The Harley breaks down in Orlando. It's midsummer and hotter than Abydos, or so Carter says; they swim in sweat as a rule and there's never enough water. They're both lobster-red, sunburned, dragged into a losing battle with the Southern sun. Florida is pancake-flat, tangled in riotous green and lined with little shotgun houses with cathedral ceilings and broken windows and gaping-wide doors. They check some of the crashed-out cars on the highway. Some of them have keys. None have gas.
They've traced the stories here. Whispers of a grand exodus, of a military machine pushing through the dead South. Which makes sense, Carter'd said somewhere in the choking heat of the Alabama summer. If you want to break orbit, Florida's a great place to do it from.
And if the tales are false, there are still orange groves in Immokalee, and Mitchell can think of less interesting ways of living his life than eating oranges and fending off zombies with Carter.
"Goddamn it, I miss flying," says Mitchell, dropping a rock off the highway overpass. They're downtown; around them, burned-out skyscrapers proclaim the names of banks that no longer exist. There's an arena not far, a theater, a parking garage; figures move in the shadows. Ragged survivors wearing shorts and tees and black armbands gather at the bottom of the exit, hungry gang-ghosts examining possible prey. He draws his gun and lays it on the metal divider, displaying his possible intentions and staring at the small group in the ancient language of back-the-hell-off.
Carter's elbow-deep in the Harley's engine, the back of her tank top grey with dirt and sweat. "I miss food. Cam, I don't think I can fix this," she says. "Not without tools."
"I call bullshit. Since when do you say 'can't?'"
"This time," she says, biting back a retort. "It's completely fried."
"Fine," he says, heaving a sigh. The group is muttering and eyeing them hungrily. "Let's get going before we have to shoot somebody."
He hates having to shoot civilians.
She rises and kicks the bike's near-bare tire. Heat radiates through the thin soles of the shoes she's been wearing since Colorado. The heel's nearly worn through with all the walking, and she's not looking forward to doing the walk to Tampa with a road-burned foot. They discuss pushing the Harley and decide they're starving and tired enough that saving their energy was paramount. Carter's lips come together in an annoyed little line -- even after the end of the world she retains that obedient but rebel-edged reservation she held so dear at the SGC -- and Mitchell shoves his gun back into his waistband like the common criminal he's become. No more motorcycle. That's all right, he thinks. I have slain gods.
Some time later they pass a Harley dealership and Mitchell swears on the grave of his dear departed grandmother that when he gets to talk to God he'll give him a piece of his goddamned mind about his goddamned timing.
"But it can't hurt to check," says Carter, suddenly pleasant, and she starts clambering down the interstate embankment like she's Mary Fucking Poppins with a lug wrench.
Mitchell follows. They fall into old patterns: take point, cover me, watch for assholes. She drags a crate from the dumpster and peeks through a window. The place is mostly cleaned out, cannibalized, the bikes long stolen or raided for parts, and what's left is piled in the center like a silver-rust volcano, guarded by well-fed men with guns. A fire burns near their feet; a woman twirls a spit. They're on the defensive, expecting an attack. Mitchell knows before she speaks that with just a few bullets left and no real advantage that they'd be fucked before they started an attack. Plus, these men aren't Jaffa, aren't Priors or even Tomin's men. They're human. There's a chance they're not raiders; that they're just protecting what's theirs. And he's still technically a member of SG-1, God damn it, sworn to protect humanity.
"Am I smelling rabbit?" Mitchell says.
"Raccoon, probably," she replies. "We've got six potential hostiles with semi-automatics. No indication that they're Ori, but I can't really tell. I say we move on. Doesn't look like we'd have anything to trade."
"Damn," he replies.
They open the last of the beef jerky and eat it in the shadows of a dead restaurant in the late afternoon. Scrub grass pushes up where the asphalt has broken in the heat. Ivy's quickly reclaiming the nearby strip mall. The crickets are louder than a rock concert. They take note of the shops: Target, Home Depot, David's Bridal. There are bodies scattered in the parking lot. What they'd both sworn to protect: Earth in all its antebellum glory. Dead, broken and gone.
They chew slowly. Mitchell watches her take out her pen and write a shopping list on the inside of her ankle. In the absence of paper or something to write on over the past few days' traveling push, Carter's made of herself the kind of whiteboard she'd once had at the SGC with black pen, running in places from the sweat; physics problems and diagrams for weapons and machines he doesn't understand. When he asks Carter about them she pauses and launches into the kind of technobabble-laden explanation that he used to hear at the briefing table at the SGC. He generally lets her talk. It usually results in something that'll keep them alive for a few more days.
He traces the lines of a gun on her bare shoulder. It intersects with a physics equation that he couldn't hope to understand. Some sort of architectural drawing. More things he guesses are weaponry, or generators -- things that'll work with the junk in the bags they're carrying, things that Carter will invariably turn from cold, dead metal to something entirely too useful for words. Below all of that, just above where her tank top begins, the symbol for Earth.
She draws it on him, too, above his heart, when he lets her.
"We're nearly out of bullets," she says, apologetically. "We still have a few hours 'till nightfall. If there's enough left in the Home Depot, I can rig up a --"
"Sam," Mitchell says, reaching out for her hand. He holds it tight, tracing patterns into her palm. "Target first."
She tilts her head in the way that causes her too-long hair to wisp and drop into her eyes where it's escaped her braid and hair tie. It's one of those things that helps Mitchell to understand why he wasn't the first man to fall for her. "We need weapons. And a new pot, a water filter, this lake water isn't safe to drink --"
"Come on, Sam. There might be -- well, you know. Jello. Powdered packets. Might still be there. It's not really survival food. And I think we need a treat."
For the first time in a few days, a smile quirks her lips. "You're sweet. But you know we don't have the time."
No, he thinks. I have slain gods. And she is the destroyer of worlds.
He doesn't respond. Instead, he reaches up to touch the cold metal of the gun -- the only damned cold thing in this godforsaken state. She remains quiet for a moment and then rests her head on his shoulder. "Home Depot," she says, with her characteristic cool assuredness. A feeling of -- fear? Excitement? Adrenaline -- floods his stomach. "We camp for the night, and then tomorrow start walking. They won't have left without us."
Vultures wheel above them in the empty blue sky. Mitchell lifts his chin to the heavens and thinks of flight. Of Daedalus, of bloody, screaming Carolyn Lam, of Daniel Jackson illuminated and bisected by the rings of an al'kesh, cursing Mitchell's name; of Vala, her hair shining and wild, facing down the hordes with a gun and a cry. Of Sam with her fingers running with motor oil and her temple running with blood. Of Teal'c, and the ten it had finally taken to drag him to the floor. Sam again, always Sam in the end, the two of them huddled against the cold and against all comers.
The sky answers with silence as dead as space.
And Carter, bless her, squeezes his hand. "We'll fly again," she says. "It won't be long now."
Life was the smell of napalm in the morning, as they'd said once upon a time in a world where war still made some sort of twisted sense. It is breakfast like ashes on his tongue: a few bites of unleavened bread, rotten apples, MREs far past their expiration date, the constant growl of his stomach. Morning means the descent into the tunnels underneath the island, the sick song of the anti-Prior cage rattling his nails, slipping under his skin, underlined by Bill Lee's nervous breaths, his shaky-dangerous civilian trigger finger on a P90 the scientist had never been allowed to even be in the same room with before the invasion.
But if things still made sense, Jack O'Neill wouldn't start every morning at Camp Phoenix breaking bread with the thing that used to be Daniel Jackson.
And this morning in particular starts with sunshine and roses and fairy glitter at fuck-thirty in the morning with Woolsey – no, President Woolsey, head of Camp Phoenix, Lizard King, God-Emperor of The Happiest Fucking Place On Earth -- clearing his weasel-throat in the cracked, peeling Main Street quarters where most of them slept, slipping into Jack's curtained-off half-room, Jack coming awake before Woolsey stopped moving, his hand on his gun (damned combat readiness, even though he's fantasized about shooting Woolsey once or twice this week). Jack breathes out, lowering the pistol, looking beyond Woolsey's shaded face to hear some kid airman wailing a nightmare into existence.
"Can't you just -- damn it, sir --"
"This can't wait," the President says.
This is Woolsey in the Armani suit he's been wearing for weeks, ill-fitting and picked up on the some mall raid months ago as they made their way south across what used to be the United States of America towards the rumor of alien technology at Disney World. Smelly, showerless Woolsey in plastic Payless shoes and frayed laces and the haunted look he'd had ever since returning from Atlantis. Woolsey doing his own dirty work for once.
“It's gone on long enough.” the politician says, like he actually knows about this sort of thing.
"Oh, come on," Jack replies. "This is Daniel. If there's still any chance --"
Woolsey's voice is characteristically businesslike. "That's a Prior in there, General O'Neill. Not Doctor Jackson. If his blood cannot be used to fly the ship, then he is a danger to Phoenix Base. I don't need to remind you that keeping a Prior locked up is dangerous, and we no longer have the proper cryogenic facilities – we must have his blood. Doctor McKay says there's no other way."
He doesn't have to say the inevitable: before the Ori find us and we run out of C4, he thinks.
Jack bets Woolsey fantasizes about feeding the Daniel-thing to Todd the Wraith, when he's not picking the wings off butterflies.
“President, sir --”
Woolsey goes on, obviously expecting Jack to throw up more objections. “It is utterly imperative that we get to the search for the Ark of Truth, which we cannot do sitting here, the Ori nearly at our door --”
“So we bleed him dry. Who the hell do we send to do that, because I sure as hell won't. You? McKay? Mister President, there's still a chance --”
But Woolsey's eyes are incompatible with common sense, and haven't been for years. “Make. It. Happen.”
And so Jack descends, his uniform coat dirt-stained and akimbo on his shoulders.
The grey-sky, death-pale thing sitting blithely across from him drags Jack back into the present by inviting him once again to consider the truth of Origin, his shoulders restful despite the restraints holding it in place. It is far from the taut, righteous wariness of his friend, his conscience, his comrade-in-arms for over a decade. He knows Woolsey's right.
He watches the Prior's pulse, and wonder if that's still blood pushing its way through Daniel's stolen body.
“Do you wish to know the truth?” the Daniel-thing says.
“Ah, truth,” Jack replies. It's not his best retort, but he's not at his best today. Today is different. Today is dust in his heart and damnation in his soul. Today is duty. Today is something he ought to have done a long time ago, except that he somehow managed to fish his stupid human heart out of the rubble of Cheyenne Mountain and put it back in a chest that should have remained broken to best serve his country.
He rubs his eyes and thinks: it's not Daniel, it's not Daniel, it's not Daniel. It's no worse than a Goa'uld. If he'd been snaked, like Kawalsky. Or Carter. If Jolinar had been just a little more fanatical.
“You will soon find the untruth of your misguided beliefs,” the thing says, as if talking to a child. “The light of Origin will break over this world, and true peace will descend upon all believers.”
“There has to be a way to fly the ship,” he says -- one more time.
“Heretics and unbelievers cannot be granted the gifts of the Ori,” the thing intones. “You will burn from the inside out; it will tear out your heart and burn your veins --”
“God damn it, Daniel, you know what comes next,” he said.
The thing levels its gaze. Inside its whitening eyes is the fire of the Ori, the steady burn of a soul already gone. “Tell me, General,” it says, the enunciation poison caramel. “Have you heard the parable of the faithless friend?”
A response turns to ashes in Jack's mouth as he scrambles to his feet. He's given some crappy orders in his day, clusterfucks that still show up in his dreams, had to send good men on suicide missions -- and this is bad, too, possibly one of the worst. Best thing to do is just give the order and not think about it too much. He turns away from the Daniel-thing for the last time and stares at Lee's jumpy form. The scientist is holding his breath and his knuckles show white where his hands clench the P90.
“Take a blood sample, Dr. Lee,” he says, quietly. “Have one of the guards outside take it to the Mountain lab.”
“Oh,” Lee responds, his voice too soft. “Um. Okay. I'll probably need Marines.”
The Prior just stands there, silent as an oak tree, a terrific smirk on his Ori-scarred face, as if Lee and O'Neill are an entertaining commedia del'arte. O'Neill feels a shiver run down his spine and he waves his hand. “Yes, yes, whatever you need,” he says, and leaves the room before he feels even worse.
Afterwards, Jack stalks to the back of the labs in the gift shop near the big statue of Buzz Lightyear and rags on the scientists to make himself feel better. No, they still haven't finished going through the alien tech below Adventureland; there was a stash in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, of all places, stuffed into Jack Sparrow's treasure chest. One of the scientists – a mousy engineer they picked up in the ruins of some Midwestern college – said it was mostly Goa'uld communications devices and Asgard holographic matrices; Jack would have bet his left foot that Disney'd had some deal with the NID.
Now he'd never know.
“Uh, sir,” a scientist mutters, a circular communications device in his hand, cupped like a baseball or a Chinese stress ball, “some of these still work. What should we do with them?”
Jack eyes it. The thing is darkened, burnished brass; he wills some familiar face to appear. Hell, at this point, he'd make a deal with Ba'al if it meant he was able to get his team meant to search for the Ark of Truth off this rock.
