Sarah Gardner's psychologist met her for therapy in a little prefab house three kilometres outside the Alpha site. It was part of a ring of buildings in a forest clearing, semipermanent housing for the long-term offworld personnel. Sarah had commented once or twice, with a fixed sunny smile, that she couldn't ask for more scenic surroundings.
The two women walked to the gorge nearby, down a trail human feet had already marked and worn between the massive spicy-scented conifers. In the end-of-week sun, it was beautiful. A waterfall tripped and bounced off five different tiers of glimmering rock before plunging through a crevasse.
It was a fifty-foot drop and probably lethal. Helen Meyer's skin crawled just standing next to Sarah, watching the rainbows play in the light.
"Of course I think about it," Sarah said later, cradling a cup of tea. Her grandmother's teacups still adorned the upper shelves of a glass-fronted cupboard; she used those only for academic visitors and anyone above O-8. For acquaintances, colleagues, therapists, and friends, she took out handmade earthenware glazed in blue and green. Helen still hadn't got the story on those--whether they were something Sarah had bought, or ever made herself before an academic career swallowed her whole. The entire house was filled with personal possessions, things carefully packed and shipped across thirty thousand lightyears for a woman in recovery.
"Sarah," Helen said, wry and patient. Sarah grimaced and looked down, acknowledging a hit. She still tried to deny the daily effects of what had been done to her, but she knew from experience that Helen could outwait her denials.
"What does it matter? It's old news. It would be better for everyone, anyway."
"I don't believe that," Helen answered. Behind her calm, her heart sped up the way it often did with suicide on the table. The Air Force paid her salary; her clients had killed themselves with brutal efficiency before. Sarah had no sidearm, no; but instead of an armory there were kitchen knives and a waterfall. The memory of funerals laid at the edge of Helen's awareness like a scent that lingered on her clothes. She was too focused on the moment to really hear herself think, No matter how many times we do this, I'm still going to stay with you. "Neither do your coworkers. Neither does Daniel."
"Well, none of you know," Sarah blurted out. "You've never lived through what I have. You don't know anyone who has."
Helen's eyebrows went up. "I haven't heard you say that in a long time."
One minute Sarah shrugged, picking at some speck on the surface of the table. She was distracted and irritable, frowning at her tea. The next her face glided up and she met Helen's eyes with startling, sudden clarity. Inquiry traced the furrow of her eyebrows and the slight scrunch of her nose. "Daniel met a woman, he said. A fruitcake, practically. It's why he didn't go to Atlantis. She had been a host, too, and she used the knowledge to be very irritating." She waited for a very calm, silent pause, which her psychologist does not interrupt. "The memory stays with you. The technology... the language, too. But there is so little to connect it."
"You don't know what you're remembering," Helen said softly.
"I remember the death of a king, thousands of years ago." Sarah shook her head, frowning. "Before the Old Kingdom? But so much was gone, destroyed... We thought we knew the wonders of the world, were studying one of the greatest civilizations of the era. We saw the ruins, the things left behind when the old gods took their ships and fled. A king not on any papyrus." Back from memory and pain, she scowled, almost puzzled. "How can I cite that? What do I know? It's a memory that can't contribute to the body of knowledge, but if we only knew the size of what we were missing..."
Was it better, or worse, Helen thought, that Osiris--the Osiris--should take an Egyptologist as a host? Sarah's field of study was her passion, before; it haunted her now. Helen deliberately curled her hands around her empty cup, just to feel pottery meet skin. "Hearing about her affected you."
"Does she feel the same as me?" Sarah mused. "I wish I could ask her what she did with the memories. What it was like to heal."
"If she did," Helen murmured.
Sarah's nod acknowledged an old understanding; those words were hers. There were hours behind them, wondering about how to heal, if I can. Her commitment to life was... fragile, ever since her liberation. But it was something she'd lost, and found, before.
Watching Sarah Gardner pick a path back to understanding that day, Helen gathered her own pottery shard to her breast. She didn't know the size of what they were missing when it came to Egyptology. She maintained, in fact, a willful agnosticism to the Goa'uld presence on Earth, so very close to ancient Israel. That was a door she left unopened.
