ALL THAT IS LEFT
"Those who reject the path to enlightenment must be destroyed."
--The Book of Origin
“The video link is ready, sir.”
Jack nodded at his aide and pressed the button on his computer that activated the link at his end. Doctor Carolyn Lam’s face came into view; even through the visor of the contamination suit she looked tired—and worried. He’d read her hastily written report, but before he made any decisions, he needed to hear it from her.
“Break it down for me, Doctor.”
“Within twelve hours of SG6’s return, over seventy-five percent of base personnel were affected. There were two shift changes before we realized the magnitude of the problem and quarantined the base.”
Jack had to give her credit, she didn’t try to pretty it up or make excuses, she gave it to him straight. He glanced at the most recent update. “We’re already begun getting reports of a new strain of ‘flu’ being seen at the hospitals in Colorado Springs and Denver.”
Lam’s expression grew even grimmer. “It’s been less than twenty-four hours since Colonel Barnes first exhibited signs of illness. At the rate it’s spreading, it appears similar to the plague on P8X 412, but with one major difference—it mutates and changes with each new host, constantly evolving. We’re going to find ourselves in a never-ending game of catch up, trying to find a cure.”
“How many fatalities, Doctor?”
“Twenty-nine dead so far.” Jack could hear the frustration in her voice when she continued. “We’re almost certainly looking at one hundred percent mortality in those affected, unless we can develop a cure.”
“What about Lieutenant Fisher?” Jack shuffled through some papers on his desk. “I have one report that says he’s been unaffected.”
“He was brought into the Academy hospital less than two hours ago with the same symptoms.”
“What about Hammond?”
Her expression never changed, but Jack saw it in her eyes. “I’m sorry, General. He died earlier this morning.”
Jack ignored the pain he felt upon hearing of the general’s death, there’d be time for mourning later. Right now, he needed to deal with those that were still alive. “Doctor, I have a report from our epidemiological experts that the plague will spread worldwide within forty-eight hours, with a resultant death toll estimated in the billions. In spite of our best efforts, we’ve been unable to contain the spread.”
“That would concur with our projections as well, sir.”
Jack swiveled around in his chair and gazed out the window, the sun shone brightly, the waters of the Potomac glistened in the distance; people rushed through the day and their lives, blissfully unaware of anything beyond their own limited perception and imagination. It should have been a day like any other day except for the death that was already racing across the planet. It looked like the Ori were going to succeed where the Goa’uld had failed.
Turning back to the computer, he saw Lam still patiently waiting. “Doctor, evacuate all personnel who aren’t currently infected to the Alpha site.”
“But sir,” she protested almost immediately, “we have no way of knowing if they aren’t already carrying the virus.”
“I understand the risk, Doctor, and the personnel at the Alpha site will take appropriate precautions. But I also understand that we’re looking at a global pandemic. According to your report, you’ve enacted strict quarantine protocols, so the chance of any of these individuals being infected is low.”
“That’s true, but—”
“This is not open for discussion. All currently uninfected personnel will be evacuated to the Alpha Site, along with copies of all pertinent research related to the plague and properly contained blood and tissue samples.”
“Very well, General.”
“I’ll contact Landry and—”
“That won’t be possible, General.” Lam cut him off and then completely stunned him by whipping off the red helmet of her isolation suit, her dark eyes daring him to say anything. “My father became ill during the night, he’s been isolated with everyone else.”
Even though the answer was patently obvious, Jack still asked. “What about you?”
“I’ll stay here with my patients.”
“Very well, Doctor. Keep me apprised.” She nodded and then the video faded out. Jack closed his laptop and rubbed his eyes wearily. His conversation with Lam had only confirmed what all the reports currently littering his desk detailed in black and white—the inevitable and unstoppable death of all human life on Earth.
Even with the strictest of controls, it had been too little, too late and they hadn’t been able to contain the contagion. He knew he was taking a big gamble in sending possibly infected personnel to the Alpha site, but by the mere fact that they weren’t already infected in the face of so many that were, gave him hope that there were some who had a natural immunity to the virus.
Gathering all the papers scattered on his desk, Jack stuffed them into the folder; he wouldn’t need them when he made his report to the Joint Chiefs. The Ori were making their point and they would die as a planet before submitting to Origin. He wondered how long it would take for the plague to spread to DC and he was secretly glad that Sam’s name had been on the list of personnel not affected by the plague.
On an impulse he didn’t want to question too closely, Jack flipped open his cell phone and punched in a short text message to a phone number he shouldn’t even have. He paused briefly before pushing send…it probably wouldn’t make any difference in the long run, but if there was any chance that they might survive, it wouldn’t be in the Springs or any populated area.
The text message came during his calculus final. Even though the phone was set on vibrate, it still startled him enough that he looked around, anxiously hoping that Mr. Frankel hadn’t heard it or sensed it. The man had a sixth sense regarding cell phones, but he never looked over his way and Jon tucked his head back down and kept writing, handing the exam in just as the bell rang. Ignoring the post-test moans and groans of his classmates, Jon slipped out in the hallway and flipped open his phone.
“Leave immediately. 48.80N -92.10W.”
His heart started pounding; the message was short and to the point. He didn’t recognize the phone number, but he recognized the area code—and the longitude and latitude. There was only one person who would contact him from that area code and only one person that would know that specific location. He went immediately to his locker, ignoring the shouts and calls from his friends, and began stuffing what few personal items he kept at school in his backpack.
Slamming the locker shut, he shouldered his backpack and walked as quickly as he dared through the students clogging the hallways on the way to their next class. He intercepted Sam just as she was about to enter AP Physics, his hand closing gently around her elbow.
“Jon!” She turned and smiled, her long blonde hair swinging around her shoulders.
Keeping his hand firmly around her arm, he pulled her out of the way of the other students making their way into the classroom. “We have got to go.” He kept his voice calm, but he knew the urgency got through when her smile faded.
“What do you mean?” she whispered. “What’s going on?”
“I got a message from him.” Releasing her arm, he grabbed her hand and tugged. “I’m not sure how much time we have.”
“For what?” she asked, clearly confused, but she followed him down the hall through the rapidly thinning throng of students. He didn’t stop until they were at her locker and he opened it quickly.
“Get what you need,” he said. The bell rang and he looked around anxiously, but the few students that still lingered in the hall didn’t pay them any attention. Maybe it was leftover training from before or maybe it was a sign of the trust they had in each other that she didn’t ask anymore questions, but began emptying her locker and less than five minutes later, they slipped out one of the side entrances to the school.
They walked rapidly to the truck, Jon’s increasing sense of urgency had him jogging the last few yards, his hand firmly on Sam’s elbow. He opened the driver’s side door and Sam scrambled in, catching the backpacks when he tossed them to her. Jon started the truck and drove carefully out of the parking lot and onto the street. Everything seemed normal, he couldn’t see any signs that life wasn’t as it should be. The sun was shining, no sign of any ominous clouds—or mushroom clouds—lurking on the horizon, there was no fire raining out of the sky or people dropping dead where they stood.
It was a beautiful day in May; graduation was in less than two weeks, he and Sam had both been accepted at the Colorado School of Mines, so now was not the time for a ghost out of his past to make an unwelcome appearance.
“Jon,” Sam asked, “what did he say?”
For an answer, he tossed his phone at her. She deftly caught it and he glanced at her when she opened it up and brought up the last message. “That location is somewhere near the Canadian border….”
“It’s the cabin.”
“What’s going on?” She murmured it so softly Jon knew she didn’t expect an answer. He concentrated on the short drive to their apartment complex and less than ten minutes later, he pulled into the nearly empty parking lot at their building.
“Come on,” he said, jumping out of the truck and grabbing both the backpacks. “I’ll get what we need and you get on the internet, see if you can find out anything.”
Once inside their simple apartment, Sam went immediately to her laptop and Jon grabbed their duffel bags and began packing the clothes they’d need at the cabin. It didn’t take long, he had rehearsed this particular scenario in his mind on numerous occasions. He knew exactly what they needed and what they would do.
Jon made three trips out to the truck, the last two trips with all the food they had in their cupboards and a cooler with what they had in the refrigerator. They’d need to make a stop at a grocery store, but they were doing well and would be on the road in an hour. Once the truck was loaded, he went back into their bedroom and kneeling down, reached under the bed and pulled out the steel brief case hidden there. Quickly keying in the combination, he opened the case and removed the two Beretta’s stored there. He wished that he had more than just the two extra clips for each gun, but more than that, he hoped they wouldn’t need them.
Slipping one into his waistband at the small of his back, he stuffed the extra clips and second gun into his jacket pocket. Leaving the bedroom, he went back to where Sam still sat at their kitchen table, her brow furrowed in concentration as her fingers flew over the keyboard.
Resting his hand on her shoulder, he looked at the screen. “Whatcha’ find out?”
“Not much,” she said, clearly annoyed. “I’m not sure I can get past the last firewall. They’re in Code Three lockdown.”
She snorted. ‘”I devised this particular lockdown code, so yeah, I’m sure.”
“Code three,” he said slowly, searching his memory. “That’s—”
“Wait…yes! I’ve got it.” She smiled enthusiastically and focused once more on the screen. He waited patiently, even though everything inside him was screaming at him that they didn’t have time.
When she finally closed the browser, her face was somber. “This is bad, Jon.” She looked up at him, her blue eyes reflecting her concern. “They haven’t been able to contain the virus.”
“What is it? The Goa’uld? Some local terrorist group?”
She shook her head. “No, some alien race called the Ori.”
Jon didn’t recognize the name from his time before, but then it really didn’t matter if the disease was locally grown or alien, the affect would be the same. “The man was right,” he said, his sense of urgency increasing. “We have got to go.”
“Jon…we don’t know that we haven’t already been contaminated.”
He’d thought of that, it had actually been the first thought he’d had when she’d told him about the lockdown. He couldn’t explain it, but he knew the general as well as he knew himself and he wouldn’t send them on some wild goose chase. “We must have a chance, Sam. Otherwise why send the message?”
She nodded, quickly shutting down the laptop and stuffing it into its case, slinging it over her shoulder. When he handed her the second Beretta, she didn’t say a word, merely tucked into the back waistband of her jeans and held out her hand out for the two clips he gave her.
“Got everything?” he asked.
“Just one thing.” He followed her when she hurried into the bedroom and opened the closet door, digging into the back and pulling out a photo album wrapped in a plastic cover. “Okay,” she said, hugging the photo album to her chest. “I’m ready.” She started to walk past him and then said, “Oh wait,” and grabbed the pillows off the bed.
Jon chuckled and followed her out to the living room, where they paused for a moment. It wasn’t much, but it had been their home for over two years. She shifted the photo album and pillows to one arm and he felt her hand slip into his. “We’ll be back.”
“Maybe.” He squeezed her hand. “Or maybe we’ll be some place better.”
She smiled slightly and he thought he saw the faintest glimmer of tears in her eyes before she turned and tugged on his hand, pulling him toward the door. “The man said we had to hurry.”
In spite of his need to get them on the road, they ended up making four stops on the way out of town. First at the grocery store where the clerk didn’t bat an eye when they pushed two shopping carts full of bottled water and pre-packaged food—along with a bag of ice for the cooler—to the checkout stand. Their second stop was at one of the big hardware chains where he bought four six-gallon gas cans, along with a handful of batteries in various sizes, a tent, two sleeping bags and other miscellaneous camping supplies that Sam tossed in the cart as they made their way through the store.
They hit the ATM next. “Take out the maximum amount,” he instructed Sam, thankful that they each had separate accounts. And lastly, they stopped at a gas station on the way out of town, topping off the truck and filling the gas cans they’d purchased earlier.
“That’s a lot of charges on the credit card,” Sam commented, tucking the receipt in with the others in her wallet. She shifted on the seat, pulling the Beretta from out of her waistband and slipping into the glove compartment.
Jon started the truck and pulled out onto the busy street, heading for Peterson. It was just the beginning of rush hour and the traffic was heavy, but he expertly navigated the truck through the busy streets. “Yeah,” he commented, feeling only slightly morbid. “If there really is an alien virus killing all life on Earth, I doubt we’ll have to worry about any credit card bill.”
It was the first time he’d actually voiced what had been going through his head ever since the General had sent the text message. He’d had no contact with his older self since that day almost three years earlier when he’d dropped him off at school. That, if nothing else, told him of the extreme circumstances that they were going to face.
“I hope you’re wrong,” she murmured. “Where are we going?” she asked then, pulling the tattered road atlas out from under the seat.
“Highway Twenty-four,” he said.
“Good plan,” she commented. Jon stole a quick glance at her, she had the atlas open and was intently studying it. “Makes sense to stay off the interstate.” She looked at him. “It’ll take longer.”
Jon shrugged, turning onto Fountain Boulevard. “The less contact we have with other people, the better. It’ll spread faster in the more densely populated areas first.”
Sam sighed, closing the atlas and curling up on the seat, her expression pensive as she gazed out the window. They were driving past Peterson now and on the surface, it all looked normal, but then again, Jon wasn’t sure what it would look like during a viral invasion. Bombs and artillery were more of what he thought about when he imagined an alien invasion, an enemy that could be seen with the naked eye and not just through a microscope; an enemy that you could meet on common ground. He could well imagine how all the military felt, forced to depend on medical science to fight their unseen invasion.
They finally made it around Peterson and onto Highway Twenty-four proper, the buildings and housing developments fading away into the wide open prairie of eastern Colorado. The traffic thinned out considerably too. Jon kept to the speed limit, partly to conserve gas but mostly to not attract the eye of any of the highway patrol that they might encounter. They made good time and it was just past eighteen hundred when they reached Limon.
“I could use a bathroom,” Sam commented.
“We’ll top off the tank,” Jon said, pulling into one of the bustling gas station mini-marts. “And get something to eat.”
Jon pumped the gas while Sam went inside, using the credit card to pay again. And as it had in the Springs, nothing seemed out of the ordinary at the major crossroad between Highway Twenty-four and Interstate Seventy. Semi’s and cars whizzed by, the other people at the gas station laughed and talked amongst themselves, a dog foraged through the garbage cans behind at another mini-mart gas station combo across the access road.
Finished with the gas, Jon pulled the truck into a parking space along the side of the mini-mart and went inside, rapidly scanning the interior for Sam. He spotted her at the register, talking to the clerk and when she saw him, he gave a slight wave and then headed to the rest room himself. When he came out, she was waiting for him.
“What’d ya’ get?” he asked, eyeing the two plastic bags she held.
She shrugged. “Just some chips and snacks. I thought we could stop at the drive-through?”
“Sure,” he agreed, following her out of the store.
Fifteen minutes later they were back on the road, headed north. The road ahead of them was wide open and seemed to stretch endlessly in front of them, the sun still shone brightly, they had at least two hours before sunset and Jon figured they could make it to Sterling by dusk. Sam reached into the fast food bag and unwrapped a hamburger, handing it to him.
“So, what did you learn?” Jon asked, taking a bite out of the burger.
“People are starting to get scared.” She rummaged around in the bag and pulled out the French fries, resting the container on the center console. “There are reports coming out of Denver and all the major cities about a new form of influenza. The clerk told me her sister is a nurse at the Lincoln County Hospital over in Hugo and they have more patients than they can handle.” Sam paused, taking a drink of her diet coke. “Her sister has had to work double shifts because staff is coming down ill too.”
“Doesn’t sound too bad.” Maybe the General was wrong; maybe he was just sending them on a wild goose chase.
He heard the worry in her voice and glanced at her, the sun shown brightly through the windows, and for the first time since he’d seen her standing alone and scared in his home room being introduced as a mid-year transfer student, he saw fear in her eyes.
“I didn’t tell you everything….” Her voice trailed off and she looked out the window briefly, the prairie rolling endlessly around them. “One of the reports I managed to access was the CMO’s report to the General. They haven’t been able to find a cure, the virus keeps mutating when it moves from host to host, the changes happen so fast that there’s no hope for them to ever catch up.”
Sam sighed, unwrapping her chicken sandwich and frowning at it before wrapping it back up again and stuffing it into the bag. “And so far no one who has contracted the disease has survived.”
Setting what was left of us uneaten burger next to the French fries on the console, he reached over and gently squeezed her knee. “It’ll be okay.”
She laughed softly, though it came out sounding more like a sob. “Since when did you become Mister Optimistic?”
“Oh, I’ve always been optimistic,” he teased, in an effort to lighten the somber mood in the truck. “You must have me confused with another O’Neill.”
She smiled faintly and Jon turned his attention back to the road. He was thankful when he heard her rustling in the fast food bag again and a quick glance verified that she had decided to give the chicken sandwich another try. He thought about trying to pick up some news reports, but as desolate as the country was, he figured all they’d find was static—or country western music.
Brush was nothing more than a blip along the highway and they crossed over the Interstate, leaving Highway Seventy-one and heading northeast on U.S. Six. They stopped briefly to top off the tank again, Jon wasn’t taking any chances on how long the gas supply would last. When they got back on the road, the sun had almost disappeared beneath the horizon and traffic remained thin—which Jon couldn’t decide was a good or bad thing. But it was getting late and they needed to find somewhere to spend the night.
“Sam,” he said, rousing her from where she half-dozed in the seat next to him, “check the map. Isn’t there a lake or something near Sterling?”
She scrabbled in the glove box for a flashlight and studied the atlas for a few minutes. “Yeah,” she said, “there’s a state park.” She looked over at him, the light from the flashlight softly illuminating her features, still marked with worry. “Camping?”
“You did buy a tent.”
That made her smile faintly. “Yeah, I did, didn’t I?”
Sterling was a quiet town after dark and Jon knew both he and Sam looked for anything unusual or out of the ordinary as they drove through, following the signs for Highway Fourteen and the county road that would take them to the state park. Once they reached the lake, the campground wasn’t hard to find and after paying the fee at the self-service box at the entrance station, they drove through the sparsely populated campground and found a spot well away from any of the other campers, surrounded on one side by a small stand of birch.
Backing the truck into the site, it was with a sense of relief that Jon turned off the ignition. He felt slightly better now that they were well out of the more densely populated areas, but it was still a long drive to northern Minnesota. “Shall we?” he said. Sam nodded and they got to work.
Jon got the tent while Sam scrounged around in one of the duffels he’d packed, tugging on the Air Force Academy sweatshirt she’d found at a thrift store. It was a cool, crisp night—mid-May on the high plains could still be cool at night and it felt like it was going to be one of those nights, the sky was clear and the stars shone brilliantly down on them as they went to work.
It shouldn’t have surprised Jon that they set up camp with a minimum of fuss and conversation, he guessed it was true that old habits die hard, and even though it was an unfamiliar model, the tent was up in less than ten minutes. One thing that was different from the time before though, were their sleeping arrangements. He smiled to himself as he zipped together the two sleeping bags, spreading them out on the floor of the tent.
Backing out of the tent, he stood and stretched, looking around for Sam. When he didn’t see her right away he called softly, “Sam?”
“Over here.” Her voice floated to him from the truck.
Walking back over to the truck, he found her with the passenger door open, feeling around under the seat with one arm. “Whatcha’ looking for?” he asked.
“This!” she said, looking up at with a triumphant smile, holding up a heavy duty extension cord he didn’t remember owning. “I thought I felt this under there earlier.”
“What do you need an extension cord for?” he asked.
She just grinned and grabbed her laptop case from behind the front seat. He stepped back when she shut the door and he followed her with the flashlight over to the picnic shelter at their campsite. “This,” she said, plugging the extension cord into the electrical box there and then carrying the working end back to their tent, which fortunately was close enough to reach, otherwise Jon was sure they’d be moving the tent. She crawled into the tent and he followed, mindful of the extension cord, and she took her laptop out, plugging the power cord into the extension cord.
“There.” She sat back, a satisfied look on her face. “It can charge overnight and if we can find some wireless access somewhere tomorrow morning, I can see if I can find out anything else.”
“Sounds good,” he said with a yawn. “But right now….”
Her smile was tender. “It’s been a long day.”
He shrugged. “Bound to be longer ones ahead.” Her smile faded briefly and he watched in silence while she grabbed the toiletry bag he’d packed.
“I’ll be back in a minute,” she said, squeezing by him out of the tent.
“I’ll come along.” He followed her over to the bathrooms that they’d seen as they entered the campground. There were more RV’s and tents the closer they got, but beyond some muffled conversations and the distant fire of a more active campsite, they didn’t encounter anyone. He left her at the ‘Ladies’ side and after he’d gone to his side and used the facilities and washed his hands, he realized he didn’t have his tooth brush or anything.
“Sam?” He knocked and then cautiously pushed open the door to the Ladies side.
“Its okay, Jon,” she called. “No one else is in here.”
He stuck his head in and saw her over by the sinks; her hair pulled back with an elastic band her face glistening with water. “I don’t have my toothbrush,” he complained mildly.
“Here,” she said, reaching into her toilet bag and handing him her toothbrush.
“Thanks,” he grinned. It was almost like home, side by side in the bathroom, except for the extra sinks and rather institutional tile and décor. He brushed his teeth while she finished with her face.
“You did bring a razor, didn’t you?” she asked, taking her hair out of the loose pony tail and closing up the bag.
“Yeah,” he said, rubbing his fingers along his jaw and following her out of the rest room, flicking the flashlight on. “Maybe I’ll grow a beard.”
Sam laughed and linked her arm his as they walked back to their campsite. He secured the truck while she slipped into the tent and by the time he ducked in through the opening and zipped the flap shut, she had stripped down to her panties and was just pulling on an oversize T-shirt. “Cold,” she said, scrambling into the sleeping bag.
While Jon took of his tennis shoes and maneuvered his jeans off in the confines of the tent, he remembered what he didn’t like about sleeping in tents—the ground was hard and there wasn’t enough elbow room. He took his shirt off and folded it up carefully, tucking it into his duffel and pulled on a clean T-shirt. He checked the Beretta next, making sure the safety was on and tucked it under his pillow.
Turning off the flashlight, Jon slipped into the sleeping bag and curled up around Sam, and even though the ground was hard and the gun made his pillow lumpy, he decided there were certain benefits to sleeping in a tent.
“You okay?” He hadn’t dared asked earlier, but now in the dark within the cozy cocoon of their sleeping bag, he could ask. Snuggling closer, he placed a kiss beneath her ear and wrapped his arm around her, finding her hand and threading his fingers through hers.
“When I don’t think about it.” She sighed softly and he felt her relax against him. “I don’t know, I guess it just doesn’t seem real. I thought we had left this all behind us. Jon…what if this is some wild goose chase? We’re supposed to graduate, start college in the fall….”
He sighed too, resting his forehead against her shoulder for a moment before replying. “Don’t think I haven’t thought of that. But you know him….”
Her fingers tightened around his. “Yeah,” she whispered. “That’s what scares me.”
“Go to sleep,” he said. “It’ll all look better—” Jon stopped abruptly when he realized what he was going to say. “Just…sweet dreams,” he murmured, pressing a kiss to her nape. He closed his eyes and concentrated on the feel of Sam in his arms and not the hard ground underneath them. Maybe it would look better in the morning, but he wasn’t going to risk their lives on it.
He woke to the sound of sirens. Well, technically he was already awake; he’d groaned and rolled over when Sam had shimmied out of the sleeping bag and quietly dressed. He’d pulled the pillow over his head in a vain effort to block the sun that filtered in through the tent, hoping to catch a few more minutes of sleep while she was in the rest room. But the siren got his attention—especially when he heard a second join it.
Jon scrambled out of the sleeping bag and quickly pulled on his jeans, tucking the gun back into his waistband and pulling a sweatshirt over his T-shirt—and weapon. The sound of the sirens grew louder and then suddenly cut off while he found a clean pair of socks and got his tennis shoes on. He blinked at the bright sun when he finally emerged from the tent; the birds were chirping madly again, mixing in with the sounds of people’s voices coming from the direction of the service buildings.
Retracing their path from the night before, he broke into a jog when he saw Sam standing at the edge of a small group of people watching the emergency personnel pour out of their vehicles and go into a large RV parked at a site across the parking lot from the buildings.
“What’s going on?” he asked. She turned sharply, her expression troubled, but seemed to relax when she saw him.
“I’m not sure,” she answered, slipping her hand into his. “I was washing up when I heard the sirens.”
An older woman standing a few yards from them took a few steps closer and spoke. “It’s Hazel and Buddy, they’ve been here about a week. She came out crying this morning that Buddy wouldn’t wake up—and then she collapsed. My husband,” she said, pointing to a tall, dark haired man talking to one of the state troopers, “called the State Patrol.”
