The two motorbikes sat in the driveway, polished and gleaming under the weak Winter sun. Samantha Carter breathed in sharply at the sight of them. Jack O'Neill stood beside them smirking. She ignored him and pulled off her leather gloves to run a hand over the nearest machine. A classic Harley. It was beautiful.
"So, how about it?" Jack asked, waving his hands over the bikes. "You, me and the open road."
Sam looked at him sceptically. "Since when do you have time for a road trip?"
Jack rocked back on his heels and smirked. "I retired."
One eyebrow arched upwards in a fair imitation of their Jaffa friend. "Really."
"No," Jack admitted, motioning at her with his woollen hat, "not really." He glowered. "They wouldn't let me."
Sam swallowed the laugh that wanted to escape. "Of course they wouldn't let you."
"Hank retired." Jack pointed out, pouting.
She couldn't argue with that but they both knew that Hank Landry had only led Stargate Command for three years before he and his ex-wife had reconciled. His knowledge and input were invaluable but not as extensive as Jack's. Not as extensive as her own.
Sam pushed the thought away before it could lead to something she wasn't thinking about. She looked again at the bikes.
"I have vacation owing." Jack explained. "Lots." He carefully reached over and took hold of her hand. "Who else am I going to spend it with?"
She almost retorted with something sharp but his brown eyes caught hers, warm and pleading.
It did sound good, Sam admitted to herself. Tempting. Open road, wind at her back, and the closest thing to flying on the ground. And then there was time with Jack. That was a bonus and not something she would ever take for granted. The doctor had cleared her physically…
"What about your knee?" Sam asked, tentatively because the knee was always a touchy subject with Jack.
He shrugged, dismissing her concern. "So, we'll take it easy."
Sam looked at him carefully. He was trying to hide the hope in his eyes but she knew him too well not to see it. It was probably part of a plan by the guys to change her mind not to fight the – the thing she was resolutely not thinking about. But then, she never had been able to resist Jack.
She leaned in and kissed him softly, holding his gaze when she drew back. "OK, then: you, me and the open road."
His face lit up.
They hadn't even made it out of the State before she got pulled over for speeding. As soon as they'd hit a stretch of open road, Jack had signalled her to go ahead. She had shot him a grateful smile and gone full throttle.
It had been everything she needed: speed so fast that she'd had to engage her whole mind in the business of keeping the bike on the road with the wind pushing her and gravity pulling her.
The sound of sirens hadn't surprised her and she'd eased back to pull over. She had her helmet off and her documentation out by the time the cop got to her side. He reminded her of the ill-fated young Lieutenant Elliott and she felt ancient in comparison.
The cop's eyes widened at the sight of her and his gaze raked over her. She was torn between amusement and irritation. She was pleased that she put the hours in at the gym to keep fit – not that she had a choice with Teal'c's self-assigned role as personal trainer to his friends.
"You do realise…" he began pompously.
The sound of another bike pulling over had Sam and the cop both turning their heads. The cop's partner was already out of the car, hand on his gun and walking towards what he believed to be a new threat.
"It's OK," Sam called out, "it's my husband." She turned back to the cop beside her. "And yes, I realise I was above the speed limit."
The cop shook himself and looked at her pointedly. "Significantly above the speed limit."
Sam tried to keep the annoyance out of her face. "Officer…"
"Hey, Kevin!" The other cop walked up to join them, Jack following in his wake. "General O'Neill's just explained that it's the first time his wife has been on her bike since being injured in the line of duty." He smiled warmly at her. "I'm sure we can let her off with a warning this time."
Jack smirked at her. She gave him her 'I could have handled it' look.
Kevin was giving his partner pretty much the same look. But he nodded with a sigh. "You had great control, ma'am, but we'd appreciate it if you kept the speed down."
His partner grinned. "Thanks for your service, guys."
Sam managed a pained smile in response. She and Jack watched as the cop car pulled away. She turned to Jack with an accusing, disapproving stare. "You played the 'injured in the line' card?"
"It was the truth." Jack pointed out dryly.
Sam grimaced and rubbed a hand through her hair; its incredibly short length was the only sign of her head injury. "I wasn't even going that fast." She grumbled as they both got back on their bikes.