Her own discovery of the size of what she was missing came with the prosaic thought, my subject pool is too small. It swallowed in its smallness the immensity of her commitment: to study human pain, to understand it, and to find the situations that let people let it go. Sarah's incomprehension was a gift: for the first time, she was able to lift her eyes from the enormous, daunting work before her and realize there was a galaxy at her feet.
So far her studies on the effects of goa'uld possession encompassed only Earth-born participants and the enigmatic, mendacious Tok'ra. Until that moment she hadn't given thought to the fact of she-didn't-know-how-many liberated hosts, reeling with the rest of the galaxy in a decade of unprecedented change. Some might have been hosts not for days or months, but thousands of years. There was so much she could learn.
At the Alpha Site she summarized her meeting with Sarah and tucked the notes into a file. An item in her neglected inbox informed her that a mass-specific force field had already been installed at the mouth of the waterfall, "in case of accident," the memo reported blandly. She exhaled sharply, shook her head, and put it aside.
Then, checking her clock against her next appointment, she drew down a folder from the shelf above her desk, and extracted her copy of Guidelines for Research Proposals. It was not an official Air Force document, but a vast accumulation of knowledge on how to ask for the impossible. I want to interview some deeply dangerous, incredibly twitchy aliens would probably require cross-referencing the sections on non-Terran human research subjects with the "Embedded Field Research" chapter clearly cribbed from a field manual on espionage.
"Oh, don't worry, Sarah," she muttered, pulling out a pen. "You're not alone. I won't get to publish either."
Her research proposal got rejected once for a formatting error.
It got rejected again for budgetary reasons. That year, her back garden produced an unprecedented profusion of cucumbers and squash, and Sarah Gardner attempted suicide again. At a department meeting in November the head of a team of neurologists and cognitive neuropsychologists admitted that their project to artificially implant memories using alien technology had met "insurmountable roadblocks", and the Air Force would reallocate their funding. Helen and a small posse of SGC therapists met later for drinks in Dr. Aurora's living room, to celebrate with unprofessional glee. Old-fashioned therapy held little prestige next to the smooth glitter of neurons and wires, and the military grasped eagerly for a quick answer to PTSD and burnout; but in this case humanity won out over brains—and more importantly, they won back extra funding.
The January rejection was for the very best of reasons: she didn't have the necessary Gate travel credentials. She'd already taken two courses with the Air Force to get her first Gate clearance, the one that allowed to travel between her office at the Alpha Site and Colorado Springs and, with heavy supervision, to select Tok'ra bases. Now (with the kind permission, in triplicate, of six people in varying degrees of authority over her) she spent the month of February in training and came out with firearms clearance and the ability to ask for the bathroom on six different planets.
As soon as she got it approved, they shelved it again. The Tok'ra were having a bad month and didn't want to come out and play.
On the ides of March Operations sluiced her out of an elevator with disconcerting speed. She got in a Cheyenne Mountain elevator with a few people behind her and pressed the button for Level 22, on her way to lunch; the airman to her right inserted a key at the bottom of the panel and pressed 16. On her other side Colonel Doctor Russ said, "Helen, could you come with us, please?"
She blinked at the head of Stargate Command's medical research division, fighting back internal panic, and made herself say, "Of course."
"It'll take less than an hour," he said when they stepped out. To her relief, they walked past the entranceway to Level 16's holding cells and interrogation rooms, meeting instead in a medium-sized room furnished with a conference table and credenza. Its two residents stood up when they came in, then waited for Dr. Russ's companion to sit before settling down again.
Colonel, Colonel, Lt. Colonel, Airman, Helen counted off mentally; the latter two were a severe-looking Air Force woman and a young man who appeared to be the meeting's secretary. Reynolds, Russ, Bedola, Harper. "Dr. Meyer," the woman said with a nod.
"We hear you've been having trouble getting some research off the ground," Dr. Russ said. It was friendly and personable enough that she hardly needed to nod before he continued. "We have an asset our interrogators can't figure out. You have experience with goa'uld hosts."