It remains quiet, taunting him with silence. Yeah, he thinks. There's nobody out there. For God's sake, if the Ori wiped Ba'al off the face of the universe, his borrowed Kull Warriors so much undead meat in piles at the Delta Site, his fleet of ha'taks broken and burning in the grasp of the black hole that was once his central planet's sun... who the hell else was going to call?
Carter would know what to do with it, he tries not to think.
He has that thought a lot. Carter would know.
“Give it to McKay,” he says, before he spins on his heel and makes his way back outside. “Maybe he can use it for spare parts or something.”
O'Neill emerges into the morning sunlight. It's not even nine a.m. and the humidity's already wrapped its claws around his throat. I'm too old for this shit, he thinks.
Around him, the hole formerly known as Disney World is waking up. The place almost reminds him of trips to theme parks with Charlie, this place, but for the stinking humidity and the fucking lizards everywhere and the roaches the size of tactical nukes and the way they're all living on top of each other at the end of their respective ropes. A lizard watches him impassively from the top of a statue of a grinning mouse, its beady eyes glassy as a drunkard's. Jack shoves the magazine back into the gun, feeling the satisfying click, staring up at the orrery and the castle and the tattered flags and the thing that had become Space Mountain in more ways than one.
Damn it, he thinks to himself, at least the others are dead. Gone. Kaput. Not worrying about how we live these days. But the camp was as silent as the near-dead at fuck-thirty in the morning, and you don't get to be a General in this man's Air Force by acting like a child when a friend is injured in the line of duty. He shoves Daniel into the dark place where he's put the memories of Kawalsky, Carter and the others, and starts the long, terrible walk back to the hangar.
There is still a world to save.
The tall spires of downtown hotels are blackened and jagged against the blue-egg summer sky. Mitchell remembers seeing something like this on television once – Atlanta, dead and gone, buildings like ragged and broken teeth against the sky, zombies roiling the streets, screaming for brains. The walking dead, living still.
They meet other survivors; all from outside the city. No zombies, unless you count the Ori-sick in their well-fed compounds. The few friendly survivors they find talk about the beautiful, predatory silver ships and the curtains of fire that descended from the sky, and the way the city seemed to burn for weeks upon weeks.
“For Ori, it's probably like cauterizing a wound,” Carter says, neatly slaughtering a few birds for dinner with a few pilgrims who were trying to make it to Texas, where they had family. “Makes sense. City's a huge population center. They probably did this for New York and Chicago, too. To keep people in small groups. Easier pickings.”
Over half-burnt pigeon and a fire, Mitchell quotes Scarlett O'Hara. Carter tries a Southern accent and fails. Not far, the bodies of the dead lay motionless, burnt and unburied, and soon the only thing that rises is Carter's chest, rapidly, as the nightmares take over. As usual, Mitchell does not sleep.
Everyone copes with the stress of the job differently, the psychologist had told Sly Siler the second or third time he'd been electrocuted – but before the fourth time, which had been a staff blast through the Stargate, or the fifth time, which he couldn't remember.
When he was at Cheyenne Mountain, Siler could almost pretend that he had an ordinary job, that he could very well be poking at engines and electronics in Kandahar or Patrick AFB or somewhere else. He didn't go through the Stargate; he fixed things there like he'd fixed things before he knew about wormholes and astrophysics and little grey aliens who didn't wear pants.
Siler didn't pretend to know much about the inner workings of the human heart or poetry or psychology. Instead, his mind knows the curves of crackling electricity, the sines and cosines of wires and transistors, and how to coax miracles from the broken bones of dead machines. He can stay awake through a point-blank zat blast at nine in the morning and be back to work by lunch. But even Sly Siler – he of the thousand concussions, the guardian of the generators that thrummed on the bottom floor of the castle, the steady hand that keeps Phoenix Base from falling into the stinking Seven Seas lagoon, the man who nearly forgot once upon a time that he wasn't a human pincushion – knows when there's something wrong with his commanding officer.
It's in his eyes.
Siler's been on the Phoenix Program since they left the smoking bones of the Mountain for Florida, the last place on Earth where accessible alien tech was still rumored to exist. He wakes up in the morning, drinks his thin hot coffee, pretends he was just deployed somewhere gross and bothersome and that he'll be heading home for leave at some point to a place where his hands aren't always sweaty from the humidity and he doesn't have to listen to other soldiers work through their PTSD not three feet from his bedroll in the barracks. And Siler's done his share of stupid things in his time, sure, but he's not a stupid man, and he had been in that gate room the very first time it was opened, when Daniel Jackson was only a flap-mouthed dreamer and Jack O'Neill had carried his death wish in the form of a nuclear bomb.
He's spent enough time working with all of them to know, and Siler knows: after the fall of the mountain, it was like Charlie all over again for the General.
Not the fairest damned thing in the world, but if life were fair none of us would've enlisted and I'd be selling cars in Montauk, he thinks, missing his toothbrush.
It wasn't all bad, Siler knows. Like any of the technical specialists, he appreciates a well-run base where things got done with a minimum of paperwork, and at the end of all things 'well-run' meant more than just making sure the right sort of potatoes were being peeled. It means making sure the Ori ship they'd stolen flew. And despite his quirks, General O'Neill was that man.
Or had been, at least, until the capture of the Prior.
He nods to the soldiers at the gate to Tomorrowland and walks down the deserted lane to the hanger – Space Mountain, how absurd, he thinks for the thousandth time. O'Neill is already there in front of the door, flanked by two guards, his arms crossed.
“Siler. You're late.”
“Very sorry, sir, it won't happen again,” Siler apologizes.
“It's not like it's the end of the world,” O'Neill says, a dry note in his voice, his lips pressed together in a tired line.
“You ok, Sergeant?”
“Always, sir,” says Siler, his mouth dry.
O'Neill crosses his arms. “Make my day, Siler.”
Siler clears his throat, and the two of them start walking into the hangar, down the stairs and through the tunnel, Siler behind the General. Just another day at work, he reminds himself, and reachs into his pocket with his notes for the full report. “We've gained some headway on adapting the Ori interface for those with the ATA gene, although it's just in theory. Doctor Lam still thinks that some work needs to be done before we start the actual tests, and she's not sure she can do anything without further material from the Prior and some from the pilot. If we had Carter's research on the Asgard devices aboard the General Hammond --”
“No use crying over spilt... whatever.” O'Neill interrupts, as he always does whenever someone mentions his former 2IC. “You'll have the Ori blood. Lee's getting it now. We hope. Can we make it fly?”
“Well, sir, I --”
And before Siler can say another word, they emerge into the guts of the Mountain, a slew of sweaty, dirty scientists converging on them like hungry, white-coated locusts. An ashen-faced Bill Lee is at point, scarred Lam with her dead arm in a sling flanking him and shoulder-cowed Felger behind them both, somehow still wearing his SGC jacket even in the choking Florida heat as if it were some kind of talisman (which made Siler thinks of his favorite wrench; his stomach clenching as he forces himself to regain his professionalism through the onslaught of memories of Cheyenne Mountain, his work, the Stargate). Above them the only electronic lights in the base shine bright, reflecting against the long-dead remains of painted holographic galaxies and fake neon planets. The old rollercoaster is long gone, its struts and steel cannibalized for this purpose and that around the base.
In its place was an alien ship, a lean silver monstrosity -- one of the prides of Phoenix Base. A Ori vessel captured by Disney, just waiting to take a team to search for the Ark of Truth.
It isn't the only alien technology here; Siler has only seen the others, locked up below the Magic Kingdom in the vast warren of tunnels and offices. Asgard holographic devices, stolen from Lucian tourists and Goa'uld devices from God knows where, all of it dragged together by long-dead Disney executives and hidden from the world, now being cobbled together to save the world. But this ship was more than just leftovers: This was a ship once flown by Daniel Jackson, an Ori vessel with its guts spilled and destroyed and replaced by Ancient goo and crystalline Asgard intestines. This would be salvation.
Unless we can't make it fly, he thinks.
Unless the Ark doesn't actually exist, and we're all dead anyway.
Carolyn Lam's breathless, shoving a dirty sheet of paper towards the General. She's written diagrams on the back; it had once been some kind of Disney interdepartmental memo talking about Hannah Montana sales receipts. For a moment, Siler hears his nieces and nephews in the back of his mind – they're dead, but they'd be over Hannah now, they'd be on to whatever it was going to be next, a Miley clone or the Jonas Brothers, but they're all dead, even the boy bands – and shakes his head to clear the cobwebs.
“That did it,” she says, her enthusiasm nearly palpable in the heat. “Whatever you did this morning, sir. We broke through the last problem in the bio-equation.”
O'Neill's eyes are hard like diamonds. “Does it fly?”
“We're not sure, sir.” Lee says. “We're currently doing blood replacement with one of the pilots, but so far the ship isn't recognizing him as a proper pilot. We still think it might need to operate with a Prior at the controls. That could be tough – we'll need at least two weeks --”
“Maybe two and a half --” Lam corrects, stepping forward.
O'Neill speaks sharply, and Siler shudders to hear this voice, the one that could freeze a major's boots to the ground and make false gods squirm where they sit. “We don't have any more time.”
“No,” Lee said, breaking eye contact to stare at the ground. Keller takes a breath and bites her bottom lip. Siler itches for his wrench, his palms sweating. Behind them, there's a feed to the conference room where Woolsey and the tiny unconstitutional Congress sit in session; his eyes register on the group of them.
“No, sir, we don't,” he says.
In Kansas, they almost forget what happened.
They pick up the Harley from a looted gas station garage on the Colorado border and fly across fields and fields of growing golden corn, the stalks touching the horizon for as far as they could see, whispering their secrets to an unfeeling sky. There weren't too many people out here to begin with, so avoiding the Ori is easy. With his arms around her waist, the smell of war-waste behind them and her blonde hair whipping against his face as they drive, Mitchell can almost forget the burning hulk of their ship and the massive conflagration that took the Mountain.
Carter gets a fever just outside of some small town, and they stop long enough to find that the pharmacies have been looted. But they defend a homesteader and his wife just outside of town from being booted from their home by a bandit gang, and for a week they stay in the old couple's guest room until she feels good enough to move and starts to rag on Mitchell whenever his hand goes to her forehead.
They eat a lot of corn in Kansas.
“Cam, bandits,” Carter whispers.
They stop for the first time that day. The heat is oppressive and the humidity choking; even the birds, normally twirling Ori-ignorant and brainless in the sky, seem to have quieted because of it.
The signs of trouble are so obvious, just like they always are when dealing with road bandits. To Mitchell's trained eye, amateurs leave signs of tactical stupidity like folktale breadcrumbs, and the crew at the next bridge is no different. They've left footprints in the dirt near a fabulous lookout point. There's a gunman half-hidden in the bushes wearing bright clothing, his dirty Nikes reflecting sunlight. Finally, Mitchell hears the noises of men shuffling their feet and coughing, made nervous by the thing they mean to do.
“God damn it, I am not interested in going to this party today,” he grumbles.
Carter swings her dead P90 from her back and aims it, cracking her neck and taking a deep breath; Mitchell cocks his gun and points it towards the sky, his palm and the gun shown openly towards the bridge in a gesture of I'll-screw-you-if-I-have-to.
They don't have many bullets left, but the bandits don't need to know that.
“My name is Shaft,” Mitchell drawls, “and my friend here is Dorothy, and we are going to pass through this here checkpoint of yours without any trouble. We've nothing of value except a whole lot of pain to give if you choose to interfere.”
They've done this dozens of times for hyped-up, would-be assailants: violent, desperate mothers with their husbands' pistols and too many mouths to feed. Greedy men with gun-shop memberships and delusions of grandeur. Gangs of teenagers who had their shaved-serial guns under their pillows before the Ori even arrived. Most of the time their shock-and-awe routine works; someone recognizes the P90, someone recognizes the training, someone recognizes the dog tags. Sometimes Carter has to play target practice with someone's possessions to make their intentions known. Sometimes they act crazier than they really are (although Mitchell's wondering about Carter, late at night, when he holds her and she whispers in her sleep.)
Sometimes nothing works at all.
Sometimes the bandits still insist on being stupid, and human blood runs despite their best intentions, and Carter dreams up anti-Ori weapons in the dirt to drown out the shame as the sun goes down, her back to Mitchell's, whose mouth is always dry with the prayers he can no longer say.
There's a rustling in the bushes behind the bridge, and five men built like club bouncers, wearing ripped How The Grinch Stole Christmas tee-shirts, jeans and flip-flops emerge; their leader is tanned and black-bearded with grey eyes that look to Mitchell to be more dead than alive. They've got guns, but they're still too far away to properly identify the make.
This could be a dangerous one, Carter thinks, and makes a show of aiming the P90.
“And for sure, you and your lady friend look damn serious,” the leader says. “But so are we. This here is the land of the Savior, and you got two choices: join us and our worthy cause, learn the secrets of life everlasting, worship the worthy one who fights the Ori -- or give up what you got in toll. It don't have to be your lives, just everything else you got.”
Mitchell raises his gun. “I'm not one for fundamentalism, coercion or people trying to steal my hard-earned stuff. Step aside.”
