Two bay horses, one more golden, one more red -- red as the clay dust of the world where their riders had found each other. That world had been home to one, simply a mission to the other, long ago.... by some measurement.
Two horses, hooves reaching for earth as they run, reaching and not finding for a long, anguished moment -- for moments can stretch as long as a human life, in the between of the Gates.
And ground becomes solid under their feet. Horses and men, both relieved, lean forward as the hoofbeats slow, glancing about as they strive to understand where they are, what manner of world they'll encounter, this time.
The Road was there, as it always was. They found it just a little aside from the hard-packed dirt that lay before the Gate. A narrow expanse of dirt, a little straggly grass forcing itself across the unforgiving surface, and to the left a sharp rise and the shoulder of the Road.
Daniel glanced back over his shoulder at the great mass of the Gate, dark outline and eerie light within, all in silhouette against the starry sky, for it was full night here, and then leaned forward, minding his balance as Red gained the top of the slope with a push and a lurch. Jack was a few strides ahead, to his right, and Daniel caught a glimmer of star sheen in Changeling's blade as Jack pulled it just a few inches from the sheath. The shifting colors in the crystal verified their nearness to the Gate; its brightness meant this was probably the world's master Gate, and perhaps its only one. So far, no surprises with the alien blade, or with the quiet night around them.
Daniel's attention was diverted to the Road beneath them. Unlike the massive blocks -- often twisted by time and growth -- that marked the Gate-builder's roads on most planets, this was solid as stone, but unbroken -- great slabs that Red and Sandy's hooves struck with a duller sound than paving stone. They slowed to a trot as Daniel pulled even with Jack.
"I've never seen paving like this before," Daniel murmured.
"True." Jack shook his head. "I haven't seen the like of it for a long time. We used to call it 'concrete.' "
"Is it some sort of stone?"
"No, it's manmade. It's a process. Takes a lot of machinery, a lot of..."
Jack trailed off, and Daniel followed his gaze up and to the right. A flat panel, huge, supported on poles -- like a banner, but solid. And writing -- large and stylized, in the qualur language, which Daniel had learned from Jack in the first months of their partnership, a learning as easy for him as breathing. In the bright starlight the words were easily seen -- a name, probably a place name, with an arrow, and numbers -- probably a distance measure.
"Jack," Daniel breathed, even as Jack reined Sandy aside and headed for the downward slope to their left and what looked like a tumble of stones not far distant. "Jack -- this must be a world with technology."
Sandy had picked up the pace, and to follow, Daniel set his heels to Red. The outcrop of stones revealed itself to be something else entirely... a cluster of rundown buildings, sharp edged and tall. Similar in dimension to the hidden buildings on every world which concealed the machines that controlled the Gates. But more. So many more.
"Let's get under cover," Jack said, over his shoulder, leading the way into the buildings' shadow.
"You never like camping this close to the first Gate on a world," Daniel observed, continuing their conversation, when they'd unsaddled the horses and were seated, eating a cold meal, with drink of only water, all brought from the world they had just left, along with a scant bit of grain for the animals. They'd left their previous world in a bit of a rush, and the break for rest here and now was unusual but very welcome to Daniel. Both were tired, but caught up by the excitement and strangeness of the world they'd arrived at.
"I know, but I've never -- well, not never, but not in a long time, have happened on a world like this one."
"One with things like 'concrete' and highway signs made of metal," Daniel said. 'Concrete' was a new word for him.
"Right. It makes me think we may have gone back in time as well as going across space."
Jack looked abstracted, his thoughts far away. When he glanced up, the spill of stars reflected in his dark eyes and picked out shining highlights in his hair. When people met him, they usually assumed the silver hair was due to age, and Jack was content to let them assume that. For one thing, it often let him get a surprise advantage in a hand-to-hand fight. Jack liked allowing people to underestimate him. But sometimes it served his purposes to tell others what Daniel knew -- that Jack was indeed old, but by the power of the Gates, not by his body's years. Silver hair was a mark of the ancient race he was part of. Not entirely human, was Jack. But that fact was often a danger to them when they arrived as they had here, at a new place, their mission unchanged but the way to accomplish it usually a terrible puzzle, dependent on people, on geography, on piecing together clues from past and sometimes future.
Daniel had accepted as fact that Jack was old, that the Gates were windows on new times as well as new places, but this was the first time in their wanderings together that Jack had speculated that a present world was old.