"I don't interrogate," she said, uncertain and creaky but she had to get it out.
"We're not asking you to," Colonel Reynolds said smoothly.
"We just need your clinical impression of her health and stability," Dr. Russ told her.
"Veracity," Bedola murmured.
"Um," Helen said.
Airman Harper procured a file, apparently due to telepathic prompting, which Dr. Russ passed to her.
"This individual claims to have been a host to the goa'uld Qetesh for years," Reynolds said. "Which is how she explains her ability to manipulate our security and computer systems. But frankly, we just suspect she's just been buying the information off a leak."
"Naquadah?" Helen asked, flipping the file open.
"We haven't been able to use a measure that can't be faked. What we're asking you to do is to submit an opinion on whether or not her behaviour is consistent with a goa'uld host's." Dr. Russ leaned forward. "We can send you the rest of the information through the regular channels. If you're willing to leave at the beginning of next week, you can meet her at a neutral location for an interview."
Meanwhile, Helen's fingers rested over the date of an excerpt on the report, and a pottery shard. "This is Daniel Jackson's fruitcake," she pronounced. "She's the one who stole the Prometheus."
She could only see two of them at a time. Colonel Reynolds said nothing, but Dr. Russ smothered panic with placation. "That's really not—"
"Does it matter?" Colonel Bedola interjected.
Helen turned. "What?"
"Is there a reason you need to know? Is it relevant to your research?"
Helen stopped a moment, to make sure of her answer. "No. Not outright. But if she is, then I want to talk to her very much."
"Then are you good for Monday?"
I do love a woman who doesn't bullshit, Helen thought. "Monday is wonderful."
"0600," Colonel Reynolds said, then got up again. "You will submit your report separately, through secure channels."
"I know how," Helen said, and did not swear about the early morning.
The things she did for research.
Helen felt kind of like a secret agent as she nursed her beer. This was a proverbial seedy establishment; twenty minutes ago, someone had dragged someone else out back for a shit-kicking, and there were sand particles in the bread. She was unmolested at her corner table because she had a zat'nik'itel sitting next to her drink, and because she'd bribed the proprietor's beefy cousin with a small medallion of naquadah. No one even asked about the video recorder on its tripod, perhaps too used to novel technology by now.
Everyone in the room noticed when her participant swanned in. Vala Mal Doran lived up to the reputation of a woman who singlehandedly hijacked the Tau'ri flaship; today she ornamented the leather she'd been poured into with a pair of energy guns and a semiautomatic pistol. Wonder where she got that one, Helen thought; the galactic black market in Earth weaponry was a pricy one. Vala appeared to be old friends with the beefy cousin and currently feuding with a pair of traders in the back; when they began to rise she waggled her fingers and announced, "I'm not here for you today, boys."
There was a slight something that developed when a person had been a host for too long. You learned to see it, but it couldn't be trained; it was a second sight, like spotting dissociation or drug withdrawal. It was just a trick in the movements, an almost indiscernibly conspicuous lack of hesitation that said the body-brain interface in this person had been broken down and rebuilt from scratch. Helen could see it, and so could her team leader, Raji; the other two researchers never knew what they were talking about. But whatever it was, this woman had it in spades.
Helen removed her zat from the table when Vala sauntered up and pulled the privacy screen over to shield their table, and holstered it when she plopped down in the empty seat. Vala picked up what was left of the loaf of bread on the table and chewed a broken-off crust, making a slight moué when she encountered grit.
"Thank you for coming," Helen said.
"Yes, well, I was curious," Vala replied airily. "You people ordinarily insist on much heavier reinforcement."
"The only reason I'll use force today is if I need to get myself home safely." Helen took a deep breath, meeting Vala's eyes; like at home, it signalled sincerity. "I'm not military, and I don't enforce laws. I'm a scholar and a truth-seeker. All I ask is that you talk to me, and help me understand what I need to know. You can walk away at any time. You are free to say no."
Vala's mouth tightened warily. "What is it you want to understand?"
Another complicated answer. "I'm a clinical psychologist. That is, I try to understand and treat mental illness. I... cure madness. Part of how we accomplish that is learning as much as we can about what we want to treat."
