The familiarity of Teal'c's perfectly raised eyebrow is enough to inspire a spark of optimism. But caution has always overridden faith, and the sight of a well-known trait is not enough to permit an exception to that rule. Jack relaxes his grip on the knife slightly but does not give way.
"Just do it," he advises Teal'c, continuing a cautious arc to his right across the earthen tunnel. His path is calculated, designed to angle himself within striking distance – he wants to believe it will not be necessary, but nevertheless he watches for an opportunity to force the issue. Preferably without getting himself killed.
"For what reason?"
The spark of hope dies. His hold on the knife tightens. "Because I said so. That's reason enough."
"It is not."
Teal'c isn't going with the program. Jack's senses sharpen, rising above a mire of disappointment and exhaustion. Sweat prickles on his face and under his arms, but the palm of the hand he holds behind his back is dry, ready and waiting.
Teal'c gestures toward the knife in Jack's forward hand. "You may not be yourself, O'Neill."
An involuntary guffaw bursts from Jack, because oh, that's rich. "No worries there, buddy. I'm completely myself. But I gotta tell you, you're looking more hinky to me by the moment."
"As are you, to me." The characteristic solemnity of the head tilt comes close to denting Jack's resolve.
Fortunately not too close, though; Jack's still suspicious enough to hear the shift of dirt under Teal'c's feet and to catch the minute change in grip on the staff weapon. He's bringing the zat he holds behind his back into play in the instant before Teal'c's free hand dives for his own zat. Teal'c's move is just that bit too late, and after the strike he stands unsteadily for a moment before dropping to the ground.
Jack waits only long enough to be sure the staff weapon is out of play. The knife is ready as he crouches at Teal'c's side.
The sudden alarm from behind – "What the hell? Jack! What...?" – is an unexpected impediment.
"Don't interfere, Daniel," he snarls, but knows that even if Daniel – or it, or whatever – were to stay back, it wouldn't be good enough. Jack can't afford to overlook this.
Jack tries to turn the zat on him, but Daniel hasn't kept back; the angle is quickly too awkward, too close-quarters, and the weapon is knocked out of his hand. He strikes backward with an elbow and works to twist out of the grip pulling on his shoulders. He knows he can't afford the distraction, but this new threat draws his attention from Teal'c anyway. It's an unavoidable and entirely unacceptable situation, and he needs to wrap it up quickly. Targeting vulnerabilities, Jack turns and strikes out in a flurry of elbow and foot strikes, concentrating on face and groin and aiming low at Daniel's base of support. There's a crack as his boot connects with a knee.
He ignores the distressed cry, and doesn't care whether the hands that come back to once again grasp at him are there in protest or, this time, for support – whether in spite of, or because of, the damage he's just inflicted to the knee – because it doesn't matter. He simply doesn't have time for any of it. He's still holding the knife and as he turns to check on his primary target he decisively ends the debate with Daniel: the backward thrust draws a yelp and he is abruptly free of restraint.
He's almost too late. Uncoordinated but mobile, Teal'c is faster to reach the fallen staff weapon than Jack is to snatch up the zat. Jack throws himself to one side and fires as the wild staff blast blows a current of hot air past his face. His shot is on target, and this time he's faster with the knife. The result of the deep slice is as affirming as it is nauseating. He wastes no time in using the zat again. All is stilled momentarily, until his brain recovers and sends the correct instruction to his hand, and he fires yet again, completing the chore with terrible finality.
A strangled noise from behind reminds him there's another risk to be dealt with. Jack turns to face it and is surprised into immobility – Daniel's leg is bleeding. Profusely.
It takes a moment for the sight of the blood to sink in, and when it does Jack finds himself breathless with gratitude. He blinks the vestiges of disbelief away, and with clearer vision recognises that in addition to the stab wound to the thigh, the edge of Daniel's vest on his left side is smoldering.
