The city was seven miles long, by O'Neill's reckoning, maybe five miles high, and carved entirely from ice. Big enough to crush a thousand Titanics and barely even shudder. In the reflected light of PX-61938's half a dozen moons, it glowed with a gentle luminescence, the surface shimmering in hues which were by turn pearly white, then blue, then pink, the smooth colours punctuated by the occasional twinkling outcrop of ice crystals on its surface. The colour that was so apparent from this distance had as yet proved a mystery: up close the ice was merely frozen water, white in its denser, cleaner parts, slushy grey elsewhere, and it remained so until, quite suddenly, at a distance of two or three miles, its inherent colours suddenly began to manifest themselves. Carter thought the phenomenon might be the result of chemicals dissolved in the planet's oceans. Daniel, typically, had suggested that the iceberg-dwellers had dyed their floating cities colours dictated by the prevailing fashion.
Whichever explanation was closer to the truth, whether the cities were purely feats of engineering or artistic endeavours also, there was nothing their equal on Earth. The one which O'Neill was currently studying was possessed of a timeless majesty. Balconies and walkways were carved into its shell, encircling the bulk of the iceberg, while high above a hundred towers tapered gracefully upwards towards the grey flurried sky, the walkways which connected them an integral part of their design. The overall impression was one of perfect balance, perfect symmetry, of a structure planned to the nearest half inch before a single chamber had been hollowed out within it.
O'Neill shifted the glasses towards the next nearest city, some eight miles off in the water. Different design, different style of architecture, same balance, same poise, same intrinsic sense of rightness. He could have said the same of the next city, and the one after that- of any of the icy metropolises, in fact, that they could see from the one to which the Stargate had brought them, some twelve days earlier. From his vantage point at the highest level of this largest of the cities, Jack could see the bleak ocean's blue-grey plain stretch into the distance in every direction, punctuated by the hazy bulks as they dipped and rose on the waters, impervious to storm and snow, each following its own lonely course until disintegration or collision allowed the sea to claim back the frozen waters to its bosom. A day which would not be long in coming now.
Jack lowered his field glasses long enough to clear the ice which was already encrusting the lenses of his goggles. The storm which had raged more or less continuously since their arrival appeared to be easing, the lulls of clear weather during which it was possible to view their nearest companions in the city fleet becoming longer and more frequent. Nevertheless, it was brutally cold outside, and he shivered in the biting wind. He was chilled to his core, and he found himself wishing, for the first time in a long time, that he still smoked. Something warm within him would have been welcome.
For the purposes of record keeping, the planet had been given the designation PX-61938. Whatever name its inhabitants had known it by was lost to posterity, forgotten and hence irrelevant. The civilisation which had flourished on that former, named planet had long since departed or died out, leaving only this barren waste of ice and water, this empty place. PX-61938 was a dead world. A frozen world. A world where the only thing happening worth talking about was entropy. O'Neill hated the place.
But right now, he couldn't think of anywhere more appropriate to be.
The wind gusted forcefully; pushing the first icy needles of a fresh snowfall into the exposed flesh of his forehead and cheeks. In response, he pulled the hood of his coat more tightly around his face.
Eat your heart out, Kate Winslet.
He lowered the field glasses and went back inside.
"Uh, okay. We've got squiggle, squiggle-line, then squiggle-curve. So if our theory is right..." Daniel consulted his notebook again: "...the next symbol should be the backwards squiggle."
Sam brushed away a layer of ice to reveal the next character in the inscription they had been labouring for nearly two weeks to translate. She shook her head ruefully. "It's upside down squiggle. Damn."
Daniel leafed back through the pages to an earlier entry. "No. No, I can work with that. See, that suggests that the pattern is being repeated at irregular intervals, and, um..." he trailed off. "Definitely the upside down squiggle?"
"Damn." Daniel sat back on the icy floor of the cavern within the hollowed-out iceberg which they had adopted as their base on the planet. His glasses were frosting over again, so he removed them and absently rubbed at the lenses with a gloved hand. "I'm fresh out of linguistic ideas. Are we making any progress on the technological side of things?"
Sam waved a hand in the direction of the multitude of wires and instruments which lay strewn over their corner of the cavern, each one snaking into the hole in the chamber wall beyond which lay what had become the mission's objective shortly after its discovery. "Not unless you call a heap of machinery that won't work because it's too cold progress." She sighed. "This is so frustrating. Whatever technology the people who built this used, it's in a whole different league to anything we've got. A computer system that maintains a whole city for hundreds of years, on no discernible power source, in temperatures way below freezing... if we understood what made it tick, think what it could do for our space exploration programme."
Daniel smiled. "I thought this was space exploration."
"I meant the other space exploration programme. I know computers, Daniel, and this is a computer system if I've ever seen one. But if we can't translate the operating language or figure out how the thing actually keeps working at these temperatures, then we can't fix it, and if we can't fix it, then it doesn't matter because it'll all be gone in a couple of weeks anyway."
"Or sooner, if it floats into the temperate zone any faster than it already is doing."
She nodded. "If we could just fix the navigation system, preserve the city a little longer to study it... It hardly seems fair, that this place has existed in equilibrium for so long, and we have to arrive as it's on the point of vanishing."
"Then we'll just have to figure out what makes it tick before that happens."
"Easier said than done." Sam knelt down and shone her torch into the dark space behind the wall which had entranced her from the moment she had seen its contents sparkle through the translucent ice partition. The crystals she now illuminated- not ice crystals, but something else they had not yet succeeded in satisfactorily identifying- appeared to crawl and glisten under the torch's intense beam. When she withdrew the lamp, they continued to glow, the melange of sizes, shapes and levels of brightness creating a chiaroscuro which glimmered and danced as they watched. "I mean, what are they, Daniel? Power source? Central processing unit? Something we don't even have a word for?"
There was an annoyed harrumph from behind them, and they looked around in time to see O'Neill appear from mouth of the steeply ascending shaft which led to the balcony they had nicknamed the observation deck. He removed his goggles and turned down the hood of his coat, but left his gloves on. The chambers and caverns which comprised the city's interior were warm relative to the external conditions, but still well below what was comfortable. "Anything happening up top?" asked Daniel conversationally.
"This planet's been a giant ice-box for at least a couple of centuries. What do you think?"
Daniel blinked owlishly behind his glasses. "I meant, is it still snowing."
Pointedly, Jack brushed copious quantities of ice from the shoulders and sleeves of his coat. "Where's Teal'c?"
Carter was already reabsorbed in her work. "Taking temperature readings in the lower levels."
"Alone? Dammit, Captain, I thought you would have had more sense than that."
Now she did look up. "Sir, we've been here for nearly two weeks. There's obviously no one here, and..."
"That is not the point, Carter. How long has he been gone?"
Daniel checked his watch. "About an hour."
"And you two were too busy playing with your new toy to go check on him. No, don't tear yourself away on my account," O'Neill added as Carter made to stand: "I'll do it myself." He stomped away, down the gloomy tunnel which sank into the city's depths.
"I never thought I'd say this, but I'm even starting to miss the jokes," said Sam when Jack was out of earshot.
Daniel nodded. "Tell me about it."
Sam frowned, concern creasing her fine features. "The first couple of days, I thought he'd snap out of it. This isn't like him."
"He doesn't like it here. It must be pretty boring for him: there's really nothing for him to do."
"I don't think that's it, Daniel. The first thing the military teaches you is how to spend long periods doing very little. The Colonel must have had his share of dull missions. And this is different: it's not boredom, it's... I don't know what it is. I've never seen him like this before."
Jack was long out of sight now, but Daniel found himself staring down into the depths of the city after him, lost in thought. Something Sam had said had struck a chord. "Hmmm?" Her voice, but not her words, startled him out of his reverie. He blinked. "Sorry, I wasn't paying attention. I was thinking..."
She smiled at him, with a warmth which momentarily dispelled the chill in the air, and gave him a friendly pat on the shoulder. "Never mind. At least I know I can always rely on Daniel to be Daniel." She lifted the notebook: "What if we reversed the sequence? We haven't tried that yet."
But Daniel was thinking about something else entirely.
The corridor which led away from the Gate chamber was gloomy and cold, which suited O'Neill just fine. He tramped along it cheerlessly, with only the sound of his own breathing and the crunch of his spiked boots in the compacted ice underfoot for company. Occasionally he paused to call Teal'c's name, but unenthusiastically and without real hope of response. The Jaffa had spent several days exploring the city's lower reaches, and was probably well out of earshot. Being momentarily honest with himself, Jack acknowledged that Carter had simply permitted what he had himself allowed only the day before, and that his fit of temper had been wholly unjustified. Again.
He had reached the end of the portion of the corridor which was illuminated. Ahead of him, the tunnels branched and branched again, offering a multiplicity of potential routes forward. "Teal'c?" yelled Jack experimentally. The only reply was the muffled echo as his own voice bounced off the cold glassy walls in front of him. He waited in the silence for several minutes, then turned to head back up the corridor. Teal'c was nowhere nearby, or he would have responded by now; without knowing exactly where he had gone, there was little chance of happening upon him accidentally. It was cold and dark here, while the Gate chamber offered relative warmth, and company. Time to go back.
Jack ground the back of one foot into the ice. He didn't feel like warmth or company. He thought for a little more than a second, then spun on his heel and continued on down the corridor, shining his flashlight into the murk ahead.
He had no objective in mind, he was simply walking, emptying his mind of accumulated layers of distractions and irrelevancies and attempting instead to concentrate on the mechanics of moving forward through icy, dripping passages where no foot had trod for God alone knew how long. He was not afraid of becoming lost: he knew himself to be possessed of a natural sense of direction much more accurate than the average- he could walk for hours through strange territory, if necessary, and always know at the end where he was in relation to where he had started. Sarah had been hopeless in that respect, liable to get lost driving home from work. He had teased her about it, and she had only replied that it was good to get lost from time to time, it made a person think harder about where they ought to be. He had never entirely understood what she meant by that.
He had gone for long walks after the boy died, too.
Jack stopped. That was the thing about walking. Sometimes the solitude cleared your head, and sometimes it only served to focus you in tighter on what you were trying to forget.
This wasn't helping. Time to go back.
He had not gone more than a dozen steps back up the tunnel when he stopped. He was shining his torch into the darkness ahead, but when he looked down at his feet, he saw a strange thing. He was casting a shadow, an extremely faint shadow but a shadow nevertheless, forwards. A light was coming from somewhere behind him.
Slowly, he turned, and saw nothing.
He flipped the torch off.
For several seconds, the corridor appeared to be completely black, while his eyes adjusted to the new reduced level of illumination. Then he saw, or thought he saw, something in the ice which encrusted the near wall. As he stared, he became more certain: a light was emanating from underneath the layers of frozen water, casting a delicate, silvery glow over the section of tunnel it overlooked.
Intrigued, he approached the glowing part of the wall, and tapped at it with one gloved finger. The ice was covered with a thin film of moisture. As he withdrew his hand, a chunk of loose ice fell away from the tunnel wall, landing with a splosh at his feet. The cavity it left, several inches deep, revealed the source of the light. A cluster of crystals, tiny hexagonal and pentagonal columns, were layered against the tunnel wall behind the ice sheath.
Much of the ice around the crystalline growth was loose and melting. Jack pulled off his right glove, in order not to soak the fabric through, and pulled away several large chunks of ice with his bare fingers, chilling the digits to numbness. When he had completed the task, however, the result was more than satisfactory- a swathe of the original wall was laid bare in front of him, bright with radiant crystals. To Jack's untutored eye, they appeared to be the same as the ones in the Stargate chamber which had so captured Carter's interest- except that, as far as Jack knew, she believed she had found the only examples in existence. Well, a peace offering would not come out of place.
He reached forward with his bare hand to scrape one of the smaller growths away from its moorings, and stopped. As he reached towards it, the crystal glowed more furiously. When he withdrew his hand, the light faded. He repeated the experiment several times, fascinated. "Wish I could get a licence to market these things," he said out loud. "Lava lamp for the next millennium."
Behind him, a faint noise, like distant wind chimes, broke the stillness.
"Teal'c? Is that you?"
The silence was complete.
"Teal'c?" he shouted, louder.
Nothing. Spooked but determinedly ignoring the feeling, Jack returned to the task of freeing a crystal from the mass.
A shuddering, roaring noise from somewhere above his head made him look up. The ceiling above him bulged and cracked, making a variety of unpleasant sounds. Realising what was about to happen, he jumped back just as a large portion of icy stalactite, its grip on the tunnel roof weakened, crashed down on to the spot where he had been standing.
His quick reactions had saved him from bearing the full force of the tunnel's partial collapse, but in the enclosed space he was bombarded with a hail of ice shrapnel. Throwing his hands up to protect his face, Jack collapsed backwards against the tunnel wall, crystals behind him.
They were sharp pointed, and cut into his flesh. He gave an involuntary cry.
Then, as soon as it had begun, the cave-in was over, leaving the tunnel awash with icy sludge. Jack took several deep breaths, gave silent thanks, and tried to get up.
He couldn't. As he rose, he was jerked backwards against the wall by something catching at his clothing. He reached a hand to his back to investigate, and felt sharp crystals digging into the fabric of his coat. More than that, he could feel them digging into his skin, as if they had pierced the heavy insulation. He tried to free himself again, and failed.
Something cut into his left wrist. He looked down, and in the bright incandescence which the crystals behind him were now throwing out, saw an outcrop of jagged columns pressing in against the flesh. They were raw and new, and, as he watched, they extended themselves to encircle his arm entirely. With a mounting sense of unease, he pulled hard at the bond. It was like straining against rock.
His other arm was secured at the elbow, one leg at the knee. He felt something sharp push into the soft cavity behind his ear, and twisted his head to escape it. The relief was momentary: after only a few seconds, the crystal growth was a razor against his neck. The pain began as a pinprick, then grew in intensity until he cried out in agony. Something cold was placed inside him.
He passed out.
Sam was lying on her back, half in and half out of the crack at the base of the Stargate chamber's wall, shining a light on the crystals which lined its low roof, inches above her nose. Beside her, Daniel braced his legs, which were lying exposed outside the alcove, and shifted his position slightly, trying to get a better view of what she was doing. In the blackness, she moved the torch in a circle above their heads. She turned it off. "Now watch this."
