The campfire crackled, sending a shower of sparks into the chilled night air and Sam rubbed his hands together before holding them palms out to soak up the warmth from the small fire. Jillian O'Hara was sleeping, curled up around the dimensions machine. This was their third jump since the dystopian version of their own dimension, when they thought they had found their way home. That world had seemed empty at first, before they learned that Zombies could exist and they had been forced to run for their lives. They had holed up in the ground floor security room of the office building, living off candy bars and packets of potato chips left behind in vending machines and desk drawers. They'd had no running water but Sam had found a water cooler with the bottle still a quarter full up on the sixth floor. It was enough to alleviate their immediate thirst and provide cooling for the machine.
Sam had hated the idea of jumping blind. He recalled from the original test that some of those dimensions close to their own looked toxic or lifeless even though Jillian had insisted that she could tell if another dimension had a breathable atmosphere. He snorted, because that first jump back might have had a breathable atmosphere but it had been to an undead world. They had stayed in that dimension for three days, gathering supplies together while Jillian fixed the machine.
When it came, the next dimension jump had been one of sheer desperation to a desolate world of rock and rubble, holding on tight to each other and the machine as Zombies battered at the door. The door had given way with a sickening crunch just as they jumped, bringing five of the Zombies with them - or rather four complete ones and one half Zombie. Not that only having half a body had made much of a difference to the undead thing that had crawled towards them hungrily. Sam had dispatched all of the Zombies quickly, deciding to go with folklore and destroy the brain. At the time he could only hope that no other Zombies had come through with them in the effect spiraling out for the machine. To Sam's relief, Jillian assured him that it had only picked up those four and half Zombies due to their proximity to the machine itself, but anything beyond a certain distance would be non-organic.
With no visible food or water source in this desolate landscape, they had stayed only long enough for Jillian to cobble together a portable view screen using an abandoned laptop from the zombie-office dimension. It had at least allowed them to make the next jump with some indication of where they were going to end up. That time - last time - had shown a strange square room. It had looked futuristic so was ample proof of intelligent life; they'd decided it was worth the gamble, except the room was like the inside of a cube with a single hatchway at the center of each side. With six choices open to them, they had glanced through several hatchways only to find an almost identical cube in each direction. The fourth hatchway had opened up to a scene of carnage. The bottom half of a man's body was on the floor beside one wall but in the center of the cube lay two people - a man and a woman. The woman, who was little more than a girl, was dead but the man was hanging onto life.
Sam had stripped off his t-shirt and pressed it against the abdominal wound. It looked like someone had beaten him severely and then tried to gut him but they had missed the vital organs, with the jagged wound slanting sideways under the skin rather than going in too deep. Blood loss and shock would still kill the man if he was left untreated for much longer.
The man's eyes had fluttered open, and Sam had fallen headlong into pain-filled and scared blue gaze.
"The cubes move... and some are filled with lethal traps, so don't leave here. Eventually... Eventually, this one will be a bridge to get to the outside of the cube. You just have to... sit tight long enough."
Sam had looked at Jillian and knew they had both come to the same decision. If this place was a death trap, like the kind scientists created to observe rats and mice in a maze, then there was no guarantee that they'd be allowed to walk away free even if this particular cube did became a bridge. Fortunately, the machine still had enough coolant and they waited only long enough to see a world that offered the chance of finding food and more water before jumping.
Sam's military survival training had come in useful. While Jillian searched for a more hospitable dimension, he had quickly cleaned and dressed the wound using some of the medical supplies they had found in the desk drawers and cupboards in the office building.
They took the man with them, and Sam looked down at him now.
David was sleeping peacefully with his head pillowed in Sam's lap, and Sam let one of his fire-warmed hands drop to stroke David's fine hair. David wasn't a classic beauty but he was nice looking, and there was something vulnerable about him that appealed to Sam, bringing out the protective instinct in him.
When he looked back across at Jillian, he noticed she was awake and watching him; a smile curved her lips.
"How is he doing?"
Sam shrugged. "Sleeping, which considering everything, is actually a good sign. The wound was nasty but not that deep. I guess he must have turned as he was attacked or he'd have been gutted for sure." Sam licked at his lower lip, tasting a little of the rabbit-like creature that he'd snared earlier, skinned and cooked. "I checked on the wound an hour ago and so far there's no sign of infection."
"What are we going to do next?" she asked quietly.
"Tomorrow I'll scout a few miles in each direction. See if I can find any sign of civilization. If not then we'll have to decide if we want to walk further afield... or jump again."
"He's not going to be able to walk far."
Jillian tilted her head slightly. "It's obvious he feels safe with you."
"Probably the uniform," Sam replied nonchalantly, looking away from Jillian's knowing smirk.