Horror-fueled adrenaline has control: Daniel sits there, upright, rigid with shock as he stares past Jack. That's understandable. There's nothing there now, Jack knows; nevertheless, he cannot help but turn his head and follow Daniel's line of sight. He has the advantage of having encountered this twice now, and even so his stomach rolls at the ghastly image invoked simply by looking at the empty space across from him.
Daniel startles badly as Jack reaches him. He's been intent on the far side of the tunnel, but Jack's proximity snaps him out of it with a vengeance. "Get back," he cries out, obviously close to panic. He tries to propel himself backward but sudden awareness of his pain stops him dead. He raises one hand to ward Jack off as he fumbles for his Beretta with the other. "Don't – don't come any closer."
"Hey, easy, easy." Jack raises both empty hands into the air. "It's okay. It's just me. Let me help you."
Daniel manages to unholster the gun and unsteadily points it at Jack. "Yeah, sure," he replies, not lowering the weapon. The words barely escape pained gasps, and he's starting to shake. Jack squats and waits, allowing Daniel a moment to work through the crisis of trust. Only a moment though; that's all Daniel can be afforded, given the flow of blood from the wound in his leg.
"Okay, yeah. Okay." The Beretta slips from Daniel's suddenly lax hand. "Jack?"
"Right here." Sticky warmth wells up between Jack's fingers as he clamps his hand on the wound. It's instantly clear that's not going to work.
"Uhm, so ... what's going on?" Daniel's voice is weak, and without warning he sags backward. His grip on the wound is a loss anyway so Jack grabs for Daniel's shoulders and eases him down. Daniel is out cold within a heartbeat.
"Nothing you need to worry about," Jack whispers. "It's okay. I've got you."
He gifts himself a split second to appreciate the flow of blood and swallow the lump in his throat. He's not alone now and wants to keep it that way, so he pulls what he needs from his vest pouches and gets to work. Daniel wakes up just as Jack starts stitching – fortunately, Daniel is with it enough to understand what Jack is doing to him.
Jack knows it hurts like hell and Daniel is doing the best he can, so Jack doesn't bitch, at least not aloud, that it'd be a lot easier to stitch up a relaxed, immobile thigh than one that's rock hard and twitching with tension. It gets done, though. Despite himself, he does get openly snippy when Daniel repeatedly twists away and shoves at his hands while he's trying to sort melted nylon webbing and polyester from burnt skin. Daniel finally cries out for him to just leave it, for god's sake leave it alone; the sound is desperate enough that Jack gives up the rest of the effort as a lost cause.
Instead, he slices open the fabric over Daniel's knee, to accommodate the swelling likely to accompany an obviously dislocated kneecap. The manipulation is clearly excruciating; once he can speak without his pain running free, Daniel facetiously thanks him very much for the tender care and suggests, just as acerbically, that Jack might wish to nurse him from a distance for awhile. Jack gets the message – to keep his hands to himself – and withdraws.
Daniel lies panting for a time and Jack uses the interlude and the tip of his knife to etch into the ground a rough map of the tunnels he's explored to this point. He marks his starting point, and where they are now, and with a shaking hand places a pebble on Carter's spot, the one he dearly doesn't want to tell Daniel about.
Daniel works to sit up on his own but it's clear he needs help. Jack stows his knife and ignores the protests as he tucks Daniel under his arm, lending support. He misjudges recovery time a bit and earns an elbow to his side when he hangs on too insistently for too long – Daniel's nothing if not a stubbornly independent son of a bitch. He is Daniel though, rather than something else, so it's all good.
He asks Daniel if he might have anything to add to the drawing. They compare notes and it turns out Daniel's starting point isn't on the map. Jack encourages him to mentally retrace his steps, and under Daniel's direction finger-paints in several new branches of the tunnel system. While they've covered almost the same distance, courtesy of apparently having travelled in a few circles the far terminus on Daniel's share of the map is considerably closer to their present location than is Jack's.
Daniel thinks the separation might make sense, considering the call from Hammond that pulled Daniel from the gateroom just as they were leaving. Jack isn't so sure that anything about any of this is will ever make sense, but he's happy to listen to any ideas that might help them get the hell out of here.