They lay side by side in the cold and dark for several seconds. Suddenly, a single crystal growth began to glow. It grew brighter, triggering the same response in the hexagonal shard beside it; then the one beside it. The first crystal started to fade, and the patch of light moved across the crystal roof above their heads, replicating the circle Sam had drawn.
"Very wow," agreed Carter. "But how? And, more importantly, why?"
Something tugged at Daniel's feet. He panicked and tried to extricate himself from the alcove too quickly, banging his head in the process. Rolling out on to the icy cavern floor, he groaned and put a hand to his forehead. "Teal'c, don't do that."
The response was a polite inclination of the head. "My apologies, Daniel Jackson. I did not wish to make noise to attract your attention. Some of the ice formations above are delicate."
Carter, rolling out of the crevice with somewhat more grace than Daniel had achieved, nodded her agreement. "Good point. I'd hate to start a shower of stalactites in here. Find anything below?"
Teal'c returned to her the electronic thermometer he had been using. "It would appear that the air temperature below the water line has risen by several parts of one degree in the past days. There is no doubt: the thaw is beginning."
Sam took the machine and scrolled through the readings he had taken. "I was afraid of that. We have even less time than I thought. The tunnels won't be structurally sound for much longer."
"Did Jack find you?" Daniel asked Teal'c.
The Jaffa raised an eyebrow in surprise. "O'Neill sought me?"
"He headed off looking for you an hour ago. Haven't you seen him?"
"I have not."
Carter pursed her lips. "Bad mood or not, that's not like him." She thought for a moment then appeared to reach a decision: "We'll give him five more minutes, and then..."
"Five more seconds on this lousy ice cube would be too long, Captain," Jack informed her, striding up from the lower tunnel entrance. "We're calling it a day here."
The expression of relief which had begun to form on Carter's face swiftly turned to one of dismay. "Sir, we're just starting to make progress. We don't have to be back for another hour; Daniel and I could stay on and-"
"Negative, Captain." Jack was brushing flaked ice from the Stargate's dial home device with one gloved hand. Daniel noticed that his right hand was bare.
"You lose your glove somewhere?"
"Yes, I lost my glove somewhere." O'Neill was stabbing angrily at the DHD's panels as he spoke. "And I nearly got flattened by a falling stalagmite, and I am sick of being constantly cold and we have been here twelve hours a day for the past two weeks and I am your commanding officer and we are going home right now. Anybody want to say anything?"
"Actually," said Daniel mildly, "a stalagmite couldn't fall on you because..." The sentence ended with a strangled grunt as Sam ground the heel of one booted foot on to his toes.
"And why isn't this damn Gate working?"
"You're dialling the wrong combination for home."
"Then you come and dial the right combination." Irritated, Jack ripped off his one remaining glove and rubbed at the side of his head. "And I have the kind of headache you shouldn't have to suffer without having a really good time the night before." Clearly antagonised, he stomped across the hall to collect his gear.
Daniel brushed past Sam on his way to the DHD. "Can't we leave him here?" he whispered.
The Captain continued to gather up her equipment, dismantling half-completed experiments with staccato, resentful actions. "Don't tempt me."
The Gate Room, which was always warm, was a furnace compared to the Stargate chamber on PX-61938, and Daniel felt sweat breaking out on his skin under the layers of insulation which swaddled him almost as soon as they arrived. He stripped off his coat and hat and dumped them unceremoniously on a crate at the side of the room.
"You're back early, SG-1. Any problems?" The speakers which conveyed General Hammond's words from the control deck above the Gate Room crackled slightly, but still conveyed the note of concern in his voice with accuracy.
"Nothing a good hot bath wouldn't fix," muttered O'Neill. Removing his coat, he called out more loudly, "Just a few technical glitches. We'll sort it out in the morning." The last sentence was spoken while glowering at Carter, daring her to contradict him.
"Then we'll see you at 07.30 tomorrow."
"I can barely wait," said Jack sourly, and left the Gate Room without another word. They watched him go in silence.
When the door had closed behind him, Teal'c observed: "He is troubled."
"That's a tactful way of putting it," said Daniel.
Sam sat down heavily on the end of the ramp and pushed her hair out of her eyes tiredly. "Okay. This has gone on for long enough. I had to shut down eight separate experiments before they were complete. It's going to take all of tomorrow morning to repeat them." She looked at the two men: "We're going to have to talk to him, find out what the problem is."
There was a brief silence.
"I will," said Daniel.
He knew he must sound reluctant, and he could tell from the manner in which Sam was scrutinising him that she was trying to assess how genuine the offer was.
"It should be me, Sam. I've known him for longest; and I have seen him like this before. Or something like this. I think I have an idea what the problem is."
She nodded. "If you need moral support..."
He held up a hand. "It's okay. You go home. This is one mission that needs to be flown solo."
Sam grinned. "You've been hanging out with us air force types too long. C'mon Teal'c."
She headed out of the Gate Room, the Jaffa at her side, and Daniel was left alone. He wanted to help Jack, and doubted very much that Jack wanted to be helped. He sighed.
Solo is the only way to fly a kamikaze mission.
It took some time for Daniel to locate Jack. By the time he got to the locker rooms, O'Neill had been and gone, and a sweep of his favourite haunts around the base proved fruitless- the rec room was empty and dark, and the night watch in the Gate Room said that he had not been back that evening. Daniel was about to give up and go home himself, conscience assuaged by the knowledge that he could truthfully report to Sam that he had tried- when a faint rustle of paper from within SGC's mess hall as he passed the open door made him pause. Cautiously, he peered through the doorway into the room beyond. A familiar figure was seated at the table at the far end of the room, turning the pages of a newspaper too fast to be reading. Daniel hesitated. He had not been spotted. He was tired. He had to get up early in the morning.
He knocked on the door and entered.
O'Neill didn't look up from the sports pages. "Public area, Danny. You don't have to ask permission."
Spotted after all. Daniel walked to the end of the long room and slipped into the moulded Formica seat opposite Jack. It was too far from the table: he tried to pull it in and found that in the best military tradition, it was bolted to the floor. Jack's right hand was curled around a small plastic beaker, from which the comforting aroma of chicken soup was emanating. "I thought they stopped serving at nine."
"Oh." Daniel sat back in the seat. Jack continued his exercise in page-turning.
"So," said Daniel eventually.
There was a pause. Finally, when it became more than obvious that he was going to have to initiate any dialogue, Daniel began, "Jack, I, uh..." He frowned. "Would you mind not doing that?"
Jack lifted the newspaper off the table and folded it with a swift, smooth action; then he tossed it onto the floor, where it landed in a crumpled mess of loose sheets. Suppressing a shiver, he took a drink of hot soup. "Damn planet. I'm still half frozen."
O'Neill looked up sharply. "Meaning?"
"Jack, I don't..." Daniel fought the urge to sigh. "I don't want to pick a fight."
"No." Jack looked suddenly very tired. "Sorry. I do. It always makes me feel better."
"Anniversaries are tough, aren't they?"
It was a calculated guess, which produced a guarded response. "Who've you been talking to?"
"A guy I met on the Abydos mission. He told me about his family."
"What was he like?"
"Moody, irritable, unnecessarily short with colleagues."
Jack looked away. "That bad, huh?"
"I was hoping I'd seen the last of him."
"So was I."
Daniel nodded. "September ninth," he said, apropos of nothing.
"Day my parents died. I always try to make sure I'm busy. Keep myself occupied. One year I even rearranged a whole dig so I'd be spending September ninth hiking out of Cairo."
"Did it work?"
"God, no. Nothing ever does."
Jack nodded. He finished his soup, and set the empty plastic beaker down. "My son," he said finally "Three years this week."
They sat in silence for some minutes. "If you wanted to talk about it..."
Jack waved one hand, making a dismissive gesture. "Some other time."
"Maybe now is as good a time as any."
"No time is a good time." Jack raised his head and looked Daniel in the eye: "Look, I appreciate the friendly advice concerning team morale, but I have dealt with this before and I will deal with it now. No assistance needed. So back off."
"Fine." Daniel stood up, spreading his hands wide. "Message received and understood." He made to leave.
He turned. Jack gave a short sigh. "I know you're only trying to help. But how I deal with things is not how you deal with them. It's nothing personal."
Daniel hovered by the table's edge. "We all have the occasional bad day."
"Yeah, except sometimes it feels like my whole life is a series of bad days." Jack lifted a hand to the side of his head and massaged a spot just behind his right ear. "My wedding anniversary. The day I split up with Sarah. The day the divorce came through. Charlie's birthday. The day he died. Christmas. Thanksgiving. I could fill a whole calendar with bad days." He sat back in the chair, absently ripping shreds off the rim of the disposable soup cup. "Isn't it weird how we start off in life and the future is clean and bright and wide open, and then suddenly you wake up one morning and you're over forty and all you have to show for it is bad memories?"
"Not all bad."
"No." Jack tapped the side of his head: "But the good ones get lost in the junk."
He stopped, but there was something in his face which made Daniel think he had not finished. He waited.
"He would have been sixteen now. Nearly a man. I remember when I was sixteen, and I..." He stopped, frowned. He tried again: "I remember when I was sixteen..."
Daniel looked at him, nonplussed. "Jack?"
O'Neill shut his eyes, apparently with the effort of concentration, then opened them again. "I don't," he said.
"Don't...?" prompted Daniel.
"I don't remember, Daniel. I don't remember being sixteen, or school, or growing up. I don't remember any of it." He stared at Daniel, who was shocked to see something akin to fear in the other man's eyes. "It's all gone."
"What's the capital of France?"
"Constituent elements of water?"
"Hydrogen and oxygen."
"Doctor," interrupted O'Neill: "My general knowledge is just fine, okay? This isn't Jeopardy."
Dr Fraser shone a pencil-light into O'Neill's eyes; Daniel was standing sufficiently close to see his pupils contract. "Then let's try biography. What did I say when you walked in that door an hour ago?"
"I believe your exact words were, Hello Colonel, I was expecting you, it has after all been a whole day and a half since you were last in here." He scowled. "And it doesn't get funnier with repetition."
She ignored the jibe. "What's the first thing you remember clearly?"
This time the response was longer in coming. "Ahh... Winter of 1975, I guess. I got whacked in a hockey game and spent Christmas in hospital. Got this to show for it," he added, rolling up his sleeve to reveal an old scar on the outside of his forearm.
The doctor nodded. "Yes, it's on your medical file. Well, at least what you do remember is accurate."
"Now there's a relief."
O'Neill looked around as Carter entered. "I thought you'd gone home."
"I got as far as the parking lot when Daniel paged me. He said you weren't well. Are you all right, sir?"
Jack shot an accusatory look at Daniel, who folded his arms defensively. "Dr Fraser said to."
"Damn right I did. And I don't want any of SG-1 leaving the base until I'm sure you haven't picked up something communicable."
Sam furrowed her brow. "What's the matter?"
"Nothing's the matter," Jack told her firmly. "I'm just a little tired and a little stressed and Danny here is over-reacting just a little. All I need is a good night's sleep and I will be fine tomorrow."
Daniel raised an eyebrow sceptically. "Fine. So remind the Captain where you were born."
O'Neill hesitated. "Let me get back to you on that."
"Amnesia?" asked Sam.
The doctor nodded. "Apparently. But highly selective."
"Selective in what sense?" General Hammond's Texan twang preceded his entrance into the infirmary by half a second; Teal'c was just behind him. O'Neill glowered at Daniel.
"Terrific. Anybody else you'd like to tell? CNN, perhaps? Sixty Minutes?"
Dr Fraser answered the General. "There's nothing wrong with the Colonel's short term memory, and he's exhibiting none of the usual symptoms I'd expect with amnesia this serious, such as a confused state of mind or the inability to perform simple acts of reasoning. He's unable to recall any details of his childhood or most of his adolescence, but he's coherent and rational." She shot O'Neill a look before adding, "If in extremely poor temper."
O'Neill eyed Fraser frostily. "Whatever happened to doctor-patient confidentiality?"
"Have you done tests?"
"Computer should finish processing the results any minute now," reported Fraser. "What about the rest of you? Any memory troubles?"
Daniel shrugged. "I don't think so."
"Where were you born?"
"On a ferry going between Terverya and Kinneret." Five pairs of eyes gazed at Daniel curiously. "It's a long story."
"Schooling, Captain Carter?"
Sam spread her hands wide. "Dad was Air Force. Where do you want me to start? St Louis for two years, Mississippi for six months, Wilmington for a year..."
Fraser held up her hand. "Okay, I'm convinced. Teal'c, how are your childhood memories?"
"Comprehensive, thank you, Doctor Fraser."
"Hmm. Well, until I get some blood samples from you three, we'll take that as evidence that you're unaffected." In the corner of the infirmary's lab, a printer began to hum. The doctor excused herself and went to retrieve its output.
Jack tipped his head back tiredly. "Great. So whatever bug is lurking on PX-61938, it only has a taste for me."
"Not necessarily," said Daniel. "I mean, maybe we're jumping to conclusions here. We've been working on PX-61938 for nearly two weeks now, and there have been no problems. Perhaps your, um, difficulty has nothing to do with the mission."
"People don't just forget their upbringing for no good reason, Daniel."
"Yes," said Daniel cautiously, "but, um, you said yourself you've been feeling tired and stressed lately, and sometimes when people want to forget things it's possible that..."
Jack's eyes narrowed. "What are you suggesting?"
"Something that makes a lot of sense." Fraser was returning, holding in one hand a sheaf of images, each one splashed liberally with a paintbox of colours. She spread them on an empty space on the nearest table, and a they formed into a loose group around her to see better as she talked. "These are the result's of Colonel O'Neill's brain scan. Now, we don't know a lot about the geography of the mind, but the common consensus is that these areas-" she indicated a rough oval section on each sheet- "are the brain's memory centre, the hard drive if you like. The ability to retrieve long term memories depends on a distinct neural system involving the temporal cortex and limited parts of the thalamus and the hypothalamus. That red-orange colour you can see indicates an average to high level of activity in those sections of the brain." She looked up at Jack. "There are no blacked out areas. Your entire memory is still there: I think the problem is that part of it is sealed off for some reason." She shrugged. "Stress is as good an explanation as any. And you've all been pulling long hours off-world recently."