She waited until she crossed the State line before she accelerated and lost herself in the speed again.
Daniel Jackson joined them on the fourth day at breakfast. He beamed into the bathroom of the diner, walked out and slid into the booth beside Jack as though as he'd always been with them.
"What are you doing here?" Jack snapped.
Daniel looked over to Sam with a silent plea for support. She folded her arms and looked coolly back at him. "We're on vacation, Daniel."
"Vacation." Jack bit out tersely.
Daniel sighed and pushed his glasses up his nose. "I'm only the messenger."
"That only means that I shouldn't shoot you not that I won't." Jack said, grumpily. He sighed and made a get-on-with-it gesture with the diner's plastic menu.
"We have visitors from outer space." Daniel said succinctly keeping his voice pitched low.
Both Jack and Sam turned to look outside of the window. It was a beautifully sunny day; blue skies, a wisp of a white cloud; nothing but parked cars in front of them and beyond, the distant rumble of traffic on the highway. Of course, they both knew appearances could be deceiving but they simultaneously turned back to Daniel with the same 'oh really?' look.
"You do know it's creepy when you do that together like that?" Daniel said brightly.
"Daniel…" Jack began exasperated.
"Ship in orbit. No threatening moves as yet." Daniel summed up. "I said we should talk with them."
"Of course you did." Jack muttered.
"General Vidrine volunteered me to come and get you." Daniel's nose wrinkled. "I don't think he likes me very much."
"I don't like you very much." Jack retorted. He glanced over at Sam and she looked back impassively. If he decided to go, she'd understand but it was his call. He sat back. "I'm on vacation with my wife. The President agreed he was the only person who could recall me, so no."
Daniel scrunched up his face and she could tell he was deeply uncomfortable with what he had to say next. "Actually, when I said 'you' it wasn't you," he pointed at Jack, "so much as you." He pointed at Sam. "We think it's the same guys who tangled with the Hammond…"
Sam flinched. "No. I'm not in the Air Force anymore, Daniel. Find someone else."
She pushed her way out of the booth and made her way to the bathroom. It took several minutes before she had the rush of imminent nausea eliminated enough to think about stepping away from the sink.
When she got back to the booth, Daniel was gone and Jack was eating her waffles. She was grateful when he didn't say anything – just reached over and held her hand.
The motel room was semi-dark thanks to the red neon sign just outside. The unfamiliar furniture took on odd stripes of grey and red.
Sam was sprawled over Jack's chest. She breathed in the scent of Jack's skin; tucked herself closer to his warmth. His arm tightened around her and she could feel his fingers stroking the hair at the base of her neck.
"You haven't said anything." Sam murmured, taking advantage of the darkness to voice what she had avoided all day.
Jack's hand paused momentarily. "What do you want me to say?" His voice was filled with soft concern. "You're right; Vidrine had no right to send anyone to get you. Daniel had no right to ask you even if it is the same ship as the one the Hammond encountered."
"It wasn't Daniel's fault." Sam said firmly. She'd worked through her own ire with their friend during the day's ride. "He probably acquiesced for my sake so Vidrine wouldn't send a faceless someone in uniform that I would have ended up decking."
Jack sighed heavily. "I know but I like being irritated with Daniel."
"You can be irritated with Vidrine." Sam shifted, cuddling into him.
"I could but he strongly protested your discharge when that dick Connor insisted on it." Jack said quietly. "I think this is probably his way of trying to point out what a mistake it was."
"You haven't mentioned that before." She'd known Jack had been incensed on her behalf as had SG1 but she'd talked them out of doing anything stupid, like resigning or staging a mutiny.
"Carter, practically every officer who has served with you or seen you in action protested the discharge." Jack said briskly. "I didn't think I had to tell you that."
She'd known in the abstract, she realised. It was just...losing her place in the Air Force had stung for all it had been honourable discharge and they'd eschewed a court martial. But she couldn't deny a part of her thought she deserved it after what had happened.
"Do you want to talk about it?" Jack asked.