He glanced up and around as he finished eating. They had stopped in an alcove created by a building that had perhaps once been a tower. Small trees and bushes and pushed up nearby, apparently spilling out of a round area of dirt that had been set aside for greenery among more concrete and stone and metal. Buildings and ruins of buildings were all around them, but nearby was a spot where four ways came together.
"I'd like to see this by daylight," Jack went on. "We should sleep now, and get a better view of things in the morning. I'll take the first watch." Daniel raised his eyebrows. Often their first few days on a new world were night rides, to avoid detection until they had an idea of what they might meet. Or who.
By daylight, it was a strange landscape they wended through. Daniel judged that the buildings might have been disturbed by an earthquake at some point in the recent past, and the arid climate here had kept the sparse vegetation from overwhelming the ruins. There was no sign of living people, though a few birds accompanied them and small things rustled at the edges of what vegetation they passed. The city had been laid out in neat blocks, and everywhere underfoot was the concrete. They kept under the shadow of the ruins as much as they could. Larger, taller ruins gave way to smaller ones, and then there was open space. In the distance bridges rose and spanned an area where rusted metal rails, all parallel, crossed their path. One of the spans had crumbled in the middle. As twilight fell, they were in an area where the buildings were starker in construction and more widely spaced. Piles of machinery lay between some of the ruins.
Just as Daniel was about to suggest finding some cover for the night, Jack drew rein and extended a hand to stop him. Daniel pulled up too, and as Jack pointed, ahead and to the left, he saw it. A light, shining steadily. It was not the flickering red glow of firelight. It was too steady and clear for that. It was coming from a partially collapsed building that had once been somewhat long and low. Daniel frowned. Jack turned aside, in the lee of a ruin.
"Stay here," Jack said, and slid from his saddle, allowing the reins to drop to the paving. "Be ready to run." His well-trained horse would, like Daniel's, stand where Jack left her, until he or Daniel pulled her away. As he moved, staying to the shadows, he pulled his sword to his hip and loosened it in the sheath. Daniel slid quietly to the ground and bent his bow. He watched, concealed as much as possible by the corner, as Jack crept closer to the source of the light. He vanished from Daniel's view for a time, and then in the deepening twilight, Daniel heard him call out, but couldn't make out the words. The light they had been following abruptly vanished. Then Daniel could see movement in an opening in the building near where the light had come from. Someone else's voice, a stranger's voice, demanding. A woman's voice. And there was Jack, walking into the open, hands spread out to either side. The other came out too, holding something low in front of her, and apparently they talked. Their voices were too low for Daniel to hear. They stood unmoving.
In another moment or two Daniel's impatience would have gotten the better of him and he would have risked edging closer, trying at least to get within bow range, to protect Jack and to try to overhear their words. But just in time, Jack turned toward Daniel and whistled -- the lilting three notes they'd agreed on long ago that meant all was well. The woman turned away and vanished, and there was the light again. Daniel released the breath he hadn't known he was holding and gathered the horses' reins, leading them to Jack.
"Her name is Sam," Jack said. "She's agreed to talk to us, and shelter us for the night."
"Who is she?"
"Long story, I think. It looks like she's alone hereabouts, but she's definitely armed."
"You know how I love stories," Daniel said, winning a sideways smile from Jack. They found a place to halter the horses and tie them, and give them a meager dinner from their fast-dwindling bags of grain. They unsaddled them as well, collecting their personal gear. There was no way to picket the horses, in the unforgiving concrete that covered the earth here, but with the halters and some extra rope they could eat and take their ease, though confined.
As they worked, Daniel turned to find the woman, Sam, standing just outside the broken doorway, regarding them and frowning. She was dressed strangely, in a close-woven black shirt with long sleeves and a high collar that clung to her form, and split pants such as a man might wear in the coldest winter on Daniel's long-lost homeworld. The fabric was as fine a weave as he'd ever seen. Another glance told him what it was that she'd held low in her grip while she first spoke with Jack. It was a weapon the twin of the broken one that Jack carried in his pack.
The sight of it made Daniel's eyes widen, and he turned back to his saddle bags to hide his reaction from the stranger. When Daniel had first known Jack, his hand weapon was a formidable device that spit a thin tongue of fire hot as any sun, yet focused in its destruction. Further, its sensitive controls allowed Jack to use it to slice open surprised enemies with a single shot, or set alight the fragile kindling for their fire, of an unguarded evening. Magic, folk usually called it, naming Jack witch with the same breath. Daniel knew better. But a while back, the weapon had suddenly failed -- thankfully, not in the middle of a battle.