"So how do I unseal it?"
"Hypnosis can be used to recover buried memories," suggested Sam.
Fraser pursed her lips. "Good idea. But I wouldn't know how to, and I can't think of anyone else on the base staff who would be qualified."
Teal'c had been scrutinising the picture's of Jack's brain scan with a solemn expression. Now he looked up. "Among my people, when a warrior is injured, another may lead him into a waking sleep, wherein he forgets his pain until the wound can be attended to."
"Think you could do that on the Colonel?" asked Sam.
"Now hold on a minute-" began Jack.
"I believe I could."
"Whoah! I am not a circus sideshow. I am not letting anyone put me into a trance so that when I wake up I start acting like a chicken every time someone says the word potato."
Teal'c regarded him steadily. "I would not countenance such a thing, O'Neill."
"I don't want anyone messing with my head. Anyone. Plus, you're all wrong anyway: I was just fine until PX-61938, and now I'm not fine. You don't have to be Einstein to come to the logical conclusion."
Carter was shaking her head. "Sir, we tested the atmosphere on the planet when we arrived. It's almost sterile. It's a dead world. There's no one and nothing there. And you've been with us pretty much all the time we've been there, apart from the time you've spent up top."
"And also today," pointed out Teal'c, "when O'Neill came to find me."
Jack rubbed at the bridge of his nose tiredly. "Yeah, but that was only five minutes, Teal'c."
There was a short silence. Then Daniel said: "That was an hour. You were gone an hour."
Jack looked up sharply. "Not possible. I walked to the end of the corridor, nearly got crushed by a giant popsicle, and came back. It couldn't have taken more than ten minutes, max."
Fraser raised an eyebrow. "I think we just found another pocket of amnesia."
"It seems to me," observed General Hammond slowly, "that we have two lines of enquiry here, each of which is potentially valid. Colonel, I won't order you to allow yourself to be placed under hypnosis, but I think you should consider it..."
"Already have done. No way, jose."
"...because if you did allow Teal'c to help you, I might be able to give Captain Carter and Dr Jackson permission at short notice to go back to PX-61938 this evening."
This took a moment to sink in. Then O'Neill said, in tones tinged with incredulity: "That's blackmail."
The General gave him a friendly smile. "Think of it as management by objectives, Colonel. I'll be in my office if you need me."
Jack stared at his retreating back, before saying wistfully, "Damn. He's good." He reached into a pocket and, pulling out his one remaining glove, tossed it through the air to Daniel: "While you're there, see if you can find the match. They're my favourite pair. And don't forget your scarf: it's chilly out."
Placing one studded boot carefully in front of the other in order to avoid slipping, Sam made her way along the descending tunnel which led away from the Gate chamber on PX-61938. One of the first things they had done when they had arrived had been to set up a series of lights in the corridors they used most, and the way ahead was well lit, if treacherously icy underfoot. Suddenly a shard of ice cracked as she put her weight on to it, and she felt herself lurching to one side. A hand quickly placed against the tunnel wall steadied her again, and she drew herself upright cautiously.
"Are you all right?" called Daniel from behind her.
"Yes. Just nearly slipped, that's all. You know, I could start to come around to the Colonel's point of view about this place."
"Really?" He sounded genuinely surprised. "I like it here."
"It may be a scientific and archaeological gold mine, Daniel, but what is there to like?"
He stopped walking long enough to take a deep breath. "No plants, no animals, no dust. No allergies."
Sam smiled, and allowed him to catch up with her. "No people, either."
"Yes, well, I didn't say I'd like to live here."
They walked on in silence for some distance. Finally, Sam said: "What did you mean, about wanting to forget?"
Daniel shrugged. "I'm not sure myself. Just something that occurred to me. I mean, isn't there stuff in your life you'd rather forget about if you could?"
"Oh, sure. Most of my education, for a start."
The answer slipped out easily and she could tell from the questioning tone of Daniel's reply that she had surprised him. "You always struck me as the sort of person who would have enjoyed school. I mean, you're so..."
"...Smart?" Sam smiled ruefully. "By default. When I was a kid, Dad moved around between postings, there were times when I was at two or three schools a year. Anywhere I arrived, everyone always had their best friends picked. I was always the new girl. In the end, I gave up even trying to meet people, and just stayed in and read books instead. As adolescences go, it was grim. I didn't learn to enjoy myself until college." She stopped, and frowned to herself. "But the ironic thing is, without the time I put into learning in my miserable teenage years, I wouldn't be here, doing this. And remembering how awful it was makes me value my friendships now. So I guess I wouldn't choose to forget it after all."
They had come to the end of the main tunnel, and consequently the termination of the string of lights which swung from cables above their heads, powered by the generator back in the Gate chamber. Shining her hand-held torch upwards, Sam drew Daniel's attention to the cavity in the ceiling from which a mound of ice had loosened itself; the remnants of the stalactite lay shattered around their feet.
Sam looked at her watch. "That's ten minutes of the missing hour accounted for." She shone her light forwards. Ahead, the corridor branched into three separate tunnels, and the range of Carter's torch was sufficient to show that each of these hallways went on to split several times more, before the beam dissipated into a faint and useless glow. While the city had been inhabited, this had obviously been a main thoroughfare. "I wonder where he went next."
Daniel stared down one lengthy black descent, then another. "We haven't explored this far ourselves. The ice is packed in too hard to take footprints. If he doesn't remember where he went from here, there's no way to tell."
There was a quality in Sam's voice which made Daniel turn, and as he did he saw what she had seen. One tunnel was lined not with ice but with the crystals they had been examining in the Gate chamber. Although the formations were unevenly spread, distorting the pattern of light they were faintly displaying, the image which they had recorded as it walked beside them, shining a light, was eerily familiar. Sam and Daniel watched as a two-dimensional elongated glowing outline moved along the tunnel wall, disappearing as it reached the end of the crystal growth. After a moment's pause, the show began a repeat performance.
Sam touched an individual crystal as it glowed with brief lambency and then faded again. "He must have walked along here with these on his left side, holding his torch in his right hand, so the shadow was thrown against the wall..."
Daniel nodded, not really listening. He was watching the lightshow repeat itself for the third or fourth time. As he studied the tunnel wall carefully, a suspicion which had formed in his mind was confirmed. "It's fading," he said. Turning, he raised a thumb and jabbed it back in the air, over his shoulder. "I, ah, think we should follow Jack here before he disappears completely."
She stood. "Good idea. Let's go."
"O'Neill, can you hear me?"
Eyes closed, features relaxed, Jack made a small noise of affirmation. Teal'c, seated opposite him, half turned and inclined his head in the direction of Dr Fraser. She nodded and switched on the video camera which she had set up to record the proceedings.
"Your body is relaxed. Your mind is clear. Your soul is in harmony with that which surrounds it."
"You are standing in a corridor. It is long. It stretches out in front of you and behind you. On each side of this corridor, there are many doors. Do you see the doors?"
Jack opened one eye, keeping the other one scrunched closed. "That depends. Am I supposed to be in a Hyatt or a Holiday Inn?"
Teal'c raised an eyebrow. "I do not know these terms."
The doctor clicked off the video camera in exasperation. "Just as well. If you did, you'd want to strangle him right now." She looked darkly at O'Neill. "Like me."
"That's not an appropriate attitude for a doctor to have towards her patient."
"That's the third time, Colonel. With empathy and warmth I am now telling you to try." She enunciated the words with a clipped precision which made her meaning abundantly clear.
He tipped his head backwards, massaging his temples. "I can't relax on command."
"Then maybe it's time for a little chemical help." The doctor went to a cabinet and, unlocking it, produced a syringe and a bottle, from which she drew a measure of clear fluid. "I hope your ritual doesn't forbid assistance, Teal'c."
"It does." Teal'c paused. "But in this case I will make an exception."
Jack eyed the approaching needle warily. "What is that?"
"A mild sedative. Not even enough to knock you out; all we want is for you to be nice and relaxed." She rolled up his sleeve and pressed the syringe against his skin, administering the dose. "Nice and relaxed," she repeated.
Jack shut his eyes. "Nice and relaxed..."
Fraser retreated, tapping Teal'c on the shoulder as she passed. "Go for it," she whispered.
Teal'c nodded. In the background, the video began to hum.
"You are standing in a long hallway. It is lined with doors on either side. Do you see the doors?"
"These doors lead to the rooms in which you store your memories. You may enter and leave them at will. If you enter a memory which displeases you, you may return to the corridor at any time. Do you understand this?"
"Turn around. Walk back along the hallway. You are walking backwards, into your past. Tell me what you see."
"I see..." Jack's voice was subdued, and oddly without inflection: "I see numbers. On the doors. Years. I'm walking past 1988. 1987. 1986..."
Fraser leaned forward, and whispered to Teal'c: "Take him back to 1975 or before."
He nodded, and they listened to the atonal roll call of years erasing the decades. Suddenly, at 1979, Jack stopped.
"Proceed," encouraged Teal'c.
Even under the drug's torpor, O'Neill's expression was suddenly less tranquil. "There are no more numbers."
"That's not right," said Fraser quietly. "It's too soon."
Jack did not seem to have heard her. "The doors are different."
"How are they different?"
He shivered. "Cold... Crystals and ice..."
"Get him to go into a room," urged Fraser.
Teal'c hesitated. "He may not desire to."
"If I'm right, his memories are in there. He has to make himself."
Once more, Teal'c faced O'Neill. "Listen to me. You must go into one of these rooms."
There was a pause. Then the response, childlike: "I don't want to."
"Recall that you may exit at any time. Remember that you are safe. Listen to my voice."
Very slowly, Jack nodded. He took a slightly deeper breath, as if bracing himself for something unpleasant. Fraser leaned forward. They waited.
And waited some more.
"He's not responding," said Fraser.
Teal'c raised a hand. "Wait."
Jack's mouth was moving, although no sound was coming out. He was frowning, his expression one of deep concentration.
The doctor shook her head. "I can't lip read, but that doesn't look like English."
Jack's frown deepened. Noises, breathy and droning, began to emerge from deep within his throat; a string of syllables, repeated over and over again in varying combinations.
"Teal'c, something's wrong. Snap him out of it."
"O'Neill. Leave this room. Return to the corridor."
The words had no effect: the stream of gibberish proceeding from Jack's mouth became louder, more insistent. His face was contorted now, and it was clear that he was struggling to maintain control over the torrent of babbled nonsense that threatened to subsume him.
"Remember, O'Neill, you can leave this place. You can leave. Listen to me."
Jack was doubled over now, gasping for breath between long strings of gabbled sound. Fraser rushed back to the drugs cabinet and returned in seconds with another syringe, which she swiftly inserted into his neck. O'Neill slumped forward, and she caught him.
She looked at Teal'c. "I don't know what that was, but it sure as hell didn't sound like his childhood."
The grainy mass of ice and rock fragments filled more than half the corridor ahead, making any further progress an impossibility. Sam prodded it experimentally, and stepped back as a large chunk fell off and landed with a splash in the filthy slurry which covered her boots up to the ankles.
"Our projections were way off," she told Daniel. "If ice this far above the water line is melting, there can't be long to go before the city pulls apart under its own weight."
He nodded in agreement from his position at the side of the tunnel, where he was studying the extremely faint light being thrown out by the crystals which grew there. The breadcrumb trail of lights which they had been following was almost at an end: from this point on, there would be no more helpful directions to show them where O'Neill had been within the city. Even if they had been able to follow him further.
"Question is, did this happen before or after he came this way?"
Sam thought. "He did say that a stalactite had fallen on him..."
Daniel frowned. "He said stalagmite."
"Do you want to be the one to explain the difference to him or shall I?" Something was floating in the sludge next to her left boot. Sam bent down and retrieved it, and then held up the sodden glove for Daniel to inspect. "Here's our answer. I think this is the place."
The corridor was dark and still, and the only noise apart from their voices was the steady plop of melting ice dripping from the ceiling. Daniel raised his arms in a gesture of helpless exasperation. "Place where what, though? Nothing's happened here in centuries."
Sam had waded through the ooze to the tunnel wall, and was shining her flashlight at the crystals, making increasingly complex patterns and watching as they were repeated back to her. "Maybe that's the key. We don't know for how long this place has been abandoned. Perhaps there are dormant security features which our presence has activated."
"Security features which give intruders amnesia? Wouldn't a trip wire be more effective?"
Sam turned her back on the wall and folded her arms in irritation. "I'm only hypothesising, Daniel."
"Sam, consider that Jack's instincts might be wrong in this instance. We've been here pretty much constantly for two weeks and nothing's happened. If we had activated some sort of dormant security system, we would have noticed as soon as we arrived."
"Not necessarily. There's not a lot of power left; and most of the computer systems aren't functioning. The response might be slow for any number of..." She broke off, gasped, and collapsed to the tunnel floor, putting a hand into the freezing slush to steady herself.
"Sam?" Daniel rushed to help her up. "Are you all right?"
"Something cut into my boot. And my foot too, I think. Damn, the water's cold." She stood up, and tried to take a step. "It's stuck."
Daniel crouched by her leg, attempting by touch to ascertain the nature of the problem. "Feels like a lump of rock or- ah!" He fell backwards and picked himself up, holding his hand up to the light as he did so. A jagged gash ran along the length of his glove. "There must be a cluster of crystals under there somewhere, but I don't see how..." He stopped, staring over Sam's shoulder at the tunnel wall. "Get down."
The tone of his voice was enough to convey the urgency of the command, and Sam collapsed on to her haunches just as a spear-like crystal column began to protrude from the heart of the largest growth on the wall behind her. With frightening speed, it arced across the corridor, moving swiftly through the space where her head had been only seconds earlier. When the tip reached the far side of the corridor, it made contact with a small crystal cluster there, anchored itself, and a delicately elegant bridge was formed.