He hadn't asked her before. He hadn't pressed her when she'd been found in the Hammond, drifting outside Atlantis; hadn't pressed her during her long days of recovery; hadn't pressed her when she'd finally made it home for recuperation. She knew it was because he understood. If she never wanted to talk about what had happened, she didn't have to talk. She loved him for that.
"Not yet." Sam replied. She would eventually but she wasn't ready.
Jack kissed the top of her head. "Go to sleep. If we really are being invaded they'll call." He paused. "Or we'll get beamed up naked."
Sam closed her eyes and listened to Jack's steady heartbeat.
The bar was packed but she and Jack had found a small booth tucked into the corner with a great view of the game playing on the very large widescreen TV. Sam was enjoying being with Jack in public, his arm around her shoulders, her hand blatantly on his thigh. They usually eschewed public displays of affection but it was nice to feel claimed; to feel she'd staked her claim in return. She let herself drift; her eyes on the game, the smell of beer and fried food around her, the chatter of conversation and game analysis filling her ears, Jack's solid presence beside her.
The home team was losing when Teal'c pulled up a chair. Sam tried not to feel that it was an omen.
"O'Neill, your presence has been requested in determining a course of action." Teal'c informed him, his deep voice clear despite the maelstrom of noise around them.
Sam winced. Jack had taken a number of calls during the day about the alien ship in orbit. She hadn't asked him anything which she knew worried him. In theory she still had her clearance, would still a part of the programme as a civilian when she was cleared by their resident shrink, Mackenzie, but she couldn't bring herself to ask about the ship. Didn't want to think about it even.
"I'll be back." Jack stated as he eased away from her and headed for somewhere private to get beamed up.
She turned her attention to Teal'c. "No Daniel? You should tell him I'm not mad at him."
Amusement flickered over Teal'c's face for a moment. "He is attempting to talk with the aliens."
"Ah." Sam should have realised. Of course Daniel was tied up with duties. She wondered if he'd had any success and immediately shied away from the thought, reaching for her beer.
"And he believed you would not welcome his presence." Teal'c added in confirmation.
"He was only the messenger and I was just…surprised." Sam said.
"But you have not yet volunteered to assist." Teal'c countered.
Sam flushed, guilty and shamed by the simple statement. But her stomach still churned at the thought of getting involved; flashes of a nightmare she had lived through but couldn't quite remember in her mind. "I…can't."
Teal'c's dark eyes settled on hers; there was no judgement in them, just acceptance and kindness. "You are a warrior, Samantha Carter. I have no doubt that you will return to battle when you are ready."
She bit her lip as pain arrowed through her. "I screwed up and lost an entire ship full of people, Teal'c. I don't think…I don't think I can come back from that."
He reached over and took her hand. "And I am certain that you will not allow this to defeat you."
She felt the sting of tears at his words of support and quickly shifted her blurred gaze back to the game; the home team had just gone into the lead.
The stars were bright pinpoints decorating the inky black canvas. The moon was full, casting a silver light over their make-shift campsite.
Sam's eyes catalogued the constellations automatically. She remembered being a little girl and lying in the backyard of what must have been military housing, gazing up at the sky with her father beside her teaching her the names.
She missed Jacob Carter fiercely.
Sometimes she missed George Hammond more.
There was a part of her which would always think of him as her childhood Uncle George; her father's friend who always had time for her, who had been happy to talk for hours about the space programme and the Air Force, mathematics and engineering. But the part of her that missed him the most always thought of him as General Hammond; the CO who had always been there with calm reassurance when she'd needed words of advice. She needed George Hammond now, Sam mused. But maybe she already knew what he would say.
Footsteps had her turning her head, her hand creeping to the gun she'd secreted under her bedroll. Jack's familiar shape moved into her eye-line and she withdrew her hand as he carefully lowered himself to sit next to her.
"I'm done for the night." Jack assured her. He cast a glance around their small campfire. "You would think they could have waited calling on me until we'd made it to a motel."
Sam gathered her courage and forced the question out. "What happened?"
"The aliens uploaded something into the Odyssey through the communication link," Jack informed her briskly, "Bill is trying to determine what." He hesitated before continuing. "There's concern that this could have been the way the Hammond was damaged."