Sam made a sympathetic sound and Jon frowned, asking, “They’ve been here the whole time?”
The woman shrugged, “Well…yes, except for day before yesterday. They took the car and went down to Denver for the day. Met their son for a baseball game….” She looked almost in tears then. “Who’s going to tell him?”
Sam let go of his hand and took several cautious steps closer to the woman, talking to her quietly for a few moments. Jon scanned the crowd of vehicles around the RV and saw a small, tan car parked off to the side of the RV—that would explain the trip to Denver. And if they somehow had the plague…. He waited until Sam was finished talking to their source of information, cringing slightly when she lightly touched the woman’s arm.
“Go wash your hands,” he hissed quietly when she came back. Her blue eyes were wide and startled for a brief moment before awareness settled in and she nodded, heading back towards the rest room. Jon watched her for a moment, worry and fear gnawing at his gut; while he’d been indoctrinated enough to know that hand washing never hurt, he had the feeling all the clean hands in the world wouldn’t make much difference when it came to a biological contaminate that had managed to escape the SGC.
Turning back to the activity around the RV, he was in time to catch the paramedics half walk, half carry an elderly woman out of the RV and strap her onto a stretcher. There was already an IV going into her and she had an oxygen mask over her face. The medics quickly loaded her on the ambulance and it took off, sirens wailing. Sam returned just as the paramedics with the second ambulance carried out the unfortunate Buddy in a body bag.
Sam sighed and he wrapped his arm around her and they both watched as the medics placed the body on a stretcher before loading it into the ambulance and taking off at a much more sedate pace than the one carrying Hazel. The two state troopers who had responded to the call seemed to confer for a moment, one of them talking on the radio while the second walked to the edge of the group gathered.
“All right folks, everything’s under control. You can go on back to your sites.”
A middle-aged man at the front of the group spoke up, his voice almost belligerent when he spoke. “Do they have that new flu?”
“We won’t know that until we get them to the hospital in town and run some tests.” The trooper glanced back at his partner who shook his head briefly. “But according to the paramedics, there’s no reason to believe it’s the same thing.”
There was the low hush of talking amongst the people gathered and Jon muttered, “Yeah, right.”
“Let’s go,” Sam said, tugging on his arm. They had only walked a few yards when she stopped, glancing back over her shoulder at the slowly dispersing crowd. “That woman told me that their son is in the Air Force. He came up from the Springs to meet them for the day. Looks like the General was right.” Her eyes were troubled as she continued. “Jon…what if we’re too late?”
“We are not too late,” he said, his voice sharper than he intended. Jon took a deep breath and deliberately relaxed, forcing a cocky smile to his face. “I didn’t suffer through high school a second time just to roll over and play dead for some alien virus,” he drawled.
“You don’t have to humor me,” she snapped. “I’m just trying to be realistic.” She walked away from him then and he followed her back to the campsite in silence. Sam went immediately to the tent and Jon stood indecisively for a few moments. God, it used to be so much easier when he was the Colonel and she was his subordinate. But that was the past—even if it did seem like theirs was slowly creeping up on them.
Deciding he’d better take her a peace offering, Jon went to the back of the truck and grabbed a couple of diet cokes and the pre-packaged bear claws she had bought at the mini-mart the night before. When he ducked back into the tent, he found Sam sitting cross-legged in front of her laptop.
“Here,” he said, unscrewing the top of one of the coke bottles and handed it to her. He settled down beside her and opened one of the bear claws. “Are you getting a connection?” he asked through a mouthful of sweet almond pastry.
“Yeah,” she said without looking up, her fingers dancing over the keyboard. “I saw a marina just down the road with a satellite dish on the roof. I think I can…there!” She looked grimly pleased and paused for a moment, taking a swig of her coke. “I want to see if I can find anything else out.”
Jon nodded and stretched out, watching her work. His urgency to get back on the road was still riding him, but if they could get more intel, it would pay off in the long run. He smiled to himself…intel, he was already shedding the skin of a high school student and slipping back into his ‘old’ thought patterns—probably part of the reason he’d pissed Sam off earlier.
Well, he decided pragmatically, unwrapping the second bear claw and handing it to her, he’d been pretty good at his former job and the stakes were only slightly different this time. He still had to keep them alive—the slight difference being they were on Earth and oh yeah, the whole being an adult in a teen-age body thing. Sam continued to tap at the keys one handed while she munched on the pastry. And while he was prepared to be patient, the itch to get moving was getting harder to ignore.
She shook her head and frowned. “I can’t get into the Air Force or SGC computer systems.”
“They discovered your hack?”
“No,” she said, popping the last of the bear claw into her mouth and wiping her fingers on her jeans. “No…that’s not it.” She glanced at him. “It’s like they’re not even there anymore.”
“That’s not good.”
She turned back to the laptop. “All the major news sites are still up and running, but they’re taking forever to load.” She squinted at the monitor. “The headlines all say the same thing—that the flu epidemic sweeping across the country and the world is our worst nightmare come true, but don’t panic.” He leaned in a little closer, watching as she scrolled through the pages. “Hospitals in the larger cities are overflowing, the Red Cross and the Salvation Army are helping, but they’re running short of supplies and personnel.”
“’Major trucking lines and railways report that they’re having trouble making delivery deadlines because of illness,’” he read out loud of her shoulder. “’Super markets and other stores are running short of supplies as panicked people rush to stock up.’” Jon grimaced. “Complete with video.”
He’d seen enough, even with the happenings of the morning still fresh in their minds, the virus—or whatever—was spreading faster than he’d thought was possible. Jon started gathering the stray bits of clothing and stuffing them into the duffels. “We have got to go.”
“Okay,” she said, “just let me try the CDC website first.” Jon nodded, but kept on with packing, shoving the duffels out the front of the tent and tugging the sleeping bag out from underneath Sam, leaving her sitting on the bare tent floor.
“Any luck?” he asked after what he hoped was an appropriate amount of time.
“No,” she said, shutting down the laptop. “All the government sites are down.”
Sam stared out the front window of the truck, the endless prairie in front of her gave her way too much time to think. She felt so out of control—it was so incredibly frustrating to know that something devastating was happening all around them, probably to them, and be so helpless. It was like she had blinders on, relying on only the cryptic message from a shadow out of their past and the scant bits of information she could piece together from her limited sources.
Sam glanced at Jon; he drove effortlessly, occasionally humming some old tune. He looked calm and in control—the only indication anything was amiss evidenced in his extra attentiveness—his eyes were constantly on the move, taking every detail. She envied him his control. Her eyes drifted back out over the early fields of winter wheat. God, she loved him so much and she trusted him, which was the only reason she trusted the message from the General.
Jack O’Neill…it made her all kinds of crazy to think of him as anything but “The General”. She still got a funny flutter inside whenever she thought of him, even though she knew Jon would grow up to be the same man. She wondered sometimes if he felt the same way for the adult Sam Carter—but that made her all kinds of crazy too. The only way she had adjusted to her new life had been to totally ignore her origins. And while Jon was so like ‘him’ in so many ways, she knew he had become a subtly different person in the two and half years they’d been together.
It alarmed her though, at how easily they had slipped back into their past lives—and she wasn’t sure she liked it. She wasn’t Sam Carter, Air Force colonel and astrophysicist now; she was Sam Carter, high school senior on her way to college in the fall with her boyfriend. She had worked hard to find peace with what she had done and she was pissed—and frightened—all at the same time that it could all be taken from her.
Feeling the truck slow down, Sam sat up a bit straighter. “What’s going on?”
“We’re almost to the interstate.”
Sam squinted against the bright morning sun, looking out the front window. She could just make out the silvery-gray glimmer of the highway and the tall light poles at the interchange that signaled the approach to Sidney, Nebraska.
“Are the binoculars in the back?”
Unfastening her seatbelt, Sam turned and knelt on the seat, leaning over the back and digging around in the various items stored there until she found the binoculars. Sitting back down, she quickly refastened her seat belt and took the glasses out of the beat up leather case. It was an old pair that they’d found at a garage sale one weekend, but in spite of their beat up appearance, the optics were still in excellent condition.
Looking through them, she got them focused and studied what lay ahead. “Oh Jon,” she murmured, “it’s a mess.” She could see trucks and cars pulled along the shoulder, going both directions, and the ones that were moving were creeping along at a snail’s pace. She studied the scene intently for a few more minutes and then set the binoculars down. “Traffic is backed up in both directions. I see lots of cars and trucks that aren’t moving at all. And I can’t tell if they’re abandoned or just stopped.”
Jon suddenly swerved the truck over onto the shoulder and she handed him the binoculars. He opened his door and stood on the runner, binoculars in hand, studying the scene for himself. “We’re never going to make it through that mess.”
Sam was already ahead of him, she had the road atlas out and studied their options. “There was a county road a few miles back, wasn’t there?” She thought she remembered seeing a sign for the Sidney airport.
He slipped back inside the truck. “Yeah…I remember that.”
She pointed it out on the map. “We can bypass Sidney, go under the interstate and connect up with Three Eighty-five.”
“Are we okay for gas?” she asked.
“We’re good for another couple hundred miles.”
She glanced back at the map, there was a lot of nothing between the ‘bigger’ cities in Western Nebraska. “We’ll be able to fill up in Alliance or Chadron,” she smiled encouragingly. “Or maybe one of the smaller towns.”
“There’ll be something,” he said, his look determined as he fastened his seatbelt and put the truck back into gear.
Sam didn’t bother to state the obvious—that if there was this much traffic on an interstate in a low population area like Western Nebraska, then the ‘flu’ panic was spreading and with it, the resultant run on supplies and gas. They were still a thousand some miles from the theoretical safety of Northern Minnesota and the cabin. All things being equal, they should just have a very long day’s drive ahead of them; instead they were looking at driving into situation that appeared to be escalating rapidly out of control. But she didn’t need to say it, they both knew it and she also knew if it reached that point, they’d continue their journey on foot.
They found the county road without difficulty, and while there was more traffic than they’d encountered on their way up from the reservoir, it still was nothing like their glimpse of the interstate. The small airstrip that qualified as the ‘airport’ looked deserted, Sam couldn’t see any planes when they drove by. They seemed to catch up with traffic by the time they reached the bridge that went over Interstate Eighty. The joined a long queue of trucks and cars crossing over to the north side of the interstate.
The road below them looked like the freeways in Denver at rush hour—bumper to bumper cars and trucks. Some had tried to drive along the shoulder and in the median, only to end up stalled or trapped by ditches and fences. Both the east and westbound lanes were equally jammed. “I wonder where they’re trying to go?” she murmured softly.
“They’re just like us,” Jon said, “trying to find someplace safe.”
It took them over an hour to break free of the traffic around Sidney and connect with highway that would take them north. Sam’s sense of relief was only short-lived; the relatively light traffic started increasing the closer they got to the next major east-west highway. It was strangely beautiful country, she knew from the repeat of her recent American history classes that they were traveling through country that had seen the covered wagons moving west along the Oregon Trail.
There were road signs for Chimney Rock, Jailhouse and Courthouse Rocks, all sentinels marking the route west. Any other time she would have been absorbed by the geological history and a landscape that still bore evidence of that great migration westward; but right now all she could think about was finding their way to safety.
“I think once we get past U.S. Twenty-six, we’ll be okay.” Jon’s answering grunt was non-committal and he kept driving, his eyes focused on the road ahead.
And she was right, once they crossed over the North Platte River, the road stretched out endlessly in front of them, with only sporadic clumps of cars and trucks headed south. It was close to noon when they finally reached Alliance. The sign at the entrance to the city declared the population to be eight thousand nine hundred and fifty-nine, but the streets were deserted, with only a few cars parked along the curb in the small business district.
It wasn’t until they reached the northern edge of the city that they found a gas station that had an open sign in the window—though there was no sign of activity at any of the pumps or any cars parked by the building. Jon pulled the truck in and stopped at one of the pumps. Sam reached to open her door and felt Jon’s hand on her arm. “Get your weapon.”
She nodded, opening the glove box and pulling out the Beretta. Jon reached under his seat and grabbed his gun while she checked the clip, stuffing it into her purse. It was hot outside the truck; a dry wind blew in from the west, sending dust and stray bits of litter swirling around the pumps. Sam noticed right off that two gas nozzles at each pump were covered with plastic bags and a large hand-written sign on each gas pump proclaiming ‘Cash Only’ told the story.
“I’ll go in and pay,” Sam said, making a note of the pump number.
Jon nodded, his eyes hidden behind his sunglasses, and she walked across the parking lot to the small store. A bell tinkled when she pushed the door open and she stood at the counter, waiting for someone to appear, which gave her time to study the store. Almost all the shelves were bare, only a few items remained on the shelves and it was an eclectic variety, ranging from potato chips to baby powder. When no one appeared, Sam leaned over the counter, trying to see into the backroom. “Hello?” she called.
An older man, wearing blue jeans and a navy work shirt with the name ‘Ned’ embroidered in red on it, materialized almost immediately in the doorway, a shotgun held casually in his right hand. “What can I do for you?” he asked.
Sam ignored the shotgun and the way he stiffened slightly when she slowly reached into her purse and pulled out her wallet. “We’d like to fill up,” she said. “Pump two.” The man glanced out the front window to the pumps where Jon stood leaning casually against the back fender of the truck. Sam tossed two twenties on the counter. “Is this enough?”
“More than enough, miss,” the man said. He crossed to the cash register then and pushed the button that unlocked the gas pump.
Sam waved at Jon through the window and he nodded. Sam watched until he started pumping the gas and she asked the man. “Is there a bathroom?”
“At the back.”
Sam smiled and walked through the nearly empty shelves to the restroom. It was just barely clean and there wasn’t any toilet paper, but she had tissues in her purse. When she’d finished and left the bathroom, waving her hands to air dry them, the bell tinkled over the door again and Jon entered.
“Where you kids headed?” Ned asked Jon. Sam was relieved to see that he had set the shotgun down on the back counter when he started ringing up the gas purchase.
“North, towards Pierre.”
Sam grabbed one of the plastic shopping baskets dumped on the floor at the back of the store and slowly walked the aisles, grabbing the remaining boxes of tampons and pads on the shelf and putting them in her basket while Jon and the man talked.
“What do you hear from up there?”
“The same thing I hear from all over, everyone’s either sick or dying from this crazy flu epidemic.”
“Your supplies are getting low.”
“Didn’t get our usual gas or supply delivery yesterday and no answer at the main office.”
“What about everyone else?” Sam asked.
Ned shrugged. “Sick or hiding out at home, not venturing outside. Day before last, the town doctors and Mayor got together, loaded everyone who was sick and anybody else who wanted to go onto the high school buses, taking them to the hospital at Scotts Bluff. Don’t know what’s happened to them, ever since this morning, only get a busy signal on the phone line. Where you two from?”
“Colorado Springs,” Jon offered.
“You’re a long way from home.”
“Going to my uncle’s.”
Ned nodded, apparently satisfied. “Called my son in Kansas City, told him to get him and his family back here. That was two days ago.”
“Interstate’s a mess,” Sam said, setting her now full shopping basket on the counter. “Did you try calling him?”
Ned snorted, picking items out and ringing them up. “Even on a good day, cell phone service is non-existent out here.”
Sam laughed softly. “Point taken. Oh,” she added, “can you add a bag of ice to that?
Jon pulled several bills out of his wallet to pay for her items and then gestured towards the shotgun on the counter. “Have you needed that?”
“Can’t be too careful,” he replied cryptically, stuffing their purchases into plastic bags. Sam nodded somberly, picking up bags while Jon grabbed a bag of ice from the freezer.
“Be careful out there,” he called to them as they left. “Situation like this can make even the most civilized man act a might uncivilized.”
Sam followed slowly along behind Jon, the quiet and tranquil country surrounding them had just taken on a more sinister quality. She knew they might not run into any trouble on the rest of the trip, but Ned was right, if the infrastructure was crumbling, the societal structure wouldn’t be far behind. When she reached the truck, Jon already had the cooler open and she slapped together two sandwiches while he drained out the water and added the fresh ice. Grabbing two apples from their stores, a bag of chips and two bottles of water out of the cooler, she waited in the truck for Jon.
Jon pulled the truck over under the shade of several cottonwoods at the edge of the gas station and they ate their sandwiches while he studied the road atlas. He closed it and handed it to her, putting the truck in gear.
“Which way are we headed?”
“I think we’ll travel east on Highway Two for awhile and then cut up north to Twenty or just keep going into South Dakota.” He glanced at her and she felt that tiny flutter, the expression and determination in his face was exactly what she remembered from before…from the Colonel. It eased her mind, but it also sent alarm bells ringing inside of her. She didn’t want Jon to turn into an exact clone of the original—he was lighter, happier, his demons left behind. But there was also no one else she’d rather have guarding her six than that O’Neill.
When they reached State Highway Sixty-one, Jon turned the truck north and then pulled over to the side of the road. “Can you drive for awhile, Sam? I could use a break.”
“Sure,” she said, scrambling out of the truck and using the opportunity to stretch her legs. There were clouds gathering in the west, but the sun was still shining, the only sounds those of the wind and the birds. They hadn’t passed a single vehicle going east or west the seventy miles or so they’d driven east. Each little town they’d passed through had been so quiet, they almost looked abandoned.
When they met at the front of the truck, Jon pulled her briefly into his arms. She snuggled close to him, wrapping her arms around him and resting her head on his chest, his heart beating steadily beneath her ear. “It’s going to be okay,” he murmured, nuzzling her hair in such a soothingly familiar gesture she felt like she wanted to weep.
“I trust you,” she whispered.
He stepped back slightly, his hands gliding to her shoulders. “Then trust me on this.”
“To the ends of the Earth.”
“That’s my girl,” he said, pressing a kiss to her forehead and then releasing her.
“Just for the record,” she called, as she continued around the truck to the driver’s side. “I have never been your ‘girl’.”
He laughed, slipping into the passenger seat. “Duly noted for the record, Ms. Carter.”
Sam smiled, fastening her seatbelt, adjusting the seat and mirror before she put the truck and gear and pulled out onto the empty highway. She smiled fondly at Jon while he wriggled around in the seat, stuffing a pillow behind his head and finally settled down with his eyes closed. She hoped he could relax enough to sleep.
Twenty minutes later, Sam knew she shouldn’t have worried; Jon had that peculiar talent of being able to fall asleep anytime, anyplace. And she was certain the rhythm of the truck helped. As it had been since they’d left Alliance, the road stretched out seemingly endlessly in front of her. She knew from the map that there were no towns for some sixty some miles, until they reached the South Dakota border. The landscape was the same too, the unrelenting sand hills, rolling out into the distance.
The clouds to the west kept gathering and getting darker. It was severe weather season and Sam hoped the storm held off until they’d reached wherever they were going to spend the night. They passed a cluster of lakes on the east edge of the highway, reeds grew high along the edges and she caught a glimpse or two of water birds flying low over the water. And then it was back to the prairie.
The straight open road was almost hypnotic and she found herself blinking in surprise when she drove over a bridge and had a brief view of flashing red taillights down the embankment. Sam slowed down and tried to get a view out the passenger side mirror, but the trees and brush were too dense in the ditch that surrounded the bridge. Slowing down even more when she reached the other side, she made an awkward U-turn, forced to back up once to get turned around, and she drove back over the bridge. Jon woke sometime during the U-turn.
“What’s going on?” he asked, his voice still husky from sleep.
“There’s something in the ditch back there, down the embankment, a car or something.”
“Crap,” he said, sitting up straighter. “Are you sure?”
“Yeah, I’m sure.” She executed another U-turn and hastily swerved onto the shoulder at the start of the bridge. Sure enough, a black Suburban with Colorado license plates and its hazard lights flashing, was headed nose-first down the shallow embankment. It had come to rest against some scrubby bushes and cottonwoods growing close to the river. Sam jumped out of the truck, skidding down the bank.
“Crap. Sam!” he shouted, from behind her. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
Sam felt his hand on her arm and he jerked her around, both of them skidding to a stop at the base of the embankment. She struggled with him, but she couldn’t shake his grasp. “Jon let me go, there may be people in there!”
“That’s what I’m worried about!” he shouted at her. “Think about it,” he said. “We can’t take the risk of getting exposed.”
She glared at him, both of them breathing heavily when they both heard it—the faint sound of crying. “Jon,” she whispered raggedly, “there are children.”
He swore again, his expression grim, but he released her arm and she followed him through the sparse underbrush to where the vehicle had landed. She couldn’t get a good view of the occupants from behind Jon, but as soon as he opened the back door, she could hear the sounds of the children crying and Jon talking as he leaned into the backseat. “Its okay, it’s okay. I’m going to help you.”
“Here, Sam.” Jon straightened up, handing her a crying baby—a boy, if the blue overalls with a hammer embroidered on them were an accurate indication of gender. The child immediately stopped crying once he was in her arms, his blue eyes wide and scared as he settled down, letting out long, hiccupping breaths.
“There, there,” she crooned, rubbing his back. “It’s okay now. It’s okay.”
Sam rocked slowly back and forth and watched as Jon emerged from the back seat with a second occupant, a wide-eyed little girl who looked to be about four or five. Her face was tear stained and as soon as Jon set her down, she ran to Sam’s side, standing as close as she could.
“It’s okay, honey,” Sam said, shifting the surprisingly heavy baby to one hip and stroking the girl’s light brown hair. “Are you hurt?”
The girl shook her head, looking up at her with haunted blue eyes. “No…but Mama is.”
Jon was already on it, opening the driver’s side door; Sam could just make out the figure of a woman slumped over the steering wheel. “Sam,” Jon’s head appeared, his face grim. “Get a blanket.”
“There’s one in the back,” the little girl said, scrambling back into the vehicle and emerging with a fluffy pink throw. She handed it to Jon and then quickly returned to Sam’s side.
Jon took the throw and spread it out on the ground by one of the nearby cottonwoods. He then helped the woman out, half dragging, half carrying her to the blanket. She flopped down almost lifelessly, leaning against the truck of the tree. Sam slowly approached her, the little girl now holding tightly on her hand.
The dark haired woman said something in a low whisper and Jon nodded. “I’ll be right back.”
His expression was somber and he shook his head when he passed Sam, heading back to the vehicle. Sam stopped at the edge of the blanket, the little girl tugging her hand free and going to her mother. The woman didn’t look like she was older than thirty; she was deathly pale, with dark circles under her eyes and her cheeks were flushed a dull red with fever, her breathing fast and labored
“Hi, baby,” the woman whispered hoarsely, a harsh cough wracking her body. The girl sat down and snuggled up against her mother. The woman looked up at Sam then, her eyes full of a terrible sadness and held out her arms, the little boy responded almost immediately, his arms reaching out to his mother. Sam placed the child in the woman’s arms and then stepped back, blinking furiously at the tears that suddenly filled her eyes.
Jon returned, a bottle of water in his hand and opened it, handing it to the woman. She could barely hold it and the baby, but she took a swallow and then gave it back. Jon knelt down on the edge of the blanket. “What’s your name?”
“Tonya. Tonya Stratton.”
“How long have you been sick, Tonya?”
“Since yesterday morning, but I thought we could make it.”
“Where are you going?”
“To my parents, in Mobridge. My father called and told me we needed to get out of the Springs; he’s a doctor with the Indian Health Service.” She stopped, coughing again, the sound rattling up from deep in her chest. Her head fell back against the tree trunk, her breathing finally slowly down somewhat and then she continued. “He’d gotten emails and warnings from the CDC about a new flu strain that was spreading rapidly and wanted us to come home.” She smiled wanly. “Guess I wasn’t fast enough.”
“What about their father?” Sam asked, gesturing toward the children.
“We’re separated. He’s in the Marines, based out of NORAD. He went TDY six months ago and I haven’t heard from him since.”
“We’ll help you,” Jon said. “It’s on our way.”
Sam had no idea where Mobridge was—or even what state it was in—but she was with Jon, they’d do what they could to help them.
Tonya smiled sadly, kissing the little boy on the forehead. “Thomas, go with the nice girl,” she whispered, holding him out to Sam, her arms trembling with the effort. Sam stepped up immediately and took the surprisingly cooperative Thomas into her arms. “Just make sure my kids get to their grandparents.”
“Don’t talk like that,” Sam said fiercely.
“Ashley,” Tonya said, ignoring her comment, prompting the little girl to stand up and holding both her hands. “I want you to go with—” She paused and looked up at Jon.
“Jon and Sam.”
“I want you to go with Jon and Sam. They’ll take you to Grandpa and Grandma’s. Be a good girl for them and help take care of Thomas, just like you do for me.”