The crystals on the near wall were glowing fiercely, repeating the patterns Sam had fed them in an increasingly manic fashion.
Daniel was scrabbling in the freezing slush at her feet, attempting to push the blade of his knife between her boot and whatever was securing it in place. He was getting nowhere. "It's a crystalline growth. Right over your boot."
"That's not possible. They should take years to form."
A second crystal shaft shot out from the wall, and Sam lunged sideways in order to avoid being speared by it. Then again, she thought.
"I can't loosen it."
A third crystal shaft was extending from the wall, more slowly. With the parallel bridges hemming her in, Sam realised that it would be impossible to contort her body to avoid it. She leaned backwards, seeking to avoid the inevitable for as long as possible.
"Wait, it's coming."
"I can see that!"
He was intent on his task, and had not looked up. "Two minutes."
"Daniel..." The shaft was extending towards her at approximately the level of her head, and the tip was so close that she was going cross-eyed attempting to maintain focus on it. Curiously, there appeared to be a tiny crystal shard, no more than a quarter of the size of her smallest fingernail, resting on the sharp point of the main shaft.
Daniel was digging furiously at the loose tunnel floor under her foot. "Use your gun. Shoot the base."
"And cause a cave in? Not an option."
"I need..." he grunted with the exertion, "...just a few..."
The point of the shaft was pressing into her neck.
There was a snapping sound and her foot was free. Carter ducked to one side just as the crystal shaft gave one final spurt of growth. Then, two thirds of the way towards the opposite wall of the tunnel, it slowed rapidly, until it had become a horizontal stalactite, jutting out perpendicular to the wall. The light patterns being emitted by the crystals around its base slowed and faded, and within seconds the corridor was illuminated only by their flashlights.
Sam took several long, deep breaths.
"Did we...switch it off somehow?" asked Daniel.
"I'm not sure. I don't think so. I think it ran out of power, or energy, or whatever it runs on."
"Lucky for us."
"You said it." Cautiously, she reached towards the quivering needle point which still carried its tiny load.
She nodded, took off a glove and retrieved the crystal. Very carefully, she set it in the palm of her gloved hand, and shone the torch on to it. The light splintered into a tiny rainbow of colours. "It was trying to put this in me." She touched the side of her neck, just behind the ear: "Right here."
"Wasn't Jack complaining about his head?"
"Yes." She dropped the minute shard into Daniel's cupped hands, and dug around in her pack for a sample case. Finding one, she indicated that he should transfer it to the clear bottle. This done, she screwed the cap on tightly and gave it back to Daniel. "I don't know what this is, but it needs to go back to SGC so Dr Fraser can examine it. And tell her to check the side of the Colonel's neck for incisions too."
"And where will you be?"
"I'm going to work on the problem from this end, see if I can figure out what's going on here."
"Then I'll stay too."
He was determined. "It's not safe. You'll need someone to watch your back."
"I know what to look out for now. Besides, the crystalline growths are going to take a while to recharge their batteries, or whatever it is they do." He still looked unconvinced, so she went on: "We don't know if the Colonel's gotten worse while we've been here. If this is a clue to what's happening to him, it should go back home right now. And if this-" She waved a hand, indicating the tunnel, now disrupted by the odd, angular growths- "if this is a clue, someone needs to stay and investigate. Quite aside from which, I could just order you."
He turned to leave, and paused. "You're sure you'll be all right?"
He nodded, and began to wade back up the tunnel. Sam had a thought. "Wait up!"
She fished a shapeless black mass out of the slush and tossed it to him. He caught the glove and wrung it out. "Maybe getting his glove back will improve his mood."
"How do you feel?"
Gingerly, Jack sat up, putting a hand to his head as he did so. "Not so great."
"That'll be the after effects of the sedative. It'll wear off. I meant, how do you feel mentally?"
Jack tapped a knuckle against one temple. "Not so great." He watched as Dr Fraser and Teal'c exchanged looks. "Can I take it that your field trip into my subconscious wasn't the roaring success it might have been?"
Fraser went to a monitor which had a built in VCR, and pressed play. Jack watched in silence, saying nothing until it had finished. Finally, he asked: "What was that?"
"That was what you have in your head instead of your childhood."
"Is the language you spoke of this world, O'Neill?" asked Teal'c.
"No," said Jack emphatically. "Not unless Klingon counts these days." He swallowed, and looked away from the freeze-framed screen, discomfited. "Sound familiar to you, Teal'c?"
"There's something else," said Fraser.
"While you were under, it seemed as if..." She stopped. "Roll up your sleeve. See that scar on your forearm? Tell me how you got it."
O'Neill scowled. "How the hell should I know? I can't remember growing up."
"You didn't get that until you were seventeen. I'm sorry, Colonel: your amnesia is getting worse."
Now standing up to her shins in freezing slush, Sam braced herself and gave the side of the tunnel another firm thwack with the butt of her rifle. Another chunk of ice disintegrated and fell away, revealing a further portion of the rock wall beneath.
She leaned forward and studied it. At one side of the revealed wall section, the rock sloped inwards sharply, and it was clear that the cavity next to it was filled with ice and nothing else.
She slid a metre or two to her left and redoubled her efforts, concentrating first on the looser ice at floor level and working her way upwards. Her continued investigations of the crystals on the tunnel wall- now dormant and dark- had at first been unproductive, until she had shone her torch towards other parts of the corridor, and had noticed that this one part of the wall seemed to absorb the light rather than reflect it. It had been then that she had begun to wonder what the centuries thick ice layers might be concealing.
It appeared that she was about to get her answer.
Two more blows knocked away the largest single piece of ice remaining, and she stepped back to examine the results of her handiwork. Over time, the slow accumulation of ice had hidden what she was now looking at: a doorway, set into the original wall of the tunnel. The gap Sam had forged through the ice to reach it was just large enough to squeeze through.
She flashed her torch into the darkness, but the light revealed nothing except cluster upon cluster of crystalline growths. She looked around the tunnel in which she stood: it was dark and silent, and the ice fall, although melting, still blocked the way forward.
"Here goes nothing," she said aloud and, hoping she had not spent the last hour diligently breaking into an alien janitor's closet, pushed herself into the cramped passage through the wall.
Several minutes later, she emerged, scraped and raw, into cold, dry air. She paused to catch her breath, then swept the flashlight in a wide arc in front of her, illuminating this new, previously concealed, cavern.
In front of her, the largest crystalline growth she had seen so far sparkled in the beam. It was as big as a dining table: so large, in fact, that its centre was opaque, a long dark core at the heart of shining translucence.
She frowned. Or maybe not.
She drew closer and leaned over the top of the growth, rubbing the pitted surface with her sleeve to clear it of gravel and ice. She shone the light into its centre, and took a sharp breath. The body encased within the crystal's cold heart was in an advanced state of decay, but it was more than clear that even in life it had borne very little resemblance to Homo Sapiens.
Raising her head, she swept the beam around the cavern again. There was another, similar growth next to the one she was examining, and another next to that. She counted the twenty more which lay within the range of her light, and then gave an experimental, low call into the blackness beyond.
The echo was a long time returning, and exceptionally faint when it did arrive. The cavern was huge.
And filled with bodies.
"Daniel." Dr Fraser looked up from the blood test results she was studying long enough to give him a welcoming if tired smile. "You're back. Where's Captain Carter?"
"Still on PX-61938." Through the window of Fraser's office, Daniel could see Jack's still form lying on top of one of the cots on the far side of the room. He appeared to be asleep. Teal'c was sitting in a chair opposite him, keeping a silent vigil. "How's he doing?"
"Not good. He's lost more time, Daniel. Everything up to about age twenty five, as far as I can tell. And your blood tests are all clean- I've pretty much ruled out a bug. The problem may be purely psychological, in which case I'm out of my depth."
"That's why I came back." Daniel reached into a pocket and pulled out the sample vial, which he handed to the doctor.
She examined the tiny shard of crystal with curiosity. "You want to explain this?"
"The planet isn't as dead as we thought. I mean, there are no people, but the computer system- or part of it- is still up and running. It tried to implant that in Sam's neck. And we found Jack's missing glove nearby."
Fraser rattled the tube experimentally, and returned it to him. "The plot thickens. Well, there's only one way to test a theory." Rising from the desk, she headed back into the ward, and Daniel followed her.
Teal'c stood as they entered. "Daniel Jackson. You have returned. Have you found anything to help us?"
Sitting up and swinging his legs off the bed, Jack corrected him: "Help me, Teal'c. This isn't a corporate problem."
"I think you have a crystal in your neck," said Daniel, and handed him the vial.
"Now there's something I don't get told every day." Jack tilted his head to one side as Fraser took hold of his skull and pushed back an ear.
"I don't see anything..." She frowned, and lifted a magnifying glass from a nearby table. Angling a lamp to illuminate his neck and shoulder, she leaned forward and examined the skin more closely.
"Be careful. I don't wash behind there a lot."
"Found it." Fraser looked at Teal'c and Daniel. "The incision is tiny- no more than a pinprick. No wonder I didn't pick it up before." For the first time in many hours, she looked almost relieved.
Jack studied the sample crystal curiously. He tipped it out of the tube and turned it over in the palm of one hand. "I have one of these in my head? How the hell did that happen?"
"In your missing hour," said Daniel. "Sam and I retraced your footsteps. You had a run in with one of the city's machines. Sam nearly did as well."
O'Neill looked up sharply. "Carter was attacked?"
"She's fine. We beat it off."
"Where is she now?"
"By herself?!" Jack exploded. "Daniel, when one of your colleagues gets attacked by malicious alien technology, you don't leave her alone so it can happen again."
"Well, she, ah... She told me to come back. And she has a gun." Daniel felt suddenly very inadequate.
"With respect, Colonel, Captain Carter's track record at looking after herself is somewhat superior to your own. Quit bellyaching and let her help you." Daniel shot the doctor a look which he hoped conveyed the depth of his gratitude, but Fraser was already turning to leave. "At least we have something concrete to work on now. I'll have to perform another brain scan on you, Colonel. And hold on to that crystal- it could give us some answers." She disappeared back into her office.
O'Neill tossed the vial on to the bedside table, where it rolled a short distance before hitting the spine of a worn copy of Gray's Anatomy. "Teal'c, get back to PX-61938 right now. Make sure Carter's okay."
"I will depart immediately."
"And tell her she's in trouble with me when she comes back!" Jack shouted after Teal'c as he left. He lay back on the cot and shut his eyes. He opened them again. "Daniel, why are you still here?"
Daniel took the seat Teal'c had been occupying, and pulled it closer to the bed. "She stayed by herself because she didn't want to lose any time finding a way to help you. Try to remember that." The words slipped out before he could bite them back, and he regretted them instantly. "Sorry. Poor choice of phrase."
"I won't take it personally."
"Then I won't take personally the way you've been acting lately."
"Agreed. Truce." Jack shut his eyes. "Cry peace and halt the dogs of war, or something like that."
"Actually, it's Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war. Julius Caesar."
"Guy had a way with words."
"No, I meant the..." Daniel stopped. "We found your glove."
There was a silence.
"Dr Fraser said your amnesia's spreading."
"Ooops, there goes that doctor-patient confidentiality thing again." Jack lifted his hands to his face and rubbed at his eyes. "Yeah. I'm up to twenty five now. And before that, nothing. Just nothing." He folded his hands behind his head, staring up at the ceiling: "I was posted to Minneapolis. One of the dullest places in the country. As a first memory, it stinks. Of course, on the positive side, I don't remember losing my virginity, which is reassuring." He stopped, and when he continued, the flippant tone had vanished. "Weird, isn't it? I feel like one of those icebergs we've been watching. Whole parts of me keep breaking off and slipping away, under the water. Lately all I've wanted is to forget, and now it's happening I only want to hold on to it all."
Daniel reached out, and placed a hand on Jack's shoulder. "We will find a way to stop this."
"And in the meantime?" Jack looked at him. "Daniel, I'm not..." He stopped, then went on: "I'm not a complicated person. In fact, I'm exceptionally shallow. I don't have anything you might call a belief system; I just get on with living. People... people are just what they do, Danny. Nothing more or less. You do bad things, you're a bad person. Good things, good person. But if I don't know what I've done..." He trailed off. Daniel finished the thought for him.
"If you don't know what you've done, how can you know who you are? Is that it?"
Jack nodded. "Something like that. I know who I am, but I don't know why any more. I make bad jokes all the time. Why do I do that? Did my father do that? I'm losing everything that anchors me into my life. I'm losing myself. I don't want to lose any more."
He shut his eyes again: it had obviously cost him to make the admission, and Daniel was at something of a loss to know how to respond. An idea occurred to him, but he found he was unsure how to broach it, or how it would be received. He realised that in spite of all they had come through in recent months, and before that on Abydos, he really didn't know O'Neill that well at all.
Well. No harm in trying.
"Still here." He looked up. "Barely."
"If there was anything you particularly wanted to remember, it might help to tell it to someone."
"No." Jack was shaking his head, slowly, almost painfully.
"It might help you to keep the most important memories at the front of your mind. And if you did forget, there would be someone to tell you."
"No," repeated Jack, more emphatically.
"I'm a good listener," said Daniel. "And I can keep secrets."
"It's not you, Danny." Jack appeared suddenly very weary. "It's me. I can't... I want to, okay? I just can't. It's not me. Not my style. I can't spill my guts like that. I can't talk about... things... that are..." he stopped. "I can't. But thanks for offering. It is appreciated."
Daniel nodded, disappointed. "I understand."
Jack smiled thinly. "More than my ex-wife did. That was half the reason she divorced me. I should get a tattoo on my forehead: Don't ask for intimacy, as a refusal often offends. At least I have forgetting the split-up to look forward to." He paused, as if debating something. "There is a favour you could do for me."
"Go home and get some rest. No point in both of us being grouchy." Jack shut his eyes. After a moment, seeing that the conversation had clearly been terminated, Daniel stood up and made to leave.
"And on your way here tomorrow morning..."
Daniel turned. "Yes?"
"Drop by my house. There are spare keys under the second plant pot at the front. You'll find an old shoe box on the top shelf of the closet in the main bedroom. Bring it with you."