The man laughs. “She can show you life, and life again. You need not fear the Ori with the Savior. She can protect you.”
“I fear the Ori like I fear Mickey Mouse. This is your last chance,” Mitchell said. “See, Dorothy and I here, we're professionals. You do not want to buy what we're selling.”
Beside him, Carter straightens, squints, and makes a noise of amazement, her hand tightening on her weapon. Mitchell recognizes the warning for what it is, and doesn't take his eyes off the bandits. “What?”
“Cam,” Carter says breathlessly, reaching for her gun. “Hold off. They've got zats.”
Far above the stalemate, a vulture circles.
“So, Shaft. What do you say?” says the lead man.
“I say you tell us where you got those fancy ray guns,” Mitchell tosses back.
The man's eyes narrow as he realizes his zat has been recognized. “Shit, they're from Phoenix, shoot 'em before she finds out we fucked up,” he says, and urges his men forward.
There's something bleakly comforting about having Carter's back in a firefight, the two of them doing their thing like they've always done, the targets and the adrenaline and the way they know exactly what the other's next motion is going to be. Carter drops the dead P90 and picks off two of the bandits with her handgun as they approach; Mitchell gets a third before they both realize at the same moment that the warnings they'd seen were actually a trap. There were a few more men hidden well away that they hadn't seen, and soon Mitchell and Carter are encircled by bad guys, five zats primed in their faces and the leader's mouth in a smirk she hasn't seen since her last run-in on an alien world.
“Well,” Carter says, “At least we know we're close.”
In the half-second between the blast and the blackness, Mitchell thinks: This would have never happened to General O'Neill.
When Mitchell wakes up, he's on his belly inhaling a mouthful of rusty dust, and Carter's kneeling over him ripping up the bottom of her tank top.
“But honey,” he says, spitting some of the dirt out of his mouth. “I have a headache.”
Her lips twitch – classic Carter in a crisis, entirely too wired and focused to show too much amusement, but these days making Carter smile takes his mind off the pain better than morphine.
“You took a zat blast, and a bullet that just grazed your leg. Lucky bastard. It's mostly stopped bleeding, but this is the only thing I have right now that's relatively clean, and your wound's filthy. Whoever has us didn't exactly think about proper wound care when they were dragging us here,” she says.
“Speaking of,” Mitchell coughs. “Lucians? Trust? Goa'uld? Idiots?”
He pushes himself up, trying to ignore the pain from the bullet hole and the zat hangover that felt like shrill kindergarteners and rusty nails tearing holes in his cerebral cortex. The room is tiny – a broom closet, he guesses, emptied and used as a holding cell. Carter sits on the ground behind him, looking like hell, ignoring the sandy mud coating her long blonde hair. He checks his belt, and then Carter's; both of them are stripped of weapons, outerwear and equipment, including the Sharpie Sam had used to write equations on the backs of her hands.
He looks around. No windows, but there's hard, unstinting light, and Mitchell's fascinated to see a plain lightbulb above them, screwed into a socket and functioning quite well.
“Wherever 'here' is, they have electricity,” he says. “And zats. And that means --”
“Things we can use,” Carter responds. “And generators. Possibly offworld technology, if they have that many zats. Maybe we'll get lucky, and there'll be something we can use to escape. Or contact the General, if he's alive.”
She always runs that conditional. If he's alive. If they're alive. If, if, if.
Pain slices through Mitchell's leg as Carter starts to clean his wound as best she can. Her fingers feel like tattoo needles set on fire and drenched in acid, and it's all he can do to grunt his pain and bite his lip. “Anyone ever told you that you're the most aggressive optimist in the universe?”
She laughs again, just as the door opens to reveal Blackbeard and two of his grunts, holding old rifles – older AK-47s, of all things, which makes Mitchell even more keenly aware of the fact that he's living in a Mad Max sequel.
“The Savior wants to see you,” he says.
Mitchell and Carter exchange a look.
“So, you Trust?” Mitchell says. “Or just a dumbass?”
“When you bring someone back from the dead, you can talk,” says Blackbeard, and whacks Mitchell in the head with the gun. Carter moves to fight, and gets a few kicks in before being restrained by the men pouring into the room. Mitchell, disabled by a kick to his wound and dragged up by grunts, shakes his head to stop her. They're shoved out into a dark, hot hallway, first, and then out a set of doors limned with the light to the most ridiculous place he's ever seen.
“Oh, sweet baby Jesus,” Mitchell moans.
“We could be offworld,” Carter says cheerfully. “We could find the Stargate --”
Mitchell inhales humidity, and coughs out a laugh in between the pain. “Nope,” he said, because he knows this place, he'd been talking about it with one of the SFs who'd just returned from a Florida vacation three days before the Battle of Cheyenne, and had talked about the places he'd taken his kids. The laughter escapes from his mouth in shattered little bursts as they turn a corner and come face-to-face with a grey-brown castle on a hill, all neo-Gothic cathedral spires and forced perspective.
“Sam, we're still in Florida. That's the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, this is Universal Studios, and I'm getting the feeling that we are well and completely fucked.”
Carter's face was confused for a moment, and then resolved. “Oh. Well, if it's a theme park, we'll be contending with crowd-control measures, checkpoints – if they're organized enough to take us down, escape could be a little more difficult than I'd planned. You gotta admit, it's a great place for a Goa'uld.”
“Or impossible,” said Mitchell.
“Oh, come on, you know I hate that word.”
The streets of Hogsmeade are lined with ragged, scraggle-headed, dirt-stained people who'd obviously raided the Universal gift shops for clothing – Grinches and Shreks and Spider-men gathered in rough family groups, men standing in front and women holding their children to their shorts and skirts, the whole lot of them clutching at the door lintels to keep out of the sun. Carter watches their dirty faces as they pass and thinks of dead Daniel, taken on an alien planet years ago by the Orici, with some sadness. He'd get such a kick out of this, she thinks. He'd be chattering all the way up to wherever it is we're being taken, wondering if their shirts indicated some kind of rank or status, wondering if the traditional American nuclear family unit solved the holocaust --
And then all thoughts of dead Daniel stop as she comes face-to-face with the person that could only be the Savior.
At the apex of the crowd, surrounded by people with clipboards and computers, is a skinny teenage girl in a throne, red-haired and gowned and terrible, lips ruby-red and eyes kohled. The sight of it causes Carter's breath to catch; she's never met her. On sight, she's one of the nameless millions she's sworn to protect, but her veins are buzzing with naquadah, and Jolinar's sweet dead voice is whispering, and that's all she needs to know.
She reaches for the gun she no longer has.
The snake is sitting in Dumbledore’s chair like a wizard’s throne is where she belongs, her fingers wrapped gracefully in her lap and her chin raised regally. Mitchell stares at the girl for a moment, and then looks to Carter. Next to him, she's gone stiff; she licks her lips, feels the naquadah thrill in her veins, and meets Mitchell's eyes.
Goa'uld, she mouths.
“Kneel before your God,” Blackbeard says, and four hands each press them to the stony ground. “Our Savior, I give you the interlopers from Phoenix Base.”
And it's all Mitchell can do to keep from laughing.
And the snake just looks at them sadly. “Well, this is fascinating,” she says, and her eyes flick up to Blackbeard and his cronies. “I'll see them in my office. As for you --" her eyes flicker to Blackbeard -- "You should have recognized them on sight and enacted the protocols. Lock him up."
They are swept into Hogwarts Castle to the sound of pleading.
They're shoved through the queue to the ride that had once been Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey by what remained of the Kalashnikov crew, and after doing her threat assessment of the long, winding queue tunnels ('we're fucked,' she thought), Carter's only mildly interested by the fact that the Goa'uld thought it would be a good thing to keep the power routing to the ride. Of course, she thought, keep the spectacle running -- that's definitely something that a Goa'uld would do, especially in a world like this. Show your power. I'd imagine that would impress anyone whose world has turned to dust and hunger. Pride'll only take you so far.
They pass some talking portraits babbling what sounded like nonsense to Carter, the phoenix outside Dumbledore's office, the Hogwarts greenhouse – an actual greenhouse, now, just look at all that kale, she realizes, before her attention returns to the woman whose back is now towards them, swaying in her gorgeous golden robes.
What the hell is a Goa'uld doing here?
And then they turn a corner in Dumbledore's office, of all places; she vaguely remembers seeing the movie, vaguely remembers it resembling the library on Merlin's planet. But the office is now also stinking of Goa'uld, with golden Horus-heads and hieroglyphics on the walls and even sconces spouting fire, of all things, and Carter presses her lips together to keep the snake from realizing just how much of this technology she recognizes on sight.
“I'll be succinct, Tau'ri of Phoenix Base,” the snake says in the host's voice. She crosses to a side wall, presses a button, and retrieves a ribbon device from a hidden compartment, which she slips on her fingers with some delicacy. Her eyes flash as she turns back to Mitchell and Carter. “I am not your enemy today, but if you wish to make of me an enemy by denying me the things that I need, you may rest assured I will be most obliging.”
Mitchell coughs – a, deep, phlegmy cough that suddenly has Carter feeling very worried, wondering if the earlier rough treatment had caused him to bleed internally. “No, you just treated us to the whole nine yards – you zatted us, locked us up, stole somebody's body and told me to kneel before your ugly ass, so of course we'll believe you completely.”
The snake's eyes flash once more. “I met my host during the invasion. She was critically wounded. She had at best three breaths left in her lungs, while I had lost my host seconds before. She took me willingly. True, I am no Tok'ra, but neither can I truly call myself a Goa'uld, after all of the things I have seen from the Ori. We can work together.”
“Could've fooled me,” Mitchell wheezed.
“You are Goa'uld, you lie as a rule,” Carter breathes, the old protective spirit crawling into her voice, the voice she had on the Hammond, on Atlantis, in the last days before the Ori smashed the Mountain. Mitchell warms inside to hear it, instead of the slightly unhinged warrior that had been traveling with him for so long.
The snake temples her fingers; her face is dark and unknowable. “And so you would think, host to Jolinar of Malkshur.”
Mitchell could feel Carter stiffen beside him.
“But I like this planet,” the snake continued. “It suits me and my plans far more than the pathetic slave worlds over which I once ruled. It would have been a lovely jewel in my crown, before the Ori came and ruined everything. But you Tau'ri – you are so weak, so overconfident, so blind that you will always make your own undoing in the end. Ori forces shot down my al'kesh. The remains of it you see here.”
The snake sits back in a chair, her voice dripping with derision as she indicates the Goa'uld trappings in Dumbledore's office.
“Oh, typical,” Mitchell says. “Worried about your al'kesh when millions of people are dead.”
“Dead,” the Goa'uld replied, “is not a problem.”
The snake's mouth twists in a smirk, a smirk that drives something cold into Carter's stomach. A familiar smirk, a smirk she'd seen on other lips a dozen times before --
“You're Ba'al,” Carter breathes.
The snake's smirk grows even more self-satisfied.
“You're almost smart, for a Tau'ri,” the snake says. “You do deserve an answer. The real Ba'al was executed on the Tok'ra homeworld, after he was stupid enough to get caught. I am just a clone. I have forsworn that name and the actions of the System Lords. I much prefer my current title.”
“How the hell did you escape the massacre on P3R-112?” said Carter, unable to rein in her curiosity.
“What do you Tau'ri say – 'know thyself?' I took it to heart. I did not attend the meeting.” She grinned a little, showing the Tau'ri girl's perfect white teeth, and Mitchell doubted for the seventeenth time that whoever the host had once been, she had taken Ba'al willingly. “I assure you, I am reformed. I saved hundreds of lives in the aftermath of the Ori attack. It isn't my fault if your more unrefined cousins called what I did for them – miraculous. Godlike. After all, that is only what I am.”
To Mitchell's eye, Ba'al was clearly enjoying herself, her fingers templed and her face self-satisfied. He resisted the thought of spitting on the floor.
“My people love me.” Ba'al continued. “And, truly, I appreciate everything they've done for me, but I do understand that the only way out of this Ori mess is up. Up, up and away, as you Tau'ri say. So I have a proposal to take back to your commander at Phoenix Base. I know the capabilities of the prototype ship housed there. I know you're looking for Merlin's weapon. I know your base has the Ori attack vessel. I also know your people will not be able to make it work without me. Take me to the base. I'll make your ship work in return for a ticket out of this shithole. In return, I won't kill you.”
Mitchell exchanges bullshit, more shit, shit piled higher and deeper looks with Carter.
The snake shakes her head. “I am no fan of the Ori,” she continued, her eyes growing colder by the second. “And I am no fan of Tau'ri games. Make your decision.”
Mitchell narrowed his eyes. “Oh, I don't think I'm the one playing games, here.”
Darkness passes over Ba'al's face, pretty features marred by the thoughts of thousands of years of vindictiveness and revenge. It's not a pretty look for the lost girl; Carter's gut aches with the memory of Jolinar's possession.
“I hate the Ori as much as you do,” Ba'al continues. “I have a plan. Our history has never been a good one, but this time I will not double-cross you. You have my word as Supreme System Lord.”