After, Jack had worked over it with his jealously guarded set of finely honed qual tools, half of one whole night, cursing in frustration, and finally had put its several pieces back together and dropped it. He'd leaned over, elbows on his knees, his hands in his short hair, and finally with a long sigh of frustration had explained to Daniel that it was hopeless -- that the small piece that renewed the weapon's power through the light of sun had failed, and that he had no means to repair or -- outrageous wish, like flowers in winter -- replace it.
On three worlds, Jack had taken precious time to search the Gates' control buildings, even enlisting Daniel's help to smash open locked cupboards, in a futile search for the part he needed.
And here was Sam, with the same style of weapon. One that, presumably, was still in deadly working order.
Daniel knew, then, one reason at least that Jack, solitary by preference, except for his loyal partner, had risked closer association with her this night.
Hope leaped in him. His mind raced, as he finished unpacking and making sure Red had his needs met, and then followed Jack inside with the woman. All the clues were adding up -- Jack's hints about time, the obvious technology of this world, Sam's clothing, her weapon. This was a world the like of which he had never yet visited. But obviously it was the type of world that had sent Jack out on his unforgiving mission an incalculable time ago.
And then another hope flared in Daniel's heart, and his thoughts turned to the precious sheaf of writings that he carried, as superfluous to their daily survival as Jack's dead weapon, by some judgments, but a project guarded and encouraged by Jack no less than by Daniel's own desire. Writings, which he kept and added to, always -- on parchment, on rolled skin, on the rare qual- style bound book. They were background, archives, the makings of his own Book, distillation of hard-won knowledge gathered from a half-lifetime spent in Jack's company, Daniel the hasty student of the libraries and priesthoods of a dozen worlds, and as many languages of Men. There was never time. Never enough time, to learn all that he would learn, though all that he learned -- and in this Jack always agreed -- could certainly help them. But his quest for knowledge was forever balanced on a knife-edge against Jack's sense of haste and urgency. The need that drove him, and so perforce drove Daniel, was unrelenting and merciless, and so must Jack be when Daniel begged, always and loudly, for more time. More time! So much he could learn -- so much that would help Jack. If he could stay, if it could be allowed.
There was never enough time.
But to be fair -- as Daniel was pulled away from libraries and databanks and books and monasteries and nunneries and archives -- there was also the perilously gained knowledge of more than a lifetime that Jack had showered on him; knowledge of the qual and their ruined civilization. All that Jack would share, Daniel was avid to learn, to know. That teaching was a treasure for the language alone, which Daniel had mastered within a few months, as Daniel calculated months, of joining Jack and swearing to travel at his side. But there was more than language. There was the people, the ways, that had birthed the language in all its intricacy and beauty. There was the memory of a lost world, a lost age, that had set Jack and his dead comrades on their terrible quest. Memories that he and Jack alone were the keepers of now, he thought.
So much knowledge. For Daniel, the knowledge was enough -- whether it had any purpose, any use, in the world or not. For Daniel, the knowing alone was goal and purpose. But for love of Jack, and in submission to Jack's geas, Daniel had done more. Had focused on a project that was central to Jack's mission, not his own. And he knew that to Jack, this one work of Daniel's was the crown and purpose to all, and perhaps the reason he had continued to accept Daniel as a partner. Daniel's special work, a blessing, a curse, or both at once: A deadly and pointed set of writing -- measured and compassed by Jack's deadly alien blade, and set forth carefully, much revised, much edited for the maximum in clarity so that it could never have the slightest possibility of being misunderstood. Writing set out in two tongues. Writing composed with the hope that it might save the Universe -- and with the knowledge that it might instead destroy it. Just as the two of them, Jack and Daniel, lived in the hope of saving the Universe while always knowing that they might unwittingly preside over its final fall.
This writing was a constant project of theirs, a source of conversation and of inspiration, revised over and over in rare times of rest, on worlds where they arrived to find the Gate deserted, no war nor intrigue, and sometimes no folk at all.
This work was a point where their skills and purposes converged: Jack, bound to his fate of destroying the Gates, with Changeling his means of doing so. Daniel, sworn to stay by Jack, yet driven by nothing more nor less than the love of learning that even the fight for food and shelter on his homeworld had never eclipsed. But for all it was a source of hope and industry for them both, it was doomed to fail without the proper technology.
The writings were meant to be inscribed upon Changeling. They were instructions for those whom hope insisted would come after, safeguard against a day, Jack said, when no one would be there to teach.