Tonya drew her close for a moment and kissed her. “It’s okay, I just need to get better before I can go to Grandpa and Grandma’s.”
“Sam?” Jon jerked his head up towards the road and Sam followed his lead.
“Ashley,” Sam shifted Thomas to one arm and held out her hand, “come with me now, okay?”
The girl looked doubtful, but with a slight push from her mother, walked over and took her hand. “Let’s go up to the truck.”
Sam walked slowly up the embankment, Ashley followed reluctantly, looking back at her mother. When she reached the truck, she glanced back down to the river bank. It looked like Jon and Tonya were talking. Sam sighed. It had cooled off a little bit, the wind had picked up too and the dark clouds to the west were blowing in. Sam opened the truck door and waited as Ashley climbed in and then she somehow managed to get in with—amazingly enough—the now sleeping Thomas in her arms.
“What are we going to do now?” Ashley asked, her big blue eyes too sad and solemn for such a little girl.
Sam smiled faintly and smoothed back the girl’s hair. “Wait for Jon and your Mom to finish talking.”
“Okay,” Ashley said. Sam carefully shifted Thomas so that she was holding him cradled in her arms and Ashley apparently took that has her clue and slid over next to her, snuggling closer, and they waited.
Jon sat and waited with the dying woman, knowing it wouldn’t be long, he’d seen too many people die to not realize her time was imminent. He gazed out across the slowly moving river and wondered if they’d make it as far as Mobridge with the kids before one or all of them fell sick; he wondered why he and Sam weren’t sick already. If Colorado Springs was Ground Zero, they’d been there at the same time as Tonya. Hell, they’d been exposed god knows how many times since they’d left to head north, the most recent being at the campground just that morning.
A hawk flew idly overhead, drifting on the wind currents and scanning the prairie for its next meal. Jack wondered how long it would take the vultures to appear and which naturally led to wondering how long it would take for the Earth to shed any sign that humans had once existed. Sam could probably tell him…Sam. He had been a lucky man to have her with him these last few years, since the change. He really wasn’t sure how he would have made it without her, she was his anchor and he would have drifted away along time ago if it hadn’t been for her constant presence.
Tonya jerked suddenly, a long drawn out breath rattling from her and then she sighed, her head listing back against the tree trunk and she was gone. Jon worked rapidly then, after checking for her now non-existent heartbeat, having already decided on a course of action. He wrapped Tonya’s body in the pink blanket and then hiked back up the embankment, heading for the pick-up and the ground cover they’d bought at the home improvement store at the start of their trip.
He saw Sam sitting with the kids in the truck; she looked at him and he shook his head, she nodded and he went back to his task. Jon jogged back down the embankment and wrapped the blanketed body in the ground cover. She was a small woman, so it didn’t take too much to carry her body the short distance to the bridge, where he carefully placed her under the limited protection it offered. It wouldn’t be enough to protect her body for very long, but it was the best he could do.
When he was finished, he walked down to the water’s edge and knelt down, splashing his hands and arms around in the water, even though it was probably too late. Swinging his arms to help them dry, he walked back over to the Suburban and did a quick inventory of the vehicle and its contents before heading back to Sam and the kids.
Sam was waiting for him, standing on the edge of the embankment with Thomas in her arms. “Is she gone?”
“Yeah,” he said and then added, “Where’s the girl?”
She jerked her head back towards the truck. “Asleep in the front seat.” The baby moved restlessly in her arms. “I need to get his diapers, Jon, and see if there’s any formula or baby food down there. Poor thing, he’s starting to get fussy.”
“I’ll go get it,” he said, “I think I saw it in the backseat.” He made the trip back down the embankment and grabbed the diaper bag.
Sam was pacing by the truck, bouncing Thomas up and down as she walked. “Here,” she said, holding the baby to him. Jon quickly took him, handing her the diaper bag. It felt funny for a moment, it had been a life time since he’d held a baby, but Thomas didn’t seem to mind, already enchanted with someone new to poke and prod. Jon followed Sam around to the back of the truck where she lowered the tailgate and plopped the diaper bag down.
“Oh good,” she said, working some magic on the bag and transforming part of it into a changing pad. “Lay him down on it, will you Jon?”
He did as requested, keeping his hand lightly on the smiling boy’s chest to keep him from squirming off the pad. “How old do you think he is?”
“Ashley says he’s nine months old.”
“I’ve got him,” Sam said. Jon stepped aside and watched as she changed the diaper with only a few slips in technique.
“Not bad,” he said.
She gave him a mild glare and said, “There’s a container of powdered formula in there. Make yourself useful.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he replied smartly. Finding the formula, he grabbed one of the plastic bottles tucked into an outside pocket of the bag and along with a bottle of water from their supplies and mixed up the requested bottle.
Sam had Thomas all changed by then and when she picked him up again, he handed her the bottle. Thomas grabbed for it immediately, gripping it tightly in his chubby hands and with a little help from Sam, got the nipple into his mouth. The sun disappeared behind a cloud and Jon eyed the darkening skies; they needed to get moving.
“So, what’s Plan A,” Sam asked, swaying slowly back and forth while Thomas took his bottle.
“We take the kids to their grandparents.”
“Jon, do we even know where Mobridge is?”
Jon smiled slightly. Sam was always one for the details. “It’s in north central South Dakota and it actually is on our way, well, at least on our way as any of this trip has been. Anyway, Tonya told me their name and I found a printout from Map Quest in the front seat with their address and directions.”
“Two car seats aren’t going to fit into the pickup, Jon.”
“Yeah…I thought of that. You’ll have to drive the Suburban with the kids.” Sam raised an eyebrow, giving him a ‘why me’ look. “They know you,” he shrugged, “well, better than they know me.”
She walked to the edge of the embankment and he followed her. “How are we going to get it back on the road?”
“I checked it out already, it doesn’t look like there’s any damage and I can tow it back onto the road with the tow chain in the truck.”
They stood there, staring down at the Suburban when the wind suddenly gusted, followed by the faint sound of thunder rumbling in the distance.
“Well,” she said, turning toward him, that Sam Carter look of determination on her face. “We better get started.”
Sam switched the windshields wiper to a higher speed, peering intently through the pouring rain and keeping the tail lights of the truck within sight. It was late afternoon by the time Jon got the Suburban back onto the road—later than she had expected—and she had been limited in how much she could help, since she had a clingy four year old who had just lost her mother and, thank goodness, a relatively cheerful infant to take care of while Jon struggled with the Suburban.
But it was finally accomplished and under the continuing threat of rain, she had Jon feed Thomas a jar of apple and chicken baby food she’d found in the diaper bag while she made sandwiches for a snack—coaxing an increasingly fractious Ashley to eat one and peeling an apple and slicing it into quarters because it was the only way she would eat it. But they finally had the two children secured in their car seats and just as the first fat raindrops fell, Jon gave her a quick kiss and she got into the driver’s seat of the Suburban, buckling up and then waiting as he got into the truck, following him out onto the highway.
They’d only been back on the road about two hours, but with the rain pouring down and the stresses of the day catching up with her, she felt like it had been at least twice that long. And if she had to listen to the soundtrack to The Little Mermaid one more time, she was going to scream.
“Start it again!” Ashley called from the backseat.
Sam didn’t scream, she just gritted her teeth and started the CD one more time. She glanced in the rear view mirror, checking on the two children. Thomas seemed content to watch the world around him while Ashley sat quietly in her car seat, holding a well-loved Hello Kitty stuffed toy in her arms. But both children were getting restless—and she was getting tired. And if she was getting tired, she knew Jon had to be too, though he’d never admit it. If it was just her and Jon, she’d suck it up and keep driving, but now that they had two small children with them….
When she saw a road sign announcing that Interstate Ninety was forty-six miles ahead, she flashed the high beam on the Suburban several times, their signal that they needed to stop. It took a few minutes, but the truck finally slowed down and pulled onto the shoulder and Sam pulled the Suburban right up behind it. She left her headlights on as he jumped out of the truck, a light rain still falling, and jogged to the passenger door of the Suburban.
“What’s up?” he asked, closing the door and shaking water droplets around the front seat.
Sam saw the worry and fatigue in his face and she wished there was something she could do to erase it. But there wasn’t and while they’d been in worse spots before, she couldn’t think of one that compared to being two teen-agers on the run from a deadly virus with two small children in tow.
“We need to stop soon, Jon. I’m tired and the kids are too.”
“I’m not tired,” Ashley piped up from the backseat.
Jon’s face lightened in a grin and Sam decided the best approach to take with Ashley’s comment was to just ignore her. “We need to stop for the night.”
His smile faded. “I know,” he said, “We’ll stop at the next likely place we come to.” He leaned over and gave her a quick kiss before jumping out the Suburban and running back to the truck. Sam pulled out behind him, thankful that the rain had slowed down somewhat, even if the sky was still overcast.
“Are we going to my grandma’s house tonight?” Ashley asked.
“Not tonight, honey,” Sam said, glancing into the rearview mirror and giving the little girl a reassuring smile. “You’ll see them tomorrow.” She hoped she wasn’t lying, she prayed that they’d find her grandparents alive and well tomorrow, that by the time she was being hugged by her grandparents this would all be just a bad dream—for all of them.
It seemed like she followed Jack for another hour when in reality it was maybe thirty minutes before she saw the turn signal on the truck. She must’ve missed the sign for the small road-side park, nestled in a small copse of trees by a river. What was it with water today, Sam wondered.
Parking the Suburban right behind the pick-up Sam stopped the engine and got out of the vehicle, stretching slightly. It felt good to be out from behind the driver’s seat. The rain had stopped, the clouds thinning enough to let the sunshine weakly through them. The ground was muddy, but the air smelled fresh and clean. It was also cool and Sam shivered a bit.
A quick survey of the small park revealed several fire grates mixed in with the small cluster of picnic tables and she hoped they’d be able to find enough dry wood to have a fire. But probably the most welcome sight—a small brick and concrete structure set back from the main area that Sam hoped was at the minimum a pit toilet.
“I want out!” Ashley demanded.
Sam quickly opened the back door and freed the little girl from her car seat and she immediately jumped out of the vehicle, Hello Kitty in her hand. “Here,” Sam said, grabbing the pink hoodie from the back seat. “Put this on, it’s cold.” Ashley did as she was asked and Sam wondered what she was going to do with Thomas, who was still strapped in his car and seemed to be giving her a hopeful look.
“Ashley,” she called to the girl who was over by the closest picnic table. “Don’t go too far.”
Leaving Thomas safely in his car seat for the moment, Sam walked over to where Jon was digging around in the back of the truck. “Did much get wet?”
“Nah, the cover seems to have protected everything.” He stopped and they both studied the picnic area. “I think we should sleep in the back of the Suburban tonight. It might rain again and…” his voice trailed off.
“And we don’t know what’s out there,” she finished for him.
“Ashley seems okay,” he commented. The little girl sat at the picnic table, singing softly to her doll.
Sam sighed. “I hope you’re right, but it’s more likely she doesn’t understand or it hasn’t hit her yet.” She looked at the child a moment longer and felt a rush of pure terror, afraid that she wouldn’t know what to do when Ashley realized her mother wasn’t coming back. Sam knew what it was like to lose a parent; her mother’s death had nearly destroyed her and she’d been a teen-ager, she had no idea how a five year old would react. She really hoped the girl’s grandparents were alive. But, there were more pressing matters now than her fears over Ashley’s theoretical reaction to her mother’s death.
“What are we going to going to do with Thomas?” She gestured back over toward the Suburban. “He can’t stay cooped up in his car seat all the time.”
“That,” Jon said with a smile, “is something I think I have the answer for.”
He walked over to the back of the Suburban and she followed, handing him the keys when he held out his hand. “Tonya,” he said, opening the gate and lifting the back window, “seems to have packed everything under the sun.” Sam had to agree when he started digging through the items packed into the rear compartment; she hadn’t realized how much stuff was jammed into the large back area of the vehicle.
“Here,” he said, pulling out something that looked like a folded mesh screen. “I thought I recognized this.” With several deft moves, Sam watched as Jon opened up a portable play pen.
“I’m impressed,” she said.
Jon looked up from setting one of the locking clamps and grinned. “Yeah well, you’re easily impressed then.”
“There.” Jon set the playpen down on a fairly level surface near the picnic table where Ashley sat, silently watching the whole process. Jon stepped back and shrugged. “At least he can move around, stretch his legs. It could probably double as a crib too.”
“He can’t walk yet,” Ashley added.
“Is that right?”
She nodded. “He just crawls. Mama said he’d be starting soon though.” Her face crumpled a bit and before Sam could intervene, Jon sat down on the picnic bench with her and started talking softly to the girl.
Content that Jon had that situation under control, she dealt with Thomas. After a clean diaper, she pulled a bright red sweatshirt over his head and plopped him down in the playpen. He immediately began crawling around, gurgling happily. She dug around in the diaper bag again and tossed in several toys she found, along with the blanket lining his car seat. When she discovered a sippy cup, she checked the cooler she’d seen in the back of the Suburban when Jon was getting the playpen out and found some apple juice.
Thomas seemed delighted with the sippy cup full of juice, sitting down immediately and drinking from it. Sam left him to it, hoping he wouldn’t make too much of a mess. She looked around for Jon and Ashley, finally spotting them walking through the small wooded area adjacent to the picnic area. Ashley held some sticks and twigs in her hands, periodically stopping and picking up more; Jon walked along beside her, carrying some larger branches. Sam smiled. It looked like she might get her fire after all—and maybe even something hot to eat.
Sam decided to sort through the items in the back of the Suburban while Jon and Ashley made the fire, listening to the low murmur of his voice and the occasional laugh and high-pitched squeal from the little girl. It seemed even after all these years, there were still new facets to his personality to be discovered. She had always suspected he was good with kids, but this was the first time she’d seen him in action. Or maybe it was just that killer charm of his—even the little girls weren’t immune to it. Anyway, she was glad to have Ashley occupied while she sorted through the children’s items, clothing and food Tonya had packed.
It looked like Tonya had packed more than enough baby food and supplies to keep Thomas going for a week or more. The smaller suitcase with Ashley’s clothing had at least a week’s worth as well. Sam opened and then quickly closed the large suitcase that contained the dead woman’s clothing, she’d leave that for the woman’s parents, suppressing the gut feeling that their trip to Mobridge would be for naught.
Sam had just finished her sorting when a voice behind her announced, “We’re hungry.”
Smiling, Sam pulled her out of the back of the Suburban and turned around. Jon, holding Thomas, and Ashley stood in front of her. “Are we now?”
Ashley nodded vigorously. “We are. Jon says he knows how to cook soup without a pot.” The little girl looked skeptical and Sam had to work hard to suppress her laughter.
“Well, Jon knows a lot of things,” she said, her eyes meeting his over the little girl. “He just might know how to do that. Let’s see,” Sam said, pulling a box out onto the tail gate of the Suburban. “Which kind of soup is your favorite?”
“Chicken and stars!”
“Well, you’re in luck then,” Sam replied, handing a can of Chicken and Stars soup to the girl.
Ashley grabbed it, Hello Kitty stuck beneath her arm, and beamed up at the two adults.
“Go on down to the picnic table and wait for me there, Ashley, I want to talk to Sam for a minute.” The little girl walked off and Jon called after her. “Remember, don’t get too close to the fire. So,” he said, sitting down on the tailgate, settling Thomas in his lap. “What’s the plan?”
She raised an eyebrow. “You don’t have a plan?”
“Oh,” he replied easily. “I always have a plan.”
“Let’s hear it.”
“We transfer everything to the pick-up. Ashley can sleep on the front seat, Thomas can bunk with us in the back. Can’t you Tommy?” he asked the baby. Thomas smiled genially and appeared to nod in agreement.
Sam nodded in agreement too, those had been her thoughts as well.
“We get up at first light and continue north to Mobridge. We’re probably about three hundred miles or so from there, we can make it there by noon, as long as we don’t run into any trouble.”
Sam didn’t say anything, they’d already had more trouble than either of them had expected since they’d left the Springs. She also didn’t make any comment about the odds of finding the kids’ grandparents alive. “We’ll need gas.”
“We’ll manage,” was all he said.
“Jon?” Ashley’s voice drifted up from the picnic area.
“We only have about an hour of sunlight left,” Jon said, standing up and shifting Thomas to one hip. “I’ll heat the soup and take care of the kids if you’ll?”
“You better heat this one up too,” she said and handed him another can of soup—tomato this time. “I’ll start moving stuff.”
“Oh, Jon?” she called, when he turned away. “Let me know when it’s ready, I think I saw some picnic supplies in here, I’ll try and find them again.”
He waved his hand in acknowledgement and Sam sighed, eyeing the boxes and suitcases. Oh well, she decided pragmatically, it was only fair that Jon took his turn at looking after their unexpected traveling companions.
“See,” Jon said, taking his pocket knife out of his pocket and slit the label, peeling it off and then using the can opener attachment to open the can. “This is how you do it.” He then carefully set it on the edge of the grate, over the warmest coals.
“Careful!” Ashley squealed. “Don’t burn yourself.”
Jon laughed and the repeated the process with the second can before returning to the picnic bench and setting down next to the girl. “Don’t worry, I’m okay.” She didn’t look too convinced and scooted closer to him. Jon glanced over at Thomas, once more safely back in the play pen. The little boy was standing and clinging to the side closest to the fire, watching the flames. Jon smiled, fascination with fire started young….
“What’s that girl doing?”
“Her name is Sam and she’s getting things ready for tonight. “Here,” he instructed Ashley, handing her a bottle of water, “drink some water.”
Ashley took the bottle and looked at him, her expression suddenly serious. “Is she your Mommy?”
Jon almost choked on the water he was drinking. “Ah, no,” he said, wiping his chin and brushing at the few stray drops that made it onto his shirt. “Sam’s my girlfriend.”
“Are you going to marry her?”
Jon looked back over to the vehicles, where Sam was carrying a box full of something from the Suburban to the pick-up. He wondered for at least the millionth time what he had done to deserve her in his life. “Yeah,” he told Ashley. “I’m going to marry her.”
“Can I be your bridesmaid?”
“Sure,” Jon said, not bothering to correct her. “You can wear a pink dress with ruffles and bring Hello Kitty with you.”
Ashley beamed and leaned against his side; Jon put his arm around and they sat quietly for a moment until she asked, “What happened to my Mommy?”
Jon didn’t believe in lying to kids, he’d always discovered they could tell anyway, so he didn’t think he should start now with Ashley. He turned so he was straddling the picnic bench and facing her. “Your Mom was very sick.”
Ashley nodded. “She got the flu.”
“Right. And sometimes when people get very sick they don’t get well. Sometimes they die.”
“Did my Mommy die?”
“Yes, she did; she was very brave.”
“Did she go to heaven?”
This was one area where Jon decided he could embroider on the truth, given nobody actually knew the answer. “I’m sure she did.”
“Good,” Ashley said, apparently satisfied. Jon hoped it continued to be that easy for her, but he had no doubt there would be many days and nights ahead when she would cry for her mother who could never answer.
“Are you going to get the flu?”
This one, Jon thought, didn’t ask the easy questions, did she? “I don’t know,” he answered honestly. “So far me and Sam are healthy—and so are you and Thomas. We just have to focus on that.”
“Jon!” She suddenly jumped up and ran as close to the fire as he had told her she could go. “It’s bubbling!”
“By golly, you’re right,” Jon said, standing up and realizing he didn’t have a single thing to grab the now hot can of soup with. “Sam!” he bellowed, “soup’s on!”
“How are we going to eat it?” Ashley asked.
“With our fingers!” Jon teased, wiggling his fingers at her. She laughed and Thomas chortled too, joining in on the fun.
Fortunately, Sam was prepared. She came down to the picnic area carrying a big box. “I thought we might need some of this stuff.” She sat the box down and Jon saw that it was full of picnic supplies—paper plates, bowls, cups, paper towels and several boxes of plastic cutlery.
“Looks good,” he said, digging around for something a little more substantial to grab the soup cans.
“Here.” Sam handed him the pliers from the truck’s tool box.
“You’re a genius or you read my mind!”
“Both,” she replied smartly.
Jon grinned and used the pliers to grab the rim of one of the soup cans, Ashley watching the whole process with great interest. When he brought it back to the picnic table, Sam had set out paper towels as placemats and had bowls and spoons ready.
“What about Thomas?” Ashley asked.
“Don’t worry, I’ve got him covered,” Sam replied, pulling two jars of baby food out of her pockets.
“Oh,” Ashley said. “Peaches, his favorite.”
“Okay, Ashley girl,” Jon said, bringing over the second can of soup. “Sit down.” While he dished out some of the Chicken and Stars to Ashley and split the tomato between himself and Sam, she retrieved the now very excited Thomas and put him in his car seat.
“Careful, Ashley,” Jon instructed. “It’s hot.”
She nodded and when Jon picked up his spoon and prepared to eat, she said, “We haven’t said grace yet.”
Jon looked quickly at Sam, who stopped mid-air with a spoonful of pureed something directed at Thomas. She merely raised an eyebrow. Jon looked back at Ashley, who gazed up at him with her big, serious blue eyes. He’d had to take Family and Consumer Science, aka Home Economics, this time around in high school which had covered the basics of child development. So he knew kids needed some stability in their lives, especially when it had all been yanked away from them.
“Okay…” he said slowly, dredging his memory for an appropriate meal time prayer.
“Ashley, why don’t you say grace?” Sam said, rescuing him.
The little girl nodded solemnly, placing her hands together and bowing her head. “God is great, God is good. Let us thank him for our food.” Jon thought she was finished and he was about to say amen, when she continued. “And God? Please take good care of my Mama now that she’s in heaven. Amen.”
Sam gave him another look and Jon just shook his head, he’d have to fill her in later on his earlier discussion with Ashley. She went back to feeding Thomas and he reached for the box of cheese crackers she’d set out and put some in his soup. Ashley ate most of her soup and some cheese crackers, asking innumerable questions about everything under the sun, her comments skipping from her home in Colorado Springs to her friend Molly and Molly’s dog Otis, to her baby brother and how she was going to start kindergarten in the fall.
Jon listened, made appropriate comments and asked questions; also noting that Sam only ate one bowl of soup, giving him what was left of the Chicken and Stars. Thomas seemed content with his food—beef and peas along with the favorite peaches, happily guzzling the bottle Sam gave him when he was finished with the pureed food. They were really fortunate that Thomas was so good natured, he decided. Of course, he remembered…well, he remembered…that even the most even-tempered child could have his or her moments.
The sun was practically set by the time they finished eating, the only light now from the fire and one small light bulb that glowed feebly from the privy. Jon could see that Ashley was starting to fade, her chatter slowing down and the yawns coming more and more frequently. “What’s left to be done?” he asked Sam.
“Just some of the heavier stuff.” Sam stood up and started picking up, Jon helped her, stuffing the garbage into a plastic bag. “You take Thomas,” she said, when they were finished. “We girls are going to go over to the bathroom.” She grabbed a pack of baby wipes out of the box. “We’ll meet you back at the truck. Come on, Ashley.”
“Okay, big guy,” Jon said, picking up the car seat while Sam and Ashley went down the path to the privy. “It looks like it’s you and me.”
Once back at the vehicles, Jon set Thomas in the front seat of the Suburban and rapidly transferred the rest of the gear to the back of the truck, securing everything with the tarp. He had just lowered the back seat of the Suburban when he heard the girls returning.
“That was icky.” Ashley’s higher pitched voice carried clearly through the quiet air.
“Yeah, it was kind of icky…but at least it’s better than going in the bushes.”
Jon smiled when he heard Ashley giggle. “In the bushes? Doesn’t that scratch your bottom?”
They were closer now and he heard Sam’s low chuckle. “You have to be very careful.” Jon unrolled the first sleeping bag in the back of the Suburban, shifting around the few personal items he’d decided to leave in the vehicle.
“How’s it going?” Sam asked from behind him.
“Is there where we’re going to sleep?” If it was possible for a five year old to sound skeptical, then Ashley did.
Jon grabbed the Hello Kitty sleeping bag he’d found with all the other gear and took the little girl’s hand. “You’re going to sleep in the front seat.”
Thomas was already half asleep and Jon stepped aside, waiting for Sam to take him. Setting the car seat aside, he spread out the sleeping bag on the front seat. “Here you go.” Jon picked up the little girl and set her on the seat, taking her shoes off.
“We’re not going to a hotel?” she asked, clearly still not believing they were going to sleep in the Suburban.
“Not tonight. We’re camping tonight.”
“Where are you going to sleep?”