“Yeah, and I'll believe that when hell freezes over and Satan sells snow cones,” says Mitchell, blithely.
And then it hits Carter, and she shakes her head, and can't help but laugh. “You have no idea where Phoenix Base is, do you? Otherwise, you'd be there already. Well, we don't, either. We were never there -- we were injured in the battle, Teal'c beamed us off the General Hammond –“ the laughter bubbles up, and in another day, another age, before her world imploded, she would have been remanded to Mackenzie, stuck in the infirmary for crazy, crazy, Carter's acting a little off, get the Colonel an MRI stat --
“The girl. Your host. I remember her. She's one of the new SFs at the front desk, wasn't she? When did you take her? During the battle? Before? You were trying to steal the prototype in the conflict, and you failed. And now you don't know where it is. I don't know where it is, either. And now you've failed again, because we don't know. Jack and the others, they've won -- and you will never know where that ship is.”
“A pity, Colonel,” whispers Ba'al. Her eyes flash. “A pity I have to rely on tried-and-true methods rather than trust. There's more than one way to get what I want. If you would see it end this way, then this is the game we will play.”
In one swift movement, she reaches into her desk drawer, takes out a shiny silver pistol, and shoots Mitchell in the shoulder. He staggers back into the wall; Carter's out of her chair like a shot. A second bullet hits Mitchell in the other shoulder, and a third in the gut before Carter finds herself grappling with the Goa'uld. Her experience can't hold up against the Goa'uld's strength, though, and Ba'al shoves her to the ground, her forehead cracking against the concrete. Struggling, she lifts her eyes to meet Mitchell's.
“Sam,” he whispers. “You need to --”
The strangled sound she hears when the light goes out of his eyes she barely recognizes as her own.
And then Ba'al has the gun to the back of her head. She's been here before; the choking feeling in her chest isn't fear or even anger. It's despair.
Despair, and something far more desperate than that.
“You will tell me where Phoenix Base is,” the snake-thing says. “One way or another. Guards; take her to the lab, put her to work, and don't feed her until she's found something of use."
It's a sodden, slush-covered winter in a torn-up Memphis, where prostration occurs at the gates of Graceland for six hours a day and the Prior is reportedly holed up in the Jungle Room. Mitchell wants to move on, but Carter has a few theories she wants to test, and Mitchell ends up repelling looters for a hotel manager while Carter trades her engineering skills for spare parts.
On the fourth day, they attend prostration. The Prior emerges from the wrought-iron Graceland gates and moves among the people like an evangelical pastor, laying his hands on the blind and stroking the hair of the broken. A boy with a broken leg stands. A sallow-faced, malnourished old man flushes with the relief of gout. Carter manages to fix the heating in three or four buildings, but it's nothing like when the Prior provides food in a downtown park.
They can't get a DNA sample from the Prior, which means the equations written on Carter's arms are still purely theoretical.
There is no music in the air outside Graceland.
They leave her alone with a gun to her head and Mitchell's body for two minutes before they pick her up and drag her towards the offices behind the theme park.
Carter doesn't go quietly.
The fight drags on. Finally, enough guards come from doors stuffed into the crevices of nowhere that she simply can't win, and, exhausted, they push her back against a fake rock wall and let her catch her breath.
“Jesus,” one of them says. “Jesus. Where the fuck did you learn that?”
Carter tastes blood, and wipes it from the side of her mouth. “United States Air Force. You call her the Savior, but you just saw what happened in there,” she says. “That isn't God's work.”
“Oh, right, I never ain't believed in God before,” says one of the goons. He has an old AK-47, and he lifts it up to the sky in some sort of tribute. “Thought all that religious bullshit was for towelheads and weirdos. But I ain't seen nobody work miracles like that.”
Carter inhales, testing her rib cage. No broken ribs; oh, the small mercies, she thinks. She grabs the rock wall behind her as a support, and stands. “They're not miracles,” she says, spitting out blood. “It's all technology. Imagine if you brought your gun or your iPod back to medieval times. They'd think you're magic. It's the same thing --”
The goons exchange looks, and say no more; they grab her by the shoulders and propel her towards a sign that indicates they're entering an employee-only zone.
We fought for over a decade so that this wouldn't happen, she thinks. And look at them.
Jack answers, as he sometimes does. There's no accounting for taste, Carter.
“You know,” the second peon says, finally, his weapon flush with the small of her back. “she's really not all that bad. You do what she says, she gives you what you want. Better deal than we ever got from Rick Scott.”
She's too heartsick to argue this time, too careful that she's the last of SG-1. She's the last with the knowledge to defeat the Ori, the last that still might make it to Phoenix Base in time – but the desire to set this whole place on fire crawls in her veins, curdling the rage she feels over Mitchell's death, a rage that whispers behind the duty-call that she knows is the only true path she has left.
Jesus, Cam, she thinks, and banishes the memory of him in a necessary swerve, shaking away the grief with the need to stay alert.
She's seen death in the eyes of friends and of enemies. She's even felt it breathing under her own skin, felt its inexorable welcome clawing around her very own spine in the the frantic, hell-bent fluttering of Jolinar's final seconds. The reality of it is never easy to countenance, but after a while she's learned how to deal with it, to deal with the inevitability of the end. But Cam's death is different. It eats at her very soul. He was the last of them. Quite possibly the very last, if all the tales of Phoenix Base are just wishful thinking, are wrong, are tales sown by the Ori to root out the last of the human resistance.
That's crazy talk, Jack whispers.
Grey like thunderstorm skies, the building to which she's being taken is an antiseptic, strangely clean reminder of the world that was, a functional space for the functional business of running Universal's dead fantasies. Carter forces herself to remember the spare, green hallways of Stargate Command as the goon swipes a Universal ID card and slams open a door to hallways that are very so much the same as the hallways in the Pentagon outside the General's office years ago during her reports on the command of her ship. Her shoes, burned and battered as they are, hit the linoleum with the same satisfying click as her boots did on the cement of the Gate Room floor.
All around her, there's an eerie, unfamiliar humming that slips into her ears and claws at her brain – the sound of electricity, and it takes her a few moments to realize she'd almost forgotten what it sounded like.
And then Jack's voice, rattling around her head -- a poem he probably never read. I am Ozymandias, King of kings; look up, ye mighty, and despair.
She imagines him in the early years when they were both SG-1, before all the grey hair, before the slight paunch to his belly, when the wariness in his voice was an act and not the status quo. Out of the corner of her eye, she catches an old framed poster, still bright behind the glass.
Harry Potter, encouraging her to Be Extraordinary.
Be Outrageous, says Shrek a few steps later.
Scream Louder, whispers Jack O'Neill behind the eyes of Shrek.
Yes, sir, she says.
Seconds later, the goons push her through a door into a conference room where a large, businesslike oak table disappears under a wealth of alien technology, a mish-mash of Goa'uld and Ancient runes and decorations connected together with too-human red-and-black wires. There's two rumpled pallets in the corner with a sweaty, twentysomething redhead wearing a bikini top and sweatpants in the one furthest from the door, too-long, too-white limbs dangling from the short, uncomfortable precipice.
“Wake the fuck up, Christina, your God demands your presence. Here's your new lab partner,” the goon says. “Your boyfriend's still in the morgue. She has a similar dead boyfriend problem. Maybe you can help each other, if you get my drift.”
The girl comes awake with the kind of fumbling precision Carter's only seen on galley slaves on Goa'uld motherships or first-week boot camp cadets crapping their pants at the sight of their drill instructors. Before she can get a word in edgewise, the goons push Carter into the room, shut the door, and lock it behind her. Carter whirls, her fist connecting with the reinforced glass. The pain shoots up her arm but no glass breaks; she bites her lip and savors it.
“Um,” says the girl. “You must be new.”
Carter turns. “Who did she kill?” she says, quietly.
The girl pauses, considering Carter's dirty hair. She lets her eyes linger over the places where Mitchell's blood is still drying on Carter's tank top and the skin of her right arm. “My – Chris. She killed Chris. I try not to think about it,” she says. “It's not so bad here. Better than out there. There are no Ori here.”
Carter eyes her incredulously. “You like being locked in a room?” she returns.
And the girl's eyes light up. She's all freckles and innocence and earnest sadness, another Carter before the Academy or Daniel before he met Oma Desala. “With alien shit,” she says. “Real live alien shit. And we're going to kill the Ori with it, she says. And they locked you in the room, too, so they must think you can help. Which is great, because I can't make any of this work and I really want Chris back. I need to find something, but I can't find something if I can't get any of this to work...”
Big honkin' space guns, whispers Jack, somewhere in Carter's medulla oblongata. “Really. Alien shit,” she echoes, ignoring the girl's eventual rambling.
It makes her feel better, that old chestnut.
“Oh,” says Christina, licking her lips. “Yes. You probably think the Ori have all the alien shit, but no. No, let me show you. This is all stuff they found locked up in the administrative offices, back when the invasion happened -- ” She skirts the table like a ballet dancer and picks up a ribbon device buried under a few golden tablets Daniel would have whisked off to his office in the before-days. The sheer recognition of it makes Carter's blood boil, makes her heart sing, makes the ghost of Jolinar creen love-tangs and terror-vowels, and Carter shoves the memory of the snake down her throat with practiced precision as she’d been doing for over a decade.
The girl meanders on, oblivious to Carter's inner battle. “Not that I've been able to get it to work, mind, but it's definitely alien, and not Ori, which is exciting, which means there are tons of other races out there, probably. I haven't been able to make most of this stuff work. I mean, this —”
Carter snatches up the ribbon device immediately and turns it over, searching for the catch that led to the power source, nearly ignoring the girl's words.
“ —looks like some sort of pretty LARPer nerd bracelet, but I've taken samples to the electron microscope and the chemical composition includes elements that are not found on this earth – that can't be found on this earth. And, um, I'm technically only a sophomore in chemistry at UCF, if there was still a UCF, so don't take my word for it, but --”
“You have an electron microscope at a theme park,” says Carter, trying her best to be deadpan and failing miserably.
The girl blinks. “Yeah, the Savior made it,” she says. “She's awesome. She's like The Doctor, you know, she can sonic up all sorts of amazing things. They promised me someone who could help with all this crap, but so far everyone here's dumb tourists who probably couldn't even make their iPhones work before the Ori, but anyway, the stone I found, the alien stone -- I named it roswellite, and it’s got really cool properties – and it's in everything.”
And Sam can't help it, can't help the anger swirling up her spine, around her guts, up her esophagus, in her mouth. She slides the ribbon device on her arm, hoping to use it. No such luck -- it doesn't even sputter, even though the naquadah in her blood makes her nerves tingle. “Probably broken,” she says.
If the ribbon device were functioning, it would caress her hand and whisper terrible songs of domination and blood, like the abusive lover it had always been. And she'd feel it, this time, down to her very bones. She'd always suspected that naquadah exposure did something to the human hippocampus, to the memory center where she stored her own memories and those of Jolinar; she'd probably never get the chance to discover if she was right. She flexes her fingers and thinks about how Cam would already be factoring the ribbon device, as nonfunctional as it was, into their escape plan.
Cam. The feeling in her stomach is empty. Churning.
In front of her, Christina rocks from side to side and shoves her hands in her pockets. “I’d say it was just costume jewelry, but I’ve done extensive testing and it contains a huge concentration of roswellite. And the Savior thinks that's important.”
There’s silence, as Carter closes her eyes and lets the naquadah sing to her.
“Um,” says Christina. “You all right?”
Carter’s eyes fly open. “Are you nuts?”
The question seems to hit Christina where she wasn’t expecting it; the girl steps back a moment, and Carter can almost see the wheels in her head turning.
“I've seen a lot of things,” Carter responds, fiddling with the jewel at the center of the ribbon device. “You guys are just as bad as the folks in the Ori towns. Your Savior may as well be Ori, for all she cares about you.”
The girl’s bottom lip trembles. “It's not that,” she said. “But I don't want to die.”
“What does the Savior have you looking for?” Carter said, her hands running over the dead machinery.
Christina takes a moment to compose herself, and then shakes her head. “Others. Like us. Rebels against the Ori. She says there are people out there who can help us defeat them.”
The irony of it makes Carter bite her lip. “Yeah, there are. But not like her. We can only hope,” she mutters, and turns her attention back to the table, to the scattered crystals and device-innards and draws her hand over it — most of it familiar, some of it unfamiliar. And then — her breath catches as she pauses her hand over something she thought she’d never see —
“Oh boy,” she breathes.
Behind her, Christina is a blur of motion, her neck craned, skirting the desk. “Oh, that? I don’t know what that is. I’ve never been able to get it work.”
The naquadah sings of blood. Violence. Brains on the floor, brains on the walls, guts for garters --
“Oh,” Carter says, quietly. She presses her index finger to the communications device and it hums underneath her skin. “I bet I can.”
The last few minutes aboard the General Hammond --
The ship is falling apart around her. She's already given the evacuation order, and most of the crew will have appeared on the top of Cheyenne Mountain by now. But this is her command; her ship. Until the sparks stop flaring out from behind her, until the deck stops shuddering, until the howling sound of air screaming out the hundred hull breaches reaches her own ears – if there's still a chance to kill the Ori ship, she has to take it.