While they hid in the Zombie-world office building, gathering supplies in readiness for the jump, he'd confessed to her that he preferred guys to girls because he hadn't wanted her to form the wrong kind of attachment to him. He would protect her with his life if necessary, obeying his sworn duty even though that duty belonged in a lost dimension. He was still a soldier, and she was a civilian - and his responsibility. He had already failed all the others in the group but he was determined not to fail her too - or David.
When the sun rose, Sam left David still sleeping under Jillian's watchful eye as he headed out, leaving Jillian with the gun and their few remaining bullets. She would use it only if she and David were in danger, and the sound of gunfire would bring him back immediately. He walked two miles out but saw nothing, reminding him of that first dimension - though hopefully without the monsters. Sam walked a circle centered around the campsite but found no sign of civilization; no man-made tracks or roads, and no buildings of any kind. He knew they could be deep inside the equivalent of a national park so he looked up at one of the tall trees, wondering if he could climb high enough to see above the canopy.
Shaking his head, he gave up on that idea immediately because the higher branches would never support his weight. It would be dangerous and foolish to make the climb on the off chance that he could see far enough around them. Several hours had passed by now so, instead, Sam decided to head back to the campsite and was pleased to find David awake and propped up against a tree. He was sipping carefully from one of the polystyrene cups from the Zombie-office dimension but he startled when he saw Sam. The fear quickly gave way to a shy, crooked smile. Jillian had spotted him by now and she tore open one of the small coffee sachets that they'd found in a desk drawer, adding it to another cup along with hot water.
He savored the taste after spending a moment breathing in the aroma.
"I guess you didn't find any signs of civilization," Jillian stated softly, and Sam shook his head.
"It seems safe here... so far. We have not-rabbit to eat, and running water close by. We could stay here a couple of days." He quickly glanced across at the other man with a reassuring smile. "Let David regain some strength, and then try following the stream to see where it leads." He smiled wryly. "We can take frequent rest stops, and check out other dimensions in case one looks like a better gamble than this one."
Jillian shrugged this time. "Sounds like a good plan."
In the end they waited three days before setting out. Sam had hoped for some small sign of civilization in that time - a commercial jet flying high overhead on route between major cities, or backpackers wandering the 'wilderness'. Instead all they heard were the sounds of a natural world. In the meantime, Sam had managed to find a sturdy branch for David to use as a walking stick. He strapped the heavy machine across his back and they started out slowly.
The stream widened quickly, becoming a small, meandering river but they found no sign of anything man-made.
On the fifth day they reached the coast but it was as devoid of human life as the river, with no ships as far as the eye could see to the distant horizon. There was no sign of any villages or towns even though Sam could see for at least ten miles along the coast in either direction.
David sank down to the ground carefully, holding his hand against the slowly healing wound. Over the past eight days Sam had learned a lot about David Worth - and the Cube. As far as Sam was concerned, they had made the right decision in jumping out of there as quickly as possible because the sheer cruelty of abducting people and putting them in such a terrible place spoke volumes about those in charge. If anything, he was surprised those scientists hadn't come for them before they could escape but decided it had probably been more luck on his part. He and Jillian had turned up after the current 'experiment' had completed. The scientists had probably been distracted by the one person who had 'escaped' their rat-trap, or been busy preparing a clean up crew before resetting the traps for the next group of abductees.
He and Jillian had materialized and jumped away within twenty minutes. Just long enough for him to treat David's wounds and for Jillian to find this dimension. If they had stayed much longer - or if they'd been captured - then he suspected they would have been experimented upon too.
"So what do we do next?" David asked as Sam set the machine down and sat beside him. Jillian joined them, smiling when she noticed David reach for Sam's hand, entwining their fingers.
Sam felt a little self-conscious at the way David had latched onto him but only because he really liked David. He just hoped it wasn't some misguided act on David's part - a survival mechanism like Stockholm Syndrome. David had been through a harrowing experience in the Cube, and now he was relying on Sam to protect him in another strange world while he was still healing from the injuries inflicting upon him by a psychopath.
From quiet talks deep into the night, he knew David had merely existed in his previous life, spending each day in a small, windowless office cube long before he was abducted and subjected to the horrors of something he had helped design. Sam could relate because, since obeying orders and taking the fall for the President's error in judgment, his life had been reduced to counting off the days until he could formally retire. Only alcohol got him through each torturous day but he'd been completely sober since the dimension accident. He hadn't needed alcohol because he'd found a new purpose in life.
"We should jump," Jillian stated softly, and Sam nodded after seeing David was in agreement.
Sam watched as Jillian reset the machine, all of them looking at the view screen as dimensions flickered in and out but he realized they were not exactly in the best place to see anything. This small area on the shoreline gave them mostly a view of water, so it was a shock when the next dimension tuned in and they could see a marina. Wooden jetties and boats of all shapes and sizes filled the ocean in front of them. Some were luxurious yachts while others looked like the sort of deep-sea fishing boats that attracted tourists. Sam looked at them longingly, recalling the boat he had planned to retire on in just a few months. By now he would be listed as MIA, or dead, along with the Senator and all the others present at Jillian's presentation of her Dimensions machine, and he would have lost the down payment he'd made on the boat.