“In the back,” he said, point behind her. The top of Sam’s head was visible, she was bending over Thomas who lay on his changing pad; she was talking softly to him while getting him ready for bed.
“Yeah, with Sam and Thomas. Come on now,” Jon said, tugging on the sleeve of her sweatshirt.
“Where are my pajamas?”
“You get to sleep in your clothes tonight.” Ashley wrinkled her nose and he smiled reassuringly, folding the sweatshirt and placing it on the dash. “Climb on in,” he instructed, lifting the corner of the sleeping bag.
She finally complied and Jon handed her Hello Kitty, brushing her bangs off her forehead. He didn’t know much about little girls, but he figured at this age most kids had the same need for reassurance. “You’ve been a very brave girl today. Go to sleep now,” he said, leaning down and brushing a slight kiss on her forehead.
Shutting the door, Jon checked the fire, spreading the few smoldering coals out with a stick, before returning to the vehicle. Sam had already climbed into the rear and was kneeling in the middle of on sleeping bag while zipping it together with its partner; she had Thomas propped up in one corner, the sleepy-eyed baby sucking on a pacifier.
“You ready?” he asked.
“Yeah,” she nodded.
Jon closed the rear gate, making sure it was securely fastened and then he crawled into the vehicle through the back door, stashing his muddy tennis shoes on the floor. Switching the flash light on, he shut the door, the soft light making their make-shift sleeping quarters seem warm and cozy. Or maybe cramped was the better word. After making sure the doors were locked and reassuring Ashley, Jon looked at Sam.
She studied the situation for a moment and then said, “You better lie down first.”
He did as she requested, turning on his side and pressing his back up against the side panel. It was a close fit, he had to bend his knees slightly and even then his feet brushed against the rear gate. Sam settled down next to him then, leaning on one elbow and pulling the top sleeping bag up over them. It was only then that she picked up Thomas and laid the baby down next to her, but on top of the sleeping bag.
“Won’t he get cold?” Jon asked quietly.
“I found a blanket sleeper,” she said. “He’ll be fine.”
“Ah.” Again, vague memories of another time and another child flitted through his mind. Sam lay down and settled onto her side and he spooned up against her back. Looking over her shoulder, he could see she had Thomas on his side too and she was rubbing tiny circles on his back, soothing him. Satisfied that they were as comfortable as they were going to be, Jon settled in and switched off the flashlight.
“Jon?” Ashley’s tremulous voice called from the front seat.
“Its okay, Ashley. We’re here.”
“It’s dark,” she complained.
“Go to sleep, sweetie,” Sam added. “We’ve got a big day tomorrow.”
“To see Grandma and Grandpa Barnes?”
“That’s right, to see your grandparents. Say goodnight now.”
The little girl murmured goodnight and after several minutes of restless movement from the front seat, she finally settled down, her breathing becoming slow and even.
“Is she asleep?” Sam asked softly.
“Yeah, I think so.” When several more minutes passed, Jon felt confident the child was asleep. “What about Thomas?” he whispered.
“Out like a light.”
Jon sighed heavily and wrapped his arm around Sam and she wriggled closer. “What a mess,” he murmured.
“We couldn’t leave them, Jon.”
She’d scared him to death, back there, when she’d jumped out of the truck and went to rescue people, not knowing if they were sick or not. He knew if that if it had just been Tonya, he would have left her there without batting an eye, but not Sam—and that was one of the many reasons why he loved her. “I know,” he reassured her. “It just complicates—”
“Complicates what?” she interrupted. “We have no idea what’s going on out there.” He saw her hand lift in a familiar gesture. “And who knows what we’ll find tomorrow?”
“We’ll find their grandparents and maybe we’ll find out what’s going on out there.” He tried to sound convincing, but knew he failed.
“I hope we find them alive,” she whispered, finally voicing what he feared as well.
“Well, no matter what we find tomorrow, our mission is to still get to the cabin.”
“Mission….” She chuckled softly. “Just like the good old days?”
“Well, except for Daniel and Teal’c being replaced by two pre-school children, then yes.”
She laughed quietly again and when she spoke next, her voice was once more subdued. “I wonder if they’re okay…if they’re all okay.”
Jon tightened his arm around her and pressed a kiss to her nape. “They’re SG-1.”
“I hope that’s enough.”
Jon woke automatically at sunrise and immediately wondered why the close quarters of the rear compartment of the Suburban seemed even more cramped. A question that was easily answered when he realized that some time during the night Ashley had left her makeshift bed in the front of the vehicle and joined them in the back. Moving carefully so as to not disturb the still sleeping girl—or Sam and Thomas—Jon slipped out of the vehicle.
The morning air was crisp and cool, the sun just cresting the horizon. The air was filled with the sounds of birds greeting the sun and if he didn’t know that there was something dreadfully wrong, he would have greeted the day just as joyously as the birds. But it wasn’t a good day by any stretch of the imagination and they needed to get on the road.
By the time Jon returned from the privy, Sam was moving cautiously in the rear of the Suburban. Jon opened the rear gate as quietly as she could and helped her out, the two children not stirring. “Cold,” she murmured, rubbing her arms.
Jon wrapped his arms around her and held her close, pressing a kiss to her temple. “I think it’ll be easier if we split the kids up today.” He felt her nod of agreement and continued. “I’ll get Thomas strapped into his car seat and in the truck.” She lifted her head, looking like she was going to protest and he quickly added, “I can shut off the passenger side airbag, he’ll be okay.”
Sam nodded again. “What about Ashley?”
“We’ll just let her sleep.”
“Okay,” Sam agreed. “Let me just go to the bathroom and I’ll be ready.”
“That’s my girl.”
Sam pressed a quick kiss to his lips and slipped out of his arms, ruffling his hair. “Remember what I said,” she called softly to him, heading down the path to the privy.
Jon grinned and allowed himself a moment to watch her walk away. If he could think of himself as being a lucky guy while in the face of impending doom, then he was. But right now, his priority was to get all four of them to safety.
Fifteen minutes later Thomas was changed and sleepily drinking a bottle of formula while the truck headed down the highway; Sam and the still sleeping Ashley following along behind in the Suburban. Jon flipped the visor of the truck down, the sun was almost blinding when their small convoy turned east onto Interstate Ninety at Murdo. The road ahead—and behind them—was just as deserted as Interstate Eighty in Nebraska had been packed with cars and trucks.
Jon wasn’t sure what he had expected, but it sure wasn’t the complete absence of life. It wasn’t until they left the interstate and turned north toward Pierre that they started to see signs of life, and then it was just a series of abandoned cars and trucks. But perhaps the most ominous sight of all were the two apparently abandoned State Trooper sedans they passed right at the outskirts of Pierre.
Slowing down as they entered town, Jon kept a wary eye out, confident that Sam was doing the same. There was still electricity, he noted, the traffic lights flashing red and amber at the intersections through town. Again, he wasn’t sure what he expected, but beyond the occasional flash of movement on the side streets and the suggestion of life in some of the buildings and houses they passed, the capital of South Dakota was essentially a ghost town.
Once they made the eastern jog the highway took on the north edge of town, Jon started looking with serious intent for a gas station. The truck might be able to make it to Mobridge without a fill-up, but he knew the Suburban was running on fumes. Reaching another intersection with flashing traffic signals, Jon signaled and turned into a deserted looking gas station, Sam pulling in at a pump right behind him.
Jon gestured for Sam to stay in the Suburban while he released Thomas from his car seat and discreetly tucked the Beretta into his waistband before taking the boy to Sam. “Wait here,” he instructed, acutely aware that Ashley was awake, staring wide-eyed at him from the back of the vehicle. “Let me check things out.”
Sam nodded, taking Thomas. Jon closed the door and took stock of their surroundings. The morning air was still cool and he sniffed, uncertain whether the underlying scent carried on the morning breeze was actually that of decomposing bodies or just his imagination. He caught site of several over-flowing dumpsters—and the faint sound of flies feasting on the garbage—at several of the surrounding businesses and for the time being at least, chalked it up to his imagination.
The gas station itself appeared as quiet as the rest of the town; Jon crossed quickly to the attached mini-mart, the door swinging open easily at his touch and he stepped inside. The shelves had been stripped clean and after a quick search of the backroom and bathrooms, Jon returned to Sam and the kids. He opened the door, taking Thomas back from her while she got out. “No signs of life.”
“What about gas?” she asked, her face pinched with worry.
“I have to go potty!” Ashley chimed from the back.
Jon smiled faintly at the girl’s complaint. “The pumps are still on, we won’t know until we try.” Transferring Thomas once more back to Sam, he added, “The store is deserted, but there’s a changing station in the women’s restroom, why don’t you wash the kids up while I get us some gas?”
Sam nodded and before she opened the back door, he stopped her. “Be sure to take the G-U-N,” he whispered, hoping that the little ears listening to every word couldn’t spell.
“Don’t worry,” she replied, juggling Thomas and pressing a kiss to his cheek. “We’ll be fine.”
It took three pumps before Jon found one that worked and after jockeying the Suburban into position, he filled it up first, parking it on the far side of the building—away from the dumpsters—when he was finished. He had to take the pick-up to a different pump and he was more relieved than he was comfortable with when the tank was full. He’d just finished with filling both vehicles when Sam appeared out of the mini-mart with the kids.
Ashley immediately ran over to him. “I’m hungry,” she announced.
Sam joined them, looking slightly harassed and even the normally placid Thomas seemed fussy, squirming and whimpering in her arms. “I think Thomas and I could use something to eat too.”
Jon studied the little group in front of him. His instincts screamed at him that they needed to leave Pierre as fast as they could and get to Mobridge, but he had the feeling that if he pressed them to continue, Sam would gladly leave him to drive the Suburban with the two fussy kids. “All right,” he said. “Let’s just get out of the open, okay?”
Sam flashed him a relieved smile and when she went to put Thomas back in his car seat, Jon stopped her. “I’ll just pull the truck over by the Suburban; I think we’ll be okay over there.”
“Are we going to eat now?” Jon heard Ashley asked as he got into the pick up. Whatever Sam said was lost as he started it up, pulling in next to the Suburban just as they got there.
It was an odd picnic, eating off the tailgate of the truck next to the gas station. He and Sam rustled up an assortment of fruit and yogurt that Tonya had packed in her cooler, Sam fussing over expiration dates and making them all have a glass of the milk that was on the verge of outdating.
“Do you think there’s any ice?” she asked, taking Ashley’s empty glass and handing her a strawberry yogurt.
Jon paused in wiping at Thomas’ mouth with the spoon, trying to catch the applesauce dribbling out of the corners of his mouth. “Maybe. I’ll check the freezer in the store once we’re finished.”
They didn’t linger and once he was finished with feeding Thomas and had gulped down his own cup of blueberry yogurt and a banana, Jon checked out the freezer in the store. Where, much to his surprise, he found one solitary bag of ice. “We’re in luck,” he said, rounding the corner of the building but then he stopped suddenly when the loud roar of several engines broke the silence that had surrounded them all morning.
Jon waved his hand at Sam and she grabbed the kids, ducking around to the far side of the Suburban and Jon quickly disappeared behind the truck, cautiously peeking around the cab. A group of about six motorcycles, followed by two pick-ups, roared up the street, heading away from them, into the city. They flew by so fast, Jon’s main impression was of lots of black leather and tough looking riders. He waited until the sound of their engines had faded before he crept over to Sam and the kids.
“Let’s go,” was all he said, not wanting to worry Ashley.
“Come on, Ashley,” Sam said, taking the little girl’s hand.
“I want to go with Jon.” Ashley twisted free from Sam and ran over to him.
Sam looked like she was going to protest, but Jon quickly interrupted, not wanting to waste anytime arguing with a five year old. “Okay,” he said, dumping the ice into the cooler in the back of the Suburban. “Sam, you take Thomas in the truck; Ashley and I’ll take the Suburban.”
Ashley smiled triumphantly and apparently knew better than to protest when Jon quickly raised the backseat and got her car seat out of the rear of the truck. She obediently climbed in and Jon got her fastened in before checking on Sam and Thomas.
“I think she’s in love with you,” Sam teased.
“Well, she’s out of luck then, isn’t she?” he shot back, handing her the keys to the truck. “Because I’m in love with someone else.”
Sam chuckled and then she looked at him soberly. “What do you make of that?” she jerked her head in the direction the motorcycle convoy had gone.
“I don’t know,” he replied honestly. “And I don’t want to wait around and find out.”
“Yes, sir,” she snapped smartly.
“Cheeky,” he said mildly, shutting the door on Thomas. “Sam?” He reached out and caught her hand when she started to walk away. “We don’t stop until we reach the kids’ grandparents in Mobridge.” He reached into his jacket pocket and took out the folded Map Quest directions. “For anything.”
“What about you?” she asked, taking the rumpled papers from him.
“I wrote the directions down,” he said, patting his shirt pocket. “Just a precaution,” he added.
Sam tugged on his hand and he let her pull him close, wrapping his other arm around her and kissing her thoroughly. “Promise me?” he murmured against her lips when the kiss finally ended.
“Promise,” she whispered back, slipping from his embrace. “Oh Jon,” she called, walking around the front of the pickup to the driver’s side. “I hope you like The Little Mermaid.”
Sam didn’t know what relieved her most, that Thomas—with his tummy full—was apparently content to watch the passing scenery, gurgling and chattering baby talk to her every now and then, that the drive to Mobridge only took under two hours or that they didn’t run into any more cars, trucks or motorcycles on the highway. All she knew was that she was very glad when the Suburban had turned west onto the highway that would take them to Mobridge, only ten miles away according to the mileage sign they passed.
Ever since their close encounter with the bikers in Pierre, she’d been tense. More than likely, she and Jon had just over-reacted to the first sign of anyone else still alive since they’d left the gas station in Alliance. And maybe if it had just been the two of them, they wouldn’t have been quite as cautious. Well, no, she decided…Jon would have been just as cautious no matter what.
The Suburban slowed down and Sam realized that they were already on the fringes of the small town located on the eastern bank of the Missouri River. Feeling around for the directions, she kept one eye on the road in front of her while she scanned the page, feeling a small pang at Tonya’s handwritten notes—straight through town, then follow the River Road north five miles to Mom and Dad’s.
Mobridge appeared just as deserted as Pierre, though the two traffic signals in town weren’t working at all. Sam thought she caught a glimpse of someone walking down one of the side streets, but she couldn’t be sure. It didn’t take long to drive through the heart of the town and then the turn indicator on the Suburban was blinking and Sam followed Jon onto the River Road, automatically checking the speedometer.
The road changed from asphalt to gravel about three miles out of town and Sam started to catch glimpses of the Missouri River off to the west every now and then. The brake lights on the Suburban flashed and Sam slowed down, she saw the mailbox with the name ‘Barnes’ painted on the side when she turned, following slowly down the dirt road behind the Suburban.
The drive twisted and turned for about half a mile before widening and they were at the house. More than just a house, more like a small ranch, Sam realized. There was a barn and several outbuildings not too far away, along with a corral. A dog came running from behind the house, barking furiously while Sam parked the truck alongside the Suburban. Jon was already out of the vehicle, working his magic on the dog; the frantic barking subsided and the dog eagerly followed Jon around to the truck.
Sam rolled down the window. “I’ll go check it out,” he said. “Stay here with the kids.”
She was getting tired of being relegated to ‘staying with the kids’, but she didn’t complain. Someone had to stay with them and it was Jon’s way—just had it had been the Colonel’s—to shoulder all the risk. Ashley looked unhappy over in the back of the Suburban, but she didn’t budge out of her car seat. Sam briefly pondered taking Thomas out of his car seat but then decided she’d better wait to get the all clear signal from Jon—just in case they had to beat a hasty retreat.
It seemed to take forever for Jon to reappear after he’d disappeared through the front door—which hadn’t been locked and Sam didn’t know if that was a good or bad sign. And she could tell immediately by the look on his face that whatever he’d seen in the house, wasn’t good.
Undoing her seatbelt, she got out of the truck and met him by the gate of the split rail fence that ran around the well-kept front yard. “What is it?” she asked anxiously. “Are they here?”
Jon shook his head and Sam could see the weariness settle over him. “There’s a woman,” he said quietly, “in the master bedroom. She’s been dead at least a day.”
“Oh no,” Sam whispered, her heart sinking. “Do you think it’s their grandmother?”
“Yeah, judging by the pictures in the house.”
“What about the grandfather?”
“I don’t know, there wasn’t anyone else in the house. I’ll check the barn and the outbuildings, but I think it’s safe for you to take the kids inside. Just…don’t go upstairs yet. I’ve closed the door, but….” His voice trailed off and Sam nodded.
She watched him for a moment as he strode off towards the barn, the dog following at his heels, before she took a deep breath and turned back to the vehicles. Sam retrieved Thomas and when she opened the back door of the Suburban, Ashley quickly scrambled out, clutching Hello Kitty.
“Are we going to see my Grandma and Grandpa now?” she asked, her blue eyes full of hope.
“No one’s here right now, honey,” Sam told her. “But we’ll go on inside and wait.” Even though her smile faded, that answer seemed to satisfy the little girl and when Sam held out her hand, she took it and they made their way to the house.
The kitchen was easy enough to find and Sam figured it would be a good place to wait. Ashley scrambled into one of the straight back chairs at the kitchen table and there was an old wooden high chair sitting ready at the table for Thomas. Sam felt an odd lump in her throat at the thought of the grandparents getting everything ready for their daughter and grandchildren’s arrival, but she resolutely pushed those feelings aside and instead checked to see if the electricity was working.
A quick flick of several switches confirmed that it wasn’t, so she cautiously opened the refrigerator door, the light didn’t come on but the air inside was still cool so she knew the electricity hadn’t been off for very long. Even though they’d eaten just a few hours ago, she could use something to drink and so could the kids, and it looked like Grandma Barnes had planned ahead, a full bottle of apple juice sat waiting for them in the fridge. Opening cupboards, she found the glasses and even what was obviously a new Sponge Bob sippy glass, waiting for Thomas. Pouring them all some apple juice, she returned the bottle to the fridge, figuring they’d have at least a few more hours of cold from it.
Passing out the glasses, Ashley sipped cautiously at hers while Thomas started guzzling his down almost immediately; Sam sat down with the children. She had just taken a drink of her juice when Ashley spoke.
“What will we do if they’re not here?” She asked, her high-pitched voice tremulous.
Sam met the little girl’s eyes and saw that she was near to tears and frankly, Sam realized she felt much the same way. So much had happened and they’d come so far in such a short span of time and all she wanted was to be back home in their little apartment, studying for the last of their finals and getting ready for graduation. It was cowardly, but she wished that Jon was there to answer that question. He seemed to have built a rapport with Ashley that Sam hadn’t achieved yet, but he wasn’t, so she took a deep breath—
“We leave them a note telling them we’ve taken you and Thomas with us.” Jon stood in the doorway and Ashley immediately jumped out of her chair and ran over to him. Jon picked her up and carried her back into the kitchen, sitting down in the chair she’d just vacated.
Thomas gurgled brightly when he saw Jon and Sam felt a huge rush of relief, tempered by the unspoken message in his words to Ashley that there hadn’t been anyone in the barn and outbuildings…or at least anyone alive.
“My Grandpa and Grandma aren’t here?” Ashley seemed calmer now that Jon was there, though her voice still trembled.
“No, I’m afraid not, sweetie,” he told her. “But, we won’t leave until morning and maybe they’ll be back by then.” Ashley shook her head in agreement and then leaned against him, apparently satisfied for the time being. Jon looked at her then. “I saw a gas powered generator out in the barn. If we can get it hooked up, we might be able to get some electricity. There’s a propane tank too, probably runs the heating system and that stove over there.”
Sam glanced over at the range top, just then realizing it was a gas one.
“Maybe the hot water heater, too,” he added, smiling slightly.
A hot bath sounded heavenly and they could all certainly use that after two and half days on the road in the same clothes. “So,” Sam said slowly, her mind already racing over everything they could do with electricity and almost a full day in one location, “we stay here tonight?”
“We stay here tonight.”
Once their immediate future was settled, Sam took the kids out onto the front porch while Jon attended to the body upstairs, taking it out to the barn. Ashley befriended the dog, a friendly Sheppard, maybe Australian, with one blue eye and one brown eye; Thomas even got in on the dog action, earning a sloppy kiss from the obviously happy dog. She sighed; it was a beautiful day on the high prairie, a light breeze blew through the trees and everything was green with new growth. Almost a perfect day, if it wasn’t for the death that waited for them everywhere.
Sam knew it was tough on Jon, having to deal with the dying and the dead. She didn’t envy him his task, more than happy to ‘stay with the kids’ this time. Unfortunately, she suspected there would be more death before they reached Minnesota, she hoped this was the last time he’d have to deal with it so intimately.
After Jon had finished his solemn task, getting the electricity on was next on the ‘to do’ list, which turned out to be easier than she expected. They set up Thomas’ play pen in the family room and with him safely stowed, she and Ashley unloaded the few items from the Suburban while John took the truck up to the barn and brought the generator back down.
Sam had already found the electrical box in the two-car garage, a lonely Honda Civic the sole occupant, and once Jon filled the generator with gas, she only had to tinker with it for a few minutes before it emitted a huge belch of dark smoke and rumbled into life.
“Got it.” Sam beamed up at Jon, who must’ve been alerted by the noisy generator while he was working indoors and had brought a fascinated looking Thomas out with him; Ashley clung to his hand and peered out from behind him with wide eyes. “We should be good to go,” she said, wiping her greasy hands on a kitchen towel Jon handed her.
“Good job, Sam,” Jon told her, bending down and giving her a quick kiss. Thomas squealed and took the opportunity to launch himself out of Jon’s arms and into her lap. Sam laughed, quickly grabbing the baby, who seemed bent on reaching the generator. Jon laughed too, lifting him out of Sam’s lap and back into his arms. “You’re not quite old enough to work on generators yet, Tommy. Give it a few years.”
“Will that make the lights work?” Ashley asked almost timidly.
“You bet it will,” Sam said, accepting the hand Jon held out to her and rising off the ground.
“Now all we need to do is check the hot water heater and we’re set.”
“Already done,” Jon said. “It was operating off the propane tank, so the water should be hot.”
“I get first dibs on the shower,” Sam said, trailing behind Jon and the kids as they walked back into the house.
“Works for me,” Jon agreed. “We just need to finish unloading the stuff we need from the truck.”
The afternoon passed quickly, between lunch and then everyone bathing—Jon having solved the problem of who was going to give Thomas a bath by taking the little boy into the shower with him, Sam standing by to take him once he was all clean. Ashley had splashed happily in the bath tub for almost an hour before Sam had to practically drag her out of the cool water and then she had found herself lingering under the shower as well, the water feeling heavenly and clean hair feeling even better.
Clean clothes had also never felt better and Sam decided to utilize the washer and dryer while they had the chance, they had enough dirty clothing between the four of them to do two loads—along with the towels from their baths. While Jon settled Ashley in front of the TV with a Disney DVD in the player and Thomas was zonked out in his play pen, Sam gathered the laundry and took it into the laundry room just off the kitchen.
“I think we should consolidate everything into one vehicle.” Jon leaned against the doorway into the laundry room, the opening music from Finding Nemo drifting in from the family room.
“The Suburban or the truck?” she asked, tossing the jeans she’d worn for the past two days into the washing machine.
“There was a Ford F350 with a topper up in the barn, I’m going to check that out. I’d like to have a truck and that model has a rear seat that should work for the car seats.”
“Sounds good,” Sam agreed, it certainly made more sense than continuing on with two vehicles. “What about the dog?” she asked, even though she already knew the answer.
Jon smiled. “What’s one more mouth to feed?”
“Were there any other animals up at the barn?” she asked, remembering the corral.
“Yeah,” he said, his expression troubled. “There were three horses in another corral, off the back of the barn. They looked okay, they had plenty of hay and the water tank was full.”
“What should we do with them? We can’t leave them here to starve.”
Jon shook his head. “Let them loose, I guess. I don’t know much about horses, but I imagine they’ll have a better chance out on the range.”
Sam nodded in agreement and finished loading the washing machine. “Well, I’ll sort through the pantry and see what we can take with us.”
“We’ve got a plan then.”
She smiled and then added on a serious note before he left, “Just…be careful.”
Jon grinned and kissed her. “Aren’t I always?”