“Colonel Carter,” she hears. Teal'c, his voice calm but urgent. “You must evacuate.”
“It's okay, Teal'c,” she says. “I've got this.”
And, faraway, Vala -- “Here they come, Muscles --”
The air is hot and desperate and nearly gone, but that's not why Carter is holding her breath.
“Colonel Carter,” she hears. And then Ori weapons fire. “It has been an honor. You must stay alive. I am sorry.”
And then there's a bright white light, and she's in a room at Area 51, with a bloodied Cameron Mitchell staring at her, wordless, his shaking hand on the last Asgard device in human possession. She won't forgive him until they see the faraway, glassy molten plain where Colorado used to be.
He wakes up screaming to the thrumming silence of anxious machines.
The dank air is somehow sweet and hot, even through the layer of dust coating his hands, his pants, the left side of his face. He's alone in a darkened room; a quick exploration finds an upended bucket, a cold and sweaty metal door – air conditioning from the ceiling and humidity seeping in from under the door. A different closet than before, he thinks, but a closet nonetheless. Outside, he hears the shuffle of boots on linoleum; the click-clack of someone in heels and low words like muffled liquid. And then --
“I’m to take the test — with the prisoner,” a woman's voice says.
Light pours in, and his eyes burn like he's a baby straight out of his mama that's never seen light before. He throws his palm over his face until she pushes the door closed halfway and leaves the two of them in near-darkness, illuminated by the light of the hallway and a candle-lantern held in the right hand of the person who has just entered his cell. The woman next to him – it's a woman, a middle-aged blonde in cutoff jean shorts and ratty remade Fiona tee-shirt tied like she's going to the beach and tangled hair kept out of her face by a messy ponytail – drops down to squat next to him. Mitchell’s head lolls to the side as he watches her take out a stethoscope, a syringe and a bottle of water from a bag at her side.
He reaches for the bottle of water like a man in the desert, his words still scrambling to line up with his vocal cords. She untwists the cap and slides it over to him. The water is metallic, angry; he gulps it down desperately before he puts it down.
“Sam,” he says. “Where?”
The woman shakes her head, “Your memory’ll be a bit spotty for a few hours, I am afraid, just like your physical coordination. Just take a few minutes to adjust to the light, and then we’ll talk, all right? Give me your right hand.”
Mitchell remembers: the gun in his face, the pain, the abrupt blackness, the light that came just as quickly, the pain, the inability to move, to think, a prisoner in his own body, the flashes of the sarcophagus – Oh, God, you're alive before you're alive, before you can think, Mitchell realizes, and he's driving away thoughts of holy fuck I was dead as he's clasping at the dirty floor, trying to get to his feet. With a sick fascination, he realizes that he's not quite up to speed, that his feet don't do what he wants them to do — he wobbles pathetically as the woman reaches for his hand, and he snaps it back as he loses his balance, hitting the floor like a sack of bricks.
“No,” he says, and then — damn the inability to make complete sentences — “Sarcophagus.”
The woman tilts her head to the side. Her voice is soothing, quiet, and insidiously Carolyn. “That’s what she calls it, yes. I'm Dr. Greene. Don't try to talk.”
“Bastard —” He pushes her hand away.
The woman’s lips turn up in amusement. “Hey. Take it easy. I’m here to help you.”
“Not,” says Mitchell, frustrated by his inability to make a complete sentence. “Where’s Sam?”
The doctor blinks. “The woman? Was she your wife?”
“Yes,” Mitchell said. Good enough for government work.
“She's dead,” says Greene. “I'm sorry.”
Mitchell's stomach turns. No. “Dead. Or dead like me.”
And then the doctor’s hand is at his sternum, pushing him back to the floor. His floppy new limbs betray him; feeling like this, he can no more fight back than he can build a Stargate from raw naquadah. But the doctor’s leaning in, and her breath smells like it hasn't seen a toothbrush in months — foul, rotten, bitter.
“She can bring people back from the dead,” the woman says. “That’s where you were. Listen. I’m a neurosurgeon at Florida Hospital — or I was, before the Ori. There are rules for this kind of thing — how long your brain can survive before we have to call it. Even then you'd probably spend the rest of your life as a vegetable. They brought you in DOA, fifteen minutes after your death. Chest wound, bullet ripped right through the right ventricle at full speed. And now we’re talking like nothing ever happened. And, see — you’re not the first one. Last week there was a kid who drowned in the water behind Jurassic Park. Brought ‘em in, hadn’t been breathing for ten minutes — now he’s running around like death was just a pit stop. And I’m telling you that can’t be possible. Listen, I — I have to know.”
Mitchell laughs, and the pain in his chest uncoils. “Impossible as aliens,” he drawls, finding it easier to connect his mouth to his brain. Now if my arms and legs would just function correctly…
The woman betrays a first glimmer of doubt, top teeth chewing on her sunburnt bottom lip. “You look so familiar. Like I’ve seen you before somewhere. Are you local?”
“Just passing through,” he says, his stomach lurching. Flashes of memory, now, cascading like water through a floodgate — the Stargate program going public, doing the press tour, going up in the F-308 with Sam in the first wave against the Ori, the endless press conferences, the fact that he knew he'd never been invisible again. Sam’s eyes after Teal'c's betrayal, her blood, his panic. Vala's voice on the intercom, cut off by staff-blast fire. “Visiting relatives. Christmas in July. Didn’t get to do it last year; there was this little thing called an alien invasion. You know. Puts a damper on the pumpkin pie part.”
The doctor’s face changes, and she lifts the syringe. “Listen,” she says, “I know that for the next half-hour you’re not going to be able to do anything else than sit there and mouth off at me. If you know something, please tell me. There’s so much riding on this. You have no idea.”
“First, let’s get some things straight. The Savior's name is Ba’al. She’s a sonofabitch alien snake wearing a human suit. See, we used to think they were worse than the Ori – the snake wraps around the brainstem, takes over brain functions… suppresses the host’s consciousness, like a tapeworm hijacks your caloric intake. They call themselves the Goa’uld. Not even a she — more like an it. Lesser of two evils, but --” he brings a hand up to finger the smooth skin where he remembered the bullet hitting, all too vividly -- “ — still only in it for himself. And yes, he can bring people back from the dead.”
The doctor said nothing, but her hand was shaking where she held the syringe.
“An it,” she said, “but not Ori.”
“Well,” Mitchell responded. “Technically, the pronoun’s ksa. Goa’uld don’t have gender as we know it.” Damn you, Jackson. “And you’re not really a member of the cult of the Savior, are you?”
The woman’s hand shook harder; when she spoke, her voice slipped a register or two, darkening quietly. She brings her hand to her neck, where a golden cross dangles at her throat. “I don’t know anymore,” she says. “She’s the only thing I know who can stand up against the Ori, and — my kids are still out there. She says she can get my kids, bring them here, and protect us all.”
“Wait,” Mitchell said, and this time he manages to get to his feet. “You can't believe her. Goa'uld lie, and that one, he's the king of liars --”
The woman’s eyes flicker to the door again; Mitchell catches the action, hears the shuffling of amateurs in the hallway, and the telltale squeak of rubber against linoleum.
The doctor licks her lips. “I’m really sorry,” she says.
“You don't want to do this,” says Mitchell.
The woman's hand is shaking. “I've already been through it twice,” she whispers. “It's so beautiful. I feel so strong --”
She launches herself at him, syringe in hand; but Mitchell has the upper hand. This is no different than the hundred other fights he’s had with desperate civilians, despite the fact that his body still isn’t obeying him very well — and despite her sarcophagus addiction, the woman goes down easily; her head cracks on the concrete floor and she goes limp, but she’s still breathing, and Cam chalks one more tally on the list of things for which he’ll hardly forgive himself. But there’s no time to waste, and he whips the syringe from her arm and stumbles out into the hallway, cursing.
In the bright light of day, he’s faced with a teenage girl with a pistol, waiting there, her hand shaking, a few women and men in clean tee-shirts gathered around her. She’s not even thirteen, skinny-small with dark, sunken eyes. Sarcophagus eyes. He'd seen those on pictures of Jackson, back in the early days, undergoing withdrawl.
The girl's hand shakes, her finger on the trigger.
“Do it, Lisa,” one of them says. “Do it and you can have your mother back. Do it and you can have another trip.”
The girl shoots with her eyes closed.
“Oh, fuck it,” swears Mitchell, and the last thing he thinks of is Carter.
Carter, her skin hotter than the campfire in the Tennessee forest.
They shouldn't be doing this, but, then, a lot of things shouldn't be happening.
He awakes in the sarcophagus this time — walls warm with incandescent life, its life-giving heat a tight fit around his broken throat. His first breath is that of a newborn, blood rushing out of his lungs and air in for the first time, a searing, scalding inhalation as the top of the sarcophagus rolls open to reveal a massive statue of a Tyrannosaurus Rex.
With no amusement — all right, some — Mitchell realizes they’re in Jurassic Park. Straight out of the movie.
Maybe if I'm lucky, a velociraptor will eat Ba'al, he thinks.
Hands of all kinds reach in and take him out, half-carefully; his skin sings with the pain of rebirth. He's placed on a hard wooden chair. The shadows move behind him, and Ba'al steps out, her stolen brown eyes dancing with light. Her borrowed red hair is tied up in a multitude of braids with colored rubber bands, like a schoolgirl who’s just learned that her hair can do more than just lay flat against her back. The rest of her outfit, though, is vintage Goa’uld; the corset wouldn’t be out of place on Nirrti, while the miniskirt looks more like something Qetesh would wear. Or Vala.
Fuck, he even misses Vala.
“Nice look,” he croaks. It's an crack about which she'd be proud.
The snake licks ksa's lips and tilts the woman’s head to the side. “You Tau’ri are mystifying,” she said. “Some of you are so easy to manipulate. But then, there are those like you, which take a little more… effort. So let’s try this again. Tell me the location of Phoenix Base, and I will bring your Carter back from the dead and we can get on with going to pick up my ships and saving your absolutely miserable excuse for a planet.”
Mitchell makes a game attempt to will strength back into his hands. “Maybe. I'm pretty sure Carter would rather be dead than help you. I mean, not wearing that skirt. She's far too classy. You know, Vala wouldn’t even wear that. You have a lot to learn about —”
Ba’al punches him. Pain floods Mitchell's chest as he flops over like a rag doll, his limbs still far from being in his own control.
“Please, sir,” he said, “can I have some more?”
Ba’al leans over and stares at him, his body language decisively threatening.
“You think you’re going to last,” Ba’al whispers. “You think that you will be able to outlast everything I throw at you, like a good little Tau’ri. But who are you to think that, when your greatest warrior even failed? O’Neill broke under my hand, like a summer reed or a clay pot — Tell me the location of Phoenix Base, and tell me where you're keeping the Ori ship!”
“I think,” whispers Mitchell, “that I’m never going to tell you anything. And that Sam won’t, either, no matter where you have her, if she’s still alive — And that you can kill me all you want, because nothing — nothing — is worse than watching my team die. Knowing that I’m the last one. So do it, do it over and over again. I won’t break.”
“Everyone breaks,” says Ba'al, and fishes her gun from her waistband.
The quick crack of a report, and then – nothing.
All the great hotels are gone.
The Gaylord Palms, the Royal Plaza, the Hyatt Grand Cypress — all of them are off-limits to the Base staff, stuffed to the gills with the rotten dead. It was enough for Colonel Dave Dixon to see war in Afghanistan; it was enough for him to see the scattered slain on Anubis’ battlefields. A job hazard. Something for which he was prepared since he entered the Academy back when peace looked like something that might actually happen.
But, ah, the hotels. Off-limits, cholera-ridden, tuberculosis-stuffed incubators of the Ori plague. The dead civilians, all of them, men and women and children in Bermuda shorts and fanny packs, who never knew that to be Tau’ri was to stand tall and proud.
“Hotels are deathtraps,” O’Neill had said, his voice curiously grave. “Nothing we can bring out of a place like that is worth the risk.”
But survivors still passed through, rummaging through the dreams of the long dead, and despite the signs posted — crude Ori sigils in black spraypaint and red Sharpie, the beginnings of a Christian underground railroad to nowhere – they still went into the dead hotels and never returned.
One of the smarter survivors’ groups, skirting the bandits' corridor that I-4 had become, reported to a Phoenix scout that there was a new Ori settlement a gaggle of old restaurants just outside the north gate to Phoenix Base, and that they were singing about the possibility of a Prior approaching, so O'Neill sends SG-13 out on recon the hard way: through the swamp and the old Disney drainage ditches, over I-4 and into tourist town. Balinsky gibbers about gators and Wells complains about the mosquitos. Dixon looks at the decapitated Mickey welcoming him to the happiest place on Earth, listens to the crickets carrying on like his entire world isn't dead and gone, and misses his kids so hard he forgets to rag on his team.
It's going to be a long day.
Mission objective one: Locate and bring back new sustainable food sources to Phoenix Base; General O’Neill does not intend to continue trading with the idiots who run the greenhouse at EPCOT if they’re going to have their heads up their collective asses regarding the Mutual Defense Treaty.