A charge and the means to carry it out, written forever upon that terrible crystal blade.
So. Sam. With her strange garb, her hand weapon, her life -- Daniel wished to learn its details -- upon this ruined world that, he guessed, was so close in nature to Jack's own.
She led them indoors, and once Daniel was inside he saw with Jack's eyes how the broken room was sheltered, yet with windows that gave a vantage on three sides, so that someone might bide here, protected, and yet see anyone approaching. It was a tribute to Jack's stealthiness that he had gotten close enough to see inside without Sam knowing. If she had a weapon the like of Jack's, Daniel knew, she would not fear ambush, even from two or three sides at once. As Jack had taught him, his thought immediately turned to all the ways of exit, and sure enough he marked a sturdy ladder beside a ruined staircase, leading above. Sam must have a means of escape that way as well.
And she ... worked here. Daniel's eye traveled over the room -- those strange, steady lights, splayed over a large table strewn with metal objects strange to his eye, objects he couldn't identify but which resembled the pieces of the weapon, but in many sizes and shapes. And more tables, against the walls, and unknown technology, stacked and tumbled against the walls and on shelves.
Scavenger, Daniel internally named her. And probably, he added, as his heart leapt again, seeing the bound books in one corner, the shelves, the bank of blinking lights, as many as in the Gate-control buildings, scholar, no less than himself; no less than Jack, in his way.
She continued down the large room, away from the overhead light and the work table, to an area with a smaller table, near one corner, and Daniel saw a pallet and stacks of regular packed items that might be supplies. And a picture, propped against a shelf -- so lifelike that it took his breath. He moved closer, heedless of Jack or their host, to look. The face of man, eerily lifelike, stern, with dark eyes, and old, as signaled by his bald head, but a warmth in the gaze that looked out.
"Daniel," Jack said, calling him out of his amazement. He turned, recalling his manners. "Sorry," Jack continued. "He's easily distracted." He spoke the qualur language -- not always his first choice, especially with residents of new worlds.
"It's all right," Sam said, standing by the smaller table. She gestured to a clear area of the floor near her pallet. "Sit, if you want to." Jack moved toward the place she indicated, immediately, signaling by his body language that he saw no threat. Daniel turned and did the same, sitting and busying himself with arranging his gear while he listened. Sam went on, "That's a photo of my father. He's been dead for a long time, but I like having the memory of him nearby."
"Your father," Jack said, taking notice of the picture for the first time. Daniel had seen this in him before -- his awareness of their surroundings expanding, it seemed, almost to the horizon, so that his attention had to be drawn back to the details with an effort.
"Yes," Sam said, as she moved to put the table between them and sit. Daniel noted she had not laid down her weapon.
Jack had arrested himself as he was sinking to sit, started, stood up and stared at the picture and then walked closer, as Daniel had done. Two breaths, three, as Daniel watched Jack and Sam in turn, and she them.
"Impressive," Jack said, and turned back to sit beside Daniel. But Daniel, through long acquaintance, could tell he was shaken.
"So," Sam said, the weapon still in her hand. "You speak the language, and you obviously have to have come through the Gate. Who are you? What do you want?"
"Going through Gates is kind of our thing," Jack said.
"As far as anyone here knows, the method of directing the destination is long lost. How do you know where you are going, if Gate travel is your ... thing?" Daniel felt she was trying not to smile. Jack often had that effect on people. Unless he goaded them into trying to shoot him first.
"We don't," Jack said.
That obviously took Sam aback. "Why would you do that? Travel with no idea where the Gates will spit you out?"
"We like surprises?"
Sam's impatient head shake told them she wasn't prepared to accept that as a reason.
Jack cleared his throat. "What do you know about the Gates?"
"Quite a bit, actually. I've done a lot of reading."
"Then you know that our ancestors pretty well mucked up time and space by their meddling," Jack offered. Daniel, shaken but not showing it, tried to absorb this knowledge that Jack had concluded Sam was one of his own people. Her fair hair and pale eyes might tell the tale, true, but it was rare that Jack judged the qual or their halfling descendants on any world to be solid allies.
Sam's face fell. "Yes, that is clear."
"Well, there is a method to our madness. We are trying to fix what they messed up."
"So you're not just traveling through the Gates, touring space and time for an adventure." Sam's face changed. "You're closing them. Behind you."