Sam closed her eyes and tried to remember, just as she'd tried to remember in all the days since she'd woken up and been told that the crew of the Hammond was missing and she was the only survivor found on board; that the systems had been damaged too badly to provide any helpful information. But she couldn't remember anything but snatches; a first contact, an explosion that rocked the deck, panic and her order to evacuate and…nothing else.
An empty black hole where her memory should have been. Her breath caught in a sob and she raised an arm to cover her eyes.
Jack gathered her up and pulled her into his arms. She pushed her face into his shoulder and cried. She hadn't truly cried before; too numb from shock; too pained by her own injuries to deal with it. It was a while before she subsided; before Jack kissed her gently and suggested they get some sleep.
She waited until Jack was snoring softly before she shifted away from him. She looked up at the night sky and thought of her father; of General Hammond. She brushed the dampness from her cheeks and reached for her laptop.
Cameron Mitchell beamed down about an hour after Jack had beamed up. Sam looked up from the engine on her bike. She had decided she might as well tweak it if she had to wait for Jack.
"General O'Neill's going to be delayed." Cam informed her.
She stood up and wiped her hands on an old handkerchief of Jack's. He'd complain about it when he got back and she'd end up doing the same tweaks on his bike as an apology; she knew it like she knew every inch of the engines.
"Delayed?" Sam squinted against the bright morning sunshine and reached for the sunglasses she'd discarded.
Cam waved a hand skyward. "The analysis of the upload thingy you sent with him kinda got everybody excited."
For a second she could read Cam's want to push her, to ask her if she wouldn't like to beam up and see for herself. But he wrestled it back. Sam was glad. She didn't want to discuss the analysis of the alien upload; it had been a blueprint for a communication device of some kind. She figured it would help Daniel make the case to continue trying to communicate with the aliens. She had theorised that the alien data-packet seemed stripped back, possibly to prevent overloading their system.
"I won the race to volunteer to ride the General's bike back to civilisation with you." Cam grinned at her. "I locked Vala in a storage closet."
Her lips twitched because she didn't discount that there was a kernel of truth to that. She gestured at her bike. "I need a couple of minutes to finish up."
She carefully started to put her bike back together as Cam stepped over to Jack's.
"Bill agreed with your theory by the way. They've contacted Atlantis and have them running tests on the Hammond to confirm the alien upload was the cause of the system damage." Cam waved a hand towards her. "Something about matching the energy signature?"
Sam froze momentarily before she continued to pack her tools away.
"It could prove the Hammond was an accident," Cam continued, "that it wasn't…"
"It was my fault." Sam interrupted sharply. "I was in command and I lost my crew."
Cam held her gaze determinedly. "I know you haven't given up on getting them back."
He was right. She had never stopped trying to remember what had happened to her crew, hoping they were alive. But her injuries and the discharge from the Air Force for losing them had sent her reeling…it was taking too long to get her balance back to do something more.
She looked away; up the road with its shimmering asphalt. Sam mounted her bike, sending Cam scrambling for Jack's. She gunned the engine. "Try to keep up." She said and left him in the dust.
"This is nice." Jack said brightly.
Sam cracked one eye open to take in a sprawled and relaxed Jack on the other side of the hot tub. His face was flushed red from the heat of the water and was devoid of the hard lines of tension that he'd beamed down with. She hummed her agreement and closed her eyes again.
"Not that I have any objection to sleeping out under the stars," Jack continued, "just, this is nice."
She agreed. After their night roughing it, Sam had checked them into an expensive hotel. She knew Jack's back would appreciate it, not to mention her own.
"So, you and Mitchell covered a lot of ground today." Jack commented. "Speeding again, Carter?"
Sam's lips twitched. "Mitchell got a ticket."
"He said you've souped up the engines." Jack's foot touched her leg in silent query.
Her eyes opened and met his across the steamy tub. "I might have tweaked them."
"And by tweaked…"
"Increased their efficiency a hundred and twenty per cent." Sam said matter-of-factly. "How are they doing on the communications device?" It wasn't the most subtle change of subject.