They looked at each other but Sam didn't need to read minds to know this was the jump.
"How long until this one moves out of range?" Sam asked.
"We have a few hours."
"Then maybe we should find a more secluded spot, in case the dimension shift puts holes in a few of those nice boats."
They walked for over an hour along the coastline before finding just the right spot then, holding onto each other and the machine, Jillian input the commands, and the world changed around them. They were standing on a coastal road, and Sam dragged David back as a familiar looking car blared a warning.
"Was that a Prius?" David blurted out in shock, and Sam laughed. "I think I like this world already."
His blue eyes were shining and Sam couldn't help but think he'd love any world where he could look into those eyes and see joy reflected back at him. They barely managed to walk a mile up the road before they were surrounded. Sam tensed as a man in what looked like a USAF military uniform stepped out of one of the unmarked black cars and approached them. He held no weapon so Sam figured that was a good start at least.
The man's eyes widened as he looked at them but he quickly blanked that reaction from his face, smiling reassuringly.
"My name is Major Paul Davis and I'd like you all to come with me."
Sam feared they would be split up but Davis kept them together, transferring them by a military transport helicopter to a military base in Colorado. He noticed that several others had similar reaction upon seeing him and David, as if they had recognized them. Sam figured it was possible that the dimensions could also show alternate universes because he knew from some of the strange words and phrases used, and the subtle differences in uniforms, that this was certainly not his original dimension. Of course it could be David's but David looked just as unsettled by small differences.
They performed blood tests but at least David was getting expert medical attention now. His wound was cleaned and dressed though Doctor Lam gave Sam a nod of approval for his handiwork.
A day later, all three of them were brought into a conference room, and Sam automatically stood to attention and saluted at the sight of two Generals.
"At ease, Colonel. Take a seat."
Sam sank down next to David.
General O'Neill stared hard at both him and David before shaking his head. "And their DNA is identical?" he asked Doctor Lam.
"Yes, though with a subtle variation in quantum harmonic. However, there is no sign of entropic cascade failure."
O'Neill leaned forward. "Doctor O'Hara. It appears you have managed to create a Quantum Mirror better than the Ancients."
Inquisitive as always, David leaned in. "The Ancients?"
O'Neill waved off David's question. "I'm sure someone will explain it all later. The question is... what are we going to do with you all?" He turned to Jillian. "You are not a problem, Doctor O'Hara. Your counterpart in this... dimension died as a child and, frankly, we could use an exceptional scientist such as yourself."
"And what about us, sir?" Sam asked.
"It appears Doctor Worth is as brilliant as his counterpart, though in different fields, and as you have a strong expression of the ATA gene, Colonel, I considered sending you both to Pegasus."
Sam looked across at David, wondering if Pegasus was a project or a place.
"Doctor Worth, you say you are an architect... a mechanical design engineer. Well, we have something you could work on off-world for the benefit of the planet." He turned to Sam, "And, Colonel, I'm afraid your rank will have to be honorific but that ATA gene will come in handy on the same project as Doctor Worth. We can employ you as a civilian security consultant."
"Off-world?" David asked, eyes widening.
Again O'Neill waved a hand. "Major Davis will explain everything."
Everything turned out to be mind blowing. Stargates forming wormholes through space, making travel to distant worlds instantaneous, and the lost city of Atlantis that was actually a giant spaceship, and both of these were built by a highly advanced Ancient race. The off-world project was the design of a new type of spaceship for Earth's fleet - a mix of Earth, Asgard - the little gray men of urban legends - and Ancient technology. David was going to be part of the design team, and his activated gene and Sam's far stronger, natural ATA gene would help them build the ship.
"I used to read science fiction novels as kid, and this is something I always dreamed of," David stated as they looked out of the window onto a strange new world with three moons hovering above the horizon. Light glinted off the massive space dock that would be used to construct the new space ship, partially based on the Ancient Aurora class cruisers.
Beside him, Sam smiled. He hadn't dreamed of alien worlds, lost cities and spaceships, but he had dreamed of finding some place where he could belong. Yet, until meeting David, he hadn't realized that it wasn't a place he was seeking but a person. This person. He tightened his fingers around David's and with his other hand he reached up to turn David's face towards him, wanting to celebrate this moment. When he leaned in, David smiled brightly and closed the distance between them, a spark of pleasure igniting between them.
They shared their first kiss on an alien world, far away from duplicitous Presidents, Zombies and the cruelty of the Cube - and this was just to celebrate the beginning of what would be a long and happy life together.