Jack sat, impassive, his hands linked loosely around his knees. Daniel stiffened. This was the moment, for good or for ill, when any new people they met discovered that the two of them were either friend or foe.
Sam was silent a time, thinking it over. What she must know, Daniel thought, yearning, casting his eyes over the untidy and crowded room. She must be like a university of one. Where were the others who must live on this planet? Why was she alone?
Sam met Jack's eyes again. "Look at you -- medieval technology. Nothing more. How do you know about the implosions of space-time? Where are you from?"
"First let me know what you would say if I told you I really could close the Gate back there. Forever."
Sam's eyes got round. "Why would I care? We don't use it; we don't dare. No one wants to follow those explorers from a decade ago into oblivion. Sure, some believe we could find a way to choose the destination, but I don't think so. The stars have shifted too much, and the subspace radiation..." She stopped herself and shook her head. "I agree with you that the universe has been warped too far. Using the Gates may actually make things worse, at this point."
Jack asked, deceptive in his casualness, "Gates. Is the one back there, at the edge of town, the only one?"
"On this planet? That we know of, yes. But you see how things are. We are all scavengers now. Especially since the earthquake." She frowned and met Jack's eyes again, undiverted by his question or her memories. "You want to close our Gate. Permanently."
Jack bowed, managing to make it fairly graceful, sitting as he was.
"You can do this?" Sam insisted.
Jack bowed again. Daniel was on high alert. Some, when they heard of Jack's plans and the means he had to carry them out, changed into enemies in a flash.
"Holy --" Sam cut herself off again and sat there, thinking, her grip never wavering on the weapon. "Show me," she said, finally, her eyes lighting up with the eagerness of discovery that Daniel recognized all too well.
It was nearly dawn before they could tear themselves away from her questions. Jack would offer sparse, pointed answers, and she would fill in information, a flood of new terms and new ideas, then interrupt herself to ask Jack more questions -- questions of all kinds; about their work, the worlds they'd seen, his history. Daniel was pulled into the discussion too; Jack deferring to him on finer points of non-qual language and terminology. She seemed utterly unfazed, but incredibly fascinated and horrified in equal measure, by Changeling. By the end Daniel was taking notes. Lots of notes. Her knowledge was the wide-ranging and connected sort that he craved; Jack often limited his interest to only the things he needed immediately, unless it was some branch of lore that interested him for its own sake, such as the nature of the stars and the legends people kept about them. As they talked, Daniel now pacing and thinking and trying to write all at once, Jack looking on with amusement, Sam noticed his criss crossed parchment, and that he was fast coming to the end of any space needed to record more than a bare outline.
"Here," she said, getting up and going to a drawer, still holding the weapon. She pulled out -- Gods -- she pulled out books, blank books, a handful of them. Precious paper, precious blank pages, all bound in leather. Tears came to his eyes. He sat down across from her, pulling up a makeshift seat, a box of some strange angular substance, hard as wood but not wood, and turned to a beautiful amazing blank page and continued to write.
"Such a gift," he murmured, and went on, continuing the thread she and Jack had started, learning new terminology every third or fourth word, stopping them to explain. It was dizzying. It was amazing. History, magic, research, technology, the fruit of two worlds, their people, their doom. His mind was full.
Finally Jack called a halt. "We've been traveling all day," he said apologetically.
"Oh, of course," Sam said. "Sorry. You can see how excited all this makes me. We don't get many visitors; none at all, in fact, since I was very small. Please. Pick a spot and rest. Breakfast is on me."
"Perhaps next door?" Jack said.
"Of course," Sam said, going to the doorway and pointing. "Everything that was going to collapse, has. You can have your pick of places out of the rain; even take the animals in with you, if you like."
Indeed, as they had talked and talked, under the steady light that needed no feeding to keep it going, it had begun to rain outside -- a slow, steady shower.
"They are horses," Daniel offered. The word was unknown in the qualur tongue; he supplied the one from his own world.
"Horses," Sam repeated, as if tasting the syllables. "They are very beautiful. I imagine they are quite intelligent, if you can train them to let you ride," she said, with a hint of wistfulness.
"Intelligent and more than a bit willful," Daniel said. "We can show you more in the morning."
"I'd like that," Sam said, and smiled. "You should be quite safe. I haven't seen anything resembling an enemy in a long time." Then she turned serious. "Assuming that you two are friends."
"That we are," Jack said emphatically, and he beckoned to Daniel and they took their leave for the night.