The lobby of the Peabody Hotel is drenched with duck shit and completely silent except for the quacking.
“You know what I'm thinking? Duck soup,” says Balinsky. “Duck roast. Duck egg omelette. Duck sauce. Duck --”
Wells whacks him. “Shut the duck up.”
“Should have left you both back at the base.” It's Dixon, slamming the door to the truck. “Smells okay. Looks sustainable. Standard recon. Bodies, plague vectors — if you even have the slightest doubt that it ain’t perfectly clean, we’ll burn this goat rodeo.”
In just over two hours, Dixon’s satisfied with the lack of plague vectors scattered around the hotel — they’re mostly on the ceiling of the tall glass building, piled together like rotting matchsticks, where Balinsky theorizes they were waiting for helicopter evac “or the mothership,” a joke which doesn’t make it as far as Wells wants it to, and they show energy weapons to be the cause of death, not plague. So the team fashions a makeshift lattice for the back of the truck and chase the ducks around the hotel lobby; enough male and female live ducks for the pond by the castle could net the expedition eggs and meat for as much longer as they’re going to be in town, and it's been so long since his last omelette that Dixon starts fantasizing about it all right there.
Mission objective two: Obtain parts to build a few new generators and to support Lee's revised Prior detector, which can't fail or we're all completely screwed.
They're outside some sort of dead electronics store – the kind that sold overpriced cameras and broken laptops to foreign tourists before the Ori invasion, when the world was blissfully unaware of the Stargate.
“Everybody know what you're looking for?” Dixon calls.
“Two hundred feet of #30 magnet wire,” Wells says.
“1 by 2 by 5 ceramic magnet,” says Balinsky.
“Your six,” says Bosworth, cocking his gun and taking his position behind the truck, watching the road outside.
Balinsky hasn't cut his curly red hair in months, and he cuts a ridiculous figure with a Tigger shirt and jeans and a Beretta fished out of his waistband. They're all in civvies; it makes Dixon uncomfortable to walk around looking like a target and without the reassuring weight of Kevlar, but they can't run the risk of blowing their cover to whatever followers of Origin are lurking in the area this close to launch.
No. Not silence, Dixon thinks. Breathing, shallow and loud.
He cocks his gun. “You have three seconds to show yourself, or we start shooting,” he says, adopting his best villain's drawl.
“Shit,” a young male voice says, and a scrawny twentysomething kid crawls out from behind the cashwrap, his hands over his head. “I don't have nothin'. Hallowed are the Ori. Um. Don't shoot me. Please. The Ori are, uh, hallowed,” he adds, somewhat ineffectively, and trails off, his eyes lingering on Dixon’s gun-barrel.
Dixon runs his tongue against the back of his top teeth. “Hallowed are the Ori. Blessed are the chosen. You just stay right there until my friends are done shopping and we'll be square. How about that?”
“Noooo problem,” the kid says, nervously, and trembles like a rabbit. “Um. Are you guys at the Crossroads? Can you give me a ride back? I don’t want to miss the Rising.”
Dixon stares. “Let's add 'shut the hell up' to the list of things you need to do, right?”
“I don’t want to miss the Rising,” said the kid, somewhat strangely.
“Yeah,” Dixon says. “Don’t want to miss it. Now shut up.”
But the kid's dropping his hands slowly, oh so slowly, and tilting his head to one side, and the realization hits him like a ton of bricks -- “You have no idea what I’m talking about,” he says. “You’re not Chosen, are you? You're all heathens – what the fuck are you doing, if the Prior finds out you're stealing his property, he's gonna fuck everything up, he's gonna kill us all --”
“Airman,” Dixon says, “do the honors.”
Wells zats the kid once.
There are quite a few parts to bring back to Lee and the scientists, which Dixon hopes will shut them up for once; unfortunately, there are no batteries, but it's been quite some time since the invasion and Dixon's sure every battery in the country has already been snapped up by hungry, electricity-starved survivors. But they don’t have a choice — the base needs power. It’s a zero-sum game without a ZPM, and they're running out of trucks and gas and time.
The ship has to fly.
It just has to, he thinks. I'm a soldier. I don't zat children.
“We’re going to have to raid the Ori settlement,” he growls to his team.
“Put your big girl panties on, Bosworth,” Dixon grumbles. “Right, move out.”
Mission objective three: Assess the defensive strength of the Ori settlement and check for the presence of a Prior. Find out what the hell this “Rising” is.
SG-13 parks the truck behind the strip mall, climbs up on the dumpster and clambers onto the roof. Dixon flattens himself against the rough tar-and-gravel surface, pulling himself up just enough to look over the lip of the building into the rumbling crowd below.
The settlement has grown since the last time they checked. Sprouting like colorful zits, one after another, tents and cars cover the parking lot. Hundreds of people mill around below, eating, laughing, talking, their clothes and buildings painted and scrawled with the Ori ankh. And it's tough, it's so tough to see the smiles, the upturned gazes, the hope in their eyes – it's all too much. Dixon's seen combat, he's seen intestines dragged out of the body of a man who was still alive, he's seen men zatted three times and shot through the brain by Jaffa energy blasts, but this – this, the joy of the converted, secure in their apocalypse, fat and happy on the milk of sin and Ori favor, is the thing that makes him the most sick.
“Sir,” Wells says, “There. By the McDonalds.”
Four sets of eyes find the enemy at once.
There’s someone teaching, his Book of Origin extended, standing on a wooden platform like an Old Testament prophet, his shoulders back and a baseball cap extended over his long brown hair. He pauses, as if he senses something wrong; for a moment the four men are holding their breath, not moving a muscle, listening to the roar of the crowd and the sound of the breeze blowing through their hair – until the man returns to his lecture as if nothing happened.
It’s not a Prior, but the words chill.
And we will Rise, we are the Rising, we will rescue our brother the Prior from the bowels of the Kingdom of the Blind, the Heathen Kingdom, the Castle of the Lost —
The four men breathe out at once.
“Think that’s the base?” Bosworth says.
Dixon fingers the trigger on his P90. “Only one way to know.”
They're on their way.
It rains during the afternoon. It rains every afternoon like clockwork in midsummer in Central Florida. They don’t talk as they trudge back to base, passing the dead hotels and smelling the sweetness of long-rotted death on the summer breeze.
O’Neill’s eyes are sad and dead as Dixon makes his report.
A few miles away, the cheering begins.
Jack wakes up sweating to dreams of burning cities. He eats a carrot, wishes he could put one of the scientists on beer detail, and is striding over to make his report to Woolsey in the castle when he's accosted by Felger in the shadow of the burnished bronze statue of Walt Disney.
“Uh, hi, General.” Felger has the presence of a gnat in the bright, dingy morning of Main Street, USA, waving his clipboard. The castle gleams obscene and unearthly blue nearby, the dead Christmas lights dangling like dirty, neglected tentacles. O’Neill imagines Woolsey sitting at the conference table in the former restaurant, tapping his fingers impatiently.
He fixes the vision with a quick punch to Woolsey’s face. “I’m on my way to see the President, Folgers. Make it quick.”
“Um — we finally got to the last of the technology in the vaults below the park,” he said, shoving the clipboard in O’Neill’s direction. “We brought it to Dr. McKay’s lab, and, well, I kind of volunteered to take this to you, sir, he was, er, slightly peeved —”
O’Neill grabbed it as the two of them took off for the tunnels and scanned it; the sun was still low, but the air was already cloyingly hot. The register was disappointing; nothing but holographic projectors, long-range communications devices — and how many of those had his scientists already tried to activate, to contact the Tok’ra or the Asgard or their offworld allies, or even a stray former System Lord who couldn’t help crowing about the defeat of the mighty Tau’ri, hopefully in the hearing of someone who cared.
“I can see why. Crap, crap, and toys,” he grumbles. “Nothing useful. Couldn’t they have found a gun or two? Or something Ancient?” Ancient he could do. Ancient was at least interesting. He and Carter could at least puzzle something out. He’d wave his hand and she’d work her magic and the next thing he knew the Ori would be history and she’d be trying to wriggle out of a fishing trip to Minnesota with a laundry list of flimsy excuses.
— No, he told himself for the millionth time. Carter’s gone, and where she’s gone, nobody comes back.
Except for Daniel. Not that it fucking matters, now that he believes in the munificence of delusional alien squids.
The thought sours Jack’s morning more than he could have possibly imagined; suddenly annoyed by Felger, who’s blinking at his side like a puppy expecting a treat, he wheels one the heel of one battered boot towards Cinderella’s Castle and walks towards the area with something resembling the purpose he used to feel, shoving the clipboard back into the hands of the dirty scientist with perhaps a little too much force than he’d originally intended.
Felger coughs and follows. His mouth is a grim line. “Well — ah — I was thinking, well, Lee and I were thinking, but I really was doing most of the thinking —”
“Out with it, Felger,” he said. “Don’t have all day.” I have a dead friend to interrogate and I’m pretty sure telling Congress that we have a little Prior problem is going to be fun, too.
The scientist’s mouth is a grim line, even as he scrambles to keep up with both his feet and his thoughts. “We found some plans in the Imagineer computer networks, and see — they’d been trying to update some of the rides — imagine the Haunted Mansion with real honest to God, er, excuse me, didn’t mean the pun — er, Goa’uld holographic technology, I mean, that would that have been so cool, and imagine if you could replace animatronic pirates with real ones, or hey, as real as they come —”
The scientist stops in his tracks, blinks, and rights himself. “Well. We, uh, need a live Prior to run the ship. We can get it running on his blood, but when it comes to flying thing, we need his brain. And his fingers, er, preferably intact.”
Carter, Carter, my whole kingdom for a Carter, he thinks, stops, and whirls on Felger. “Impossible, Felger.” he says, as if he were explaining why the sky is blue to Charlie or Cassie or one of the other dead children, left unburied and rotting from plague back in Colorado. “It’s not gonna work. We lost a lot of good people in Atlanta when we tried that gambit. I’m not going to risk it again.”
Felger bites his bottom lip and looks like he’s reaching into the pits of his stomach for courage. “Yes,” he says, “but what if the Prior was… willing?”
“I’m not going to waste my time with your crap if you’re not going to read the mission reports, Felger. Or pay attention to what’s staring you straight in the face,” Jack says.
O’Neill had been at Homeworld Command for the clusterfuck that had been the Prior plague; Mitchell’s tete-a-tete with Damaris and the Sodan had been too close a call for his aging stomach, even if it was what he would have done in his replacement’s position. He turns again and walks towards the doors that would take him back to the hangar where he hopes Lam, Lee and a few overtired technical sergeants would have the Ori ship suitably eviscerated and purring.
Felger follows him like an overenthusiastic puppy, sweat dripping down his forehead. “Yes, but we were trying to convince that Prior that Origin was wrong. We know we can only do that with the Ark of Truth. We know enough about the Priors to know that — well, it’s like this. Dr. Jackson was only able to speak with Oma Desala at the time of his deaths and on Kheb, where she was physically present in her ascended form. We know the Ori do not accompany the Priors — they speak to them only at Celestis, right? And since we know that for the next few days at least, Jackson can’t read our minds or throw us across the room or use any of his powers — he won’t know that you’re lying —”
Some shouting catches O’Neill’s ear; he turned back towards the main square. “Get to the point,” he snaps.
“They use religion as a weapon, so we give them a taste of their own medicine. We use Origin as a weapon,” Felger says, breathlessly. “We can’t possibly convince him that Origin is wrong. So we don’t. You know Dr. Jackson. He’s always believed the best of everyone. Maybe that remains, you know, Gerak was just as much a you-know-what as a Prior. You convert to Origin. You convince him to take you up. I mean, if Jackson believes you’re telling the truth, there’s at least a chance that the other Prior won’t pick up on Dr. Jackson’s distress, because he won’t be in distress. And when you break orbit, you can — uh — take care of the rest of the problem.” Felger clears his throat, his hands twisting in front of him; his gaze falters on O’Neill’s stunned silence, and he bites his bottom lip. “Or maybe we could just go to Bermuda?”
O’Neill grabs Felger’s shirt collar and pushes him up against the wall. “Jackson is not — a — problem to be solved,” he says.
“We’ve never, uh, un-Priored a Prior,” Felger gulps. “Far as I know, there's, uh, only one, uh, way.”
O'Neill's hand twists Felger's shirt collar, and he's silent for a moment. He thinks of Jackson bathed in blue light the very first time the Stargate was activated, stumbly and uncomfortable in ill-fitting borrowed gear.
“How long will the new anti-Prior device last?” he said.
They shouldn't have been able to evacuate.
But they had. They'd made it. They'd done it. Fifty-six lucky bastards plus a few evacuated from the Hammond (but not Carter; no, Carter would have gone down with the ship, would have been vaporized in milliseconds, everything she was gone like morning mist on the pond behind his house). They'd sealed off the mountain below them. The Ori had held the Stargate open and poured gamma radiation through the event horizon; that night, Jack would attend the horrific deaths of the tech team that had tried their best to stop the catastrophe, and be one of the men to wield a shovel at their mass grave.