"You believe that I am mad?"
She shook her head. "No. But you said you were a host."
She could see Vala's face change, as she processed that. Could see the appearance of small, sad lines around her mouth and eyes. "That's not something you can heal."
Expressing empathy for that pain, she thought, would undermine her credibility; what she needed was to shore it up. "The other hosts I've talked to say it is a source of eternal pain," Helen said. "That their minds are forever changed."
"Whatever I was before, I'm not that anymore."
"I know." Carefully discarding a half-dozen responses, she continued, "Nothing can take you back to how you were before. That will never be within my power to do. Every event in our life... shapes us." She'd almost said leaves scars, but remembered more than one SGC veteran who'd lamented that their experience hadn't left a scar, or only a tiny one at the nape of the neck. "But what shape you take afterward--the new thing you become--is individual to each person. There is variation. Some people recover relatively easy--within a year they are happy, functional; they have returned to their families and jobs. Some are shaken, years later. They have evil dreams; they sometimes feel like the other is still controlling their body, or they are caught in old memories. Sometimes they shake and faint for no reason, or cannot sleep, or become alarmed and afraid because of some small reminder."
Then she stopped and lifted her beer to her lips, because Vala's face was white. Shock had driven the colour out of it, when Helen had begun by mentioning nightmares. When the woman didn't recover composure, Helen began speaking softly.
"Vala? Vala, thank you for meeting me in this bar. You came to Nal'gar to meet me. Vala, I'm glad we've been talking here. It's safe. Can you believe it's been nine years since the death of Ra? Now that you're not a host anymore, you're free. I would love to keep talking with you, Vala."
When Vala sucked in a deep breath, and shook her head violently, Helen knew she could leave off. Research interviews--or therapy--sometimes meant losing the other person to a flashback or fugue. She tried to re-orient them to time and place as best she could. Would it occur to anyone to fake that? "Okay, Vala, I do want to talk to you. If you want to help me understand what it's like, not being a host anymore, let me know. We can meet sometime in the future."
Quickly leaving her confusion behind, Vala narrowed her eyes. "What's wrong with today?"
"I have no objection to today." Helen shrugged. "You can talk or not at your choosing. I wanted to remind you that you can choose to walk away."
Vala shook her head vehemently. "I'm fine. I think I'm doing pretty well for myself, really. But I always was tough. It takes a lot to bother me."
Out of context, that line probably fooled a lot of people, Helen thought.
"All right," she said. "I do have some standard questions to ask you--the same ones I've asked other hosts, to make sure I get the same information from everybody. But you can add anything else you think at any time."
Vala nodded, bouncing slightly in her seat now. Helen reached over and triple-checked her camcorder's screen, knowing that she'd review the tape innumerable times, questioning her gut instinct. She used no other props; she'd completely memorized her interview questions months ago. This was going to be one big show of I'm-Fine armor, she thought, as Vala tackled the questions with alacrity and flair.
It felt like she was in the clear, having nailed the first half; the critical incident investigation, of what had helped and hindered recovery, would be a mop-up. "What was your biggest concern, immediately after you were freed from the symbiote?"
"My own people," Vala said bleakly, and Helen discovered she was wrong.
Her assessment of Vala was whatever counted as a success. Russ and Reynolds were pleased; she got a good performance review; and the Tok'ra coughed up a list of planets they'd dumped old hosts on.
Helen carefully crossed out the cases that exceeded a human lifespan, which was a consideration the symbiotes paid sketchy court to. None of the listed hosts had been freed for more than two hundred years, which was at least in the right millenium. She also noted, with faint misgiving, that Vala's name and planet were listed without comment.
She visited two SGC-approved planets without finding anyone who had seen or heard from a goa'uld host. She struck… something… on the third.