"Sure." Daniel turned to go, and paused, lips pursed, forming a question.
"And Danny?" Jack's eyes were still shut. "Thanks for not asking what's in it."
"If you want to know
If he loves you so...
It's in his kiss-"
Sam paused in her work long enough to strain for the high notes:
"That's where it is, uh-huh-"
She stood bolt upright and spun around, grabbing her gun from where she had set it down on top of a crystal formation. Seeing Teal'c she relaxed and reholstered it. "Dammit, don't do that to me."
He gave a slight bow. "My apologies."
She waved a hand, already sorry for having overreacted. "Not your fault. It's just that this place is giving me the creeps." He looked at her questioningly. "Unnerving me," she elaborated.
"Is that why you were singing?"
"You heard that?"
"It was how I located you."
"What is that?"
He was indicating the crystal formation from which she had been trying to detach a sample; Sam followed his gaze and gave a small shrug of consternation. "I wish I knew. At first I thought we'd found the city burial chamber: now I'm not so sure."
Teal'c examined the contents of several sealed caskets through their frosted crystal sides. "They have the aspect of burial."
"Yes, but look at their different clothes, racial types- some of them aren't even human. Either this place was a lot more cosmopolitan than we suspected, or these people arrived later."
"I do not understand."
"I think they're Gate travellers. Like us. Look." She led him to one casket in particular, and showed him the contents. Through the small patch on its surface which she had cleared of ice and polished to transparency, the raised tattoo on the corpse's forehead was plainly visible. "This one is Jaffa."
Teal'c nodded. "Indeed." He considered the cadaver's twisted, grimacing features and the manner in which its clawed hands had locked into position against the underside of the casket's crystal lid. "It appears that he alone struggled."
"I noticed that. It doesn't fit the pattern here." She took up a position next to the casket. "Now you're here you can help me get the top off one of these things. That should tell us more."
Willingly, he came to aid her, and together they strained at the casket's frozen crystal sheath until it began to slide open, revealing the body stowed within. Sam sniffed the air cautiously. "Hardly any smell," she noted. "The body is remarkably well preserved... Although the damage is extensive."
That much was obvious: crystalline growths protruded from the man's mouth, nose and ears, jagged glassy lumps pushing out through his chest and clothing like fungus. "This planet has a distinct lack of natural resources. Perhaps this is some kind of recycling scheme."
"Or perhaps the crystal growths killed him."
"It's a possibility, but I don't see how-"
In the casket, the body began to twitch. Its mouth was blocked up, but from deep within its chest cavity, a high keening wail began, rising in pitch until it was unbearable, the scream of a soul in torment. "Oh my God. He's still alive. Teal'c, we have to-"
The noise stopped, and the body slumped back into its former attitude of repose. At its neck, the shaft of crystal which had secured the neck to the plinth on which it lay cracked and splintered. When Sam reached out a gloved hand to touch the crystal protrusion, it crumbled into a multitude of flaked shards. The process spread rapidly, and within seconds the corpse looked as if it had been sprinkled with salt.
Sam looked around the room, noting which caskets were still sealed, crystalline growths intact, and which had been compromised. Most appeared to be secure. "Some of these people might have been here for hundreds of years. And the crystals form part of the city's mind. If the sleepers are linked to it through the crystals..." Pointing at the body, she said: "Help me move him. I want to take a closer look at this formation. I think I'm beginning to understand what's happening here."
He nodded in acquiescence, and moved to take the corpse's feet, while Carter gripped it under the shoulders. As gently as possible, they lifted it from its transparent tomb and laid it on to the hard ice floor. Sam went to fetch a mass spectrometer from her pack; as she retrieved it and returned, she saw Teal'c remove his scarf and carefully lay it over the face of the body. "Is there anything you'd like to do for him?" she asked. "I mean, like a burial rite?"
"There is nothing I could do which would be appropriate at this moment," he told her. Casting an eye around the cold, barren hall, he went on to add: "Or even feasible. We will honour the memory of the dead by aiding O'Neill."
"Then let's get to work." Sam leant over the casket and, with Teal'c's help, began to clip her instruments into place. "Teal'c?"
"I'd appreciate it if you didn't mention the singing to anyone." She glanced up, and found him looking at her, expression one of incomprehension. "It's embarrassing," she explained.
He appeared to consider this. "I will do as you ask. But there is no shame in singing warriors' songs to ward off fear." This assessment made, he returned to the task at hand, leaving Sam staring at him in consternation.
Sitting up on the bed, leaning against the infirmary wall, Jack felt distant vibrations pass through the masonry and under his skin. Despite the soundproofing in the base's structure, he imagined he could hear at the same time the faint clank of machinery. He glanced up at the clock above the door to Fraser's office: nearly seven o'clock. It was morning, and Cheyenne Mountain was stirring into life again, the day shift arriving for work, the main elevator shaft busy transporting people and their daily needs deep into the mountain's core.
He stifled a yawn, and absently doodled on the edge of the notepad he had liberated from the doctor's desk drawer. There were more scribbles on the top page than writing; the intricate patterns he had traced with the pen while lost in thought during the sleepless hours of the night looped and spiralled around a mere six sentences. Phrases, really. A few key words, names, written in blocky capitals. He ran a finger over the indented paper. Lifelines to cling to. Words to anchor memories to reality.
Sarah. New York. 17 Leonard Street. Charlie. Hawaii. June 21 1990.
He flipped the pad shut, angrily. The words by themselves were not strong enough to bear the weight of his need to remember: they were merely a list, an inventory, the bare bones of his life, requiring memory for their flesh and substance. The word Sarah was particularly inadequate: five letters, two syllables, not nearly enough to convey what she had meant to him. If it came to it, he would rather forget her name permanently, if it meant he could remember her face always, the feel of her hair under his hands, her skin next to his. Those were the things he needed to write down.
But the words he did have were unequal to that far greater task. He threw down his pen in disgust.
"Writing your autobiography?"
He looked up. Daniel was standing at the infirmary's entrance, half smiling: not entirely serious, not joking either. Under one arm, he was carrying a battered cardboard box, recent finger prints evident in the dust on its lid.
"While I still have one to write." Jack nodded to indicate the package. "Thanks."
Daniel joined him, and deposited the carton on the table beside the bed. "Still taped," he pointed out.
Jack made no reply. He picked up the box and turned it over thoughtfully in his hands, then set it down.
Suddenly, the ward's strip lighting flickered and hummed into life. Dr Fraser emerged from her office, pulling on a clean lab coat and crossing the room to join them. "Good morning," she said by way of greeting; then, to O'Neill, without preamble: "What's the first thing you remember?"
Fraser nodded to herself. "No change overnight. The good news appears to be that you've stabilised."
Jack made a face. "Y'know, I really don't like the way that implies that there's bad news, too."
Fraser's manner was apologetic as she produced and unrolled several sets of scanned images on the crumpled bedsheets. "This is the first scan I took of you, yesterday evening. And there-" she indicated a tiny dark spot nestling in the heart of warm red and orange hues: "-is the implant. Compare this scan, from six hours later."
She set the images side by side, for ease of comparison. It was hardly necessary. It was more than clear to Jack that the black pinprick of the first picture had grown and elongated in the intervening period, appearing in the second image as a vicious black needle pushing its way deep into the most private recesses of his brain. He successfully quelled the urge to shudder, but could not prevent himself raising a hand to rub at the patch of raw skin behind his ear. He glanced up, saw Daniel watching him, and lowered the hand swiftly. "So what's the deal?"
"The deal is, I can't operate to remove the crystal without putting you at risk of brain damage. It's too deep."
"And if I'm willing to take the risk?"
Her voice brooked no argument. "I'm your doctor. It's my call. No."
O'Neill opened his mouth to dispute her, but the sound of the telephone ringing in the office cut him off, and Fraser hurried to answer it. In exasperation, he knocked the scans off the bed with the back of his hand. Daniel reached down to retrieve them; as he stood up, the harsh fluorescent lamps highlighted the dark smudges under his eyes. "I thought I told you to go sleep?" said Jack. It came out more gruffly than he had intended.
Daniel shrugged apologetically. "I took the video of your hypnosis home."
O'Neill scowled. "Oh, great. Why don't we just get it over with and have a base film night?"
"Jack, I am the resident language expert," said Daniel quietly.
"And if it was you on that tape, would you want me to see it?"
"If I had a problem and you could help, yes."
"Guess we're different like that, then." The cardboard box was still sitting where he had left it. Jack picked it up again, picking idly at the peeling sticky tape which sealed the lid. The last time it had been opened had been... when? He thought. After the divorce. He could still remember that, at least. He hadn't expected to see the contents of this package again so soon- hadn't expected to see them again ever, in fact. The box was a chunk of his life that he needed to keep sealed off from the rest, but needed to keep nevertheless. And right now he needed to keep it close to him. "Did you find anything out?"
"Not really," said Daniel ruefully. "I'm not even sure it is a language. If you listen to the tape carefully, you can only hear two distinct syllables. I'm not convinced it's possible to have a fully developed language with so little variation."
"So essentially, we're drawing one great big zero."
"At least now you're stable we have a breathing space. Time to think out our next move."
"Time," echoed Jack. "Right." He put the box to one side, uncovering the notebook he had been using from where it had slipped between the cot's blankets. He lifted it and made to set it with the box, glancing at the first page as he did so. He stopped.
Sarah. New York. 17 Leonard Street. Charlie. Hawaii. June 21 1990.
"Did I ever tell you," he said quietly, "about my son being born?"
"Uh, no." Daniel sat down. "But I'd like to hear."
"So would I," said Jack: "Because I can't remember it happening." He crumpled the sheet of note paper in his fist and stared at the floor dully. Then he drew back his arm and threw the compacted white ball across the infirmary, in the direction of the bin.
It landed on the floor well away from the target; Jack got up, retrieved it and threw it in. Then, with one swift movement, he lifted the bin and hurled it into the corner of the room, where it bounced and clattered down on to the concrete floor, rolling underneath a nearby bed. He grabbed the cardboard box and flung it in the same direction. It hit the far wall with a light thump, the corner of impact collapsing so that the box, when it came to rest, was a misshapen parody of itself. "It might as well never have happened!"
"Jack," said Daniel: "Please. Try to stay calm..."
"Calm?" he repeated incredulously. "This is my life that's draining away down the plughole. This is all I've got."
"And we will get it back." Daniel held up a hand. "I swear."
He was trying, Jack supposed, to communicate his sincerity: actually he looked more like an overgrown boy scout, and the effect was slightly comical. But the words were welcome nevertheless, and when O'Neill spoke again, he had at least regained sufficient self control to stop his voice from shaking.
"It's all I've got," he repeated.
"Not all. You have us," corrected Daniel. "And even if you forget, we won't."
Dr Fraser was returning, having concluded the phone call. "That was downstairs," she reported. "Captain Carter and Teal'c just got back from PX-61938. We're all needed at the debrief, now."
"I've lost... something," said Jack.
"More time," added Daniel. He looked up at the doctor, and his expression altered. "More time," he repeated.
The doctor frowned, and then her expression cleared as she made the connection. "My God. How could we have missed something so obvious?"
O'Neill stared at them in turn. "Excuse me, but, ah... what the hell are you talking about?"
"It's the Gate," said Daniel. "It's happening every time we open the Gate."
With gratitude, Sam accepted the hot bacon sandwich and coffee which someone had thoughtfully sent down from the canteen, taking a large bite of the former and a deep slug of the latter before she had even found a seat at the briefing room table. After spending the night in the ice city, she was chilled through, and was more than prepared to sacrifice a more healthy breakfast in favour of something guaranteed to warm her up quickly. Sitting down, she noticed that Teal'c, who had no taste for coffee, had accepted the steaming mug which he had been offered, and had wrapped both hands around it, enveloping it completely. Not impervious after all. She found that oddly reassuring.
Less reassuring was O'Neill's appearance. She tried to catch his eye as he entered, trailing behind Dr Fraser and Daniel, but he was preoccupied and either did not see her or would not meet her gaze. A look exchanged with Daniel- who gave a solemn nod in response to her enquiring expression- confirmed her fears. Jack took a seat at the far side of the table, and sat in silence, turning a pencil over and over in his hands. He looked strangely vulnerable, as if in losing his past he was also losing the layers of protective self confidence through which he habitually presented himself to the world. The effect was disconcerting, and not pleasant.
"Sir," she said, "are you okay?"
He looked up. "I've had better days." A flash of the man she knew shone through: "I assume."
Hammond took his position at the head of the table. "Let's get started, people. Captain Carter, I hope you've made some kind of progress. We've made precious little here."
Sam swallowed the last of the sandwich and nodded. "I think we might have, sir. At least, I have a theory now. The computer and guidance system of the city that we've been studying is partly organic: we knew that already. What we didn't know was how it could have continued to function over the long period that it's obviously been abandoned, at such low temperatures. Well, now we know- it's the crystalline growths we've seen. I thought the crystal growths we found near the Gate were unique, but I was wrong. They're present throughout the city, but a lot of them were hidden underneath the ice until the temperature began to rise. The crystals are integral to the city mind. They're like a combination of its central processing unit and hard drive. It's a brilliant solution to an environmental problem. The crystals require only a very low level of energy to operate, and more grow over time, replacing the ones that wear out. But now the city's power reserves are so low that they only activate when the Gate is used."
Daniel frowned. "Why particularly when the Gate is used?"
"Because the Gate brings what the city needs- people."
O'Neill made a rolling motion with one hand.
"Okay," said Sam, "this is how I think it works. When the city was abandoned or evacuated or whatever, the computer was left switched on in case they ever wanted to come back. The computer makes sure that the Gate is powered and that the city doesn't collide with other cities or icebergs. But it's been empty for a long time now- centuries, perhaps millennia. A lot of the crystals are crumbling to dust and they can't be replaced fast enough with the limited energy supplies remaining. The computer needs memory and computing space: RAM, if you like. Gate travellers provide it."
Teal'c thought about this, and said: "Then the sleepers who we observed were travellers who have been incorporated into the city's... hard drive?"
"Have you been reading her computer manuals?" asked Jack.