They pulled the horses into a wide echoing building nearby. Daniel had feared water was going to be their chief problem, until Sam supplied them with soft, closed containers, full to the brim and heavy, and some large metal bowls that the horses drank from without hesitation.
Lying on their blankets on the unforgiving floor, Daniel stared up into the cool, starless darkness, listening to creatures like bats coming and going far above them. They had risked shedding their armor, on Sam's assurance of the utter rarity of strangers.
"It could really happen here, couldn't it?" he said, knowing by his breathing that Jack was awake too, close by his side. Their elbows were touching. "She most likely has a way to write on the sword."
Jack sighed. "I wouldn't doubt it. And, Daniel..." here Jack rose to lean on his elbow and look down at Daniel, though there was little to see in the thick darkness. Daniel had long suspected Jack's night vision was much better than his own. "...it's also likely that she has parts for the weapon. You saw she has one like the broken one I've been carrying."
"Yes." He felt Jack's hand on his cheek, reassurance for them both, perhaps, and put his hand over Jack's wrist.
"It's too weird," Jack said, "to find a place like this. A place with so much technology. It's very likely we're in the past. I'll have to think about how that could work. I don't recall a place, ever, that I thought was going to be in the past. Sam may know something about that, too."
"You trust her to talk about those things?"
"Not sure yet. She's definitely one of my people, though, and if Jacob Carter was her father....It's such a surprise."
"It's nothing like my world. And nothing like the last few. Everything she works with, we would have thought of as magic or witchcraft."
Jack fell silent then, and Daniel could almost hear him thinking. He squeezed Jack's wrist and bent a knee, just a little, to bring his leg against the warmth of Jack's. The bats wheeled and spoke above them, just out of range of hearing, but a living presence all the same. The dark was thick.
"You could stay here, you know," Jack said suddenly. "Sam and you seemed to be hitting it off, and there's so much for you to learn."
Daniel, stung, returned, "You always did say I was a fool to come along with you."
Jack chuckled. Did he miss the undercurrent of what Daniel wasn't saying? If he did it was a sign of his distraction. "Well, once we get the sword inscribed, IF we get the sword inscribed, no one would blame you if you chose a life of less peril and more research. That's what you love best, after all."
I love YOU best, after all, Daniel thought. He pulled his hand away from Jack's and clenched his fist. Aloud, he said, "You would travel lighter alone. But isn't it less dangerous for you with someone at your back? Even a second-rate archer from a backwater world?" He made his tone much lighter than his mood.
"You know it is." Another caress, and Jack leaned down to kiss him, softly, briefly, unerring even in the dark. "And you are first-rate and you know it. You mastered that as you've mastered the languages and the strategies and everything else. But... it's so much more dangerous for you. I just hate to see all your knowledge going to waste."
"How much use would it be here? Once you've left through their Gate again and destroyed it behind you?"
"Well, this world has the infrastructure" -- another unfamiliar word, though Daniel could easily parse its meaning from the syllables. Jack was thoughtlessly changing how he spoke, in this new place, surrounded by the technology from his own strange past -- "to make knowledge last. It's nice to know that somewhere the records will outlive us. That everything isn't being destroyed. And maybe someday, somewhere, someone smart like you or like Sam will find a way to link the worlds together again. Not by the Gates, but some other way. Maybe like the Gates, or maybe a way to travel through space. I've been told, long ago, that the qual and even some of the humans were close to creating ships that could bridge those distances, before the Gates made things way too easy."
Knowledge, Daniel thought. Yes, it was good that knowledge would outlive them all. But he'd come to understand, since Jack had stolen his heart, that knowledge without someone to share it was too thin and bloodless a hope for him to live on. He wondered how Sam stood it, if she were indeed alone here. He pushed aside his bitter worry that once the writing on the sword was done, Jack would welcome the chance to go on alone. "Do you believe Sam is really alone here? She had a family once. There was that photo of her father. Could there be other people here? Somewhere? We've seen only a tiny slice of what this world must hold."
"I didn't tell her this yet, because there's too much I don't know about this place and who might be here. But I recognize that picture. Long ago.... long ago now. Whew. Too long to thing about. But long ago, her father was one of us. I traveled with him."
Nothing that they'd seen here had startled Daniel as much as this. "You knew that man?"
"I told you -- when I started out, I wasn't the only one. There were many of us who agreed to set out to close as many Gates as we could. And you know we'll fail entirely unless we close them all. Every last one. Well, Jacob was with us. We left him behind, injured, after a battle. A long time ago. Years ago. I don't even know what the word means any more -- 'years.' Huh. I didn't know he survived. And I have no idea how he got here. I still don't see how it was possible, honestly. But obviously he did get here."
