed in that method of conversation before we go on any missions.

I CAN SEE THAT, Jake said. HOW'S THIS?

There's no need to 'shout,' Jake, there's nothing wrong with my ears.

Oh. Right. Jake shifted uneasily, away from a crystal that had been digging into his back. Is this better?

Yes. Selmak paused. I know the floor is hard, but I can help you not notice that, if you like.

Jake paused, a little taken aback. He had no reason to distrust Selmak, and through whatever weird alien connection they shared, figured he knew the guy pretty well even though they'd only met that day. Still, letting him play around with Jake's body?

You do realize that I already 'played around with your body,' when I healed your cancer, don't you? And that it's now our body, not just yours alone? It was said drily, evenly, without the slightest hint of emotion.

If there'd been the slightest hint of threat, condescension, anger, Jake would've … well, he didn't know what he would've done. But it would have been much different than what he ended up doing. He'd made a deal, and Selmak had kept his part of the bargain in good faith. All right, he thought, and if Selmak picked up on the grudging reluctance, he didn't comment on it.

Jake lay on his back, staring up at the ceiling, waiting for Selmak to work his magic.

Hardly magic, Selmak thought.

Jake gasped in shock, realizing that he couldn't quite feel his body and hadn't even noticed it happening. It was there, but not really, not like it was connected to him, and he couldn't move, and it was like being in that hospital after he'd been shot down over Viet Nam and had spent the first few months after his rescue in a hospital, much of it either delirious from fever or doped up on painkillers. Except this was worse, because with the painkillers he'd known what was happening to his body, and his mind had been foggy enough not to care. He knew what painkillers did to his body. This was … this was … he didn't even know what this was, except that he'd never felt anything like it.

Abruptly, he was back, feeling every crack and facet in the crystal beneath him, fingers scrabbling to grab hold of something—anything—that could anchor him in his body, gasping for breath and twitching with adrenaline.

I'm sorry, Selmak said. I didn't think it would frighten you that badly. He did not say that Jake and given him permission to do it, and was carefully neutral in his tone.

Jake appreciated that as he tried to get his breathing under control. Goddammit, he was an Air Force officer, a Major General, not some sniveling kid, and here he was panicking like a brand-new pilot in his first real dogfight. It took a little bit to get himself settled down, and he appreciated that Selmak didn't try to 'help' by adjusting his adrenaline levels. His new … partner could have done it, without breaking a sweat. Or whatever it was Tok'ra did instead of sweat.

"So," Jake said, once he figured he could keep his voice even. "What exactly did you do just then?"

I dampened the signal from your nerves to your brain, thereby blocking the discomfort. It's useful with minor discomforts, or when fulfilling a mission is more important than the damage that caused the pain. It is simple, and quick to reverse when necessary. And I will never do it without your consent unless our lives or our mission are in grave jeopardy. Selmak's 'voice' was calm, matter-of-fact, soothing.

"And when you 'dampen' the nerves, that means I can't use them?" Jake asked.

When the nerves are dampened, they carry very little either to or from your brain. There was a slight hesitation. My sensations and commands, however, are not directly affected.

"Right," Jake said. He was still learning to interpret the feelings he got from Selmak—the ones that went directly into his brain. He was pretty sure that Selmak was absolutely sincere when he said he'd respect Jake's wishes on the matter. But his words still made Jake uneasy, and he wasn't quite sure why. It wasn't the caveats; they were both reasonable, and in Selmak's place he'd have insisted on them himself.

Maybe it was the background feeling that although Selmak was willing to abide by Jake's wishes on the matter, he didn't quite understand them.

Jake? Selmak's voice was slightly hesitant.

"Yeah?" Jake said.

You keep having background thoughts that are slightly … odd. I would like your permission to see where they come from.

"What's odd about 'em?" Jake asked, defensive. In response, Selmak showed him a picture: a bug-eyed alien monster from some low-budget science fiction movie from his childhood. Jake blinked, and started laughing. "Yeah, sure. Look around all you want to. I had no idea my memory of that was so good."

Human memory retains many details that you cannot consciously call to mind. My own abilities are not so limited. With that, Selmak dove into his memories. Jake could see what he was looking at, but second-hand and through Selmak's thoughts, and there was no order to it that he could see (although he kinda thought it was perfectly logical to Selmak). All told, it was kind of like watching someone rifle through his drawers, commenting on what he found. Selmak's reactions were funny, and Jake found it a lot more interesting and less intrusive than he'd expected. All told, they went through every bad science fiction movie he'd watched on late night tv when there was nothing else on, every movie Sam had dragged him to as a kid, every book of hers he'd read to stay connected with what she liked. And they did it in under half an hour.

So, whaddaya think? Jake asked when Selmak was done with his whirlwind tour.

Despite what your daughter believed as a child about 'advanced races being morally superior,' the more 'cheesy' science fiction with evil invading aliens is more realistic, if far less scientifically accurate. Selmak's voice was tinged with regret.

Yeah, no kidding. The Goa'uld are body snatchers, all right, and they're sure as hell trying to invade.