"It's a neat system," commented Daniel. "Think about it. Traveller arrives, explores, and gets implanted with a crystal which wipes out knowledge of the episode so he doesn't think to leave. By the time he realises what's happening to him, it's too late."
"But I would have left," protested Jack.
"Not if you'd been alone," said Sam. "The first thing it made you forget was the dial-home code."
"Then let me re-phrase that. I did leave. Why is it still happening?"
She shrugged helplessly. "I don't know."
"I do," said Fraser. "I ran a couple of tests on that crystal Daniel brought back, Colonel. It's a transmitter: it resonates at a frequency which exactly matches the brain's normal level of activity. When the Gate between here and the planet is shut, the signal must be too weak to have any effect, but when it's open, it's uploading your memory and downloading..." she trailed off: "Well, whatever that was we found when we hypnotised you. The language."
Daniel shook his head. "It isn't a language. Only two syllables."
"Two?" asked Sam. "Are you sure?"
"Binary code," she informed the table. "It has to be. Colonel, the city computer is using your head as storage space, filling your memory up with data that your conscious mind can't access."
The General sat back in his chair, lacing his fingers together in front of his chest. "So now we know what's happening, what can we do about it?"
"Go back to PX-61938," said Jack instantly. "Find out how to undo it."
"Agreed," said Hammond. "SG-1..."
"Wait," interrupted Sam. "I'm not sure we can risk that."
Sam looked at Jack. "This process is happening extremely quickly. When we got back from PX-61938 the first time, you'd already forgotten sixteen years. Since then, the Gate's been open, what? Four times, perhaps for ten minutes in total."
"And I've lost another fourteen years." He sounded grim.
"Then we three should return to the planet, and O'Neill should remain here."
"That doesn't work either, Teal'c. The technology that did this to the Colonel is part of the fabric of the city. I don't think we'll be able to extract the relevant part and bring it back."
"To summarise," said O'Neill: "Either I go back and risk the consequences, or..."
"...or never go back at all," she finished, and met the gazes of the rest of the group with resolve. "I'm not saying it's an ideal solution, but it is a solution."
The discussion lapsed into silence as each person at the table considered the implications of this. Finally, Hammond spoke.
"SG-1, I am prepared to authorise your return to PX-61938. Under the circumstances, however, I will not order it." He turned to O'Neill: "The risk here is yours, Colonel. It's your decision."
O'Neill shut his eyes momentarily, rotating the pencil between his forefingers so quickly that its ends were a blur. Then suddenly the motion stopped, as he gripped the slim wooden shaft between his fists. Sam saw the muscles in his forearms tighten, and the pencil bent into an arc in the space between his hands. He looked up and down the table.
"What the Captain is suggesting," he said slowly, "is not a solution. It's an admission of defeat. I want my life back."
"Then you'll leave in one hour." The General stood up, and left.
Sam rose and pushed her chair in; as she did so, Jack threw the pencil down on to the table. It rolled across the smooth tabletop, and she put out a hand to stop it before it rolled off the edge on to the floor. She picked it up and threw it back to O'Neill, who caught it between two palms. This is time she did manage to catch his gaze. "Well, Captain," he said: "Out of the frying pan, into the refrigerator."
"Chevron six encoded."
O'Neill watched as Carter hefted her pack into place and took up a position next to himself. "Remember," she said, "speed is everything. We haven't a second to waste."
"Chevron seven locked."
There was a whoosh and a noise which was neither an explosion nor and implosion, and the Gate opened.
"You're clear to go, SG-1." There was a pause, and then: "Good luck, Colonel."
O'Neill rolled his eyes in disgust. "Base gossip. Don't you love it?" He took a step forward, stopped, and turned to find Carter, Daniel and Teal'c regarding him with expressions which fell somewhere between curiosity and anxiety. "Jack O'Neill. Rank: Colonel. Age: forty one," he said briskly. "Satisfied? Let's make this short and sweet." And without waiting for a response, he disappeared through the Gate.
Daniel looked at Carter, who shrugged. "You heard the man," she said. "Short and sweet."
It took somewhat longer than anticipated to cover the distance between the Gate and the concealed room which Sam had found, mainly because the thaw was proceeding at an ever quickening pace, and the shallow stream of water which had been channelled along the tunnel previously had grown to a knee-deep torrent, as the greatest proportion of the melt waters from the uppermost levels of the city were funnelled into the main route to its depths. As he fought to keep his balance against the constantly shifting currents of freezing water which buffeted him below the knees, O'Neill looked up at the tunnel ceiling, which shone in the torchlight, slick and shiny. "Carter," he called. He had to yell to be heard above the roaring noise which the waters made in the tunnel's confines.
She stopped, Teal'c and Daniel backing up behind her. "Yes, sir?"
"What do you reckon the proportion of ice to rock is in this thing?"
She shook her head. "I don't know. There'd have to be a lot more ice than rock, though, or it wouldn't float."
Jack eyed the tunnel ceiling, which bulged above their heads in great icy blisters which were marbled with fissures and cracks. From now on cave-ins would be a probability rather than a possibility. One more thing to worry about, he thought. To Carter, he said: "How much further?"
She indicated a dark recess in the tunnel wall not ten yards ahead of them. "We're here."
One by one, they squeezed up and through the black passageway, pushing through the widening gap with varying degrees of dexterity. The cavern Sam had found was set above the level of the tunnel, and when they emerged into its echoing interior, it was clear that there had been no flooding here as yet, although the steady drip-drip of water falling on to the crystal caskets provided an intermittent background disturbance.
Carter set her torch on a nearby ledge in the ice and went to work unpacking the equipment which they had laboured to keep dry and high above the waters all the way from the Gate. Curious, Jack wandered up to the nearest crystal casket and peered in at its contents. The corpse was in no way gruesome: although the occupant, a man in his later years, was clearly dead, his body had been well preserved, the paper-thin skin taking on an almost translucent quality as the crystalline growths had penetrated his internal organs, weaving delicate patterns under his flesh, protruding from his eye sockets and his mouth to create intricate formations which connected with the growth which encased him. The body had an attitude of repose; the facial muscles were slack, and Jack realised that he probably had not been conscious when death approached. There were worse ways to die, he supposed, than sleeping and innocent.
Or perhaps, he thought suddenly, this unlucky explorer had been awake as his senses failed and the coldness without seeped into his bones, but had lost too much of himself to realise the finality of what was claiming him. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the individual had died with the last of his identity, and when his physical death had occurred he had been nothing more than a component in an ageing alien adding machine, a repository for the accumulated junk of a culture long passed away itself.
Which was exactly where Jack was heading.
"Captain Carter, now would be a really good time to fill us in on the plan." She made no reply. "Captain, you do have a plan?"
Carter was examining one of the few empty crystalline growths. "Um. Kind of."
"I have a working theory." Unzipping a carrying case, she lifted out a laptop PC and set it on top of an crystal outcrop. Waiting for the machine to boot, she turned to address him. "The alien system isn't overwriting your memories- it's doing a straight swap with its own information. I'm betting that somewhere in its files it's keeping a record of what it's taken."
Daniel frowned. "Why would it keep a copy? It doesn't need Jack's original memories for anything."
"If we're lucky, it does. I'm hoping it needs them to provide a kind of template of his mind, so it knows where it's mapping its information to and has a record of how to find it again later. It won't dump the template until the process is complete." The machine beeped, and she tapped in a password. "All we have to do is find where in its hard drive it's keeping them and download those files back to you again."
"And how exactly are you planning to do that?"
Carter looked distinctly uncomfortable. Behind her the laptop screen flashed blue, and sang out a faint chime as the desktop appeared. "Basically I was planning to, uh, hook it into Windows and see what happened, sir."
Jack stared at her, trying to decide if she was joking. She didn't appear to be. "Right. Now I'm worried."
"It's not like it sounds," she said quickly: "I've loaded this machine with the software we developed to interface with the alien technology of our Gate. The program is designed to interpret and decode system languages which are utterly different to anything we have at home. It may take a little time, but..."
"Time is exactly what we don't have!" said Jack. He jabbed a finger at the nearest crystalline growth. "And even I can see that thing doesn't have a printer port."
Carter threw up her hands in vexation. "If anyone has a better idea, I'd love to hear it."
"I believe I do, Captain Carter."
At the cavern's nearest wall, Teal'c was staring thoughtfully into the shroud of crystal which had entombed the Jaffa corpse.
"The other sleepers died in repose. This one struggled until the end. It is possible that the symbiont he carried afforded him some measure of protection from the forgetfulness."
"Is that possible?" asked Daniel.
"It might be," said Carter. "Even the larval symbionts exhibit a high degree of interaction with the host's nervous system. When the city computer tried to access that man's mind through his nervous system, it must have hit Goa'uld resistance. I mean, we've seen how possessive the Goa'uld are once in a host. This time, it might actually work to our advantage."
"I will allow the mind of the city to possess me," said Teal'c. "Then I will perform the same task as Captain Carter's windows."
Carter nodded. "A biological interface. It could work."
Teal'c was already clearing the vacant shroud of debris, preparing the space within it for himself. Jack stared at him in disbelief for several seconds, then pointed, addressing Carter angrily: "That is not a biological interface, Captain, he is your comrade at arms! Teal'c, stand at ease. That's an order!"
"Teal'c, do it." Carter met O'Neill's gaze with steady determination. "I'm sorry, sir, but you're incapacitated. The decision is my prerogative. If Teal'c is prepared to take the risk, I'll let him."
"And leave two of us in the same position?"
"I can protect my mind for long enough, O'Neill."
"You don't know that!" snapped Jack.
Teal'c regarded him levelly. "As you are fond of saying: I will take my chances."
"Jack," said Daniel softly, "we don't... you don't have time to argue about this. It might be the only solution."
"I will argue until I run out of breath rather than let a man under my command do something this damn stupid out of misplaced..." Jack stopped, and put a hand to the side of his head. An odd, fuzzy sensation was descending on his mind. He tried again: "Out of..."
He stopped. He had been about to say something. He was angry. What was he angry about? It was something important...
"Sir, are you all right?" The bedraggled blonde woman in front of him sounded concerned. He stared at her, then at the younger man next standing next to her and the powerful looking tattooed man behind them both. All three wore expressions of disquiet. He shook his head, confused.
"Sir?" repeated Carter.
Jack looked up. "Yeah," he said slowly. "I'm okay. For a second there you all looked... unfamiliar." He sat down on the ground, leaning his back against the base of a casket. "Teal'c, are you really willing to go through with this?"
Jack nodded, and waved a hand towards the crystal shroud which Teal'c was even now climbing into. "Carter, make sure he doesn't hurt himself."
She nodded, and went to help him. Daniel, unoccupied, stood off to one side.
"You too, Daniel."
"You want to be alone?"
"Well, tough." Daniel came over to join him and sat down at his side. "Sometimes what people want isn't what they say it is."
"This is insubordination."
"Yes," agreed Daniel amicably: "But if this doesn't work, you won't remember to give me a hard time about it later."
"Not supposed to be. Look, I can sit over there or I can sit here. It doesn't make much difference."
"No," said Jack, "I guess it doesn't."
Teal'c lay back in the open casket, somewhat crushed by the jagged growths which pushed into him from its sides. Occasionally, one of his hands or boots would knock against a delicate outcrop, causing it to break off and fall to the ground. Otherwise the crystals were inert. "Are you comfortable?" asked Sam.
Teal'c looked up at her.
"Okay, stupid question. Forget I asked." She took off her cap and dragged her fingers through her matted hair. "Nothing happening?"
"There must be some kind of stimulus required..." She thought hard. Both she and O'Neill had succeeded in setting off the crystals' automatic responses. They must both have done something the same, some factor in common...
The icy ledge on which she had placed her torch suddenly sagged and broke off. Carter dived to rescue her torch, but not before it had fallen, bouncing off the nearest casket. She swore as she retrieved it, but fortunately the lamp was robust, and was still working. The crystals next to the spot where it had fallen glowed too.
Light. Of course. All intelligent explorers bring light with them.
She put the torch on to its highest setting, and shone it into the casket which Teal'c occupied. "I have an idea. I think they're photosensitive."
At first, she saw no difference as the bright white light filled the casket, but then a small glint, a shimmer from one small patch of crystals near his head caught her attention.
"Teal'c," she said quietly, "it's going to happen any second now. Brace your-"
She did not have the opportunity to complete the warning. A sharp crystal spike protruded from the side of the casket, and pierced the flesh at the side of his neck. His face contorted, and a low, strangled sound emerged from deep within his chest.
"We can stop this now," she told him. "Say the word."
"...No..." His voice was barely audible. Another crystal growth was encircling his wrists, while a third began to trace exquisite geometric paths around his lower legs. "I am... talking to the city."
The expression on his face twisted again, and she realised that he must be in agony. She wished fervently that they had brought a first aid kit containing strong painkillers with them. Lacking anything else to offer, she took his hand and squeezed it tightly. "Tell it what you're looking for."
"It is... old. Much older than we suspected. It is dying. It is at the end of its life. It has forgotten much, and much of what is remembered is in a state of disorder."
Out of the corner of one eye, she could see Daniel squatting beside Jack at the base of a nearby casket. Daniel had placed a hand on O'Neill's shoulder. He looked up at her.
"Teal'c," she urged softly: "Keep looking. We're nearly out of time."
"Danny," said Jack suddenly. "Can I ask you a question?"
"Don't panic or anything... but where do I know you from?"
"Abydos. Do you remember Abydos?"
Jack shook his head. "Tell me about it."
"I, uh... Hot planet. At least, the part we were in. It was the first trip through the Gate. We met the locals, made a few friends, killed their deity, that sort of thing."
"Sounds like a blast."
"It was." Daniel rocked back and forth on his heels. "Jack, are you..."
"I'm scared, Daniel. At this point, I'm getting scared." He rubbed at the side of his neck, fingers locating the small, hard lump which nestled behind his ear. He was tempted to dig it out with his nails, and damn the consequences. "I should have taken you up on that offer."
"There's still time."
"Not enough." He took a deep breath. "There are things I want remembered, by somebody. Listen. This is important. I want to tell you..."