"And lived long enough to have a daughter. So there have to be more people here besides Sam."
"I'll tell you something else, Daniel." Jack shifted in the dark, sitting up. "I think there certainly are, and I think Sam can communicate with them. Over a distance. I saw equipment in there that would let her do that. And she obviously has sun-powered technology -- more than just the laser pistol like mine." Another new word pair. But Daniel knew he meant the weapon. "She's not telling all she knows either. I respect that. I can't imagine how shocked she was to see us."
"She doesn't find us threatening, though. If she keeps her laser pistol near her, that's a perfect defense."
"You said it. If we could ask her for repairs... it would make us so much safer, going on."
"You might need to tell her about Jacob, then. If you want to ask about doing the inscription. She might be even more well disposed to us if she knew you and her father were friends."
"Something to think about." And Jack lay back down, gathering Daniel close, as was their habit when staying in a safe place. So rare and welcome that was, that despite his fears, Daniel embraced in his turn, putting his face in the hollow of Jack's neck, returning his kisses, kisses that led to more, wondering if Jack felt the undercurrent of desperation, wondering what he would do when the sword carried its own message, free for any to read who could.
In the morning they woke twined together, the rain still coming down, their warmth and the warmth of the blankets an incredible, decadent luxury. Daniel smiled and ran his hand down the length of Jack's side as he sprawled against Daniel.
Safety. Rest. So rare, so very rare for them.
As they drank water, fed the horses and dressed, Jack was quiet, clearly thinking about how to approach Sam with all their requests.
"She promised breakfast," he said to Daniel, with a sideways smile, and set out to find their host. He left his armor behind, and carried the sword in one hand, not hanging on his belt. Daniel followed, his curiosity building.
Sam was already up and moving about her cluttered home, offering them hot drinks and food as unusual to Daniel as their surroundings. She still carried the laser pistol, but this time at her belt -- ready to hand but not aimed at them. She was full of more technology questions for Jack, focused this time on what was to be found in the usually hidden rooms that controlled the Gates on other planets.
"We can go over to ours, if you want, but there's not much to see. The power source is geothermal, I think, and it's undisturbed, but buried so deep there's no way for me to trace it. The room itself is pretty thoroughly trashed."
Jack pushed his plate away and leaned back. "Have you thought it over? You're sure you're not opposed to our plan to close the Gate behind us permanently when we leave?"
She was quiet for a time, turning her steaming cup between her palms. "It's awfully drastic. But what you say about the way the Gates are warping space-time -- it's what I've concluded on my own here."
"If it would make you feel better, I know Jacob was on board with the project."
Her eyes got big again. "Jacob?"
"Jacob Carter. Your father."
She stood up. "I never told you his name."
Jack leaned back, calm as ever. "You didn't have to. I knew him quite well, before you were born."
"Why didn't you mention this last night? When you saw his picture?"
"I've learned to be cautious."
"How did you know him? Were you here, before?"
"No, we traveled together -- he and I and several others, before I ever met Daniel. He was part of the team that agreed to travel to every Gate we could find and close them all. The goal, like I told you, was to close every last one of them and prevent any further damage to the time stream. And honestly, I cannot figure out how he got here myself. I was shocked to see his photo."
"He didn't talk much about his past. And I never thought to ask him." She sat down again, slowly. "Why did you leave him? Or he leave you?"
"He was injured in a battle. We were separated. I thought he was dead."
Sam shook her head slowly. "He never told me."
"I'm wondering now if there was a branch in time a while back, that allowed him to come here from somewhere else than our last world. Because he sure wasn't there. Or maybe he ran into someone who was still trying to control destinations."
"I don't know. But if he was on your side, that makes it easy for me to be as well." She stood up again and offered him her hand, then Daniel. "Deal."
"In that case," Jack said, "there is one more thing."
It was the careful work of days, stripping the sheath so as make room for Daniel to work while leaving Changeling's deadly tip inside the shielding at the end, and the practice with the strange, hot-tipped tool Sam gave him, with which he could copy his directions, in the two languages he and Jack had agreed on, onto both sides of the blade. By nature patient, he gradually absorbed himself in the project, finding the beauty in the detail and the clarity of the task. Sam even gave him lenses to look though that made the writing surface much sharper and larger than his own eyes could see, which was a great help.