It was a goddamned miracle that there was still a truck. It was a goddamned miracle that they got a bead on that Ori vessel at Disney World, and that Woolsey was willing to go that far.
It was a goddamned miracle that Carter had made those changes to the anti-Prior device not even a week before on her shore leave from the General Hammond.
Too much fucking luck.
That night, Jack started waiting for his luck to run out.
Jack sometimes rues the terrifically karmic fact that there had been a gaggle of suits hanging out at Cheyenne Mountain when the Ori arrived.
He rues the fact that he’d been there. He was supposed to be in Washington. He was supposed to have a nice, quick, merciful death at one of the twenty-five bombed-out Ground Zeros.
Being atomized by an Ori nuke is highly preferable to making this decision, he thinks.
Phoenix Congress consists of Woolsey, of course, strutting in his Presidential role like a particularly short and ineffective peacock; Kinsey’s replacement, a formerly jowly senator named Armstrong, who was never more than an arm’s length from the skinny, pale thing he called a daughter; a group of silent civilians, and Camille Wray, a human resources executive whom O’Neill guessed knows more about things than she's letting on.
Not exactly a voting majority.
“With all due respect, sir,” O’Neill bitches, feeling his blood pressure rise, “we have people at Epcot. We have to get them out before this — this Rising starts. We have to get them out, and we have to make that ship fly.”
Woolsey’s eyes darken; the man's exhausted, bone-tired like the rest of them, and his cheeks are sunken, as if he hasn't been getting enough calories. O’Neill’s stomach growls in unintentional and unwanted sympathy. Nevertheless, the presidents’s hands splay still and wide across the table like he owns it, and his gaze is flinty where it meets O'Neill's.
“Not if they’ve already gone Ori; we have to assume our agents at Epcot have been identified and taken and that even if they return without memory of their capture, they may be plague vectors — or worse. People are dying at Epcot, General.”
“Colonel Young is trained for subterfuge, sir,” O'Neill counters. “He'll be fine.”
Woolsey’s voice is tired. “Read the report, Jack.”
“In case you haven’t noticed, sir, I’m busy trying to get a spaceship running on glue and pixie dust —”
Wray clears her throat, and the two of them fall silent. She has that effect; her personal interest in Colonel Young's detachment is well-known.
“Nobody is questioning your devotion to the project, General. I know we’re all under a great deal of stress,” she says. “I think we are, however, questioning your motives, knowing that you will have to make the decision to kill the Prior.” Wray fingers a necklace at her throat — the one concession O’Neill has ever seen her make to the nerves they all felt. “Hundreds of towns went Ori before a single Prior walked among them just from the sheer terror of it all. It is not out of the question to think that Epcot may have gone the same way. We must watch out for our own --”
O’Neill feels a flare of anger as the eyes in the room focus on him. They know we don't leave our own behind to die. They know this. “Miss Wray. President Woolsey. I cannot condone a plan of action that does not include getting Colonel Young’s detachment out of Epcot. We do not leave our people behind. Likewise, cannot condone a path of action that will result in Daniel's death --”
Woolsey's eyes are hard as stone, but his hand trembles. “You need not condone a thing, General. You need only follow orders.”
Silence rings like a nuclear bomb.
O'Neill's headache flares; he brings his hand to his head, closes his eyes, and wills the pain to go away. He wants to walk out, grab a gun, go to EPCOT; he's done worse, he's gone AWOL, he's saved the planet with less – but he, a General, had stood behind Woolsey in the dark deathness of the first five days of the run. He'd said nothing when Woolsey laid a hand on the tattered Bible in the ruins of a Baptist church in the mountains. Anything less would have ruined the nascent government, the mission, the last hope for humanity --
This is your duty, sir, Carter reminds him, whispering in the dark.
He narrows his eyes at Wray and Armstrong, at Armstrong's sickly daughter and his Commander in Chief.
“Yes, sir. Orders received,” he says. “I'll save you a seat in hell, sir.”
Wray lets out a quiet breath and leans back in her chair as he whirls around and stalks towards Disney's network of subterranean passages underneath the Magic Kingdom.
Lights flicker there, hiding in rusty ceiling sconces, casting shadows around corners and bends; O’Neill is uncomfortably reminded of the movies he’d used to rent, back at the old house with Sara and Charlie. The Blockbuster store down the street, fat VHS tapes with crummy tracking, movie-butter microwave popcorn whose scent always lingered through breakfast.
He stops, staring at a T-intersection. Somewhere, condensation drips onto a metal surface, echoing quietly in the long chamber. Next to him, a door to a dressing room yawns black and blank.
In the movies, he remembers the lights flickering before the villain appeared, a dark shadow in a doorway, a bodiless hand clutching a gun. Charlie would squeal, Sara would cuddle closer, and it’d be a twisted little moment to cherish on his next deployment, that warmth, when there was a real shadow in a doorway, and the gun was pointed at him —
He nods to the guards in front of the cage room and pushes open the door.
Dr. Lee’s in the room, sipping steaming hot water out of a Mickey Mouse mug and scrawling things on a pad of paper that O’Neill, even after ten years of hanging around Samantha Carter, still only recognizes tangentially as theoretical physics equations; the man notices him almost immediately, and opens his mouth to say something, but O’Neill’s waving him away already.
Behind the bars of the humming cage, the Prior stands, serene and beatific, his arms folded in front of him, still as death.
“Lee, take a walk,” he says.
Lee licks his lips and looks uncomfortable. “General, someone needs to be here to properly operate and monitor the cage interface.”
“I’m not five years old,” O’Neill responds. “I need three minutes with my team member.”
Lee glances from the cage interface to the Daniel-thing and back to O’Neill. “With respect, General, he’s not your —”
“Lee,” O’Neill says.
“I think being out in the hall for a moment is a splendid idea,” the scientist responds, and places his P90 down on the desk with a meaningful crash. The scientist exits the room, closing the door behind him with an audible click, and O’Neill takes the few long, terrible steps to close the distance between himself and the Prior, the white-noise hum of electricity the only witness. The Daniel-thing turns its head, slow, and O’Neill is reminded uncomfortably of Chucky the murder doll, a movie he most certainly hadn’t let Charlie watch. He clears his throat.
“So. This… Origin thing,” O’Neill says.
The Daniel-thing smiles, the old smile lines near his lips nearly imperceptible in the semi-darkness. “Have you come to contemplate your divine right?”
The Prior says nothing.
O’Neill shoves his hands in his pockets. “You happy with this, Daniel?”
“There is nothing but happiness in the service of the Ori,” replies the Prior, serene as a gator sunning itself on a riverbank while the world goes to hell around it.
“Not that,” says O’Neill. “Happy. You remember happy. Like… fishing happy. Beer happy. We-just-killed-Apophis happy. You know. Someone gives you a set of Furling ruins for your birthday.”
“You are different today,” said Daniel, and for a moment there's a ghost of a smirk on his face, an old, familiar smirk --
No. Nothing familiar about it. You're talking to another casualty, like Carter and Teal’c. Jack O’Neill, this is your life. You couldn’t protect any of them in the end. “I’m tired, Daniel,” he said. “I'm on the wrong path.” I'm contemplating having to put a bullet in my friend's brain. I'll call that the wrong fucking path.
“Following the path of the Ori, you will not tire. In the footsteps of the Ori, you will not grow weak. In the light of the Ori, you will be strong once again. You need not fear when you are with the Ori —”
O’Neill smiles. “I missed these conversations, you know…”
“In the path of the Ori…” droned the Prior.
“Yeah,” O’Neill said. “I’ll do it.”
“In the light of the Ori…”
The Prior’s eyes clear from their religious reverie, and he tilts his head to one side.
O’Neill takes a breath, turns around, and locks eyes with the Prior. “I want to accept the invitation to your Sunday school party. I accept the Ori, for myself and on behalf of the inhabitants of Phoenix Base. I want to go to Celestis, to look upon the Ori with my own eyes, and see the truth that everyone else has… obviously… I guess… seen. I have your ship. You can take me there.”
The Prior’s face does not change. “I would fain believe you, old friend. And yet, you may be as Marlis, whose false faith turned food to ash in his body and choked the very life from his bones. And yet, you may be as the snake in the garden of the faithful, bringing poison where there should be peace.”
“And yet,” O’Neill returned, “I may actually be ready to admit that you guys were right all along.”
The Prior blinks beatifically. “You lie,” he said.
Well, this is Daniel, O’Neill thought. Who knows what kind of information he kept in that Ori brain of his. He might still be in there. And the terrible, irrational thought: We could still save him.
“Jackson. Come on. Would I lie to you?”
Without a beat, the Prior answered. “Yes.”
“Oh, for crying out loud —”
“And you may know the true enemy of Origin by the pain they bring to those they love,” said Daniel. “They bring death to their family and discord to their village; the fruits of their labors leave not fields flush with fruit, but spilled blood and sickness run riot. They speak peace, but they bring war. Have you not done so?”
He thinks of Teal’c and Vala, dead these three years; Mitchell, whose luck didn’t run to escaping the firey conflagration of the Odyssey over the Rockies; and Carter. Carter, whom he thought could survive anything. He’d ordered her to the skies, to defend the Ori. He’d ordered them all to their deaths, and they’d known it. Daniel himself, a casualty of the monster that was the Ori war, yawning and gaping over the thousands of light-years. Fraiser. Kawalsky. Henry Boyd. Paul Davis. All of them gone, and all of it his fault.
“Just once, Jackson, just once when it counts, can you just believe me?”
The Daniel-thing almost looks sad. “I cannot believe a man who lies to himself as deeply and fully as you do.”
O’Neill’s stomach jumps into his throat with an angry, hungry twist. “Oh, look who’s talking.”
Jackson tips his chin towards the ceiling, and his pale eyes roll towards the sky. “Is it so hard for you to see that I have only embraced my true destiny?”
O’Neill throws his arms to the side. “All right. Then eat this, Prior — if there’s the smallest speck of Daniel Jackson left in there, you will know that I will do whatever is necessary to make sure my people survive. You know it’s over for us. I am willing to do whatever it takes. That's not a lie. Take me to Celestis.”
“I will take you. But you must take the first step towards enlightenment.”
O’Neill lets out a breath he didn’t know he was holding. “Right. And that is?”
“Stop loving her.”
Silence reigns in the room; O’Neill feels all of the oxygen sucked out behind him, and he steps back, shaking his head. “I thought you took converts on their word. You spared whole worlds who accepted the Ori --”
“Then stop loving her. That is the only word I will take from someone with so much darkness in his soul.” His eyes are hard and grey.
O’Neill jabbed his index finger in the Prior’s direction. “That was a long time ago. Christ. If I loved her, I wouldn’t have sent her up with the first wave, now, would I?” And as soon as the words were out, he regretted them. “I sent her to Pegasus, after the Wraith. I’ve sent her on the front lines hundreds of times — do you know the F-309 commander survival rate? Jesus. I never would have done that to Sara —”
“On the contrary,” said the Prior serenely. “You sent Samantha Carter because you love her.”
“Bullshit,” O’Neill spat.
And then the Prior almost looked sad. “It is the truest kind of love, General; and it is for a being and a truth that is evil, which is why the Ori know you to not have a heart true enough for salvation. You’re not like the others, Jack. That’s why you’re still alive when so many others are dead. That’s why, when the glorious armies of the Ori appeared in the blessed skies of Earth, you sent her first. You learned a long time ago that you cannot hold her, that you cannot smother her as you must with such evil; you cannot even be with her. You can only love her by giving her wings. Letting the evil that threatens what is good and true loose on the universe again and again. And so you do, over and over again — Stop loving her, and you may become one with the Ori. That is the only way you can prove to my masters that you speak the truth.”
“Carter is as far from evil as — as you are from sane,” he spat. “She’s dead, Daniel. Dead.”
The Prior folded his hands in front of his stomach again. “And as Ori arrived to shepherd Sirsa to become one with them in everlasting peace, the great king Yulian knew that the truth of love was this: the love he had for Sirsa was now due the ones who comforted her in death, and in turn he was comforted.”
“Very Daniel of you, asshole.”
“Only the Ori are right. Only the Ori have the path, and the unbelievers must be smote, and all of their works and deeds must be stricken —”
O’Neill dragged the gun out of his holster. “You know what? Forget it. Woolsey was right, as much as it pains me to admit it. Daniel died on that planet, didn’t he? DOCTOR LEE!”
The door handle jiggled, but didn't open. He could hear the frantic shouts of the scientist; could feel the growing static charge all around him. The Prior closes his eyes; he raises his hands in prayer.
“Audemus jura nostra defendere,” said the Prior. “Auxilio ab alto.”
A strange feeling unlocked in O’Neill’s chest; it took him a few seconds to identify it as panic, a feeling that he’d well and truly locked away years and years ago. “Dr. Lee,” he said, moving back to opening the door. Lee was in like a rabbit, checking the readings while O’Neill cocked the gun back, pointing it in the Prior’s direction; his mouth unhinged, Lee looked back up, and his voice was full of fear.