He sauntered out and Sam just smiled after him, turning on the washing machine. It almost felt normal, being in the house, she thought, checking on the kids before starting in the kitchen. Like maybe this was their house…their children and nothing was more pressing than what to fix for dinner. She knew it was all a dream, but ever since she’d woken from the cloning process a teen-ager and had walked into Jon’s home room and seen the gleam in his eyes, that particular dream hadn’t seemed so unobtainable anymore. She had been determined that this time around she would have it all—career, husband and family. Now she wasn’t even sure if she’d still be alive the next day.
Opening cupboards, she started a pile on the kitchen table of items to take. She was puzzled over why she and Jon hadn’t come down with whatever virus was decimating the population. Grateful they weren’t sick, but puzzled. They’d been exposed at least twice—the last intimately—and yet they were still well. And so were the two kids…and the bikers they’d seen earlier. The only possible explanation was that they all had some natural immunity and she decided, emptying the pantry of all the canned goods, it didn’t really matter why they were alive right now, just that they were.
Hearing the rumble of a truck out in the front, Sam went to the kitchen window that looked out onto the front of the house. A huge black pick-up rolled to a stop next to Jon’s smaller version. She smiled and waved at Jon, who had just gotten out of the truck when she stopped suddenly, her smile fading. A man on horseback had just come into view, riding easily up the drive on the back of a large gray dappled horse. He had long black hair that streamed over his shoulders from under a dark cowboy hat, dressed in a denim shirt and jeans. He held the reins in one hand, a rifle resting across his lap.
Jon had obviously seen him and stood waiting by the truck, his stance looked casual but Sam knew it was anything but that. She didn’t know whether he had his Beretta and she cursed softly, her gun was still out in the Suburban. And then she heard the front door slam and Ashley appeared at the edge of the front porch. Sam could hear her clearly through the partially open window, calling Jon’s name. Sam ran through the family room, stopping to pick up a now wide-awake Thomas who was crying and raced out on the porch, catching Ashley just as she reached the front gate.
If Jon had heard them, he didn’t give any indication, he simply stood by the truck as the stranger drew closer. Sam shushed Ashley, who didn’t like being stopped from going to Jon, and soothed Thomas, who had finally stopped crying. And she figured as long as she was out on the porch now, she was going to wait and see what was going to happen.
The horse and rider stopped about ten feet from Jon, the horse shifting restlessly while the two men stared at each other before the stranger spoke. “You kin to Doc Barnes?” he asked, in a deep voice that carried easily to Sam. Now that she was closer, Sam decided the stranger looked Native American and she remembered what Tonya had told them, that her father was a doctor with the Indian Health Service.
“No,” Jon answered, “we know his daughter.” He glanced briefly at her and the kids. “Those are his grandkids. You know where he is?”
Ashley gasped softly and jerked, like she intended to take off again, but Sam kept a firm hand on her shoulder, her eyes still focused on the two men in the yard.
“Is Miz Barnes here?”
“Passed on too.” After a long moment where neither man spoke, Jon finally asked. “How many are sick?”
“Too many,” the man replied. “You staying?”
The man’s voice was still calm and almost indifferent; Sam couldn’t tell if he cared one way or another if they stayed.
“We’re leaving in the morning,” Jon said. “We’ll take the kids with us.”
The man seemed to consider Jon and his words carefully. “That’s a big responsibility.”
Sam bristled slightly at the implication that she and Jon couldn’t take care of the children, but Jon remained calm—at least outwardly. “It’s not a problem.” Jon jerked his head in the direction of the barn. “There are horses over in the back corral.”
The man smiled faintly. “I’ll take care of them.” After another long moment of silence that seemed to last forever where the boy and the man stared at each other, the man tipped his hat and with a flick of the reins, the horse turned and he rode off towards the barn.
Sam finally let go of Ashley and the little girl ran to Jon, crying his name. Sam followed with Thomas, giving Jon time to swing the little girl up in his arms and comfort her. Thomas had started to cry again, probably spurred on by his sister’s tears and the tense atmosphere after the unexpected confrontation.
Looking miserably at Jon, Sam patted Thomas’ back and tried to calm him down. Ashley’s sobs finally slowed down to an occasional gulp and Jon continued to hold her, slowly swaying and rubbing her back. “It’s okay, it’s okay. We’re going to take care of you,” he repeated over and over.
“I want my Mommy!” she wailed anew, breaking into fresh tears.
“Come on,” Sam finally said. “We better go inside.” Opening the gate for John, she heard a whinny and they both stopped, looking over toward the barn and stables. Their visitor rode briefly into sight, leading a string of three horses and disappearing over the rise.
Once back in the house, Jon sat down with Ashley on the sofa in the family room while Sam got a bottle ready for Thomas. She could hear the low murmur of their voices while she worked and she knew by now that if anyone would be able to console Ashley, it was Jon.
Thomas was calmer too, watching avidly from his perch on her hip as she prepared his bottle. Sam was impressed herself with how easy it was now to prepare a bottle with while holding a baby. Of course, she’d gotten used to doing quite a few things over the past two days with a baby in one arm—almost the ultimate multi-tasking she thought with a grin. Once she had the bottle ready, she went back into the family room and sat down next to Jon and Ashley, giving Thomas his bottle.
“Better?” Sam asked, looking at the two of them. Jon looked calm and Ashley’s eyes were pink from her tears and she clutched a ragged tissue in one hand, but she nodded her head.
“Yeah,” Jon said. “Tell Sam what we’re going to do.”
Ashley’s lip quivered slightly, but she managed to get it out. “Me and Thomas are going to go with you and Jon to Minnesota and live there until everybody’s well again.”
“And?” Jon prompted.
“And we’re going to leave a note here for my Daddy, so when he comes to look for us, he’ll know where to go.”
“That sounds like an excellent plan,” Sam said, smiling at the little girl.
“It’s Plan A,” Ashley told her, a spark of her usual cheerfulness resurfacing.
“Is there a Plan B?” Sam asked, this time looking at Jon.
Jon winked at Ashley and then looked at Sam. “We won’t need a Plan B, will we now, if Plan A works?”
Ashley giggled and Sam smiled. There was a Plan B, she knew Jon too well to believe he didn’t have a contingency plan; she’d wait and find out later. “So…” she said, taking the half-empty bottle away from Thomas and sitting him so up so she could burp him. “What’s up next?”
“Ashley’s going to help me get the new truck ready for tomorrow and then we’re going to have a cookout and watch The Little Mermaid.”
“Well then, I guess Thomas,” who chose that moment to let out a large burp that made them laugh, “and I will finish the laundry and gather everything we can use from here.”
The rest of the afternoon and into the early evening was spent going about their respective chores. Jon and Ashley would appear periodically and to take the boxes and bags she had gathered of items that looked to be useful. Since neither she nor Jon had any idea what was waiting for them at the cabin, she figured she’d just keep packing stuff until they ran out of room in the truck. Thomas, who was once more his normal, happy self, watched all the activity from his playpen; every so often tossing one of his toys out for Sam to retrieve—always to his great delight.
On an impulse, Sam checked the cupboards that lined the empty side of the garage, finding them stocked full of even more canned goods, baby food and boxes of dried goods like instant milk, potatoes and oatmeal. It looked like the Barnes’ had anticipated a long stay for their grandchildren—or possibly a long shortage. Sam called to Jon from the open garage door and he walked over, followed by Ashley.
“What do you think?” Sam asked, gesturing at the full cupboards. “Think we can fit that all in?”
“We’ll take as much as we can, there’s still plenty of room. Come on, Ashley,” Jon said, taking her hand. ‘I think there are some more boxes in the barn.”
Sam heard Thomas calling her, well, she figured he was calling her as he’d taken to saying ‘Baba’ every time he saw her. She went back into the house where Thomas could see her and decided she could wait until they returned with the boxes, maybe put Thomas in his car seat while she emptied the cupboards in the garage.
The sun was setting low on the horizon by the time they finished with all their work and Jon fired up the gas grill on the back patio; both children were practically asleep where they sat. Sam dragged a tired Ashley to the ground floor guest room where she’d stashed all their personal gear and coaxed the little girl into her pajamas. She got Thomas ready for bed too, having already fed the little boy dinner of chicken and peas, along with pureed squash; he was good to go now with just a bottle.
Sam was tired too, but the smell of the cooking steaks Jon had found, half-thawed in the deep freeze, revived her somewhat. She’d thrown together a salad with the lettuce and other produce that had survived the power outage, had three potatoes currently baking in the oven and there was fruit for dessert. Sam had already decided to save the store-bought cookies she’d found for as long as possible. Ashley had wrinkled her nose at the offer of steak, but had been agreeable to a hot dog, the pack which Sam was certain had been purchased just for the little girls’ arrival.
After Ashley once more said grace, conversation at the dinner table was sparse, everyone seemed more interested in eating than talking. Thomas sat in his high chair, gnawing away at a baby biscuit from the unopened box she’d found in the kitchen cupboards. And even Ashley, for whom Sam had been prepared to have a difficult mealtime, ate her hot dog—after Jon had cut it into little pieces for her—and her mashed potato, again after Jon had taken the skin off for her and mashed it up, adding lots of margarine. Which was totally fine with Sam, Thomas was enough for her to look after at meal time.
“Oh, that was good,” Jon said, breaking the silence at the table and pushing his empty plate away.
Sam cut off another bite of her steak. “You grill a mean steak, Jon,” she told him, popping the medium rare morsel into her mouth.
“In the morning, I’ll pack up as much of that frozen stuff as I can. I’ve got those water bottles freezing tonight in the big freezer, we should be able to take most of it with us.”
“Will there be electricity at the cabin?” She knew he had siphoned the gas out of his truck and the Suburban to fill the tank on the F350 and refill the plastic gas tanks he’d used on the generator.
“Yeah…there’s a generator.” Jon shrugged, grabbing a banana out of the fruit bowl she’d set in the middle of the table. “I’m sure the General has all contingencies covered.”
“The general?” Ashley asked. Her plate was almost empty and Jon broke off part of his banana and gave it to her.
“A friend.” Jon’s simple answer seemed to satisfy her; she beamed at him and took a small bite of the banana.
Once they were all finished, Sam cleared the table and then left Jon to do the washing up while she gave Thomas his last bottle. She loaded The Little Mermaid into the DVD player and started it playing; Ashley lay curled up on the sofa, hugging Hello Kitty, barely able to keep her eyes open.
The movie was almost half over by the time Jon finished in the kitchen, Thomas had already fallen asleep and Sam just sat, half watching the video and holding him.
“Asleep?” Jon asked, smoothing his fingers lightly over the baby’s short hair.
Sam nodded. “So is Ashley.”
Jon smiled faintly. “It’s been a rough day.”
“Do you think their father is alive?”
Jon shrugged. “Who knows? If he’s TDY, he could be anywhere. And if he’s stationed at NORAD, well hell, he could be with the SGC for all we know..”
Jon was right, they had no way or knowing, or contacting him. She figured Tonya might have left him a message somewhere that she was going to her parents, just like they’d leave a message for whoever came behind them.
“I’m going to put Thomas down,” she said, carefully shifting the baby to her shoulder and getting to her feet with a helping hand from Jon. “Why don’t you take Ashley into the bedroom? We can move her back out here once we’re ready to go to bed.”
Jon raised an eyebrow. “You have some plans for tonight, Ms. Carter?”
Sam smiled at him. “I might.”
Jon leered at her and Sam laughed softly. “We still have plenty to do between now and bedtime, mister.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he drawled. Jon gently picked Ashley up from the sofa and carried her out of the room and Sam got Thomas all arranged on his side in the play pen. The dog that had been sleeping on the rug near the patio door, got up and followed her and Thomas.
“What is it, girl?” Sam asked, rubbing the dogs head. “You lonely?” Feeling a collar, Sam wondered if the dog might have a tag with her name on it. Searching through the soft fur, she finally managed to rotate the collar around and found two tags—one for rabies and the second, an ID. “So,” she said, reading the tag, “your name is Sadie.” The dog’s tail seemed to wag extra hard when she heard her name.
“Okay, Sadie,” Sam said, rubbing the dog’s head again. “Welcome to the family.” To which Sadie’s tail wagged even more furiously.
“Sadie?” Jon asked, walking over to them. At his entrance, the dog immediately deserted Sam and ran over to Jon.
“That’s what her tag says.”
“Good name for a dog.” Jon rubbed her ears and she seemed to be in heaven, whining softly.
“Did you see the fifty pound bag of dog food in the garage?”
“Yeah, got it loaded.”
Jon moved over to the sofa then and sat down and Sam joined him, Sadie settling back on her rug by the door. Sam automatically shut off the DVD player with the remote. The TV screen immediately filled with static and she reached for the TV remote when Jon grabbed it from her.
“Do you think?” he asked, his tired eyes suddenly sparked with interest.
Sam felt a flush of excitement, she’d seen the satellite dish on the south side of the house, but it hadn’t really registered until now. “We can try.”
Jon settled back and started switching through the channels, without any success. There were so many different ones that it seemed to take forever and she had just about given up when one channel flickered briefly, a face appearing and some sound that wasn’t static, before it disappeared into the next channel.
“Go back!” Sam said excitedly, “There was something on that last channel.”
Jon had evidently seen it and he immediately flipped the remote back. The picture took a moment to stabilize and even then it was grainy and full of static, but there was definitely a broadcast coming from somewhere.
“Isn’t that CNN?” Sam asked, squinting at the screen.
“Maybe,” Jon said, leaning forward now and peering intently at the TV. Sam didn’t recognize the blurry face of the newscaster, but she could hear his voice.
“For those of you just joining us on this special Evening Edition, I’m Kevin Longwell, and we’ll try and update you as soon as we can. Here at CNN we will remain on the air as long as we can, to keep those of us that have not been affected and those currently ill with this deadly plague updated on the most recent developments from the CDC and other centers across the world that are engaged in the same race against time—to discover a cure for this deadly virus.”
The picture abruptly cleared and Sam felt a chill. The news anchor looked awful and she couldn’t decide if it was because he was ill himself or whether he just didn’t have any make-up on. There were dark shadows under his eyes and it looked like he hadn’t shaved in several days, he had on a tailored shirt, but the tie was missing, the top button undone and he’d lost the suit coat somewhere. The set wasn’t the usual CNN one she remembered either, he sat at a plain desk with nothing behind him except a map of the world. The desk was littered with papers and a coffee cup sat at one side. He pressed his earpiece and then spoke again.
“Okay, while we’re waiting for word from the White House, I’m going to try and update everyone as to where we stand right now.” Longwell shuffled through some of the papers on his desk and then looked back at the camera. He looked tired and Sam wondered how long he had been on the air.
“Seventy-two hours ago, in Colorado Springs, the first victims of this deadly new virus were first treated at area hospitals. It was a full twenty-four hours before any of the doctors treating patients with symptoms of this new influenza realized the incredible virulence of this virus. Combined with what we now to be know is an incredibly short incubation period and almost immediate transmission, from either direct person to person or by contact with objects contaminated with the virus, the influenza spread beyond conventional means of containment almost immediately.”
“The virus had already spread beyond the United States before international flights were cancelled and our borders closed. We have received reports from countries all over the world, including Africa and Australia, that they have not been able to stop the spread of the disease. In the United States alone,” the man’s voice broke for a moment, before he continued, “In the United States alone, it is estimated that almost two-thirds of the population are already dead or dying. That’s over two hundred million people.”
Sam clutched at Jon’s hand. Two-third’s of the population already dead? She felt…she didn’t know what she felt, it was almost too incredible to believe. She concentrated once more on the news broadcast.
“The worldwide death total is estimated to be three billion, with the numbers rising every minute.” Longwell paused then, taking a sip out of his coffee cup and reaching for another piece of paper on the cluttered desktop. “Symptoms of the influenza are as follows: fatigue, high fever, loss of appetite, cough, shortness of breath, muscle aches, joint aches. The virus attacks the lungs first and most of its victims will die from respiratory failure or lapse into a coma, dying a short time later. Average time from onset of symptoms to death is thirty-six hours.”
Sam leaned her head against Jon’s shoulder and he wrapped his arm around. The newscaster pressed his fingers against his ear piece again.
“All right,” he announced, “it seems we have our White House report. It’s audio only.” He paused for another moment. “Okay, it seems that we will not hear from the President himself. We have been reassured repeatedly that the President is all right—”
“Yeah, right,” Jon snorted quietly.
“—and is safe at an undisclosed location. We are told this report is coming from a representative of the Joint Chiefs.”
The newsroom flickered for a moment and then was replaced with a stock view of the White House. The beginning of the transmission was garbled and Sam strained, but couldn’t hear the name, but when she heard the voice—even through all the static and distortion—her heart started racing.
“—of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Please be reassured that we are doing everything humanly possible to isolate and develop a cure for this virus. The doctors and scientists at the CDC are working round the clock. If you are currently ill, stay where you are. If you are well, stay where you are. Once the threat has been eliminated, local, state and Federal authorities will begin—”
The broadcast abruptly cut off, the entire screen going blank, replaced with snowy static. “Dammit,” Jon muttered, punching at the buttons on the remote, changing channels and going back to where they they’d found the CNN broadcast, but there was nothing.
“Was that?” Sam breathed softly, looking at Jon.
“Yeah, it was him.”
“Do you think any of it is true?”
Jon snorted. “Hell, Sam, you remember what it was like, back then. I’m sure there’s some truth in what he said, but he didn’t tell us anything that we didn’t already know from the newscast.”
“What about the President?”
“He could be safe, Sam. Maybe they got him off world, to the Alpha Site. Or maybe he’s dead, just like the majority of the population. God, Sam,” he said suddenly, pulling her into his arms. “Two-thirds dead!”
“I almost wish we hadn’t turned the TV on,” she said in a shaky voice, pressing her face into his neck.
His arms tightened around her. “That doesn’t sound like you,” he murmured. “What happened to ‘knowledge is power’?”
Her shaky laugh turned into a sob. “This knowledge doesn’t make me feel anymore powerful.”
His arms loosened and when he put his hands on her shoulders, she met his eyes, blinking furiously against the tears that threatened. “You are the bravest person I know. You gave up everything to come be with me. I can never, ever repay you for that. And all I can do now is keep you safe. And that is one promise I will never break.”
The tears did spill over then and she went back into Jon’s arms, taking comfort from his strength. He had it wrong, he had always been the stronger one. Or maybe it was simply that they were strongest when they were together. “I won’t give up,” she whispered, pulling back and wiping at her eyes with hands. “We won’t give up.”
She pressed two fingers to his lips. “Don’t say it.”
He grinned, catching her hand and kissing her fingers. “—Samantha.”
Sam smiled faintly and when he released her hand, she dug around in her jeans pocket for a tissue, finding a crumpled one she’d tucked in there earlier, and blowing her nose. “Does this,” she gestured towards the now silent television, “change anything?”
Jon looked at her solemnly. “No…” he said slowly, “I think we still do what The Man said—go to the cabin.”
She nodded, relieved that they were still going ahead with their plan and fighting the sudden feeling of exhaustion almost overwhelming her. It was one thing to speculate over what was happening, as they’d done for last two days, it was another to have their worst fears actually confirmed—and still be none the wiser.
“Come on,” Jon said, standing up and then taking her hand and pulling her to her feet. “Let’s go to bed.” He gave her a quick kiss on the forehead. “I’ll get Ashley while you make up her bed?”
Rallying the last of her flagging energy, Sam started pulling the cushions off the sofa. She’d discovered earlier that the sofa was a sleeper one and it didn’t take long to remove the cushions and pull the bed out. By the time Jon returned with the sleeping girl, Sam had the Hello Kitty sleeping bag all spread out and she stepped back while Jon lowered Ashley onto it, setting her Hello Kitty doll down beside her.
Zipping her up in it securely, Sam kissed her cheek and then checked on Thomas, who still slept peacefully. Leaving one of the table lamps burning on low for a night light, she slipped her arm around Jon’s waist and they walked back to the bedroom.
Jon watched silently while Sam undressed for bed, slipping out of his jeans and shirt, carefully folding them so they’d be already to go in the morning. He took his T-shirt off, leaving him in just his blue plaid boxers. He left her changing into her sleep T and brushed his teeth in the adjoining bathroom, finishing up just as she wandered in.
“I won’t be long,” she said.
He nodded and eased past her into the bedroom, shutting out the lights and sliding into the bed. Jon lay on his side, waiting for her. He knew she was tired, hell, he was tired too. But he needed her tonight and he suspected she needed him, too. The last two days had been like something out of his forgotten past and while he was grateful that the General had wanted to help them…save them…he had to wonder after tonight’s news broadcast whether there was going to be a world left for them to be saved in.
His earlier brave words of encouragement to Sam mocked him now. It had been one thing to drag her along with him, blindly trusting the General, but now they were responsible for two children. Two children who would be dead, the voice inside him reminded himself, if he and Sam hadn’t happened along. Which brought him back full circle…to Sam.
Sam…as long as he still had her, he knew he could do anything and be anything. And he had promised to keep her safe, because without her was nothing.
The door to the bathroom opened, interrupting his inner dialog. Sam was illuminated briefly, her long hair free of the pony tail she’d worn all day and hanging around her shoulders, before the light went out, plunging the room into darkness and she slipped into bed next to him.
It turned out he needn’t have worried about whether she was tired or not, her arms wrapped around him and his lips met hers in a hungry kiss. Jon easily rolled them, settling gently on top of her. The faint light from the living room seeped in through the half-closed door and she looked up at him, her blue eyes sparkling tiredly.
“You’re tired,” he said, resting his weight on one elbow and stroking her hair.
Her hand crept up between them and cupped his cheek. “Not that tired.”
He turned his head slightly and kissed her palm. “I love you.”
She moved her hand in a light caress along his neck, cradling his nape and he let her pull him back down to her. “And I love you,” she whispered.
“I meant what I said,” he murmured. “I will do everything I can to keep you safe.”
Sam smiled sadly, her fingers lightly caressing his hair. “That may be a promise you can’t keep.”
“Maybe,” he agreed, pressing soft kisses to her eyes, her nose, along her cheek. “But it won’t stop me from trying.” Kissing his way back to her lips, Jon kissed her deeply and she opened her mouth sweetly to the now ravenous kiss. She moaned softly, her arms clutching at his shoulders and Jon let the love and passion he felt for this amazing woman push aside his fear and worry, concentrating only on this moment where the only thing that mattered was their love.
Jon’s inner alarm clock had him awake at sunrise again and this morning he wasn’t surprised to find Ashley in the bed with them, which made him glad that Sam had insisted they put their pajamas back on after making love last night. Leaving Ashley curled up next to Sam, Jon slipped out the far side of the bed and grabbed his clothes, making his way quietly into the bathroom to change. He took a quick shower and fifteen minutes later, he tiptoed past the two sleeping girls and out into the family room.
“Baba?” Thomas stood gripping the side of the playpen smiling cheerfully at Jon.
“Jon-Jon.” Jon said, only cringing slightly.
“Baba.” Thomas insisted and held out his arms to Jon.
“Come along then, Baba,” Jon teased, picking the baby up. He wrinkled his nose. “Smells like you could use a change there, young man.” Thomas was a mess and seeing no other alternative, Jon ended up giving the baby a quick bath in the kitchen sink, then getting him dressed in the clothes Sam had set out the night before.
Sam wandered into the kitchen, yawning and still wearing her sleep T just as he’d plopped the clean and dressed Thomas into his highchair. “Morning,” she yawned.
“Morning, glory,” Jon said, giving her a quick kiss on the cheek. “Give me a minute here and I’ll make some coffee.”
“Coffee…” she murmured, her eyes brightening considerably.
“Ashley still asleep?” Jon added several scoops of coffee to the Mr. Coffee perched on the counter.
Sam nodded. “Yeah, I get the feeling she’s not a morning person.”
“Well, hopefully this will be the last early morning for awhile.” Jon found a large glass in the cabinets and started adding water to the coffee maker. “I’d like to be on the road by nine at the latest.” He looked over at Sam, who was mixing up a bowl of rice cereal for Thomas. “I checked out the map yesterday, we need to cover over six hundred miles today. Think we can do that?”
He wasn’t sure if he expected her to flinch at the thought of twelve hours in the truck with two kids and a dog, but she merely got her thoughtful look. “We don’t have much choice, do we? The longer we’re on the road, the more vulnerable we are.” She put the cereal in the microwave. “What about gas?”
That was probably the least defined part of his plan to get to the cabin. “I’ve got a hose and if we have to siphon gas out of every abandoned vehicle we find along the way, then that’s what we do.”
“We can be ready by nine, we just need to load the last of the food and our gear, get the house ready to be closed up. Should we drain the gas out of the generator?”
“Yeah, it’s better for the generator and we can leave what’s left in a gas can next to it, for whoever comes along after us.”