The way her skin smelt. The feel of her hair under his fingers.
A child, bleeding on the carpet.
A rainy day, a small coffin lowered into the earth, a woman crying beside him.
A feeling of sadness, drifting, unmoored, like an iceberg in his heart.
And then the pain faded, even as he fought to hold on to it, and he was left with something, or rather a lack of something, which was far more frightening. The dull ache of longing which he had carried with him for so long, which he knew was a part of himself, was gone, and he was left with only blank emptiness within. He shut his eyes, struggling to regain it, but the effort was futile. Something which had defined him was gone, and he did not know what it was.
"What have you lost?"
He opened his eyes again, and found himself in a cold, dark cave, sitting on hard, damp ground. The man who had spoken to him was resting a hand on his shoulder, and there was an expression of sorrow in his eyes which Jack could not fathom.
"Who are you?" he asked.
Teal'c was sweating profusely, even in the cavern's frigid atmosphere, and at intervals his back arched, straining against the crystal bands which pinned him down within the casket. Suddenly his body relaxed and went limp. Sam felt her stomach fall away inside her. "Teal'c. Stay with me."
The response was a crushing grip around her hand. Relief washed over her. "I have found... a tolerable balance," he whispered. "But this will require time."
"The you should get him out of there."
Sam turned, surprised by Daniel's approach. His face was grim.
"Jack's forgotten, Sam. Himself, us... everything. There's no point going on with this. You said yourself the city would erase what it had taken once the process was complete."
Sam looked at the spot where O'Neill sat alone, staring ahead into the darkness, an expression of faint puzzlement on his face. All over. They had run out of time.
Teal'c spoke with such effort that they had to strain to make him out. Sam leaned closer. "What do you mean?"
"It uses... the whole mind."
"The whole...?" She stopped. "Oh my God. Daniel, it's a continuing process. It's still happening."
He shook his head, not understanding. "But he's lost all his memories..."
"Not all of them. He can still tie his shoelaces. Walk. Recite ten years' worth of hockey results. But he won't be able to for much longer if he stays here. We can still help him, Daniel- but we have to get him out of here while Teal'c learns how to undo the damage."
"How long will that take? Teal'c?"
"Perhaps... several hours."
Sam checked her watch, and made a decision. "Daniel, get the Colonel to the Gate and take him home. Be back here in exactly three hours. I'll stay with Teal'c."
At the far end of the cavern, a mass of ice slid away from the wall, drowning the nearest half dozen caskets in a miniature avalanche. "Sam, this place could be gone in three hours."
"So could the Colonel." Still he hesitated. "Dammit, Daniel, move!"
She scowled at him, and kept scowling until he had ushered a pliant Jack out of the cavern and into the main thoroughfare. Only when they had gone did she allow herself to sink into a kneeling position beside Teal'c's casket. She was exhausted, the cold was numbing, and the cold emptiness which hung over the city was almost tangible, a frigid miasma which drained the life and warmth from everything which tried to penetrate it. She was suddenly struck with the utter conviction that the mind of the city, ancient, half-senile and hostile, knew that they were planning to take from it its last contact with intelligence and humanity, and that it would fight them to the point of its own destruction to prevent that loss.
"Just you and me now," she said, but there was no reply from Teal'c, and suddenly she wondered if she had intended the remark for him, or for the city itself.
The first people Daniel saw when the Gate Room swam into focus at the far end of the tunnel between worlds were General Hammond and Dr Fraser. Either they were extremely fast in responding to tannoy summons or they had been waiting at the Gate since SG-1 had left. As he guided Jack down the ramp, the General approached them. "Where are Carter and Teal'c, Dr Jackson?"
"Still there. And we have to go back, in just under three hours."
"Were you successful?" asked Fraser.
There was a short silence. Then Daniel said: "Jack, this is Janet Fraser. She's going to look after you now."
O'Neill nodded cordially. "Ma'am."
Fraser raised an eyebrow. "I'll take that as a no." She offered him her hand. "Come with me. We'll get you some dry clothes."
Suddenly mindful of the chill dampness next to his skin, Daniel stripped off his own sodden overclothes, and took off his glasses to dry them. When he replaced them over his ears, the General was still standing by him, watching Fraser as she led O'Neill gently away. "How bad is he, Dr Jackson?"
"He can't remember anything before five minutes ago," said Daniel bluntly. "And Captain Carter thinks it's going to get worse."
"How much worse?"
"The city computer system is capable of overwriting his entire mind. If we can't help him this time, there won't be enough of him left to help."
Daniel made his report to the General, showered, changed, ate half a packet of potato chips, decided to sleep, found a spare bunk, lay down with his eyes open, got up again, looked at the clock and found that there were still nearly two hours to go. He hadn't known time could pass so slowly.
He lay down again. He was tired. He should try to sleep.
There was a knock at the door.
He got up and answered it, blinking in the bright light which flooded in from the hallway. "I'm sorry," said Fraser. "Am I disturbing you?"
"Uh, no." He fumbled in the gloom for his glasses.
"I didn't want to wake you, but I'd like you to talk to the Colonel. You might have more luck persuading him than I've had."
He frowned, puzzled. "Persuading him of what?"
"He says he's not going back to PX-61938. He's adamant about it. And frankly, if he doesn't want to, I can't think of any way we can make him."
Jack looked up as Daniel entered the infirmary. He had been sorting through the box Daniel had brought him, and its contents, which seemed to consist mostly of letters and hand-written notes, interspersed with a few more formal documents, were spread out over the table at which he sat. He made no attempt to tidy them away as Daniel approached, in contrast to his former caginess. "Dr Jackson, I presume."
"Um, Daniel, please." He smiled optimistically. "Or Danny, if you're trying to annoy me."
If he had still harboured any hopes of making a connection with the man he knew, they evaporated as he met Jack's gaze and found only a cold blankness behind it. "I'd prefer it if we kept it formal for the meantime. Seeing as I have not the least idea who you are. But the doctor tells me I've been having a few problems with my memory lately."
"Has she... explained the situation?"
Jack nodded. "She's explained that if I go back through that vertical fishpond you've got in the basement I'll be a vegetable inside ten minutes." He shrugged. "Of course, she didn't use quite those terms, but I got the gist."
Daniel said nothing for a moment. Then, slowly, he began: "If you're to stand any chance of getting your memories back, you have to return. It's a matter of..."
"I don't want them back," interrupted Jack.
Daniel stared at him, nonplussed.
"This is how I see it," said Jack calmly. "Okay, I have no memories up to this point, but I still have pretty much everything else I need to get by. If I go back to that cold store with you and whatever it is you're planning doesn't work- and, no offence, if we're having this conversation you can't have done too hot a job of helping me so far- I won't even be left with that. I think I'd rather take my chances and start off from ground zero here. I'm not too old to start over; I'm only..." he trailed off, and shrugged. "Well, not too old, anyway."
"Forty one," said Daniel. "You're forty one."
O'Neill glanced sideways and examined his reflection in the internal window which connected the ward to Fraser's darkened office. He made a small noise of disapproval. "I look older."
"And how are you going to have a future," said Daniel, "without a past to build it on?"
"No," said Daniel, and slapped his hand down on to the table, so hard it stung. "No. This is not the Jack O'Neill I know talking. You wanted your life back. And now Teal'c is risking his to get it for you." Jack looked at him blankly. "Teal'c," Daniel repeated: "A man under your command."
The reply was cold. "I don't know him, and I never asked him to."
"You didn't have to ask him. That's how highly he thinks of you; how highly he thinks of the person you're discarding if you don't want your past back."
"This is my choice." Jack leant forward across the table, a raw quality creeping into his voice. "I am still rational, still lucid and still me, and this is my decision to make."
"You are not still you! A person is the sum of his actions: you told me that yourself. Without your past, without knowing what you've done that made you into who you are now, your present is empty. You might as well be a lump of ice floating in the water." He waved a hand across the papers and keepsakes which littered the table: "Look at this stuff. This is what you wanted me to bring you. This mattered so much to you that you that you made yourself tell me to get it, when most of the time you wouldn't trust me to unscrew a jar of mayonnaise. And look at it- it's junk. It's just junk." Furious, he swept an arm across the table top, sending the detritus of a life flying in a multitude of directions. "I don't know why this stuff mattered to you. You don't know why it mattered. It's trinkets and trifles!"
"I do know why it mattered!" bit back Jack: "I've been reading it! And that's why I don't want any part of it." He reached down on to the floor and retrieved a photograph, himself, a smiling woman and a laughing child. He slammed it down on the table between himself and Daniel. "This is my wife and son. Don't they look great? What a happy family, right?"
He lifted another piece of paper- a hand-written note- and began to read. "Dear Jack, we have caused each other far too much pain. After what has happened, I can't see how we can be together in the future. There's too much guilt between us now. Let's remember what we had with fondness, and move on. I loved you. Sarah." He looked at Daniel. "You see, I read that, and I looked at the photo, and I started wondering what went wrong. And then do you know what I found?" He pushed another sheet of paper, an official-looking beige oblong, across to Daniel, who glanced at it long enough to realise what it was, then looked away quickly.
"You don't want to show me this," he said.
"Oh, but I do, Dr Jackson. I want you to know exactly where I'm coming from. That's my son's death certificate you're looking at. He was twelve. And do you know how he died? Shall I tell you? He shot himself with the gun that I forgot to put away. The Jack O'Neill you are so keen to get back was directly responsible for his child's death and I would rather that they both rested in peace."
Daniel was silent. At last he looked up, let O'Neill meet his gaze, knowing what the older man would find there, unable to disguise it.
"You knew, didn't you." It was a statement rather than a question.
Daniel nodded. "Yes, I knew. You told me."
"Now," said Jack: "You give me one good reason why I should want any of that back in my head again."
"When my parents..." Daniel stopped, realising that more explanation was required. "My parents died in an accident when I was a child. I saw it happen. And there have been times since when, if someone had offered to take that memory away, I would have been tempted to say yes. But I wouldn't forget how they died if it meant forgetting them too, and what they meant to me." He paused. "My mother had this expression she liked: we have memory so we can enjoy roses in December."
Reaching forward, he picked up the family snapshot and flipped it over for Jack to see. "I don't know where this was taken, or what you were doing, but it looks like it's worth remembering. And if you won't listen to me, trust yourself. The man you were yesterday morning was frantic to hold on to his past. There must have been something in there worth keeping."
Jack waved a hand over the table top. "You said it yourself: my life was junk."
Daniel handed him the photograph. "Junk with diamonds in." He sat back. "I'm not arguing with you for the hell of it. You want to go back- or the man you should be wants to. If sedating you and carrying you through the Gate on a stretcher were an option you'd be out cold already, but the city is flooding and we're running out of time. You have to let us help you. You have to help yourself." He spoke rapidly but clearly, surprising himself with the degree of calm in his voice. "I'll be in the Gate Room in one hour. Your decision."
He got up and made to leave.
At the door, Daniel stopped, turned. Jack was looking at him, searching. Trying to make a connection of his own. "What did I tell you?"
"Not enough," said Daniel, and exited.
Daniel checked his watch. "General?"
"We're ready to fire up the Gate. Where's Colonel O'Neill?"
Daniel took a deep breath, and prepared himself. "Sir, there may be a problem with that..."
"...The problem being you need some maps up on the walls in this place," Jack said cheerily as he entered. "I got lost three times on the way here." Reproachfully he added: "You never told me I was a Colonel. What are you?"
Daniel opened his mouth to reply, but the General cut in before he could speak. "He outranks you, Colonel. Do whatever he says."
Face expressionless, Hammond turned and disappeared back up to the control room. Behind him, Daniel could hear the first chevrons locking into position with solid clunks. He pulled on his gloves. "You made the right call," he said quietly. "Your life is worth fighting for."
"Dr Jackson," said O'Neill, the mock cheer gone from his voice, "I wish I knew you well enough to trust your opinion on that. Let's go."
The casket chamber was flooding, icy water swirling upwards from some concealed point at its far end, lapping against the crystal shrouds in ever-higher waves. Daniel scrambled through the still thankfully unblocked passage which led to it, dragging Jack behind him. Emerging on the other side, he saw Carter sitting on top of one of the formations, her toes scraping the water. "You're late."
"Unavoidable delay," he called back, slipping to one side and nearly falling over. For some reason it was more difficult than it should have been to stand. "Is there something wrong with the gravity now?"
"Gravity's fine. The floor, on the other hand, is at a ten degree tilt."
Sam hopped down from the casket and waded through the water towards them. "The city is breaking up. We're sinking." She looked at O'Neill. "How are you doing, sir?"
Jack was breathing raggedly, and appeared disorientated. There was no indication that he had heard Carter, and it was obvious that he had deteriorated significantly since the last time she had seen him. She looked at Daniel, who said: "He's pretty close to sinking, too. Whatever we're going to do, we need to do it."
She nodded her agreement, then jogged back into the water, motioning at them to follow her. At Teal'c's casket, which was half-submerged, she stopped. "Teal'c, they're back. We're ready."
The Jaffa's eyes fluttered open. "...I am... ready. Proceed." His voice was so faint that it sounded distorted, and Daniel could only guess what kind of pain he was suffering.
"Can he reverse it?" he asked Sam.
"He thinks so. I've prepared a casket. Help me get the Colonel into it." She reached out a hand to take O'Neill by the arm, but he shrunk back, breaking away from her. He took two steps backwards, and slipped in the water, falling back and scrambling several more paces on his hands and knees. He looked terrified.
Sam crouched down beside the casket. "Sir, this is how we're going to help you. Please."
Jack blinked, and made a small whimpering sound.
Sam looked up, anxious. "He's lost his language skills. He doesn't understand."
"We'll have to find some way to make him do it."
She shook her head. "We don't have time. If he doesn't co-operate, it'll take far too long."
Daniel hesitated, then knelt beside Carter in the water. He held out a hand towards O'Neill. "Jack. Jack, look at me."
Whether by accident or design, O'Neill found his gaze. Daniel nodded encouragement. "This is what you want. Take my hand. I promise everything will be fine."
