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fear of the water

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The sun does not rise or set in the Greenspace. It travels south to north and disappears behind a mountain range, reappearing at the southernmost corner of the Greenspace a moment later. They measure their days by the sun, as humankind has since the dawn of time: Nine cycles constitute one day. They rest for three cycles.

Each day, Dutch wakes for the third cycle and takes up the watch. She listens to Aneela toss and turn while Khlyen sleeps like the dead. Whispers flit across Dutch's ears: Johnny reading to her from his comics; Alvis reciting a Scarback benediction; D'avin laughing as they…

Dutch has ignored all of these taunts from the Lady — the whispers, the ghosts of a familiar touch, the cries for help. She has ignored the glimpse of Alvis in the corner of her eye and the stench of Westerly on the wind. She has ignored that prickling, crawling sensation on her spine each morning, that warning from some primal part of her brain that a predator approaches.

The Lady delights in games like these, but she can't seem to decide whether she's the cat or the mouse.

Dutch rises to her feet, her knife in her hand.

She has always been the cat.

 

The Lady likes to skirt along their peripheral vision, little more than a shadow. Today, she braves a little more. She lingers, reveals more of herself. This way, she seems to say.

It's definitely a trap.

Dutch follows anyway, and when the Lady dips her wraithlike head beneath a pond of green, she does too.

* * *

She falls. Space-time folds and bends, unending. It spits her hard onto the ground, where she chokes for the air knocked out of her. She rolls onto her back. Beneath her, the ground is cracked and uneven. Tufts of grass poke up through the dirt. Above her, the night sky offers a pale moon and a bed of stars.

Dutch hauls herself up, biting back a gasp as a broken rib shifts. She looks for familiar landscapes and finds none. All she sees, for miles and miles, is a campfire burning in the distance.

She doesn't recognize this world — she doesn't recognize these stars — and she's lost sight of the Lady.

She can't be even certain the pond took the Lady here.

Dutch sets off toward the campfire, one hand braced against her damaged rib and the other clutching her knife. Her thoughts drift. She reconsiders, for the first time, whether she should've left Aneela and Khlyen behind. She refuses to consider the possibility she won't find her way back to them.

 

A peal of laughter startles her from her thoughts, and Dutch flinches. She hasn't heard laughter like this since… How long has it been since she followed Aneela into the Greenspace?

"You're deliberately misunderstanding my point," a man grouses. He bites out the words, as if to warn his companion off, but the bite has no teeth to it.

Three figures sit around the fire. Despite Dutch's disorientation and pain, years of training with Khlyen take hold, and she assesses: Two men and one woman, as far as she can guess; their relaxed postures suggest familiarity and trust. Their backs are turned to her. A line of wire catches Dutch's eye. They've set up traps around their perimeter to warn against intruders. This isn't their home.

Dutch pauses, follows the line of the wire with her eyes. The trap is easy to spot, which suggests a better concealed trap waits beyond it.

Just as Dutch decides to call out to the group, the wire snaps, and the earth begins to tremble. She loses her footing, and her head slams against the ground when she falls. Three silhouettes crouch, bracing themselves against the earthquake.

A flicker of movement in the corner of her eye — the Lady's shadow fills her vision. She lets the black take her.

* * *

She wakes to a pair of rich brown eyes trained on her. Someone has propped Dutch's head against a rolled sleeping bag. Warmth from the fire leaks through her boots, a relief against the rapidly cooling night. A girl, maybe eight or nine years old, crouches nearby in the dirt. Dutch reaches for her knife, only to find it gone, and the girl tilts her head.

Her stare reminds Dutch of Khlyen. "Where did you come from?" asks the girl.

"Soraya," a woman reprimands. The girl rises with a shrug and goes to sit at the woman's side. Nearby, one of the men stokes the fire. A glance to Dutch's right reveals the other man, lingering by the opening of a tent. The girl — Soraya — must have been inside when Dutch approached.

Dutch sits, instinctively reaching to cradle her broken ribs, and finds that there's no pain. Come to think of it, her head doesn't hurt either. She glances at the woman, who opens her palm to reveal a bronze device with a red crystal inset. "Thanks?"

The woman grins. "Welcome! I like your knife, if you're looking to express your thanks." The man nearest to her rubs his eyes.

"Vala," he says in a tone that mimics Vala's earlier reprimand. This is the man Dutch heard earlier, she realizes.

The other man kneels beside her, offering a canteen. "Cameron Mitchell," he says. He gestures toward the other two with his head. "Daniel Jackson, Vala Mal Doran."

"Dutch."

Cameron raises an eyebrow. Dutch raises one back. "Okay, Dutch… Soraya says you aren't from around here."

"She isn't wrong."

"Not much of an open book, is she?" murmurs Vala.

"Yes, well, we can't all be as forthcoming as you," Daniel replies.

Dutch takes a swig from the canteen. Cameron's eyes haven't left her. His look — his whole demeanor — screams leader, and it's clear he isn't going to let it go. "Long story," she offers. She glances at Soraya: her features and clothes set her apart from the other three, but she seems to trust them. "Tell you mine if you tell me yours?"