Jack raised a scarred eyebrow at her. "The geeks think they'll have it done in a couple of days."
"Days?" Sam queried sharply. She'd seen the blueprints. She was sure it could be done much faster.
"You think they're padding?" Jack asked, not looking too surprised.
Sam shrugged. "I thought it'd take less time." It would take her less time.
"The system tests came back on the Hammond," Jack said, "McKay thinks the aliens did try an upload and it overloaded the systems. It looks like it was an accident. Daniel believes they've showed up to apologise and make amends. He thinks they might know where our people are."
Sam felt a spark of hope ignite inside of her. Daniel was usually right about this kind of stuff. If the aliens' intentions were benign then they could hopefully fill in some of the gaps in her memory; they could get their people back. She pushed off the side of the tub and manoeuvred her way over to Jack, the water surging around her. She kissed him gently.
"What was that for?" Jack asked, pulling her closer.
"Do I have to have a reason?" Sam replied with an arched eyebrow.
Jack held her gaze. "You're going to spend the night building the communications doohickey, aren't you?"
Sam kissed him again to hide her smile.
"Samantha!" Vala skipped over to Sam's breakfast table and hugged her.
Sam hugged her back, delighted to see her. "What did you do to Cam?"
She'd been expecting him to beam down to help her ride the next leg of the road trip. Jack was gone again; he had beamed back up along with a working model of the communications device that Sam had put together. Explaining to the hotel why she'd taken apart every electronic device in their room for parts was going to be an interesting experience.
"I handcuffed Cameron to his bunk." Vala tossed her ponytail over her shoulder as she sat down.
"With or without his pants?" Sam asked, amused.
Vala widened her eyes in faux innocence. "Now that would be telling, Samantha." She reached for the pastries basket. "You know your device freaked them all out. Theirs is only half done."
"I figured the sooner the better." Sam murmured. "Jack told me Daniel thinks if they can talk with the aliens, they might be able to find out what happened to the crew of the Hammond." She bit her lip. "I still don't remember anything."
Vala's gaze was sympathetic. "When I couldn't remember anything about my life, it was terrifying."
Sam hesitated but there was nothing but genuine concern in Vala's expression and somehow it was suddenly OK to talk about it. "I only see flashes." She confessed. "Images mostly of a ship in the view screen, the explosion, giving the order to evacuate…and nothing. Nothing useful."
"You've read the reports though?" asked Vala.
Sam knew the information by heart. The damaged systems confirmed contact with an alien ship but not the coordinates of where they'd made contact. If they assumed the recent tests were right, then the aliens had attempted communication and overloaded everything. That would account for the damage and initial explosion.
Rodney McKay had done the initial review of the Hammond after she'd been found; he'd theorised that the naquadria had destabilised; that Sam had ordered the evacuation of her people to safety; and then Sam, in an attempt to stop the imminent naquadria explosion, had syphoned the unstable energy from the naquadria into an insane intergalactic jump to Atlantis that could have gotten the Hammond blown up. It had apparently gotten Sam thrown across the bridge and she'd been found unconscious with a severe head injury.
Vala's eyebrows rose as Sam concluded her recitation. "So," she said brightly, "to recap: you put the crew somewhere safe and now you can't remember where you put them." She waved a hand. "I do it with my keys all the time."
Sam had to laugh at the analogy. It felt like she hadn't laughed in months.
"We'll find them, Samantha." Vala said firmly. "I always find my keys after all."
And Sam found she could finally believe that they would.
"Ready?" Jack asked, squeezing her hand.
Sam took a deep breath and nodded; tried to ignore how uncomfortable she was in her civilian wear. Her fingers skated over her earpiece as the familiar tingle of the beaming technology swept her up.
The bridge of the Odyssey formed around her and she shivered. It was so like the bridge of the Hammond and for a moment she could only see smoke and fire; feel panic and terror.
Jack placed a hand on her arm and brought her back to reality. "OK, there, Carter?"
She could see SG1 already moving to stand beside her in support. She took a deep breath.
"Welcome back, Doctor Carter." General Vidrine said from the commander's chair.
"Sir." Sam replied politely. "General O'Neill mentioned you were having difficulties integrating the communications device into the Odyssey's systems?"