And they are not the only ones you need to fear, I'm afraid, Selmak said. Though they are the greatest threat. I saw stories of short aliens with large heads and dark eyes experimenting on people. There is an alien race that looks very similar to that—the Asgard. They have worked to keep the Goa'uld in check for many thousands of years, but … they, too, have masqueraded as gods when it suits them. And this is not the first time I have heard rumors of medical experimentation on humans. Though they are, in general, benevolent. If seldom very active about it.

So, even the guys on our side aren't always on our side, Jake said. Not a big change from human warfare, then. He consciously did not think of what Colonel O'Neill had taken him aside to whisper in his ear before letting him come to the Tok'ra. If Sam wasn't going to make a big deal of it, he wasn't either. He figured Selmak probably knew what was on his mind, anyway, but there was no point in offending his new best friend by rubbing his nose in things.

Possibly not, Selmak said. He hesitated. I will note that we will both need to be at our best tomorrow.

Jake nodded. And morning—or what passes for it around here—will come all too soon. Gotcha. He hesitated. Let's try that nerve thing, again. Now that I know what's coming.

alright.

It wasn't so bad, once you knew what to expect, Jake figured, and given how tired he was, it didn't take long to drop off. After that, Selmak knew to explain to him exactly what he was doing before he did it, and Jake learned to trust him. And he didn't think much more about it.

A year later, Jake went back to Earth for the first time since blending with Selmak. (He didn't count five minutes in the Gateroom before heading out.)

His first thought, once they were in Washington State and out of the SGC's jurisdiction, was how … weird everything was. He'd forgotten the stink of car exhaust. The plane to get there—he'd flown planes like that, thought them excellent military transports, and now all he wanted was a tel'tak. And then they got there and the ATF was already there and for the first time since their blending it was Selmak who was keeping his head down, not Jake. And for all Jake enjoyed the turnabout (if not necessarily the constant prompts that when this was over, his son was only a few hundred miles south), it was weird. Not to mention trying to come up with a cover story to explain alien cults without actually saying the word 'alien.'

And afterwards they did end up going down to visit Mark and his family, and Selmak had a good time feeling smug at Jake for how well it was going and asking all kinds of questions about what life was like on the First World, and generally enjoying the break from their usual lives. Jake enjoyed it, too, and did his part in ensuring mental harmony by letting Selmak's gentle jabs about how hard Jake had resisted this reunion pass without (much) comment. It was nice, sitting in a well-kept middle-class house with his family around him, not having to worry about staying in character or being attacked or what the next move by Apophis or Sokar or Ba'al would be.

It wasn't until his time on Earth was almost up that it really hit him. He was sitting at the kitchen table reading the paper while his son and daughter-in-law were at work and his grandchildren were at school. Sam was sitting on a barstool next to the kitchen counter with her laptop writing something—a report, a scientific paper, he wasn't sure.

I thought the public was ignorant of aliens, Selmak said. Else why have you not introduced me to Mark?

They are, Jake said, spotting the headline that caught Selmak's eye. Alien doesn't just mean bug-eyed monster from outer space, it also means a foreigner, someone very different. Illegal alien means someone from another country, usually Mexico, who's in this country without permission. He remembered how absurd it sounded back in the eighties when the PC patrol first started to make noises about how 'wetbacks' was insulting and Not Nice and so you should call them 'illegal aliens' instead. Jake had thought that if they were insulted, they should go back to wherever they came from and try to enter the country legally. Beyond that 'aliens' sounded like they were creatures from the black lagoon or body snatchers or Vulcans or something, rather than just foreigners who didn't respect America enough to stay out when they weren't wanted, or enough to learn the language and blend into the melting pot once they got here.

Hmm, Selmak said. Well, it says something about your culture that you categorize evil invaders from other planets with the same word you give to others of your own species who come from other places on this same planet. Though I can't say I'm surprised; such an attitude to foreigners seems to be common among Humans regardless of the planet they're from.

You can't cast stones, Jake said. Tok'ra don't have the same opportunity. If a symbiote isn't like you, isn't Tok'ra, it's a Goa'uld and therefore your mortal enemy. Can you even imagine a world in which there are several groups of symbiotes that are not Goa'uld? How you would deal with the others?

Point taken, Selmak said, and turned his attention to something else. Jake went on to the next article and reached absently for the cup of coffee Mark had poured him before he left. It was a habit left from decades of reading his morning paper over breakfast, and he didn't realize it until the cup was half-way to his lips.

"Cold? Want a warm-up?"

Jack looked up from his coffee cup to see Sam reaching over to the Mr. Coffee sitting a few feet away from her. "No, thanks," he said. "I'm fine." He set the coffee cup down gently—Selmak didn't like it, and so Jake had decided to avoid it for his sake, and because it didn't taste the same now—and turned back to his paper.

He'd been reading it differently, he realized. He wasn't reading it like a concerned citizen wanting to know what was happening in the world, he was reading it like a tourist looking for interesting things about the town he was visiting, odd quirks he could share with Selmak. It wasn't just that he wasn't drinking coffee like he used to, he wasn't thinking like he used to. It wasn't that they weren't like him; he was not like them. Not anymore.

He sat in his son's kitchen with his daughter by his side, less than a hundred miles from where he'd grown up, and realized that he was the alien now.