While Daniel worked, at the other end of the room, Sam and Jack talked and talked, mostly recollections of Jacob. Sometimes she cried.
Once a black box against the wall crackled to life with the sound of a human voice, just as Jack had predicted. Sam exchanged news with someone called Cameron, who was apparently too far away to join them, and who admonished Sam to be careful. She seemed unworried about his responses. But all the technology was certainly a marvel.
Jack, joking as he often did about the more serious things, produced his broken weapon during this time, and Sam immediately understood the problem. It was the work of only a few moments for her to open a drawer and place several tiny sharp-edged parts in Jack's palm. Daniel shook his head in amazement; something so important and hopeless for them was shown to be such a small thing to her. It was a gap he found it impossible to bridge in his mind.
Finally the delicate writing was done, and Jack admired it with a solemn appreciation, and then hugged him close. Daniel closed his eyes and held him, wondering all over again what the future held. The inscription project, brought to fruition after so long... it was dislocating. Something to celebrate, yet the end of something too. Daniel hoped it would not be the end of everything.
That night, after exercising the horses, who were finally growing restless, they lay down to sleep, but Daniel was restless too.
Finally Jack put a warm hand on his shoulder. "You really could think about staying, you know. There's so much for you to learn here."
Daniel drew a breath. He knew they would leave the next day, though Jack had not stated that in plain words. Jack, always, was driven by the knowledge that the sword was the only weapon of its kind ever made, and that the Gates were beyond even Sam's capacity to number. Time flowed slowly for them, compared to the worlds they left behind, but always Jack felt the urgency of his duty. "Tell me the truth, Jack. Are you trying to cloak your desire for me to stay here with some misguided idea of my safety, or my preferences? Because I don't want to leave your side, God help me. You know I love you." Jack's hand tightened, and Daniel turned under it to face him. Sam had given them a small light, and it gave Jack's features a harsh, pale cast. "Do you want to be rid of me? Do you want me to stay?"
Jack pulled him close, then. Daniel could feel their hearts thundering together. "I love you, too, Daniel, you stubborn, stubborn man. And no -- I don't want you to stay. I just worry about you, what it will to do you, one day, if you keep following me around."
"I'm not your servant or your pet, Jack. Don't even talk like that." Daniel pulled back, and took Jack's chagrined face between his palms. Jack's beloved face, well known to him as his own, after all this time. "I believe in what we're doing. You know that. Stop trying to protect me. I chose this."
"That you did," Jack said. "All right." And Daniel felt a sweet surrender in their kiss.
The next morning Sam walked with them back to the Gate, and they led the horses so as to continue their talk, for the last time. She'd given them such supplies of food and water as they could carry without overloading the horses, for which Jack had thanked her repeatedly.
"Thank you, for all the memories you've given me of Dad," she said to Jack, and embraced him, up on the shoulder of the road, where Daniel had first seen the concrete and the now-useless highway sign. "I know there's no way to ever contact you again, but I know you're out there, doing what you can."
"Thank you," Jack said. "You don't know how rare it is to find friends, were we go. We can never repay you." Sam shrugged at that, seeming a little embarrassed.
Daniel took her hands. "Thanks to your help, we know Jack's mission will outlive us, if we must someday pass the sword on. And you've repaired his weapon too -- you may not realize what a difference that will make for us, going forward."
"Oh, I do have some idea," she said, squeezing his hands. "You know I use one myself. They really do give peace of mind when I'm here alone. Here -- I have a spare one for you, Daniel. I didn't like to think of you going out there with only your bow. You do know how to use it, I guess."
Jack laughed. "Yes. His favorite thing is to light the campfire with it. Too bad it doesn't make popcorn."
Sam laughed at that -- another word Daniel would have to ask about later. He was speechless at this final gift -- it was truly priceless to them, and unbelievable to think she could spare it so readily. He hugged her as Jack had.
Daniel said, "I believe you'll be safer for our coming. With your Gate closed, you truly don't have to fear strangers any more."
"Let's hope so," she said.
They left her on the hilltop, and she waved as they approached the Gate.
Daniel would go first, then just behind, Jack with Changeling ready for its massive act of destruction. It never got easier, this moment of greatest risk, although Jack knew to a hairsbreadth how to make the deadly weapon perform its function.
"Ready for another adventure?" Jack said smiling.
"If you want to call it that," Daniel said, surprised again into laughter. He spoke to his horse, hearing the whisper of the sheath behind him, and they were gone.