"Maybe I was deposited in a different location," Daniel suggests, "because I came through a few minutes later, separate from the rest of you."
Nope. Doesn't explain a thing. "No, because you're not the only one," Jack tells him. "I exited the 'gate with Carter and Teal'c, and next thing I know I'm alone, standing right there." He points to his mark on the map. He assumes that's the case for all of them. But he hopes not; he hopes Carter and Teal'c were left standing on the underground dais scratching their heads, wondering where he'd abruptly disappeared to.
Daniel's gaze keeps straying to the other side of the passage, and Jack can't stand the haunted look that appears on his face when he does that. He takes Daniel's chin in hand and forcibly turns his head, looking him in the eye. "That wasn't Teal'c."
"Obviously not." The reply is carried on a sob that Jack figures is equal parts emotional and physical pain. Daniel quickly gets hold of himself and changes the subject, telling Jack, as if he thought Jack might not have already discovered this, "My radio and watch are dead."
"Yeah. Something to do with whatever relocated us probably drained the batteries. Or at least that's what Carter –"
So now he has to tell Daniel about what happened at the spot on the map marked by the pebble. About the thing he'd believed was Carter, that walked right next to him and talked and acted exactly like Carter ... right up until it stumbled and accidentally tore its hand open on one of the sharp roots protruding from the packed dirt of the tunnel walls.
"There wasn't any blood," he tells Daniel. "Had a hole bigger than a dime in its hand, and not a drop even when it pulled free of the wall." He gets up and paces, scrubbing a hand through his hair. "The wound was ... all wrong. Then that putrid stuff came bubbling out, and ..." And, and, and.
"How did she die?" Daniel's eyes are closed but he's tense; when Jack looks at him he imagines a drawn bow.
"It wasn't her," Jack firmly reminds him.
Daniel's eyes snap open. "You said she talked and acted just ..." He leans forward in emphasis and his voice is strident as he demands, "How did she die, Jack?"
"It wasn't Carter!" An ooze of fetid suet, its inundation making a mockery of smooth, fair skin – Jack doesn't fight the abrupt need to vent his abhorrence. The eruption launches him at Daniel and he's kneeling overtop him straddling his legs, slapping at the ground to either side of him, bellowing, "It wasn't her!"
Daniel flinches and falls backward onto his elbows. He groans with pain and isn't able to hold himself there. Jack notices the problem but all the same feels nothing but the uneasy scourge of anger, and does nothing to soften the impact of Daniel's shoulders against the ground. It wasn't her and it's gone now, so what does it matter?
He leaps up and away. Daniel groans again, long and deep and low, and just before Jack turns his back on Daniel he catches a glimpse of Daniel's shoulders begin to shake. He's injured, Jack tells himself. In pain. Suffering, plus just had a hell of a shock. It's understandable. But it's not, because Jack needs Daniel's unquestioning trust and faith, and his strength, and he's not getting it. Damn disappointing. If it weren't for the fact it had bled ... .
Good god. What was that? Clearly, he needs to put some distance between them. Only for a few minutes, he tells himself, just long enough to regain his composure. Some perspective. And he needs to come up with a plan – Daniel isn't able to walk and there's no way to find the Stargate without hoofing it. Jack knows he's too tired and stressed to think straight, though, and if he's going to help Daniel, he has to help himself first.
He's not surprised to find himself unthinkingly on the move; he's never been able to achieve a release of stress through anything other than motion. He's several junctions away from Daniel before he realises how far he's gone, but that's all right; he's moving at a good clip and can return equally as quickly as he'd left. While he knows it's a bad idea to leave Daniel on his own, it won't be for all that long, and at the moment Daniel is probably grateful for the privacy.
As he rounds the next corner, Jack almost stumbles over its legs. They're right in his path and he has to do a dance to avoid stepping on it. What he can see of the familiar face is soiled, marred with achromatic runnels of decay, and his heart skips a few beats at the sight. This isn't – wasn't, not ever – Daniel, though, and with that knowledge he can breathe again. There's no immediately recognisable explanation for its condition, but he's not sure he even cares why it's died.