Cameron hesitates, and then — "We're from Earth." At Dutch's blank expression, he adds, "Tau'ri?"

"I'm from… really far away," Dutch supplies.

"Well, Dutch from Really Far Away, we've been tracking Prior activity in this region — I suppose you haven't heard of them either? Of course not. One of our teams, SG-7, came to this planet to investigate. Found a Prior outside Soraya's village, bleeding green from his eyes."

Dutch's heartbeat stutters. "Green?"

"Wild, right? SG-7 took a sample, but since the Prior problem here was dealt with, they came home. We came back to look into… whatever that stuff is. Found Soraya's village abandoned. Except her."

"Where did they all go?"

"To the fane," says Soraya. Her gaze is fixed on the fire, and her dark eyes reflect its fluttering flames. "To answer the song."

If that doesn't reek of Hullen hive mind, Dutch will give Lucy to Turin. "The song? What about you, Soraya? The song doesn't call to you?"

"No," answers the girl, shoulders lifted in a small shrug. "The fish has no fear of the water." There — for a heartbeat — a flicker of recognition in Soraya's eyes, a preternatural glint. Dutch fights the instinct to recoil. She blinks, the glint disappears, and Soraya looks like nothing but a child.

Vala must see something in Dutch's demeanor, because she pokes Soraya's side and says, "Come along, then. Time for bed."

"You'll tell me the story again?" asks Soraya.

"Sure," Vala agrees. She guides Soraya toward the tent, careful to put herself between Dutch and the girl.

Dutch leaps to her feet the moment Soraya and Vala disappear into the tent. Her skin crawls, and her fight-or-flight screams fight. Cameron steps toward her — nonthreatening, but warning — and stills her with a gentle hand on her elbow. "Hey."

"That girl —" Dutch considers whether she could take these three, if pressed, and decides she could. They're armed, sure, but only Cameron has the look of a soldier.

Cameron seems to read her thoughts. "We know, okay? We know. But according to Jackson, this fane is probably a temple miles below the surface. Surveys of this planet from years ago showed a complex system of underground caverns. If her people are alive? She's our best hope of finding them."

Dutch hesitates. Her gut tells her that at best, these people are dead. Most likely, they've all been Hullenized. If she's right, it's just as vital that Cameron's team find them. "Okay," she agrees. "For now."

"Good. We can work with 'for now.' Sit down, rest. Jackson'll get you something to eat. And here — a sign of good faith." He grabs a nearby pack and pulls out her knife.

Dutch accepts the knife — and the rations from Daniel — and takes Vala's open seat nearer to the fire.

* * *

Dutch loses herself in the stars. On the edge of their campsite, Cameron and Daniel confer in hushed tones; once in awhile, she catches a hint of Vala's voice. But Dutch… She can't keep her eyes off the stars.

She hasn't thought about the stars in years. When Khlyen first took her from the harem, she was fascinated, but he broke every bit of her wide-eyed wonder down to create a soldier for his war. These days, the stars are little more than roads.

Now, she studying these stars, Dutch realizes she's farther from home than she's ever been — farther even than in the Greenspace.

Daniel and Cameron rejoin her by the fire sometime later. They rearrange their seats so that the three of them sit in a semicircle around it. Cameron sits on her right. Daniel takes the seat on her left, leaving a seat open for Vala on his left.

They share a look over Dutch's head — not unlike the looks the Jaqobis brothers sometimes share over her head — and Daniel folds first. "We were hoping… It seems obvious you know more about what's happening here than we do. We understand you have to protect yourself, but whatever this is —"

"We'd feel a hell of a lot better knowing what we're walking into," Cameron interjects.

Dutch's laugh borders on hysteric. It isn't that they're wrong to ask. It's just that… "It gets a little… unbelievable at some bits."

"Oh, I don't think we'll have trouble there. Fought a holographic knight in search of a legendary king's buried treasure is among the least interesting things that have happened to me on this job. And Jackson here —"

"I've died… a lot."

It's a credit to Khlyen's lessons that Dutch doesn't so much as blink at that. "And Vala?"

"Vala was impregnated by pretender gods and gave birth to a girl who grew to adulthood in a matter of days and then tried to destroy everything Vala loved," says Vala. She's slipped out of the tent unnoticed — to Dutch's shock — and now stands at the edge of their semicircle, inspecting Dutch.

"I would've gone with was once a host to an alien parasite who posed as a god," says Daniel.

"Oh, but I'm much less heroic in that story, Daniel." Vala takes the empty seat next to him, fishing a piece of candy out of a pocket, and continues, "Anyway, I think we can handle whatever you've got, so let's have it."

So Dutch shares the abridged version — that the people who settled her home made a deal, that the Hullen have come to collect, that the leader of the Hullen seems to be someone called the Lady, the way everyone is connected by the green.

"That's — incredible," says Daniel. "I mean — terrible, yeah. But a shared memory like that. No need to learn, nothing lost."