"The Asgard core doesn't seem to like it." Bill Lee spoke up, fingering the clipboard he held nervously.
"With your permission, sir, I'll take a look." Sam said, turning back to Vidrine who nodded. She went over to Bill's console and he talked her through what he'd already tried. She pushed away the knowledge that SG1 were hovering; that Jack was hovering. She focused on the work and let herself get lost in the intricacies of making alien technology work with their own and the Asgard legacy. She punched the final command in with the same satisfaction that she'd felt when she'd finished tweaking the bikes. She nodded at Bill.
"We're ready for a test." Bill confirmed.
Vidrine gave them a signal and Sam set the device to send. "This is General Vidrine of Earth. We welcome you to our planet and would be pleased to open talks of friendship between our people."
"Is the one called Carter among you?" A thin high voice replied.
Everyone looked to her in surprise. Sam felt her heartbeat begin to pick up speed. "This is Carter."
"We are pleased at your survival, Colonel Carter. We did not realise that our initial attempt to contact you would have such a devastating effect on your ship's systems. We realise that had you not jumped into hyperspace the resulting explosion of your energy source would certainly have destroyed our ship. We offer our humblest apologies, and as a sign of our good faith, we return to you that which you placed into our safekeeping."
Beams of light filled the bridge and the corridors of the Odyssey. The crew of the Hammond looked back at the crew of the Odyssey with matching expressions of shock.
The cheer almost deafened Sam. And then she was too busy hugging her senior crew to realise that Daniel was thanking the aliens; too busy blinking back tears of happiness as she checked that every one of her people was alive and found.
The sunset was glorious; golden honey dripping into the silver mirror of the ocean with streaks of red and amber breaking up the grey of twilight. Sam's toes dug into the sand beneath her bare feet. She could feel the damp edges of her rolled up jeans along her calves; she and Jack had walked hand in hand along the edge of the LA shoreline earlier, letting the water drench their every step. Sam shivered and was happy when Jack used it as an excuse to put his arm around her and nudge her closer to him.
The return of the Hammond crew had delayed their vacation a few days. They had confirmed that the aliens had picked up the evacuation pods assuming Sam had entrusted her people to them. They'd had communication difficulties but the aliens had eventually agreed to travel to Earth so they could return the crew to her. A delegation from Earth including Daniel had met the Ssli and were well on the way to formalising a treaty with them.
Sam had received an official apology from the Air Force for what they were calling their precipitous and incorrect discharge based on incomplete information; she had received another less formal personal apology from the President. She had been reinstated to her former rank. She wasn't cleared for duty though and she knew she still had some demons to conquer before she returned.
She and Jack had instead resumed their road trip. LA was their final stop. The Odyssey was going to beam them and their bikes back to Washington in the morning.
"What if I retired?" Sam asked, voicing her lingering doubts.
"Carter, if I can't retire, you can't retire." Jack said dryly.
Sam ducked her head to hide her smile. "I just…"
"Whatever you want to do, I'll support you." Jack said seriously. "You know that, right?"
Sam hummed under her breath, caught in renewed awe that she was with him; that they were together; that they had never stopped being a team. "So if I decided to steal the General Hammond and take her for a ride around the galaxy?"
Jack smirked. "I'd say when do we leave."
Sam grinned back at him, kissed him and settled into his embrace again to watch the sun disappear.
"Of course Daniel will turn up just to annoy me," Jack said suddenly in the peaceful silence, "and Teal'c will insist on coming with us because you're his favourite."
She started to laugh.
"And Mitchell and Vala will handcuff themselves to some part of the ship or maybe to Daniel, hopefully with pants on…"
Sam kissed Jack again, so sweet on him it hurt.
Jack's eyes brimmed with affection. "So, you, me and a road trip around the galaxy. Sounds like business as usual to me."
"Yeah," Sam agreed lovingly, "you, me and a road trip around the galaxy." Because it was business as usual and maybe that wasn't a bad thing. She tilted her head up to the stars and wondered if she could steal the Hammond.
It would be easy, Sam mused wryly, when she was back in command.