Obstinate curiosity prods his foot and he toes the hip to tip the thing off its belly. A bad taste floods his mouth at the sight of the crud that's welled from the crater in its chest. His mind feeds him an instant audiovisual replay of the thing that hadn't been Teal'c standing in front of him, the two of them fencing words steeped in suspicion, and Jack is pretty sure he knows what happened here.
He lets the body flop forward again. He's considering whether or not he need bother zatting it out of existence when he hears the noise. This portion of tunnel is short; from beyond the sharp turn not far ahead comes the slide of dirt under numerous, carelessly rapid footsteps. Jack hopes this is a rescue party, but his responsibility to Daniel demands caution and so he smoothly moves away and around, heading back the way he's come. He presses himself against the wall partway down the left-hand passage, concealed from view by the corner. He's far enough away to have a running start should he need one, yet close enough that hopefully he can eavesdrop.
He gets an earful. Familiar voices he can't believe he's hearing drive his shoulders back into the wall with force. Dazed by their impact, he's held slack in a thick fog of bewilderment. Bits and pieces ooze through to his consciousness: distressed exclamations, then words and disjointed phrases spoken in tones that pummel his sense of reality. Phrases like "'gate reintegration error", "external cohesion", and "internal disruption".
"Damn it," floats by, laden with grief, and Jack can't feel his legs. Can't breathe. He's reeling as "why not us?" and "been transported" ponderously pull more words along behind them. The ones that hit home, that wake him up, are "how did this happen?".
How, how, how is borne on the drumbeat pounding in his ears. He forces himself to concentrate on that, on awareness of the thrum of his heartbeat throughout his body, and his legs come back to him. His mind fully sharpens just in time to overhear "take him" and "Stargate".
"No!" No, they can't leave – he's screamed the sudden jolt of alarm aloud and the response from around the corner is instant. But they have to choose between two corridors and he's fast and knows the route. His boots slam against the ground, a sprint of how, how, how propelling him back to where he's left Daniel. He makes enough of a racket that an idiot could track him.
It doesn't take long to get there but by the time he reaches Daniel he thinks he understands the how. He wheels around the last bend to find Daniel lying on his side, facing him. He's grey and his face is a mask of pain, but he holds his Beretta in a determined two-handed grip. The effort is admirable. Good for you, Jack thinks, and easily kicks the gun out of Daniel's hands as he jumps over him. He snatches it up off the ground and throws the zat toward Daniel in replacement.
There's no time for explanations. "Make noise," he barks at Daniel, and kicks the ankle of Daniel's injured leg. Daniel cries out but it's not loud enough. "More. Much more," Jack tells him and slams the side of his boot directly into the dislocated knee.
He runs, satisfied they'll recognise that scream and know who it is they're aimed toward. That job done, Jack runs as fast as he can. He hears when they get there – Carter's higher pitch carries well through the tunnels, easy to pick up even at this distance.
The muffled sound of her voice prompts the need to wing a correction her way even if she'll never hear it. He grits it out past a mouthful of bile: "Not reintegration error, Carter. A duplication error." That's how – and with that it almost all comes apart right then and there because he can't hold back the horror and swell of pain in his chest any longer. He has to force himself to run farther. He can taste his tears, and briefly wonders what colour they are.
Jack staggers to a halt and sinks to his knees when he thinks he's travelled far enough to assure the time he needs. Both thighs tremble as he rearranges himself to sit back against the wall, legs outstretched. Just out of morbid interest, he checks his radial pulse. Its thrumming presence is no consolation; it means nothing. He checks the load in the Beretta's clip and keeps the gun in his hand, gripping it firmly. He has to close his eyes and take a few deep breaths before he can reach to the side of his belt with his free hand.
The knife is solid and cold in his palm as he gently thumbs its upper edge. Resting the blade against his forearm, Jack prays to it, breathing out a simple plea. "Blood," he whispers. "Please. Let there be blood."
But there is no blood.