The microwave beeped and Thomas started calling, “Baba! Baba! Baba!”
Jon laughed at the eager little boy. “I think everyone and everything is ‘Baba’.”
Sam chuckled. “That does seem to be about the only word he can say. We’ll have to start working with him. Dada, Mama….” Her voice trailed off.
“Sammy,” Jon teased, hoping to divert the melancholy direction of the conversation.
She turned on him, bowl of rice cereal in hand. “Don’t you dare!” But then she evidently recognized the teasing sparkle in his eyes and she grinned at him. “I’m sure ‘Sam’ will be much easier to pronounce than any of my name’s many derivations.”
“Whatever you say, Sam.”
She shook her head, accompanied by that oh so familiar look of loving exasperation, and sat back down at the table next to Thomas, who was almost beside himself now at the prospect of breakfast. “Jon?” she asked, tying on Thomas’ bib, “Will you hand me that jar of applesauce on the counter?”
The coffee was finished, so Jon brought her a cup of the aromatic brew and the applesauce. He’d just poured a cup of his own and taken that first, blessed sip when Ashley stumbled into the kitchen, dragging Hello Kitty with her. She immediately walked over to him and leaned against his legs. “What’s for breakfast?”
Jon smiled at her grumpy, little voice and ruffled her hair. “Good morning to you too, sunshine.” She looked peeved for a moment, but Jon interrupted anything she might say, giving her shoulders a gentle shove. “Go sit at the table, I think I saw some Frosted Flakes.”
She still seemed a bit grumpy, but she did as asked, climbing up into the chair next to Sam. “What are Frosted Flakes?” she asked.
“You’ve never had Frosted Flakes?” Jon asked, making a surprised face at her.
“No.” She perked up and almost smiled at him.
“Well,” he said, pouring a bowl of the sugary corn flakes and then slicing half a banana onto it before adding milk from their slowly dwindling supply of fresh. “Tony the Tiger claims ‘They’re great!’”
Ashley giggled then at Jon’s imitation of Tony the Tiger and even Thomas started laughing, Sam hastily wiping the cereal and applesauce he spit out in his excitement. Jon poured himself a bowl of the same cereal, adding the rest of the banana and milk, taking the seat next to Ashley.
“Is it good?” he asked the little girl, who was already digging into the sweet cereal.
“Mmhmm,” she said, shaking her head vigorously.
“There’s enough milk left for Thomas, I think,” Jon said. “Unless you want cereal?”
Sam smiled at him, wiping Thomas’ face and removing the now empty bowl and jar of applesauce from the little boy’s reach. “I think I’d better eat those last two yogurts and that banana, before it goes bad.”
Jon nodded; the older perishables needed to be eaten before they went bad. Sam returned to the kitchen table with the sippy cup of milk, two containers of yogurt—strawberry and peach—and the banana, slicing half of it onto the high chair tray for Thomas to eat and keeping the rest for herself.
“So,” Ashley piped up unexpectedly. “What’s the plan for today?”
Jon practically choked on his coffee and Sam laughed. “Yes, Jon,” she asked, her voice teasing and as if she didn’t already know their ‘plan’. “What is the plan for today?”
Wiping at his chin with a napkin, Jon took another swallow of coffee before answering. “Sam and Ashley,” he winked at the little girl, “you two get dressed and pack up all of our clothes and stuff and get it ready to go.”
“Thomas,” he said, addressing the little boy much to Ashley’s great amusement, “you stay in your playpen and do nothing.” Thomas gurgled happily. “And I’ll drain the generator, pack up the coolers and get Sadie ready.”
“Jon,” Sam said, her voice urgent. “I want to check the computer before you shut off the electricity.”
“Okay,” he said, checking his watch. “It’s almost seven.” He looked at her, “You’ve got until eight-thirty.”
There was a flurry of activity at the kitchen table then, Sam dragged Ashley off towards the bedroom and John wiped Thomas’ hand and face of the mostly mashed banana before giving the little boy his sippy cup. While Thomas drank his milk, Jon quickly tidied up the kitchen, tying all the garbage up in a plastic bag to go out in the shed behind the house.
“All finished there, big guy?” Jon asked when Thomas started waving his cup around. Another quick wash of Thomas and Jon stowed him in his play pen where he happily settled down with his toys.
“Sam?” he called down the hall to the bedroom. “Thomas is in his playpen, I’m going to start with the frozen stuff.”
Her voice drifted out. “We’ll keep an eye on him.”
“Stay out of trouble,” he admonished the little boy, ruffling his hair as he walked by.
By eight-fifteen, Jon had Sadie fed, watered and tied up by the front gate, all ready to go; he had their cooler, plus Tonya’s and a large one that had belong to the Barnes’ full of as many perishables and frozen items he could fit in and still keep cold with the bottles of frozen water, all loaded in the truck. Ashley had been making a steady trek from the bedroom to the front porch, hauling out their duffels, her suitcase and the diaper bag that held Thomas’ essentials.
After getting their personal gear stowed, mostly under the back seat, Jon returned to the house to find Ashley sitting out on the front porch swing, hugging Hello Kitty. “All done?”
She nodded. “There’s just Thomas’ playpen.”
“On Grandpa’s computer.”
“Ah…” he glanced towards the house. “Don’t leave the porch,” he instructed the little girl. “I’m going to go check on Sam.”
“’kay,” she nodded.
Thomas stood in his playpen, his little face brightening when he saw Jon. “Baba!”
“Be with you in a minute, buddy.”
Jon found Sam in the den just off the family room. He’d only checked the room briefly on his initial tour. It was a nice room, a couple of large leather armchairs, a large wood desk that sat in front of windows that looked out to the west, one whole wall was taken up with bookshelves and filled with mostly medical books and there was a gun cabinet on the far wall. The gun cabinet caught his eye now; he must’ve missed it the first time through the house. There were two rifles and one shotgun in the locked cabinet and after the news broadcast they’d managed to watch last night and their two most recent encounters, Jon had the uneasy feeling that more firepower might come in handy.
Sam sat at a smaller desk off to one side of the large desk, gazing intently at a very nice flat panel monitor, her fingers flying over the keys. Leaving the guns for the time being, Jon walked over to her and looked over her shoulder, the monitor screen looked like it was filled with code. “Anything?”
She shook her head. “Nothing, I think the satellite is dead.” With a flick of the mouse, she started shutting the computer down. “I tried the TV too,” she said, turning around and gazing up at him. “Not a damn thing.” She sounded frustrated and Jon knew it never settled well with her when she couldn’t make technology stand up and do as she commanded.
“Okay, well,” Jon said slowly, “we always knew this was a possibility. Enough people die or can’t work and the power infrastructure is going to be the first to go.”
Sam pushed away from the computer and he backed up quickly. “Oh,” she said, tossing him a key ring. “I found this while I was checking the room out.”
Jon knew exactly what the two small keys were for. “Excellent.” His mind raced, calculating everything that needed to be done yet. “Okay,” he said. “Get the kids ready, you know—bathroom, clean diaper, drink of water, that kind of thing and get them out to the truck. Sadie’s there too. I’ve got the car seats in the back seat, so we’re good to go, I figure Sadie can sit in the middle, or on the floor.”
Sam nodded. “And you’ll get the guns and drain the generator?”
“Right. I think I’ll shut off the water too, who knows how long this place will be empty.”
“Got it,” Sam said, pressing a fleeting kiss to his cheek before she left the room.
Twenty minutes later, Jon closed and locked the door of the Barnes’ house. The generator was drained, the water shut off and he had the three guns, two in their cases, along with all the shells and bullets good ole’ Doc Barnes had stored in the cabinet. Sam had seen him and was boosting Ashley into the backseat, fastening her into the car seat when he got there. Thomas was already fastened in his car seat, situated behind the passenger seat, and Sadie was sitting in between the two children on a blanket Sam must’ve brought from the house.
“Where are we going to put those?” she asked, indicating the guns.
“Well,” Jon said, handing her the two rifles in their cases and the shot gun, setting the magazine duffel down. He opened the driver’s door and stepped up onto the running board, leaning against the seat and pulling the front visors down. “Hand me the shotgun, will you?”
Sam passed him the rifle and he secured it in the gun mount running along the front of the cab. “That’s one,” he said, jumping out of the truck.
Sam peered up into the truck. “Handy. What about these two?”
“These will fit behind the backseat,” he said.
“They’re not loaded, right?” she asked, as he slid them in behind Thomas’ diaper bag and their duffels; Ashley watching everything with wide eyes.
“No, ma’am.” He closed the backdoor then and caught her hand, pulling her a few steps away from the truck. “The shotgun is,” he said softly. “No point in having it accessible if it isn’t going to be any use to us. Have you got the Beretta?” he asked.
She nodded, patting the tote bag she’d been using as a purse since they’d left on their journey.
Jon grinned. “I guess we’re ready to go—and right on schedule.” Sam returned his smile, but it didn’t quite reach her eyes. Jon caught her hand when she turned to walk to the passenger side of the truck. “It’ll be okay,” he reassured her. “We’ll be sleeping at the cabin tonight—safe and sound.”
“It was nice here,” she said. Her voice almost wistful and Jon wondered why she was having second thoughts now.
“You know we can’t stay,” he said, keeping his voice reasonable. “He expects us to go to the cabin.”
Sam wrenched her hand free. “’He’ expects it! God, he’s still running our lives! Just when I think we’ve finally broken free of everything related to…to that time, he turns up. Dammit, Jon. I don’t want the world to end! I want to graduate from high school, go to college! Get married, have a—” Her voice broke at that moment and she whirled away from him, taking large ragged breaths in an effort, he knew, to fight back the tears.
It didn’t happen very often and Jon could have shot himself for not expecting it, but there was only so much this new version of Samantha Carter could take before she’d let it all out—and usually at him. He grabbed her hand again and though she initially resisted, she finally relaxed and he pulled her into his arms, swaying with her gently, just like he did with Ashley when she was upset and crying.
“It’s going to be okay,” he murmured, nuzzling her neck. He held her for a long time, until she stopped shaking and then he loosened his arms, keeping one arm wrapped around her waist, he tilted her chin up with a gentle hand. Her eyes were pink from her tears and she had that mildly embarrassed look she always got when he caught her crying. “Do you trust me?”
She looked puzzled for a moment, but answered. “I trust you.”
“Then trust him just a little longer.”
“Sam,” he interrupted, moving his hand from her shoulder to light caress her cheek. “He’ll do anything for you—to keep you safe. Just like I will.”
He knew her too well not to recognize the conflicted emotions that raced across her expressive face. They’d worked hard to make a new life as younger versions of their originals. It had been harder than anything he’d ever done, but the will to live had given him the strength to carry on everyday through what was merely a means to an end. And when she had arrived, it made all the sacrifices worth it, because he wasn’t alone any longer. So, if they needed to jump through a few more of the General’s hoops to survive, he wasn’t going to argue or complain.
“I will…for you,” she said.
“Thank you,” he breathed softly, pressing his lips to her in a kiss meant to comfort, not arouse. She sighed against his mouth, her lips eagerly meeting his and he quickly banked the rush of desire that wanted him to drag her back into the house and make love to her. Dragging his lips from her, he cupped the back of her head with one hand and just held her close until he once more felt under control.
Loosening his arms slightly, he opened his eyes and saw Ashley staring open-mouthed at them through the back window of the truck. Jon grinned and winked at her. Ashley blushed and giggled. Sam looked over her shoulder then and Jon saw her smile as well.
“Come on, babe,” he said, rubbing his hand down her back and resting it on her ass. “We better get going.”
“Babe?” she asked, slipping out of his arms and walking around the front of the pick-up to the passenger side.
“Hey!” he called after her. “At least I didn’t call you girl!”
Once they were on the road, the morning passed quickly. After about the hundredth time she saw Jon giving her a quick look, Sam briefly laid her hand on his knee, squeezing it. “I’m okay,” she reassured him. She hadn’t meant to go all emotional on him—something her other self never would have done—but this was them and it was all about sharing.
“Read me another one!” Ashley demanded from the back seat.
“Okay,” Sam said, flipping to the index of the collection of fairy tales she’d found amongst the items Tonya had had packed when she’d fled the Springs with her children. Deciding on The Six Swans, Sam started reading out loud, ever mindful of the road stretching endlessly out in front of them. “Once upon a time there lived a princess—”
After leaving Mobridge, Jon had turned the pickup north for about forty miles and then turned east, onto Highway Twelve. Northern South Dakota wasn’t much different from than any other part of South Dakota they’d been in so far, the flat scenery whizzing by them. And again, like so much of their journey, they were the only ones in the highway. The F350 was more comfortable than Jon’s truck—certainly roomier with the two kids and dog—and the powerful engine ate up the miles. Of course, she worried; a more powerful engine meant worse fuel economy.
Sam finished the story and when Ashley didn’t immediately demand another one, Sam gratefully put the book away. The highway briefly changed to four lanes while they passed through Aberdeen and like every other town they’d passed through, there were few signs of life. It was a morbid thought, but Sam wondered if, or when, they’d start to see evidence of the horrible death toll. Realistically she knew that people weren’t dropping dead in the streets, they were either at home, in the hospital or in some other shelter. And since Jon was determined to keep off the main highways as much as possible, they’d probably already had their main encounters with the dead and dying.
It wasn’t too long after they’d passed through Aberdeen that the kids started getting restless. Ashley, while not exactly whiney, wasn’t satisfied with another story or offers of any of her collection of music CD’s; Thomas was starting to fuss and even Sadie let out a little whine every now and then.
“Jon,” Sam said, stating the obvious, “we need to stop.”
“We will,” he replied easily, seemingly not bothered by the increasing noise in the cab. “Not much longer.”
‘Not much longer’ turned into almost forty-five minutes and Sam was surprised when Jon swung the truck onto the north-bound entrance ramp for Interstate Twenty-nine. “Are you sure this is safe?” she asked, scanning the road in front and behind them.
“It’ll get us across the state line at Highway Twenty-seven and besides,” he added, flashing her a smile. “There’s a rest stop.”
Sure enough, they passed the familiar blue sign announcing a Rest Area in two miles. “Thank goodness,” Sam murmured.
“Are we going to stop?” Ashley asked.
“You bet we are, kiddo.” Jon slowed the truck down and eased onto the exit for the rest stop.
Sam sat up a bit straighter, parked in the truck parking area were three semi trucks, their normally idling engines ominously silent. She didn’t like the sinking feeling that took up residence in her stomach; this was the first time they’d seen any vehicles outside of the ones they’d seen parked in the small towns they’d driven through. Jon drove to the far end of the rest area, parking the truck parallel to the curb, in the very last parking spaces. He shut off the engine and turned to her.
“Right, I know the drill,” she said. “I’ll wait here with the kids.
“I’ll be right back,” he said, pushing the center console up out of the way and kissing her. She wasn’t surprised when he slipped the shotgun out of the carrier and jumped lightly out of the pick-up.
“I want out!” Ashley whined.
“Hush,” Sam said, watching as Jon slowly approached the first truck. “We need to wait for Jon.”
“What’s he doing?” the little girl asked.
“He’s seeing if anyone in those trucks needs help.”
Jon was at the first of the trucks, the shotgun in one hand as he carefully balanced on the entry ladder and opened the door. He stepped into the truck and then just as quickly, stepped out again, shutting the door and jumping down. He repeated the same steps at the other two trucks with the same results and Sam didn’t need to see his face when he turned to walk back, she knew what he had found.
She had her seatbelt unfastened and was out of the truck by the time he got back, running over to meet him. “Dead?” she asked.
He nodded, his face grim. “It was…well, you remember what corpses smell like.”
Sam shuddered. That was one thing she remembered all too well from before. “Come on,” she said. “It’s almost lunchtime—”
Jon gave her a look that told her food was the last thing on his mind, stepping past her and putting the shotgun back in the overhead carrier.
She smiled gently. “Even if you’re not hungry, the kids probably are—and we can all use a break.”
Ashley, anticipating her release, already had her seat belt unfastened; Jon helped her out of the truck while Sam freed Thomas from his car seat. She wrinkled her nose, walking around the truck to Jon and Ashley. “I better get Thomas changed before we do anything.”
Jon grinned, handing her the diaper bag. “I’ll go with you,” he said, fastening the lead on the anxious dog. “Then I’ll take Sadie for a walk.”
Sam didn’t need to ask why Jon went with them, or why he checked out the ladies restroom before letting her and the kids go in. There were no ominous odors and the utilitarian tile room was mostly clean, though she still awkwardly wiped off the changing station with a baby wipe, before laying Thomas on it. Next time, she decided, as she struggled with the squirming baby and the diaper bag, she’d have Jon come in and help her.
Sam heard one of the stall doors bang and Ashley emerged, pulling her jeans up. “Wash your hands, sweetie,” Sam told her, finishing up with Thomas’ diaper. The little girl obediently went to the sinks and put her hands under the faucet—which fortunately was an automatic one.
“There aren’t any towels,” she said, looking around.
“Use this,” Sam said, handing her a dry rag from the diaper bag. So, Thomas was changed and grinning up at her, Ashley was taken care of, which just left her… and she didn’t think there was anyway she could juggle a baby and use the toilet. Grabbing Thomas, and with Ashley hard on her heels, Sam stepped out of the brick building and looked around for Jon, spotting him and Sadie not too far away.
“Jon!” she called. Ashley took that as her cue to yell too, and she started hollering for him.
“What is it?” he asked, jogging up to them, Sadie running eagerly alongside him.
“I need to pee,” Sam said bluntly. Ashley giggled and Sam ignored her, handing Thomas over to Jon. “Take these two with you and I’ll meet you back at the truck.”
It was amazing, Sam decided ten minutes later, washing her hands after she was finished and using the same rag she’d give to Ashley to dry them, how much easier it was do things when you actually had both hands to use. A slight breeze had come up while she was in the bathroom, the wind whipping her hair around and she caught just the faintest whiff from the semi’s. She hurried back over to their truck, she had the feeling lunch would be a quick affair, the sooner they got back on the road, the better she’d feel.
Jon had Ashley and Thomas already settled at one of the picnic shelters not too far from the truck, Sadie’s leashed tied around the leg of the picnic table. “All better?” he asked, when she walked up.
“Much,” she said, giving him a quick kiss. “What have you got?” she asked, peering over his shoulder as he shifted some boxes in the back of the truck.
“The sandwiches I made up this morning,” he said. “These apples and crackers.” He handed her a one of the smaller boxes that held the picnic supplies, putting the Ziploc baggies holding the sandwiches, three apples and a box of Ritz crackers in with the other items. “What do you think Thomas will want?” He held up two jars of baby food. “Pears and chicken or sweet potatoes and turkey?”
“Hmm…sweet potatoes and turkey, I think.”
“He better have his vegetables too,” Jon said, grabbing a jar of pureed peas.
“Oh, delicious, I’m sure.”
Jon grinned, putting the baby food in the box too. “I’ll grab some water and meet you at the picnic table, okay?”
“Is there any diet coke left?” she asked wistfully.
“I think there are a couple.”
She kissed him. “Sweet.”
By unspoken agreement, they ate quickly, taking turns feeding Thomas and prompting Ashley not to dawdle. It would have been the perfect place for a picnic, the day was temperate and the sun was shining, if it wasn’t for the death that was surrounding them. When Ashley was down to her apple, Jon started picking up the leftovers and repacking the box; Sam regretfully took the last swallow of her diet coke and put the can in the bag with the rest of the garbage.
“I’m going to take Sadie,” he said, picking up the box, the dog’s leash in one hand, “for one last run. I’ll meet you back at the truck.” Ashley looked like she was going to protest, but Jon cut her off. “You stay and help Sam with Thomas, all right? You’re the big sister.”
Ashley nodded solemnly.
“Come on, sweetie,” Sam said, picking up Thomas, car seat and all. “Bring the rest of your apple and we’ll go back to the truck and wait for Jon.”
Sam reached the truck first, Ashley dawdling along behind her, and had just gotten Thomas and his car seat secured back in the truck when she heard the sound of an engine. She thought for a crazy moment that it was one of the semi trucks but then she realized it was coming from the entrance of the rest area. Tires squealed, accompanied by the loud roar of an engine and a battered looking blue truck swerved erratically into the parking lot of the rest area.
“Ashley,” Sam called, her voice betraying her worry. “Hurry up.” Sam grabbed her hand, boosting her up into the truck. “Get down on the floor,” she hissed, pushing her down and slamming the door shut just as the truck fishtailed to a grinding halt behind their F350.
“Well, well,” the driver drawled from the open window, “what do we have here?” The man looked to be in his mid-twenties, unshaven, with dark brown greasy hair that hung down over the collar of his flannel shirt. He held onto the steering wheel with one hand and in the other he had a bottle of beer.
A second man’s head poked up from the far side of the vehicle; he looked like he could be a twin to the driver. “Looks like we got us a little girl!”
Sam didn’t waste any more time studying the two goons in the truck, she recognized their type. They were drunk and on the prowl for trouble. She didn’t say anything, merely started easing closer to the front passenger door of her truck.
“Why, would you look there, she’s got a baby with her!” The second man slithered out of the window and down onto the cement, sauntering closer to Sam. “Guess she ain’t so little after all, Clint,” he called to his buddy. The man openly ogled her. “In fact, I’d say she’s pretty much got all the right parts, and then some. You just come along with us, girlie, we’ll have us some fun.”
Sam moved then, pulling the passenger door open and diving in. The second goon growled, moving fast too, grabbing for her ankle, but she kicked out at him and heard him let out a low oomph when she made contact. Not looking to see what damage she’d done, she slithered across the seat until she was on the driver’s side.
Ashley had started crying, which started Thomas crying and while she wanted to comfort them, she couldn’t, she was too busy. Sam could hear the two goon’s yelling at each other and she finally released the last latch on the carrier when the driver’s side door suddenly flew open.
“I don’t think so,” Sam growled, leveling the shotgun right at goon number one’s face.
The man backed up quickly, both his hands in the air. “Now wait a minute there, girlie. Travis didn’t mean nothing.” He kept backing up as he was talking. “We was just having some fun.”
“Go have you fun some place else,” she spat.
Sam heard a dog barking and the sound of running feet, but she kept her eyes—and the shotgun—trained on goon number one until she heard Jon’s voice.
“You all right there, Sam?”
Holding the rifle steady on her would-be attacker, she slowly looked in the direction of his voice. He stood at the rear of the goons’ truck, holding the Beretta in a two-handed grip with it pointed at goon number two. Sadie stood pressed up against Jon’s legs, her hair bristled and growling low.
“Yeah,” she replied, relieved that her voice wasn’t shaking. “These two…men were just leaving.”
Goon number one immediately started babbling. “That’s right, we were just leaving.” He started backing away and Sam slowly slid out of the truck, keeping the shotgun pointed at him. “Ain’t that right Travis?” Goon number two groaned again and Sam was glad that maybe she’d hurt him. “We’ll just get in the truck now, okay? And then we’ll leave.”
“Not just yet,” Jon said, his voice carrying the echo of command that stopped both goons in their tracks.
“No, sir,” he stammered. “We’ll wait right here.”
“Sam, get in the truck.” Jon didn’t look her direction, just continued to stare at the goons, the Beretta trained on them. “Sadie, go to Sam.”
The dog whined, but ran over to her and Sam urged her up into the front seat and then still keeping a wary eye on the two goons, she got up into the truck, slipping over into the passenger seat, next to Sadie. The kids were still crying and Sam had to strain to hear what Jon said next.
“Get in your truck,” Jon said.
Sam looked through the side view mirror and she could just see goon number one and then goon number two scramble into the front seat of the pickup. Stretching to look out the driver’s side window, she saw Jon start to back up slowly, still pointing the Beretta the truck. When he got to the door, he reached into his pocket with one hand and tossed her the keys. She knew what he expected and immediately put them into the ignition.
The sharp report of the bullets made her jump, Ashley started crying loudly again and Jon jumped into the truck, tossing the Beretta at her. She caught it deftly, and with a huge roar and gunning of the motor, they took off, peeling out of the rest area. Sam grinned when she looked through the side mirror and saw the two goons jumping up and down and kicking the tires Jon had shot out with the Beretta.
He drove for about ten minutes up the interstate at breakneck speed before finally slowly down and pulled onto the shoulder. “You okay?” he said, his face still full of worry.
“I’m fine, we’re all fine.”
He nodded and jumped out of the truck, opening the back and door and pulling the sobbing Ashley into his arms. She wrapped her arms around his neck and clung tight. Sam could only imagine how scared the little girl had been. Getting out of the truck herself, she checked on Thomas. He had stopped crying, but his face needed wiping and she picked him up anyway, cuddling him.