"We pray for him," the priest said gravely, as they sat in front of a temple alcove. Helen's mind skittered, distracted, trying out words for the case inside. Altar? Tabernacle? Ark? They ascended into frantic blasphemy, each more inappropriate than the last. The bones had been lovingly cleaned of flesh and polished with a dark lacquer, then piled into the display; Helen tried not to think of oxblood shoe polish, tried not to count the scattered vertebrae. "We have had dark days, since he returned and defiled our home, but we purified his body. We pray that without his ba, his ka will wander, and tell all the gods our tale. It is how he will earn a place in the realm of Osiris, once the darkness of his soul is healed."
Osiris is dead, Helen didn't say. She kept her mouth shut around her modified interview. In the days following the extraction, did you notice any changes in this person's sleeping patterns? She'd already kept bile from rising past her throat once this morning.
Maybe I should cut back on my coffee, she thought.
At the end of the interview she bowed, as was culturally appropriate, and thanked the priest for his teaching. Then she packed antacid and Dramamine for planets four, five, and six.
"It's the 1970s. The fucking 1970s. All over again."
Helen thumped down the sheaf of papers, thick files, and notebooks. Her supervisor eyed her a little warily, perhaps not unused to the concept of medical files being used as offensive weapons. Helen began to pace. Offensive is the word for it.
"Their idea of 'humane treatment' is to remove the symbiote and dump the host back at point of origin in a matter of days, Raji. Like they don't care. So I say to one of them, 'Hey, isn't that part of the area the goa'uld ruled?' and she blinks at me and goes, 'Enlightened cultures understand the distinction between symbiote and host.' So I say, 'What about unenlightened cultures?' and she just goes, 'We cannot fight every battle.' But it's not just resources. It's prejudice. It's like these hosts are unclean. 'Yeah, the symbiote was horrible, so we'll mop shit off the floor, not that we care about it.' You can tell a forcible host just gives them the heebie jeebies and they can't wait to get that sucker outta there. Just dump them back into the community--man, now a cardboard box and begging for change on a streetcorner is starting to look good in comparison. Some of these hosts get ritually tortured. No fucking wonder everyone's got PTSD." She was shaking, and embarrassed. She still had no way to make this report in a dispassionate way. "I've got a plan. An idea. I'm going to get the Tok'ra to put me in charge of newly-extracted hosts, and I'm going to hunt down the old ones. The SGC wants long-term data badly enough. I'm meeting with the grant committee again in a month. I'm going to go into that meeting and tell them that my subject pools are disappearing because the Tok'ra don't do follow-up, and I'm going to get long-term residential care. And if I can't get residential care, I'll get rehoming to secure locations and longitudinal study. And if I can't get secure locations I'll get community advocacy. And if I can't get community advocacy I am going to go hit people because anything would be better than what these people have now."
After a minute, Dr. Aurora said, carefully, "So you need my help writing a funding proposal."
Helen stared at him for a minute, breathing raggedly, feeling like a wild-haired madwoman. This entire line of research had been so frustrating and so lonely, she'd counted on getting one good rant in before the department told her to swallow shit. "Honestly? I expected you to say, 'That's terrible, but we can't…'"
"Fight every battle?" Raji suggested gently.
She hated feeling small and put on the spot, like there was something she was missing thanks to her outrage. "Well, yeah."
Raji folded his hands, regarding her frankly. "Helen, if we have learned nothing else by now, it's that your ambition matches your tenacity. This program is learning that its technological answers are not everything it dreamed, and it is going to need manpower and experience. In this project, I see a way to speak to people with vast knowledge." His eyes glimmered. "And in you, I see a person to do the work for me."
She felt her way to a chair, and sat. "You mean it? Seriously? Taking the hosts in?"
"Oh, and even putting them on payroll. The military is promoting a new initiative to recruit offworld natives onto their teams."
Breath filled her lungs like a bird straining upwards. "Seriously. Seriously. Raji, one of them stole a ship."
He spread his hands. "They will not have to train her how to fly it."
She narrowed her eyes at him. "'Her'? You've read that file."
Conspiratorially he said, "Recruiting has asked me to give her an assessment."
"For an SG team?" She sat back, and began to laugh. "This job, Raji. This job. I'll have to remember to keep asking for the moon. You actually do have enough in surplus sitting around. "
"Oh, yes," he agreed. "It just takes a while to get them out of storage."