"Forgive him," Cameron cuts in, "he's an archaeologist. Go on, Dutch."

"I've been hunting the Lady. Trying to stop her from escaping the Greenspace. I followed her here, or… I thought I did. I can't explain how."

"I bet there's something in that temple she wants you to see," Vala says.

"Could be," agrees Cameron. "Whatever's down there, it'll wait till tomorrow. We should try to get some rest. Looks like we have more gods to kill."

They rise and douse the fire. Cameron and Vala duck into the tent, teasing each other about something, and Daniel follows. "You know, we usually have a fourth person with us, so there's room, if you want."

Dutch doesn't have the opportunity to turn down his offer: Cameron and Vala reemerge, narrowly avoiding a collision with Daniel, alarm in their eyes. "She's gone, isn't she?" Dutch asks.

Cameron nods. "Cut a hole in the back of the tent. Don't know where she got the knife. Let's gear up."

* * *

They find Soraya's trail easily enough. Between the four of them, it seems only Daniel hasn't learned to track, and Soraya hasn't made efforts to cover her trail. Before long, the sun begins to rise, and Dutch becomes certain there's more to the girl than meets the eye — however fast they set their pace, they don't catch a glimpse of her.

Her companions remind her of D'avin and Johnny, hopefully somewhere safe and sound in the J — but more likely, doing something reckless. The three of them trade barbs, and Vala enjoys exasperating them, but there's no lack of affection between them.

Finally, the trail leads to the opening of a cavern. The ground beneath them turns to stone. "Guess we'll just have to… trust our instincts," says Cameron.

"Wait!" Vala directs the light of her flashlight away from the opening. Just to the left, Soraya's tracks veer away from the cave.

Daniel frowns. "Could be a trap."

"Only one way to find out," says Dutch. "You two, take the cavern. Vala and I'll see where this leads." Deferring to Dutch's expertise in all things green, Cameron nods, and Daniel follows him into the cave.

 

The tracks lead into a thick copse of trees. Dutch almost loses the trail as it hits the treeline, but she spies a couple of snapped branches.

They dive into the copse, cutting their way through the overgrowth. To her credit, Vala doesn't complain — and she strikes Dutch as someone rather high maintenance — even as insects swarm and the ground grows muddy. "You know, I have a pair like your boys back home. Brothers."

"Oh? Are they handsome?"

"They have their moments."

"And have you ever… you know?"

"With one of them, yeah," Dutch can't help her grin. "The other one's more like a brother. Let me guess: Daniel?"

Vala huffs a little laugh. "Daniel and I… had a great first meeting. But no, I don't think so."

"Too bad."

The overgrowth breaks at last, and they stumble into a clearing. Trees ring the clearing in a perfect circle, creating a clean border. The grass is short, unnaturally green. At the heart of the clearing, they find a swimming pool. It would look perfectly normal at any of the Nine's homes, except that its waters are green. Soraya stands at the shallow end, waiting.

Her gaze finds Dutch's. Then she turns and walks toward the depths of the pool.

"No!" cries Vala as Soraya's shoulders — then neck, then head — disappear beneath the green. She makes to run for the pool, but Dutch positions herself between Vala and the green.

She grabs Vala's shoulders, forcing her to meet her eyes. She has the look of a woman reliving a nightmare. "You can't, okay? You have to go back to Cameron and Daniel. You have to find those people. Cut every single one of them. Anyone who heals, you shoot in the head. Do you hear me? This cannot leave this planet, or your entire star system will be overrun." Vala glances over Dutch's shoulder. "Vala! Tell me you understand."

Vala nods. "I understand."

"Good. Now go."

Dutch waits until Vala disappears into the trees.

Then she runs straight for the pool and jumps into the deep end.

* * *

The Lady is waiting.

Dutch crawls out of the pond, once again in the Greenspace, and her eyes meet the all-white hollows of the Lady's. Whatever the Lady once looked like, her shape is barely more than a memory now. She wears a black hooded cloak, worn thin through centuries; and when she breathes, she seems to flicker.

"What happened to the girl?" Dutch asks.

The Lady smiles, and every bone in Dutch's body shivers. "The girl? She was lost before your ancestors fumbled their way to the stars." She caresses Dutch's cheek with a finger, and a memory comes to her: Soraya and Vala in the tent one evening — Soraya's eyes heavy, Vala smiling. 'Here's a story,' says Vala. 'When the nights were long and the days were deep, there lived a girl in a tower…'

Dutch slams the knife into the Lady's cloak, but it hits air. The Lady sighs, as if disappointed, and slips away from Dutch's reach. She glances past Dutch, as if startled by a sound in the distance, and then the Lady turns her gaze back to her. "There's so much you don't know, little bird. But you'll learn."

The wind carries the Lady away, and Dutch collapses on the ground.

Moments later, Khlyen and Aneela are there. Khlyen kneels beside her. "She took you somewhere, didn't she?" asks Khlyen.

Aneela offers Dutch her hand. "Tell us everything."