Jon met her eyes through the open back doors. “What do you say we put Thomas up front? You can drive and I’ll ride in the back.”
She nodded and held onto Sadie’s leash while Jon quickly transferred Thomas’ car seat to the front, switching the airbag to off and getting the little boy strapped back in. Sam let Sadie into the backseat then and walked around the truck, Jon meeting her at the driver’s side door. He stopped her, holding her face between his hands. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
Some of the adrenaline from the encounter was starting to wear off and she knew it had been a close escape, they could have been armed, they could have been smarter or more determined. She wanted nothing more than to curl up in his arms and just stay there. But hopefully, there’d be plenty of time for that when they finally reached the cabin.
“I’m fine,” she reassured him. His eyes searched hers and he finally appeared satisfied, kissing her all too briefly.
“We better get going,” he said. “Don’t want to give those creeps any time to catch up with us.”
“I thought you shot out their tires?”
“Well…yeah, but they just might be stupid enough to try and take one of those big rigs.”
Sam shuddered. “I don’t think they’d have the guts to deal with a dead body.”
Jon grinned. “You’re probably right, but we still need to get moving.”
“Yes, sir.” Sam climbed into the driver’s seat and before Jon could close the door she said, “Jon? Thanks.”
“Hey,” he smiled and winked. “It’s not everyday that I get to rescue my girl.”
“General O’Neill? You can see the President now.”
Jack got up slowly from the hard plastic chair, wondering irritably why hospitals always had such uncomfortable chairs. But then, this particular medical unit, buried deep in the bowels of Bethesda didn’t really exist, so he supposed he couldn’t complain about the chairs.
Following the nurse into the anteroom, he was surprised when she pointed to one of the red protective suits hanging on the wall, since he’d been wearing a thick, respirator mask from the moment he’d entered the hospital. She looked at him with a critical eye and said, “I think that one will fit.”
“Why all the fuss?” he asked, slipping off his suit coat and then the mask, enjoying the fresh, if somewhat antiseptic smell of the hospital air.
“Just a precaution, sir.”
Jack didn’t say anything, he wasn’t sure any ‘precautions’ were going to save them now. The president had taken ill twenty-four hours earlier, the vice president was already dead, the chain of command was dwindling fast. There were still people who weren’t ill, like him. And even though the president had already succumbed to the virus, he’d still been poked and prodded in ways that put Frasier’s thorough exams to shame, before he was finally escorted to the high security/containment level.
Once he had the suit on, the nurse helped him with the hood. She stepped back out of the room and Jack heard the pneumatic whoosh as the door sealed shut behind her. “You have ten minutes, sir,” her voice sounded through the room’s intercom.
Jack waved his gloved hand and the inner door whooshed open and he stepped through. As soon as he crossed the threshold the door closed behind him.
“Jack,” a weak voice greeted him. “Have a seat.”
There was only one other chair in the room, on the far side of the hospital bed where Henry Hayes lay, IV’s attached to him, a monitor beeping time with his heart beat and an oxygen mask covering the lower half of his face. His skin had the same ashen color Jack had come to recognize from other victims of the virus and his breathing sounded heavy and labored.
“How are you feeling, sir?” he asked, sitting down on the edge of the chair.
“Like crap.” Hayes coughed, his chest rattling and he lay, breathing shallowly, for several long moments.
“Should I call the nurse?”
“Don’t worry.” Hayes pointed to the ceiling across from his bed and Jack saw a closed circuit camera. “They’ll come running, if necessary. Don’t worry,” he added when Jack frowned. “I’ve had them shut the sound off for our conference. Anyway, I didn’t call you here to discuss the state of my health, Jack. We’ve got a big problem.”
“I know, sir.”
“No, no,” he waved his hand, IV tubing flopping along with it. “Not this damn plague. I’m talking about the Stargate.”
“NORAD has been abandoned, closed up and sealed off. We haven’t heard from anyone at the SGC for thirty-six hours.” He stopped, closing his eyes and Jack could tell he was working to catch his breath. When he spoke again, Jack could see the effort it cost him. “The entire western power grid is down, but I’m told that a communication blackout might also be part of the lockdown measures enacted.”
“It’s possible, sir.” Jack wracked his memory for the details of the different lockdown protocols. But…he’d always depended on Carter for those kinds of details. Carter…his mind drifted for a moment, wondering if she was okay, alive and well at the Alpha site, when Hayes started speaking again.
“Doesn’t matter. I want that damn gate buried, Jack. I don’t want anyone getting in—or out—and using the current situation to their advantage. And you’re just the man to do it.”
Jack was totally taken aback by the President’s request. “What about the Alpha site, the Atlantis expedition?”
“I’ve already sent orders through to the Alpha site that Earth is a quarantined planet. They are not to return until they’ve found a cure or destroyed those damn Ori.”
Jack’s mind raced. “If everything’s locked down like you say…”
“I’m sure you know a back door or two, Jack.”
Jack smiled grimly. “Yes, sir.”
“There’s an F303 waiting for you at Langley.” The president closed his eyes, clearing exhausted and Jack took that as his dismissal and stood.
“Oh, and Jack?” He looked back over at the dying man. “If you can figure out how to get to the Alpha Site and bury the gate at the same time, you do it. That’s an order.”
There was an escort waiting for him when he left the President’s sick room and a helicopter to take him to Langley, the pilot—like all other military personnel he’d encountered wearing what looked like a modified gas mask. Once at the base, a young airman met him.
“Sir, welcome to Langley.” His voice was oddly muffled behind the mask and he shoved a black duffel at him. “Your BDU’s, sir.”
“Thank you, airman,” Jack said. Apparently they had been expecting him.
“After you change, sir, I’m to take you to your bird.”
The airman saluted again and left Jack in the small office attached to hanger where the helo had landed. He changed quickly, only taking the time to pocket his medals, and found the airman waiting by the door. “This way, sir.”
They crossed the tarmac and Jack looked around curiously. The base appeared deserted, but after his trip to Bethesda, Jack knew appearances could be deceiving. Personnel that were still alive were deep in the depths of some hidden command center. They walked on past several hangers until they finally reached an open one.
“There she is, sir.”
The solitary F303 sat in the hanger, perched on her wheels like a giant bird, just waiting to take flight.
“I’ve been authorized to give you this weapon, sir.” The airman handed Jack a nine mil and two extra clips.
“Thank you, airman.” Jack took the gun, checking it and slipping it into his waistband, pocketing the extra clips. Since that seemed to be the extent of the airman’s official duties, Jack walked over to the hybrid and climbed the ladder into the cockpit.
“Sir?” The airman called and Jack paused at the top of the ladder. “I’m to tell you that the tower is out, you’re on your own for take-off. Peterson has been closed down, too. The base Colonel reports intel is sketchy, so use your best judgment, sir.”
Jack nodded, climbing into the pilot’s seat and donning the flight helmet waiting for him. The airman pulled the ladder away and Jack lowered the canopy, doing his preflight. When he was finished, he flicked a series of switches; the engines powered up smoothly and Jack eased the plane out of the hanger and with a quick visual of the sky, powered up the engines and took off.
Pushing the engines of the craft to the limit, Jack made the flight to the Springs in less than forty-five minutes. His radar screen remained eerily empty the entire trip. Once he was over the Springs, he banked slowly around the area, searching for any signs of activity. Flying low over Peterson he saw nothing. He caught glimpses of movement—cars, maybe some people—when he flew over the city. And when he finally circled the Cheyenne Mountain, all was quiet.
One of the advantages of the 303 was its landing ability and Jack brought her smoothly down in an empty parking lot on the mountain. Raising the canopy, he took a deep breath. The mountain air was crisp and clean, no signs—at least at this altitude—of the death and decay he knew was starting to permeate the bigger cities. Jack knew exactly where he was and he scrambled out of the 303, dropping lightly onto the cement. His knee protested mildly, but he ignored the pain and set off at a steady jog to one of the ‘back doors’.
Twenty minutes later when he was descending the iron rung ladder down into the bowels of Cheyenne Mountain with only the light from the small flashlight he’d found stuffed in one of the pockets of his jacket for light, he decided he was getting way too old for these kinds of heroics. It took him another fifteen minutes to reach the access hatch on Level Sixteen. The handle creaked as he turned it, the first few turns taking every bit of his strength until finally, it started spinning easily.
The hatch door swung open and Jack pulled out the nine mil, stepping into the dimly lit corridor at the SGC. At least the emergency lighting was on, he thought grimly. The air smelled stale, but breathable and he wondered, somewhat morbidly, what it was like on the infirmary level. Closing the hatch, he made his way to the stair well, not trusting the elevators. His knee protested at the prospect of twelve flights down to the gate room, but Jack sucked it up, he was on a mission.
Ten minutes later, Jack pushed open the access door on Level Twenty-eight and started cautiously down the corridor that led to the control room. He stopped suddenly, catching the faint sound of footsteps. Carefully moving down the corridor to the intersection where the noise seemed to come from, he stood quietly with his back pressed up against the cold cement wall and waited. He heard it again and swung around, holding the nine mil out in front of him.
A bright light flashed in his eyes, almost blinding him. “What the hell!”
“Oh crap,” a familiar voice said, immediately lowering the flashlight. “General, sir, I’m sorry, sir.”
“Mitchell?” Jack asked, still seeing spots. They gradually faded and Jack felt an odd surge of relief at the sight of the two men standing in front of him.
“Yes, sir,” Mitchell grinned. “It’s good to see you, sir.”
“Teal’c, buddy.” Jack looked at his old friend, who stood next to Mitchell, wearing his long Jaffa robes. “Where ya’ been?”
“I just arrived back at the SGC from Dakara only this morning, O’Neill.”
“Ah…and, you’re okay?”
“It appears that the Tretonin protects me.”
“Yeah,” Cam added, “but we don’t know for how long.”
“What about you, Mitchell?” Jack frowned at him. “I thought I ordered everyone who wasn’t already infected to go to the Alpha Site three days ago. Oh…and why aren’t you sick?” Jack added, brushing past them and continuing onto the control room.
“Yes, sir, I know you ordered everyone evacuated,” Mitchell said, keeping pace with him. “But I wouldn’t leave Carolyn.”
Jack stopped and frowned. “Carolyn?”
The look on Mitchell’s face dared him to make any comment and Jack didn’t…he wouldn’t, given he would have done the same thing…actually had done the same thing for Carter.
“So why aren’t you sick?” he asked, turning down the final corridor that would bring them to the control room.
“Not sure, sir. Carolyn thought maybe it was because I was infected by the Ori before and was cured.” He shrugged. “That I have some kind of immunity now.”
“She died early this morning.”
Deciding to bypass the control room for the time being, Jack took the stairs up to the briefing room, drawn automatically to the windows overlooking the Stargate.
“So,” Mitchell drawled, “what brings you to our little corner of heaven?”
Jack raised an eyebrow.
“Sir, I mean sir, to what do we owe the honor?”
“Sit down,” Jack said, taking the chair at the head of the table. “Are you two the only ones left alive?” he asked first.
Mitchell looked down at the highly polished surface of the desk and Teal’c finally answered. ‘We are. Doctor Lam and two members of SG14 were the last to die, shortly after my arrival.”
Jack nodded, but there was still someone unaccounted for. “What about Daniel?”
Mitchell looked up then, his face rigid. “Jackson died two days ago.”
While it was what he had expected to hear, Jack still felt a sharp pang of loss. But this wasn’t the time for mourning; there was still work to do. “The plague has wiped out over two thirds of the population of the US and at least that many world wide. The President wants the Stargate buried to prevent any illicit Earth-side use and prevent anyone from the outside getting in.”
“That seems a little drastic, don’t you think, sir?” Mitchell protested.
“I do not believe so, Colonel Mitchell. Word of the Ori attack on Earth has already spread through the Jaffa and to other worlds. I believe your president is correct in his decision. There are many who would look upon this as an opportunity for either profit or revenge.”
“Teal’c’s right, we need to protect Earth until we can return.” Jack’s thoughts flew briefly to Jon and Sam and the handful of people he’d encountered since leaving DC. “Whoever is left on the planet when this plague finally runs its course deserves a chance. I’m afraid we’ve made too many enemies out there who would love nothing better than to take advantage of those who are left.”
“What of the Alpha Site, O’Neill?”
“They know Earth is quarantined.”
“There’s the Atlantis Expedition, too,” Mitchell added.
“When they try to contact Earth and get no reply, their standing protocol is to try the Alpha Site next.”
“Won’t the iris work just as good as if we bury the gate?”
Jack shook his head. “There are aliens out there that can walk right through our iris. It will have to be buried.”
“And what of us, O’Neill?”
“Well see, Teal’c. I have a plan.” Jack smiled faintly at the other two men. “I was just going to set off a lot of C4 and then gate to the Alpha Site. But with Mitchell here, we can set the self-destruct with a five minute countdown. That will give us plenty of time to dial out to the Alpha Site.”
Mitchell nodded, a faint glimmer of excitement on his face. “That’ll work.”
“The self-destruct will not destroy the Stargate, O’Neill.”
“It doesn’t have to, Teal’c, it just has to bury it.”
Once the decision was made, Jack decided they needed to move quickly. “Mitchell—you have fifteen minutes to get whatever new data Lam had on the virus. I don’t trust the base computers for this, we’ll need to set the self-destruct by hand. Meet me there in exactly fifteen minutes. Oh—and give me your access card.”
Mitchell looked puzzled, but handed over the request card and took off, jogging out of the room.
“Teal’c buddy, let’s check out the dialing computer.”
The control room was dark, but lights still flashed on the consoles and when Jack typed in his codes, the dialing sequence display sprang to life. “All right, looks like we’re good to go.” Jack glanced at the chronometer on the screen. “You wait here, T. At 1410, I want you to dial the Alpha Site. Mitchell and I will meet you in the gate room.”
Teal’c inclined his head and Jack left him in the control room, hurrying to the remote room on Level Twenty-eight where the self-destruct was housed. He’d never actually had to set the self-destruct from the unit itself, but he knew the protocol. The door slid open with Mitchell’s access card and Jack entered his command code for the small access panel on the unit where the two keys that would initiate the countdown were stored. Jack grabbed the keys and had just taken his position at one end of the console when Mitchell skidded into the room.
“Got it?” Jack asked, not seeing anything in his hands.
“Right here,” he grinned, patting his breast pocket. “Jump drive.”
“Ah.” Jack checked his watch, 1409. “Okay,” he said, handing Mitchell on of the keys. “Let’s get this over with.” Within minutes they’d both typed in their command codes and simultaneously turned their keys, the red LCD chronometer immediately lighting up and flashing 05:00:00 and the countdown started.
“Okay,” Jack said as the numbers steadily changed. “Let’s go.”
They ran down the corridors, arriving at the gate room just as the wormhole erupted into the room and Teal’c joined them, a GDO clutched in his hand, as the event horizon stabilized. Jack had never imagined that his last trip through the Stargate would be to leave a dying Earth behind—nor that he would be the one who destroyed the SGC. He took one final look around before pulling the black cap out of pocket and pulling it down over his silver hair.
“Let’s do it.” Jack walked up the ramp for the final time, never looking back, with Teal’c and Mitchell right behind him.
Sam couldn’t quite decide if it was a good thing the remainder of their journey was as dull as the first part had been exciting. Unless one could call two increasingly cranky children and two equally tired adults—all right, technically still teenagers—dull or exciting. They only stopped twice more, the first time to siphon more gas and have a quick bite to eat and the second for more of the same. They seemed to zig and zag endlessly across the center of the state before heading north. The country they traveled through became more wooded and isolated the further north they traveled. And Jon became more relaxed, as well.
It stayed light almost to the time they arrived at the boundary waters area, twilight just settling in when Jon finally turned off the secondary highway onto a gravel road, that he assured her would take her to the cabin, and where they traveled deeper and deeper into the surrounding forest. After almost twenty minutes Jon turned left onto an almost hidden dirt road and they drove for another five minutes through trees that grew right up to the road, their branches brushing against the side of the vehicle, before they suddenly burst into a clearing where the rustic looking wood cabin sat.
Sam couldn’t stop the small sigh of disappointment when she finally saw the famous cabin. It looked small…and well…rustic—which to her meant primitive.
Jon smiled and patted her knee. “It’s better on the inside.”
She gave him a skeptical smile in return. “I hope so.” Getting out of the truck, Sam stretched and took a deep breath. The air was cool and clean; she caught a slight hint of the lake on the breeze and could hear the faint sound of water lapping against the shore. Jon opened the back door and Sadie bounded out, running around excitedly and stopping to sniff the air and the ground every now and then.
Ashley grumbled tiredly when forced to get out—even though she’d been complaining for the last two hours that she was tired and wanted to stop. Thomas barely acknowledged his change of position from his car seat to Sam’s arms, merely sighing and snuggling against her shoulder.
Jon had his flashlight ready and Sam followed him, Ashley and Sadie, who had come to join them, across the slightly damp grass to the front porch—where she stopped in amazement at the sight of the highly sophisticated key pad entry system hidden behind a panel next to the front door. Jon didn’t hesitate and punched in a series of numbers.
“Your birthday?” she asked, recognizing the numbers.
Jon shrugged. “Easy to remember.” The screen door latch released and when Jon turned the handle on the inner door, it opened easily.
“Did you know the combination or just guess?”
“Well…” he said, shining the flashlight around the room. “This is all new since the last time I was here, but…we’re both pretty simple guys.”
Sam snorted. “Simple my ass.”
“Sam said a naughty word!” Ashley piped in, apparently wide away now.
Jon chuckled. “That she did and she’s old enough to know better.”
Sam stuck her tongue out at him, which was totally lost on him as he turned away with the flashlight, shining it around the large room they’d entered. Okay, Sam thought, maybe it was nicer inside than one might believe from outside, at least by the light of the flashlight. She could make out a large stone fireplace and what looked to be a comfortable arrangement of a sofa and several over-stuffed armchairs.
“It’s scary,” Ashley complained.
“Where’s the generator, Jon?” He kept on walking through the dark house, Sam and the kids right on his heels.
“Out in the garage.” He smiled over his shoulder at her. “At least it was the last time I was here.”
“There’s a garage?”
He led them through the kitchen, out the backdoor and around back towards the access road. Sadie took off on her own adventures, coming back to check on them periodically. The garage had obviously been built after the cabin and while it blended in nicely, Sam was struck at how large it was and she wondered why on earth the General could need a two-car garage/barn at his summer home?
“Yeah,” Jon said, looking slightly amazed himself. “This isn’t the same garage that was here the last time I was here.”
“He’s done some upgrading then, eh?”
Jon shone the flashlight over the building, bypassing the overhead doors and settling on a regular sized side door, walking over to it. There was a panel located by the door and when Jon opened it, it revealed another key pad entry system.
“Seems a bit of overkill,” Sam muttered.
Jon didn’t reply, merely punched in a sequence of numbers.
“Not your birthday?” she teased.
“No…” he hesitated a moment and entered another sequence. “Charlie’s.”
“Who’s Charlie?” Ashley asked, clinging to her hand.
“Just someone Jon once knew, honey,” Sam answered as Jon pushed the door open. The little group crowded in behind him and when he shone the flashlight around inside, all she could say was “Wow.”
Sam had expected to see a truck, maybe a boat. And there was a beat-up truck parked in the garage, but what had made her gasp were the boxes that filled the garage to the rafters—along with the other usual paraphernalia one might expect to find stored at a summer home.
“Jon, wait a minute,” Sam said, shifting Thomas around and grabbing the flashlight from his hand. She’d seen something that looked awfully familiar when the light flashed over the work table at the far end of the garage. “Is that what I think it is?” she asked, following the light over to the work bench where it glinted off the dull metal of a naquadah reactor.
“Well, I’ll be—”
“Careful,” Sam warned. “I wonder how he managed to get one of those out of the SGC?” Jon cleared his throat and Sam said, “Wait! I don’t even want to know.”
“Doesn’t really matter,” Jon said and looked at her. “Can you make it work?”
She shot him a triumphant look. “I could have it make waffles if I wanted.”
The hot water from the shower felt wonderful, Jon joining her in the shower was even better, though it took considerably longer then for her to wash her hair and well, other things. When the water finally started to turn cool, she could barely stand, the last tremors of passion chasing through her leaving her weak in his arms.
It was past midnight, it had taken a good hour to get the generator wired so that they at least had electricity; and with electricity, Jon had been able to start up the hot water heater. Tomorrow—along with everything else they needed to do to settle into their new home—she’d have to see about getting the generator set up on a more permanent basis than the jury-rigging she’d done tonight, but that was tomorrow. Right now, she just wanted to crawl into the big, comfortable looking bed in the master bedroom.
Jon shut off the water and grabbed a towel, drying himself off briskly and then wrapping it around his hips. He took another towel, drying her next and Sam enjoyed every minute of his tender care. She didn’t know where they’d found the energy for their shower interlude, but wherever it had come from, it was fading from her fast. She barely had the energy to towel dry her hair and comb through it before Jon was hustling into the master bedroom.
“Pajamas,” she reminded him, not wanting to take any chances in case they had a night time visitor. Ashley was tucked into one of the two twin beds in the second bedroom; they had set Thomas’ playpen in there as well, both children falling immediately to sleep after a quick wash-up and a snack; Thomas got his usual nighttime bottle.
Jon dug around in the duffels, tossing her the sleep T she’d packed and then pulling on a clean pair of boxers—red and gray plaid this time and a T-shirt. Sam crawled over to the far side of the bed, knowing Jon would want to be closest to the door. Sitting cross legged, she started brushing her hair, hoping to get it at least partially dry before she went to sleep, when Jon sat down next to her and took the brush from her hand.
He nudged her a bit and she turned so her back was to him. He started brushing her hair and she moaned softly. Having him brush her hair was almost more erotic than their earlier lovemaking. The long, even strokes of the brush in her hair were so soothing they verged on hypnotic, the occasional brush of his fingers against her nape sent tired shivers down her spine. For the first time in three, almost four days, she was starting to feel safe again. The implicit security the cabin represented, and perhaps the man who had sent them there, gave her hope that they might survive beyond the plague.
“Jon,” she asked softly, looking back over her shoulder at him. “Do you think he knew?”
He shrugged and continued to run the brush slowly through her drying hair. “About this particular apocalypse?”
She smiled faintly at his description; she guessed maybe he was right, but it was the first time she’d associated that particular word with their current circumstances.
“I know he’d been thinking about something like this for a long time; I know he started thinking about something like this after that whole fiasco when Hammond resigned. Who was that jerk? Bauer?”
“Yeah, Bauer,” Sam said, the name leaving a bad taste in her mouth.
“Well, he must’ve finally decided to follow through on it.”
She wanted to ask him what he thought the future would hold, looking for a reassurance that everything would be all right when they woke up tomorrow…or a month from now…a year from now. But this O’Neill didn’t like clichés anymore than the original and unfortunately the only answer she could think of was ‘time will tell’. Which, while not the answer she wanted, was the only one she was likely to get.
There,” Jon said, pulling the brush through her hair one last time. “I think it’s dry enough.”
She took the brush from him and set on the bedside stand. “Thank you,” she told him, pressing a gentle—and very tired—kiss to his lips. Even exhausted, she still felt the slow curl of desire slowly unfurl. She reluctantly broke the kiss, resting her forehead against his. “We need to sleep.”
Jon reached over and shut out the light, pulling her down into his arms, his mouth meeting hers in a hungry kiss to which she couldn’t help but respond. “We’ll sleep later.”
The fishing line in Jack’s hand jerked at the same time his radio squawked and he practically fell off the camp stool he’d dragged out with him to the lake some two miles from their compound. Carter looked up from where she lay on a blanket in the grass, reading some well worn mystery novel by the look of the cover. “Having some trouble there, sir?”
Jack glared at her, fumbling awkwardly for the radio and trying to keep the fish on his line, he barked, “What!”
“Ah, sorry, General, sir.” The disembodied voice of the duty officer sounded nervous. “Sorry to bother you on your day off, sir, but you did ask to be notified as soon as the Daedalus returned.”
His line went suddenly slack, but Jack didn’t care, news that the Daedalus had returned with Carson Beckett and his team was best news he’d had in a long time. “No need to be sorry, airman. We’ll be there shortly.”
Carter sat up, folding down one of the dog eared corners of the book. Jack smiled at her, reeling in his line. “The Daedalus is here.”
A wide smile filled her face and she jumped up, folding the blanket. “Excellent! And it only took four weeks, they made better time than we expected.”