O'Neill stared at him, doubt and fear etched on his face. The moment stretched out, the water lapping higher around their feet. Finally Daniel allowed his head to drop; taking off his glasses, he retracted his arm and rubbed tiredly at his eyes. "Just this once, trust that I'm right."
"Daniel," said Sam softly. Daniel looked up, and saw a hand extended towards him. Jack was looking at him, still with large measures of bewilderment and fear, but now there was something else in his face as well. Deep within the well of his eyes, Daniel thought he could see the faintest echo of another man, struggling to make contact. He grasped the offered hand, and pulled O'Neill towards himself.
Carter moved in behind him, and lifted Jack to his feet. "Come on." Still with difficulty, fighting the resistance of the water and Jack's lack of understanding, they guided him to the casket beside that of Teal'c. When he was safely ensconced within it, Sam placed her hand on Teal'c's shoulder.
There was no sign that he was still conscious. "Did he hear?" asked Daniel.
"He'd better have." She took up a position at the Jaffa's side. "Keep an eye on the Colonel."
The slope of the cavern floor was more pronounced now, and the air was thick with the sound of water rushing up from below and the tangy smell of salt. Chunks of frozen seawater, miniature icebergs, floated past, banging against crystal formations, destroying delicate structures which must have taken hundreds of years to grow. Buffeted by the roiling waters, Daniel found a handhold on the side of a nearby formation and braced himself against the frequent surges. His foot slipped and he struggled to stay upright. Physically, he was nearing exhaustion
He felt a strong grip around his forearm, supporting him. From the casket, Jack was looking up at him, holding on tightly, not letting go.
"Still here," said Daniel. "Barely."
A slim shaft of crystal began to extrude from the side of the casket, searching for the connection at the side of Jack's head. He shuddered and drew back from it.
"It's okay," reassured Daniel. "It'll be over soon."
The crystal made contact. Jack cried out in pain.
Daniel felt the grip on his arm lock with bruising force. Jack's features twisted, held rigid in agony's thrall. "How long is it going to take?"
"I have no idea." Carter was keeping a worried vigil over Teal'c. "But neither of them will be able to stand much of this."
The Jaffa was still, almost a part of the crystalline formations himself now. In the second casket, Jack twisted, emitting wordless noises of pain. Suddenly he fell silent. Gingerly, Daniel touched the crystal link which joined him to the city's mind, and watched as it crumbled to dust at the pressure. "Either it's finished or we just crashed the system."
Teal'c sat up, showering broken, fragmented crystal into the water as he did so. "It is finished."
"Did it work?"
"I do not know." He made to climb out of the shroud, and failed. Sam helped him, and although he could stand unaided, he was swaying in the swirling waters, and it was clear that he was weak.
Sam hooked one of his arms around her shoulder, and he allowed her to support him. A mass of ice approximately the size of a Jeep crashed to the floor, sufficiently close to make them jump back. "There's not much time left," said Carter tersely: "Let's get out of here."
Daniel tugged at Jack's coat until he sat upright and then, with difficulty, made him get out of the casket. He was groggy and unresponsive, and his movements were drunkenly inexact. Daniel guided him several steps forward, with difficulty; ahead of them, Sam and Teal'c were making good, if not remarkable, progress.
"Wait!" Daniel shouted.
Carter looked over her shoulder.
"He's nearly unconscious. We'll have to go slower."
"Not possible. The water's waist deep in the main tunnel. It's going to take long enough to get back to the Gate as it is."
"There is a shorter route," offered Teal'c.
"How do you know?"
He lifted a hand to his head. "I have a map." He indicated one of several corridors which led off the main cavern. "It is that way. But it is a steep climb."
"Can you do it?"
"I believe so."
"Can the Colonel?"
Jack staggered, and Daniel grunted with the effort of preventing him from falling. "We'll have to," he said.
Teal'c had not exaggerated when he had called the alternative route back to the city's Gate steep. The tunnel they now followed had begun at a relatively gentle gradient, before twisting back on itself and rapidly becoming the glassy equivalent of a spiral staircase. It was like scaling a helter-skelter. As Sam, helping Teal'c, led the way, Daniel followed behind, half pushing and half pulling a somnambulant O'Neill. He had no reserves of strength left to call upon now, and he was driven on only by the fear that if they stopped moving, they would fall back down the way they had come, sliding all the way to the casket room, which was certainly by now below the waterline. The dull roar of seawater pouring into the caverns below echoed up from behind them, a harbinger of the city's approaching end.
He began to measure off the climb in paces, screwing his eyes shut and stretching out a hand to the tunnel wall for guidance. Just one more step. Nearly there. Just two more steps. Just three more steps. Just four...
He opened his eyes. The Stargate was straight ahead of them. The spiralling tunnel had brought them into what had been a room adjacent to it- had been, but was now part of the same chamber, as the ice partition which separated the two areas had half melted and slumped into several piles of debris, creating a convenient shortcut. Beside Daniel, Jack sagged to the floor, plainly at the edge of his endurance. Daniel helped him up while Sam, closer to the Gate, began the dial-home sequence.
A sound, consisting of high pitched screeches laid over a bass rumble, cut through the air. Daniel slapped his hands over his ears. "What is that?"
Sam hit the globe at the centre of the DHD, hard. "That's the sound of ice cracking. The city's breaking up."
"The city is dying," said Teal'c.
Daniel looked up, and saw a rent in the Gate chamber's high ceiling, through which low, grey sky was clearly visible. A sharp, salty wind whistled through the room. Beneath him, the floor began to tilt alarmingly. Carter almost lost her balance as her side of the room shuddered violently, the floor beneath her sinking several feet as the layers of ice supporting it somewhere far below began to crumble and disintegrate.
He called out her name, and she turned just as the Gate opened, as if a stone had dropped through the ring, dragging reality with it as it passed through and out the other side. The circle flooded with rippling blue light, and Daniel felt a sudden surge of relief. The way home.
A crack appeared in the floor between them, and rapidly widened. Now Carter and the Gate were on one side of it, still sinking, while the men were on the other.
"Get over here!" she yelled. "Teal'c, you first!"
The gap was now a jagged black rent in the floor, revealing a deep cold shaft which sank towards the city's drowning heart. Teal'c stood, paused briefly, then pitched himself forward over the ledge, barely clearing the rift. Carter supported him as he landed, and bundled him into the open Gate and away without a second's hesitation. Then she backed up and, taking a running leap, jumped across the crevasse and landed half-on, half dangling off the ice ledge. Daniel grabbed hold of her arms and hauled her up the rest of the way. Together they began to pull O'Neill upright, supporting him between them.
The crack was more than a metre wide, and growing. Daniel stared at it. "We can't do this!"
Carter's face was a mask of determination. "We can and we will. On my mark. One. Two. Three- go!"
With no option but to comply, Daniel rushed forward, bearing half of Jack's weight while Sam held him up at the other side. At the edge of the chasm, he pushed off with one foot, shut his eyes, offered a swift prayer to whoever might be listening-
-And landed on the far side, collapsing face forward into the ice with inches to spare.
"Told you so," said Carter simply. She picked herself up, and took hold of O'Neill under one arm. "Take his other side," she ordered, and Daniel obeyed, as together they dragged Jack in an undignified flurry towards the Gate. With one final, Herculean effort, they stood at its lip.
The rip in the ceiling was now so wide that the chamber was more or less outside: wind and a mixture of sleet and rain poured in, drenching them and washing away the last of the ice formations from around the walls. As Daniel watched, it seemed that the room on the far side of the crack in the floor was rising up, faster and faster; then, with a sudden shock, he realised that in fact it was they who were now falling, as the Gate chamber, and probably one whole side of the city, began to break away from the whole and slide into the sea below in a monumental avalanche of ice. It seemed suddenly almost risible that this ancient, mysterious place, which had endured for millennia, could be defeated by something so basic as a small change in the climate. Ridiculous, and also tremendously sad.
"The city is dying," he said.
"Everything does," replied Carter. "That doesn't give it the right to take us with it."
Her reply puzzled him, but before he could say anything, she was pulling himself and O'Neill into the Gate. As he fell backwards, into the oblivion of the journey, Daniel winced as a shaft of brightness hit his eyes. He could not be sure, but he thought that the last thing he saw was the sky, revealed through the hole high above the Gate: dark grey clouds swirling, a manifestation of apocalypse; and, at their centre, the smallest fragment of blue, the gap allowing the sun's rays to penetrate.
They collapsed through the Gate in a waterlogged, shivering, injured heap. Carter was the first to clamber to her feet. "Close the iris!" she yelled, making frantic cranking motions with one hand. "Close it now!"
Daniel sat up, too cold and wet to care what she meant. There was an interminable pause, and then the overlapping plates of the iris slid into position over the still-open Gate. Seconds later there was a bang so loud that he could feel it reverberating through him, and the centre of the iris momentarily glowed a dull red colour. "What was that?"
Carter breathed a heartfelt sigh of relief. "That was several tonnes of seawater failing to re-integrate."
"But the Gate on the other side is gone."
"Not gone. Just at the bottom of the ocean. Either way, we're not going back to PX-61938." She looked at Jack, who was huddled in a semi-sensible fashion by the ramp's low railing. "Which leaves the sixty four million dollar question."
The Gate Room doors opened, and Fraser joined them, closely followed by two of her nurses. She gave Teal'c a fast but thorough appraisal, and motioned to her staff to help him up. Only then did she kneel at Jack's side. "Did it work?"
Carter shook her head. "We don't know yet."
Fraser passed a hand slowly in front of Jack's open but unfocused eyes. There was no response. "Come on, Colonel. Show us you're back in residence."
Slowly, he blinked.
"Good man. Talk to me."
He opened his mouth, face clouding with the apparent effort of speech, and whispered a phrase. It was incomprehensible, and Fraser encouraged him to repeat it. The second time he spoke, she leaned closer to him, concentrating on the sounds. When she turned, she was frowning. "He's not making sense."
"What did he say?"
"Something about someone called Rose."
"Who does he know called Rose?" asked Sam.
A wide grin spread across Daniel's face. "Not Rose: roses. The flowers. He's going to be okay, Sam. He's going to be just fine."
The door of the mess hall had been pulled shut, but the handle moved freely when Daniel pressed it experimentally, and the room was evidently unlocked. He stood in the hallway for several minutes, absently jangling the car keys in his pocket. Then, determinedly, he pushed the door open and slipped inside.
Jack was sitting in the same spot in which he had found him previously, staring at the same pages of the same newspaper, its pages now creased, the print blurry. He looked up sharply at the disturbance.
"Sorry. I didn't realise you were in here."
Jack said nothing.
Daniel made vague gestures in the direction of the far wall. "I was just going to get some soup."
Jack squinted through the gloom of the mess hall at the closed serving hatches at its far end. "I thought they stopped serving at nine?"
"Vending machine." He dug a handful of change out of one pocket. "Want some?"
Jack shrugged, a non-committal action which Daniel decided to interpret as an affirmative. He wandered over to the machine and began to feed it coins. "Do you remember everything now?"
"Not everything. Not even in order. A lot, though." O'Neill frowned. "How are the other two?"
Jack gestured vaguely. "You know. The blonde and the big guy."
"Oh." The machine behind Daniel whirred and clicked. When it was finished dispensing the drinks, he retrieved the cups and carried them to the table, setting one down in front of Jack. "Teal'c has a touch of frostbite, but his symbiont will take care of that. Sam went off to commandeer herself a bunk somewhere. She'll drop by in the morning."
"Maybe by then I'll know who she is."
"Do you know me?"
"Yeah, of course. You're Jackson. Michael Jackson."
"No," corrected Daniel, "actually it's..." He stopped. Jack was giving him a cracked grin. "Aha."
Suddenly the grin faded and Jack put a hand to his head, brow creased.
"Are you okay?"
He nodded. "I'm okay. It's just that... it's coming in lumps. It's like... being made to look through a photo album of your life, raised to the power a hundred. All the stuff you didn't want to deal with the first time round is still there, yelling for attention." He paused. "It's weird, the things you remember."
"He died right at the end of November. There'd been an Indian summer; it was so mild you could sit out right up to the end of the year. The day we buried him the first frost hit. We drove to the funeral and Sarah kept telling me not to skid the car in the ice. As if it mattered. We'd ordered lilies and they died overnight in the cold, so the florist sent replacements. Roses. Yellow roses. Apparently they mean goodbye, or something like that. She threw them on to the coffin as we lowered it into the ground." His voice broke. "It was such a small coffin. I'd forgotten how small it was."
O'Neill cut him off. "I owe you an apology."
"It doesn't matter. Like I said, we all have our bad days."
Jack smiled, faint and slow. "And as bad days go, the last twenty four hours have been a doozy." He shrugged. "Thanks."
"Don't thank me," said Daniel quickly. "I don't know if I did the right thing."
"I didn't know it would be this difficult to take back."
"I'll survive." Jack reached under the newspaper and pulled out the holiday snapshot of himself with is family. "You told me to take back this as well." He tapped it with one finger. "June 21, 1990. Charlie was off school. I had leave to take, so did Sarah. We went to the beach. I taught him to pitch, we went swimming, he built sandcastles and we lay in the sun and talked until it got dark. It was damn near perfect." He shook his head. "It was perfect."
"Roses in December," said Daniel.
Jack nodded. "And the price is holly in July. But I get June twenty first, nineteen ninety back, and I can live with that deal."
He seemed to have nothing more to say, and they drank up in silence. When Daniel had finished, he got up to throw the cup in the trash, then walked the few extra paces to the door. He was about to leave when Jack spoke.
"I decided to go back because I figured... I figured if I'd told you something like that, I must trust you a hell of a lot. That swung it."
Daniel said nothing.
"And maybe sometimes I don't make it obvious enough." He swallowed. "I don't remember him dying. Mostly everything else, but not that. It's going to come soon. It might help, to talk..." He stopped, then looked up, straight at Daniel. "If you were ready to listen."
Daniel nodded, and returned to the seat at the table in the empty canteen. "I've always been ready," he said.
And on a cold world, circling a star so far away it was not visible in the skies above Cheyenne Mountain, spring came, ice melted, and the thaw began, at long last.