Jack grunted, securing the fishing lure and collapsing the camp stool. “You and Hermiod can gloat over your engine modifications later. Let’s just hope that Beckett really is the genius everyone thinks he is.”
Sam laid a gentle hand on his arm. “We’ll find a cure. Carson Beckett is the best virologist we have.”
Jack didn’t bother to point out that he was the only virologist they had, Sam knew that as well as he did. He had a good team at the Alpha site, including a competent medical doctor and physician’s assistant, but they were basically a military unit and their one hope had become pinned on a physician who had an uncanny knack for DNA manipulation.
However, she had made her point, after nearly three months of waiting, they were finally going to be able to do something instead of re-study and re-analyze all the data they had brought with them about the virus that had devastated Earth. He had to give Sam all the credit though, it had been a brilliant plan. Instead of the Daedalus having to make the three week journey all the way back to Atlantis to retrieve Doctor Beckett, Colonel Caldwell and a minimal crew—along with Hermiod—had merely traveled to the closest Stargate within the Pegasus Galaxy network, which had significantly reduced the travel time.
Brushing a light kiss across her lips, he said, “Come on, we better get back before they send out a search and rescue.” She chuckled quietly and they started down the well-worn path that led back to their compound on what had become dubbed ‘New Earth’. For all the hardships they had faced since fleeing Earth, Jack had to admit life at the Alpha site could be worse. The planet had not only been chosen because of its secure location off the Abydos cartouche, but also because it had the most similar climate to Earth, even if the seasons to be off just a little bit.
Sam could explain it; in fact she had explained why the current weather was more like August than October, something to do with planetary rotation and the slightly longer days. The scientific explanation didn’t really matter to him though, what mattered to him in the long run was that warmer days meant decreased power utilization which meant conservation of their resources. Not that they were in trouble, but given their situation, they couldn’t afford any waste.
Sometimes it still seemed like yesterday when he, Mitchell and Teal’c had stepped through the Stargate, blowing up the SGC behind them. They’d been greeted by SF’s in isolation suits holding P90s and had been immediately quarantined. After the usual poking, prodding and bloodletting, they’d been released after only three days of isolation—and he’d finally gotten to see Sam face to face instead of over the closed circuit television.
It was purely selfish, especially in light of the losses everyone at the Alpha site had suffered, either directly or indirectly, but he had been relieved and more than thankful that Sam hadn’t been affected by the virus. Doctor Mallory was at a loss as well, but as he repeatedly reminded them, his training was in emergency medicine. All he could tell them was that under the basic microscope they had in their medical lab for doing blood counts, there was something different about the blood cells of the personnel who not gotten ill compared to the blood samples they’d brought of those who had died.
Well, whatever the reason Carter and the dozen other military and civilian personnel sent to the Alpha site in the initial evacuation hadn’t fallen ill, he was glad that Sam had been one of them. And if Beckett was as good as everyone claimed, Jack’s hope was that one day soon, they’d be able to return to Earth.
The trees thinned out and the path widened once they reached the periphery of the compound. When they arrived at the command headquarters, Sam punched in the entry code and they stepped out of the bright sun and into the cavernous building. There was an air of suppressed excitement that Jack couldn’t help but notice, the duty personnel who greeted them as they made their way to the main briefing room seemed more animated and cheerful than he’d seen since the Daedalus had made their initial contact almost three weeks ago now. Reynolds was waiting for them, along with Mitchell, Teal’c and several of the other senior staff members.
“So,” Jack said, by way of greeting and handing his fishing gear to one of the SFs on duty. “Where is he?”
“Hermiod’s about to beam him down,” Reynolds said. “I’ve already instructed Caldwell to land the Daedalus. I’ve got a team ready to transport the support staff he’s brought with him and any equipment.”
Jack nodded; he was fortunate to have an officer as efficient and capable as Reynolds running the Alpha site. “All right then,” he said, looking around expectantly. “Where—”
There was the customary energy flash and a man wearing a uniform with the Atlantis expedition insignia on his sleeve appeared.
“Doctor Beckett, I presume?”
“Do you think Santa Claus will still find us?” Ashley asked, her blue eyes wide and innocent.
Jon looked at Sam and grinned. “What do you think Sam, will Santa come down our chimney?”
“Well,” Sam replied, draping one of the paper chains they’d fashioned around the spruce that he’d had chopped down for their Christmas tree, “I don’t see why not. Though maybe he’ll use the front door, since we have a fire burning.”
“Good,” Ashley nodded vigorously, looking relieved. “That’s what I thought, too.”
Jon smiled at Sam over the Ashley’s head. He had to confess he was starting to get infected with the Christmas spirit too. Even Thomas was trying to get in on some of their tree decorating action too, Jon realized, but his contribution mostly consisted of trying to eat the popcorn garland already strung in the tree. “Come on, buddy,” Jon said, scooping the toddler up in his arms. “You can help me put the angel on top.”
Sam smiled at him and Ashley stopped in her garland arranging and handed him the angel. Their angel had seriously lopsided wings, but Ashley was very proud of the paper angel they’d fashioned out of construction paper and that she’d colored very creatively. But, Jon decided, as he balanced Thomas in one arm and carefully placed her on the top of the tree, a slightly battered Christmas angel somehow looked appropriate their home-made tree.
Christmas…it seemed hard to believe they’d been at the cabin for almost seven months. Jon sat Thomas back down on the floor in front of his alphabet blocks. The first months had been the hardest, when they’d still waited daily for something to come over the airwaves from the satellite dish, for the internet to suddenly and marvelously be there when Sam turned on the computer, or their cell phones to ring or for someone to knock on the front door, telling them it had all been a terrible mistake, that it was safe to return home and their lives.
But none of that had happened and they gradually settled into a routine, keeping careful track of all their supplies and resources and planning for the uncertain future. During the first months, he—and sometimes all four of them—had ventured out to the other summer homes around the lake. When it had become apparent that no one else was going to take refuge in them, they had systematically stripped the houses clean of supplies they could use, storing them for the future.
In mid-August they had used some of their precious gasoline and made a trip south, along Lake Superior to Duluth. Jon had wanted to go on his own, but Sam had refused to let him go alone and it was one of the few arguments they’d had since fleeing the Springs. But in the end, her argument that it was safer for them to stay together, had won out and they’d loaded the kids and the dog into the truck and made the trip south.
The small towns they’d passed through had been ghostly quiet, the lingering odor of death heavy in the air. The lake was serene and majestic, but with no signs of human life or activity on her waters. The closer they got to Duluth, the more subtle signs of human habitation they saw and Sam had voiced uneasily that she felt like they were being watched. In the end, he’d agreed with her and they had stopped at a Wal-Mart on the outskirts of the once thriving city and done their ‘shopping’.
They hadn’t been the first to raid the deserted store, the windows smashed and the aisles littered with debris, the grocery section filled with rotted produce. Fortunately, replenishing their food hadn’t been their priority, though he’d loaded as much dog food as they could find into the truck, but their main goal were clothes and diapers for Thomas, more clothes for Ashley and other personal items that made life more tolerable.
And he guessed he hadn’t been too surprised when Sam had raided the looted pharmacy, digging in the scattered pill bottles and boxes for her brand of birth control pills. She’d also hit the first aid aisle and then the school supply section, stocking up on those little things you always took for granted—pens, pencils, paper, tape and glue, along with construction paper that had provided for their Christmas decorations and other items for Ashley’s daily ‘school time’.
Even with the two children along, they worked quickly and efficiently and he knew Sam had been relieved when they’d loaded the last of their items in the truck and finally left Duluth. They’d spent the night camping along the shores of the lake, enjoying the water and for a few hours it almost seemed like they were merely on vacation. When darkness finally descended, they could see the distant twinkle of firelight across the water on the opposite shore, the last evidence of other survivors that they’d seen.
Sam’s arms closed around him from behind and he felt her head against his shoulder. “Whatcha’ thinking about?”
“Oh,” he said, looking around the living room. While he’d been lost in thought, Sam had changed Thomas into his sleeper and Ashley was still busy rearranging one of the paper chains on the Christmas tree. Turning in her embrace, he pulled her close. “Just thinking about the last few months,” he murmured, resting his cheek against her hair.
She pressed a kiss to his throat. “We haven’t done too badly, have we?”
“No,” he agreed, “we haven’t.” They had kept themselves alive and while the future remained horribly precarious and uncertain, right now, on Christmas Eve, they were alive, and well, and even happy. Loosening his arms slightly, he slid one hand to her nape, threading his fingers through her hair and she tilted her head up, her lips slightly open and inviting, and he lowered his head, only to stop suddenly when there was a loud pounding on the front door.
Sam gasped, her eyes opening wide and Jon’s arms fell from around her. Sadie immediately jumped up from her usual spot in front of the fire place and started growling. “Wait here,” he instructed, grabbing one of the kerosene lamps and taking off towards the kitchen and the Beretta they kept in a locked drawer. When he returned from the kitchen, the gun stuck in his waistband under his shirt, Sam had picked up Thomas and was holding onto one of Ashley’s hands.
The little girl looked at him, her eyes wide. “Do you think it’s Santa Claus?”
He smiled tightly. “I think you should wait here with Sam and Thomas while I see.” Some of the tension in his voice must’ve gotten through to her, because she sidled closer to Sam.
The loud knocking sounded again and Jon walked quietly to the front door, wishing they’d kept the generator on, instead of turning it off nightly and using the kerosene lamps to conserve their slowly dwindling naquadah
“Be careful,” Sam called softly.
Jon stopped at the door and said loudly, “Who’s there?”
“Colonel Cameron Mitchell, United States Air Force.”
Sam gasped again and Jon cautiously opened the front door, holding the lantern high. The light flickered briefly in the cold breeze that crept in, casting a soft glow out onto the dark porch. A tall, brown haired man dressed in olive drab BDU’s with an SG1 patch on one shoulder and the SGC patch on the other, stood on the porch.
Jon nodded dumbly, finding it hard to speak.
“General O’Neill sends his compliments and asks that you accompany me to the Daedalus.”
Sam was standing right behind him now and Ashley had insinuated herself between them, gazing open-mouthed at the stranger. The Colonel had gotten a slightly bemused look on his face when Sam and the kids appeared, but he didn’t say anything about their appearance, except to add, “All of you, of course.”
Jon looked at Sam, their eyes meeting and she nodded. Jon grabbed hold of Ashley’s hand and put his arm around Sam, Thomas squirming mildly between them. “Take us to your leader.”
A smile tugged at the corner of Mitchell’s mouth and he pressed his earpiece. “We’re ready,” he said to whoever was on the other end of his radio. “And tell Hermiod there are five of us.”
Jon wasn’t sure what he expected to happen, but after a slight tingling sensation, he found himself, along with Colonel Mitchell, Sam and the kids, standing clumped together in the middle of a comfortably furnished room that could only be described as a lounge. Ashley squeezed his hand tightly, her eyes as big as saucers. “Where are we?” she whispered loudly.
Colonel Mitchell chuckled. “You’re onboard the Daedalus.” He looked at Jon then. “Make yourselves comfortable. General O’Neill should be here any minute.”
Sam slipped from his side and walked over to the bank of windows where the stars shone brightly in the darkness of space, a crescent of the Earth just visible. “They built another one,” she said, her eyes full of wonder.
“Are we on a spaceship?” Ashley asked, climbing up onto the cushioned bench along the windows and looking out at the stars, sounding more curious than frightened.
Jon smiled down at her and ruffled her hair. “Looks like Santa’s using a spaceship this year instead of his sleigh,” he teased.
“Santa?” a deep voice asked.
Jon and Sam both whirled around at the sound of that familiar voice. Jack O’Neill walked into the room, followed by a familiar looking blonde and a man Jon didn’t recognize.
“Sir,” Jon said, meeting him halfway and shaking the hand offered. “I don’t know why I’m surprised to see you, but I am.”
“Oh, I can imagine. I’m kind of surprised myself. You remember Colonel Carter?”
Jon only just refrained from rolling his eyes and nodded at Carter, briefly meeting her eyes.
“And this is Doctor Carson Beckett,” O’Neill finished the introductions.
Jon smiled gamely and exchanged a look with Sam—his Sam—he knew somehow there’d be a doctor involved in all of this somewhere. He wondered when the poking and prodding would start.
“I know the young lady with you,” O’Neill said, acknowledging Sam. “But I don’t remember any children….”
Sam stepped forward with Thomas, Ashley once more by her side and clinging to her hand. “Ashley and Thomas Stratton,” she answered. “We…found them along the way.”
“My Mommy died,” Ashley stated baldly. Colonel Carter made a soft sound when Ashley continued, “And we’re living with Jon and Sam until my Daddy comes to get us.”
O’Neill nodded gravely, bending down and holding out his hand to the girl. “Pleased to meet you, Ashley.” She looked at Jon for confirmation, and when he nodded, she touched the older man’s hand briefly.
“All right, well now that the introductions are over.” O’Neill looked at Mitchell, who stood waiting by the door. “Why don’t you take Ashley and Thomas to the dining hall?” He looked at Ashley and winked, “I’m sure we can find some cookies and milk somewhere.”
Mitchell stepped forward, smiling. “I think I can manage that, sir.”
Sam looked reluctant, but handed Thomas over into the Colonel’s arms. The little boy went eagerly, not at all fazed by all of the evening’s activities or the new people in his life. Ashley wasn’t quite as eager and Jon had to give her a little prod. “Go ahead, Ashley. Sam and I are just going to talk to the General for a few minutes and then we’ll come join you, okay?”
Mitchell held out his hand and Ashley finally took it. “They’re not as good as the cookies my Granny used to make,” Mitchell commented to the little girl as they walked out the door, “but they’re still pretty good.”
“So,” the General said, his eyes thoughtful as he looked at them. “You made it to the cabin.”
“We did,” Jon answered. Sam moved closer to him and he felt her slip her hand into his, a move that wasn’t missed by the older man.
“And neither of you got sick?” Colonel Carter asked.
“No,” Sam replied. “The children didn’t either, even though their mother died from the plague.”
Colonel Carter’s eyes softened. “That must’ve been very hard, taking on that additional responsibility.”
Jon shrugged casually, though he was warmed by her words. “It was the only thing we could do.” He looked critically at O’Neill then. “You didn’t get the virus either?” And then he added, glancing at Carter. “Or you?”
“No,” O’Neill said. “Evidently we’re immune to it, or something.”
“And you found a cure?” Sam asked.
Beckett stepped forward then. “Aye lass, we did. It took over two months, but with the knowledge we’ve gained from the Atlantis databases, we were able to synthesize a vaccine.”
“We would have been here sooner,” Colonel Carter added, “but we couldn’t risk returning until we had a viable antivirus.”
Becket nodded. “Now, as for you two, I’ll have to run some blood tests on you.” Jon winced and the older O’Neill gave him a sympathetic look as the doctor continued. “But I think I can explain why you didn’t succumb to that nasty bug.” He addressed Jon first. “As a clone of General O’Neill, your DNA is identical to his, and since he has the ATA gene—”
“The what?” Sam interrupted.
“Ah, sorry, lass. We call it the Ancient Technology Activation gene, which is what allows him to operate Ancient technology. Since this young lad is an exact duplicate of the General, he also has the gene, which is what protected him from the Ori virus.”
“Well,” Sam said slowly, “that explains why Jon didn’t get the virus. But what about me? Or the children? Or the Colonel,” she said, gesturing towards the older woman. “At least I’m assuming you were exposed?”
Colonel Carter smiled and nodded. “I was and that’s one of the first questions I asked Doctor Beckett.”
“Aye,” Beckett grinned. “That she did. Young lady, I understand you are also a clone of Colonel Carter. I surmised, and Hermiod—”
“Hermiod?” Jon interrupted at the unfamiliar name.
“Asgard,” O’Neill answered. “Has an attitude.”
“Jack,” Colonel Carter said, a hint of reproach in her voice. “Hermiod has been invaluable to us and you know it.”
“Yes and he certainly doesn’t let us forget it, does he?”
Beckett cleared his voice. “Yes, well…as I was saying, something occurred during the cloning process to both the original—Colonel Carter—and to you, her duplicate. Colonel Carter has a distinctive marker on her DNA, similar to the one placed on General O’Neill’s DNA by the Asgard. Hermiod and I believe it is that marker which protected both of you from the virus.”
“Sounds reasonable,” Sam replied. Jon thought it all sounded a little far-fetched, but then, he wasn’t as scientifically minded as Sam. All that really mattered was that they were alive.
“As for the children,” Beckett added. “I think we’ll find that they probably have the ATA gene, as did the other survivors evacuated from the SGC. You said their mother died, so that means their father is probably the carrier of the gene. He may very well be alive somewhere.”
“That would be wonderful,” Sam murmured, squeezing his hand.
“So,” Jon said, looking at the three adults. “What now?” Their rescue was just beginning to sink in, he realized, and he felt like a tremendous weight had been lifted off his shoulders. Their survival didn’t depend just on him now, they had help.
“Now I think we could all use some milk and cookies,” the General answered. Sam and Colonel Carter both chuckled, a sound so identical it had both the older and the younger man staring at their respective ‘Carters’ for a moment.
The General cleared his throat. “And then after that I’m sure Doctor Beckett will want to check you out.”
“But what about—”
“Ah!” O’Neill held up his hand. “Plenty of time to discuss the state of the world after milk and cookies!”
“Ah,” O’Neill said, setting down his glass of milk. “That was good.”
Ashley giggled and pointed at him. “You have a milk moustache.”
The General waggled his eyebrows and said, “Do I now?”
Colonel Carter smiled and, much to Jon’s amazement, picked a napkin up off the table and holding the General’s chin steady with one hand, wiped away his milk moustache. The tender look that passed between the two of them added to his general bemusement. Sam, who currently held Thomas, still managed to nudge him in the side with her elbow and gave him a knowing smile. So…he thought approvingly, it looked like those two had gotten finally gotten their act together.
“Mitchell?” O’Neill said, standing up and breaking the moment. “Once these kids are finished, escort them to the infirmary.”
“Yes, sir,” Mitchell snapped smartly, in spite of the grin on his face.
“But, General,” Jon protested.
“Just do as I say, Jon. You know these doctors aren’t happy until they’ve—”
“Jack,” Colonel Carter interrupted, “careful.”
“Ah, right. Well, Doctor Beckett won’t be happy until he’s run all his little tests and once he’s finished, we’ll discuss your future.”
“We will have a say in our future, won’t we, General?” Sam asked boldly.
“You have my word.” And with that, he turned and left, followed by Colonel Carter.
“So,” Jon said, “that was interesting.”
Sam shrugged. “Some things never change, do they?” Jon wasn’t sure what she meant, but before he could ask, two men wearing BDU’s with patches he didn’t recognize, entered the dining hall, talking boisterously.
“I’d never seen anything like it,” a darker haired man said, his expression animated, “not even on Atlantis, the way that device lit up—”
“Captain,” Mitchell called from the corner where they sat, “careful.”
“Sorry, Colonel,” the dark haired man said, glancing over their direction. The smile on his face disappeared and Jon frowned, becoming slightly alarmed when the man suddenly rushed towards their table. Mitchell quickly moved to intercept the man and Jon jumped to his feet, placing himself in front of Sam and the kids.
“Ashley?” the now obviously distraught captain asked, trying to break free of Mitchell’s restraining grip. “Ashley, honey? It’s Daddy, baby…it’s Daddy.”
Jon didn’t know what to think, or do. He was aware of Ashley peering cautiously out from behind him and then with a small cry, she burst past him just as the man broke free, flinging herself into his arms. “Daddy! Daddy!” she sobbed. “I knew you’d come and find us. I knew!”
Captain Stratton held his daughter tightly and once he seemed to have himself back under control, he looked over at Sam, who still held Thomas, tears on his face. “Is that Thomas?” he asked hoarsely.
Sam didn’t say anything and Jon followed closely behind her when she walked over to Stratton. The man set Ashley down and she clung to his leg, hiccupping slightly from her tears. “Here’s your Daddy, Thomas,” she said, handing the boy into his father’s waiting arms.
Jon wrapped his arm around Sam’s shoulders, holding her close. He was thrilled that the kids were reunited with their father, though he’d still reserve final judgment until he saw some real proof…like maybe DNA evidence, he decided. But it was still hard to see them with someone else, even if it was their father, after the past seven months. And he knew Sam felt the same way, even before she took a shuddery breath that radiated suppressed tears, resting her head against his shoulder.
Thomas squirmed, fussing slightly when his father held him tightly for so long, but seemed to regain his good humor when his father finally loosened his grip, smiling brightly and asking, “Baba?”
New Year’s Eve
“Nice dog,” Jack said, rubbing the very happy Sadie behind her ears, her tail waving like mad. “You pick her up on the road, too?”
“More or less,” Jon said with a smile.
Jack stood, giving the dog one last pat and ignoring the twinge in his knees from kneeling down next to the dog, sat down on the sofa. He settled back and looked around; his cabin had a comfortable, lived-in atmosphere that had been missing from it for a long time. The Christmas tree in the corner, the toys and other evidence of children tucked in various places around the room. “Are you sure this is what you want to do?” he asked the boy.
“Yeah, we’re sure. We’ve gotten used to it here and besides, it’s just until spring. Once there’s something to return to in Colorado Springs, we’ll go back and start rebuilding with everyone else.”
“And the kids?”
Jon smiled. “We’re kind of used to them, too. Look,” he said, sounding suspiciously adult-like. “We know it’s just until things are more settled and Stratton can have them with him full-time. But both Sam and I have agreed it would be too much for both of them to have their lives upset all over again.”
Jack nodded, not really expecting any other answer from the boy. He’d already heard the same from Stratton and promised to get the man a permanent assignment back on Earth once the country was more settled and they actually had a running base set up in Colorado Springs again. In the quiet lull in the conversation that followed, both men heard the faint sound of feminine laughter coming from the back of the house.
“You know they’re talking about us, don’t you?” O’Neill commented with a wry smile.
“Yeah,” Jon agreed with a grin. “More than likely.”
“Are you sure you won’t stay?”
Jack turned at the sound of the familiar voice that wasn’t his Carter and smiled faintly as the two women walked into room, his Sam carrying a duffel that joined the small pile of items at the front door they were taking back to the Daedalus for Ashley and Thomas. It wasn’t much, considering all Stratton had lost, but Jack had agreed to let the children stay on board with their father while the Daedalus remained in orbit around Earth, engaged in the ongoing search for the tiny pockets of survivors, assessing the global fallout of the last seven months and—with a lot of help from the Asgard beaming technology--starting the massive clean-up needed to make the world safe and habitable again.
“No,” Jack said before Carter could answer, almost sounding regretful. “We really need to get back. There’s still so much to do.”
“Even on New Year’s Eve?” Jon asked.
“Well, when you’re The Man.” The younger version of Sam laughed and his Carter merely smiled and raised her eyebrow at him. There was an awkward silence then and Jack cleared his throat. “Well,” he said, standing up from the sofa, “we’ll just get back to the ship.”
Much to his surprise, and before he even took a step, young Sam ran over to him and he stood still in shock when she hugged him and pressed a feather light kiss to his cheek. “Thank you,” she whispered, smiling almost shyly up into his face with the eyes of the woman he loved. “For everything.”
He reached out, lightly brushing her hair back off her shoulder and roughly murmured, “You’re welcome.” Her answering smile was echoed in the smile of the woman whose eyes he met across the room. “For everything.”
The goodbyes flowed quickly after that, along with wishes of Happy New Year and the promised check-in using the brand new radio system in the corner of the living room, installed earlier by Hermiod. Jack joined Carter by the front door and she signaled the Daedalus, the smiling faces of Jon and Sam, their arms around each other, fading out of sight and replaced with the utilitarian steel and gray metal of his office on the Daedalus.
Sam looped her arms around his neck and smiled at him. “You could have told them we were sneaking off to Maui for New Years.”
“What?” he asked, wrapping his arms around her and striving for innocence but not fooling her at all. “And have them want to come with us?”
She laughed softly and then her eyes turned serious. “Thank you,” she said, reminding him for a moment of the younger version who had minutes earlier said the very same words to him.
“For what?” he asked, not to be flippant, but to know.
“For helping them. For not dying and coming back to me. For being who you are.”
His eyes darkened and he held her closer, their lips meeting in a deeply passionate kiss. “You’re welcome,” he murmured, resting his forehead against hers, his breathing ragged when the kiss finally ended. It wasn’t his nature to be blindly optimistic, but with Sam in his arms and the fragile promise of a future on Earth, he felt he could safely say, “Happy New Year.”