“The EM field. It’s losing cohesion,” Lee called. “Let me --”
“Damn it,” O’Neill said, reaching for the radio, “Control, this is Phoenix-niner, we have a foothold situation — the Prior’s room —” and he found that he couldn’t pull the trigger after all, couldn’t speak, couldn’t breathe — wasn’t sure that he’d even been able to say that —
“Consilio et armis, Ori gratia, esto perpetua,” said Jackson. “I bring the Rising!”
And then O’Neill speaks, but not of his own volition, and it is with some anger that Jack O’Neill speaks in a language he'd thought he'd forgotten, blood on his tongue.
“Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.”
When she closes her eyes, she can see them.
She’d prefer to remember the good times — wouldn’t they all, really, after the flood and the fire and the touch of death upon everything that once was beautiful — but the memories that come first were always born in pain.
The coolly professional set of Mitchell’s shoulders as he ran out of the Asgard core to battle the Replicators. Daniel’s resigned, horrified eyes behind the bandages, before his first Ascension. Teal’c, present even in his forever-silence; Vala, dulcet as always in her slash-and-burn diplomacy, with a gun trained on Daniel in Athena’s warehouse. Jack, standing at the doorway to the za’tarc room, his eyes as unreadable as they ever would be.
Doesn’t do to dwell, Carter, he whispers. Keep your eyes on the prize. Mitchell needs you to stay alive and succeed.
She opens her mouth to respond to him, but bites down on the words. She hates the fact that she has dirt under her fingernails; she was always immaculately clean before doing lab work, before, knowing that one scrap of dirt or sand could possibly sneak into the alien wetworks and ruin everything. She spends a moment using one fingernail to remove the dirt from another before tackling the communications device with gusto.
So Ba’al left you alone in a cell with a working communications device and an annoying teenager, Jack drawled. What does that tell you?
That I’m about to walk straight into a big fat trap, sir, she responded. Quite possibly having to do with locating Phoenix Base.
Well, you do need to go there, or Mitchell died for nothing, he replied.
“Hey, anybody tell you that you look a lot like that chick from the news?”
Carter looks up quickly; the girl’s cross-legged on her cot, chewing on an eraser, something vaguely Goa’uld and definitely broken cradled in her lap.
“I get that a lot,” she replies, figuring that it’s enough of a non-answer for now.
“I bet you get a lot of grief for it,” the girl added, her eyes curious. She drew the eraser away from her mouth and played with it, rolling it over and over her fingers.
Carter banished thoughts of the weeks before the Ori attack, right after the disclosure of the Stargate program — the SFs outside her home, her car, Cassie’s dorm, Daniel’s house; the protesters that prompted a move back to quarters on the base for all five of them; the way that the rotten tomato that hit her head outside of her niece's birthday party hurt her in a way a bullet couldn’t. “… yeah,” Carter answers.
She hasn’t known Christina for more than an hour, but Carter has already cottoned on to the fact that the girl’s a chatterbox that hasn't had another person to talk to in quite some time, so she turns her attention back to the Goa’uld transmission device and ignores the situation in much the same way she might ignore Felger or Chloe or McKay.
But not me, glees Jack-in-her-head.
Yes, sir, ignoring you is impossible.
“Where were you when you learned about the Stargate?”
“Hm?” Carter looked up again.
“The fucking Stargate,” Christina said, as if the sentence was self-explainable.
Carter slid the back off the device and narrowed her eyes at its innards. Nothing too wrong with it that a bit of elbow grease and an arc welder couldn’t fix, she thinks. But I doubt Ba’al would let me have an arc welder. Her fingers itch with the desire for familiar tools, familiar faces, familiarity. Cam. “At work, I suppose. I don’t really remember,” she says.
But, oh, she did. How could she forget? She had been in Kerrigan’s office at the Pentagon, her newly-polished Captain’s insignia still shiny on her shoulders. It was winter. The office had smelled of stale coffee; outside, someone had been rambling about expenditures at NORAD in Colorado and inside, Kerrigan’s daughter had drawn him a red Christmas tree.
She remembered the Christmas tree, for some odd reason.
“I can’t believe you don’t remember. Everybody remembers,” Christina responds. “God, I’m hungry.” She slid off the cot, stood, and walked back over to the table.
“Pass the screwdriver?” Carter asks.
“Yeah, knock yourself out,” Christina said, passing her a small, red-handled Phillips. “Although I already tried poking around in there with it. It doesn’t do anything.”
“Well,” Carter says, twirling the screwdriver between her fingers, “you just have to know the sweet spot.”
“Oh, and like you do?”
Carter shrugs. “People say I’m good with machines.”
This was always her favorite place, she thinks — her hands on an alien device, the tingling feeling of mathematics once thought theoretical taking solid form. The device shudders in her hand, and loses its opacity in record time. Christina ducks across the room in a few seconds, as Carter’s breath catches in her throat. “Cool,” the girl croons. “What does it do?”
“Goa’uld TV,” Carter says, reflexively.
Carter shakes her head. “Never mind.” She pauses. “Hey, that looks like --”
“That's a plan for a circuitboard,” says Christina. “Wires. Hey --”
“Yeah, I hear it, too,” Carter repies.
She guesses that the device is buried underneath a pile of wires and papers in a manner that suggests its owner thought it broken, useless or simply a pretty round metal ball; the room is well-lit enough for light to filter through. She hears faraway shouting, tinny even for the advanced Goa’uld speaker system; doors slamming, orders being shouted — orders she recognizes, orders that she’s even given —
“Oh my God,” she said.
“What is it?” Christina, behind her, vibrates with excitement.
“I can't believe this. If you'd turned this on last week --” Carter says. She doesn't finish the sentence with you'd have your boyfriend back. I'd be dead in a grave right alongside Cam. The Goa'uld antipathy towards doing their own dirty work strikes again.
A door slams. Voices — swearing. She thrills to hear it.
“We need you here — there are soldiers for this type of thing—”
“Someone has to go protect the ship, and seeing as most of the actual soldiers are at the gate, you know, doing actual soldiering, just like you could be doing actual science and not wasting precious time trying to convince me that —”
“Fine. Then give me the gun. I’ve been in the field before, I can handle it.”
“Felger! I’m the one who spent seven years on a gate team. You spent seven years drinking coffee and, oh, I don’t know, playing Angry Birds —”
I’d know that voice from a mile away.
“McKay,” shouts Carter. “Shut up! McKay!”
Silence. Carter feels Christina behind her playing nervously with the left shoulder strap of her bikini top.
“Did you hear that?” Felger.
“Oh, good, you heard it too, and I thought I’d finally cracked up —”
Five seconds later, there were hands at the papers, crashing sounds as metal objects, tools, technology clattered to the ground. A man’s hand encircled the sphere on the other side of the connection and yanked it up, the light catching a wedding ring that was undoubtedly shiny and new. For a moment, less than a nanosecond, Rodney McKay stared back at her with his mouth akimbo, absolutely speechless.
You’ll never get this chance again, drawled Jack.
“McKay, I’m being held by Ba’al, and —”
“You’re alive,” McKay said, tripping over the words. “Wait, how are you — when did you — are you — who’s with you — Sam! Felger, where the hell was communications device last week? Was this part of the last shipment from the archives?”
“McKay. I'm being held by Ba'al. Mitchell's --” God, Carter. This is not the first time you’ve lost someone. Get it together. “Mitchell's dead. Where are you?”
“Okay, so nothing you haven’t done before,” McKay snapped. “Sam, you need to get here as soon as you can. We have about two hours before this whole place is overrun by a Prior, a bunch of Ori soldiers and hungry zombies with rocks and grudges.”
“Might not be secure,” muttered Felger.
“Two fucking hours, Felger, I don't care,” replied McKay.
And with little ceremony, the communications ball was shoved into McKay's jacket pocket, leaving the surface dark. Christina whistles. “Sam, we’re falling back to the ship and I’m quite sure it’s not going to work without a Prior’s blood. And the one we had is currently involved with making sure every single brick of this place falls down around our ears. I’m actually not sure why he hasn’t already killed us all — I’m thinking there’s something we’re not seeing, which is, of course, frustrating —”
Her stomach twisted, and she thinks of Memphis, of the theories she had, back before Jack kept on showing up in her head with his unsolicited advice. “Have you tried varying the —”
“Yes, yes, everything,” she heard. Near McKay, the sound of soldiers shouting, boots on concrete, all so familiar. He pushed open a door and suddenly Carter could see light; through the worn blue fabric of his coat pocket, Carter could barely make out the fact that both he and Felger had guns; she saw fire, someone with an extinguisher, hauntingly familiar faces. “We tried it all, and Angry Birds here decided —”
“McKay. My team.” she said.
McKay's quiet for a moment. She sees him check the magazine in his weapon.
“Teal'c and Vala are dead. They were on the ship when it blew – where we thought you were. O'Neill's alive. He's around here somewhere. We'll take you to him. And Daniel's still a Prior.” he said.
“Oh holy mother fuck,” Christina says. She scrambles back, as if the veil has been lifted from her eyes. "You're -- you're --"
“We'll just use him as a catalyst, then,” Carter says. “I've been thinking about this since Memphis. I just need to get out, I just need --”
She can’t see him, but she imagines McKay’s doing that thing where information contrary to his worldview has just landed on his head like a broken 747 and his jaw is working soundlessly. “We've already tried -- ”
She expels an annoyed breath. “McKay. Just get me to Jack. I'll take care of the rest. Christina?”
But the girl's already at the door, screaming to be let out. As the guards take her away and advance on Carter, she hears Christina shouting about being in the same room as the Destroyer of Worlds. About knowing where Phoenix Base is. About a boy and a love and the remission of death. And when the guards come for her, they have fear in their eyes and guns in their hands.
Carter stands, bringing a hand to the back of her aching neck.
They first hear the folk names for SG-1 in an underground resistance camp in northern Georgia. It's been a year since the invasion. Mitchell's hair is long, and his skin holds a deep tan from the road, even in the winter. Enough dirt, and Carter can pass for just another emaciated crazy.
The women on the team took the brunt of it, back during the disclosure. And while Mitchell kept his name and dead Jackson his disputed reputation, while Teal'c retreated to the Free Jaffa and Vala seemed to enjoy the whole scandalous rigamarole, the name they heard the most was Carter.
Carter, who couldn't possibly have done everything with which she was credited.
Everything about Samantha Carter was dissected on Rush Limbaugh, Nancy Grace, the Atlantic Weekly. Her looks, her smarts, the way she wore her hair. Her doctoral dissertation. Her career. If a Nobel could honestly be given to the woman who basically invented the Mark 9 naquadah bomb that had destroyed Tokyo. Whether she was right to earn the awards she earned during the time the Stargate was a secret. If she had been involved with her commanding officer.
And in the camps, after the invasion, these names ceased to matter. Only one remained: she was The Destroyer Of Worlds.
McKay loses Carter to static and screaming just before walking into the President's control room. He watches as she's called the Destroyer of Worlds, watches as the device is grabbed by a man with a gun, watches as Carter raises her jaw in defiance --
-- and the man shuts it off, leaving McKay out of breath, waving a dead communications device. “Carter. I saw Carter. She's not far from here. Ba'al has her. If we can get her, she can – what, where's the General?”
Wray's looking at him like he's wearing a jester hat and dancing the samba.
Woolsey opens his mouth to say something, but he's drowned out by the sudden clangor of proximity alarms and the shouts of soldiers on the radio announcing the approach of potential hostiles.
McKay decides he isn't going to tell anyone about the sick feeling in his gut this time.
The men call her Destroyer of Worlds. Bitch. Slut. They say it's her fault. They kick a fracture into Carter's rib and ignore the blood at the corner of her mouth and drag her out struggling. The girl follows behind, caressing the broken Goa'uld tech like a baby, her eyes streaming with tears.
It’s your fault you couldn't save Daniel, she hears. For once, it’s not Jack; it’s Carter-that-was.
Shut up, she whispers. I already know that this is all my fault. Daniel's just a part of it. Stop making me feel guilty.
You should have seen it coming. Carter-that-was, her hair regulation-trim, sitting in the old lab at the SGC, her legs crossed and her fingers thumbing the eraser on a pencil. She'd be waiting for Jack or Daniel to show up, for Janet to stop by, for Lee or a machine or the red oscillating light that would call her down to the gateroom. You knew it was a gamble. You’re too trusting. Ten years in the Stargate program doesn’t mean you can trust him when he turned. You should have known better. It’s biological, not psychological, this Prior stuff —
It wasn’t my call to make, she tells her perfect – sane – old self.
It was your call, Carter-that-was said. Cam and Vala didn’t know Daniel like you did. You didn’t listen to Teal’c when all he was doing was talking sense in your ear. You trusted Daniel, and the General trusted you, and it was trust that caused all of this. The chain of command fucks you over once again.
The residents of Universal are gathered in Hogsmeade once more, lining the street leading up to the castle. And this time Carter notices their dull, strange eyes, and the way they don't move nor clutch their children to them; these are the signs of an occupied world, one without hope nor chance of help. She’d sworn, during those early days on SG-1, never to allow her own homeworld to experience what the enslaved humans on other worlds were going through. And she'd failed them, failed each and every single former retail worker and electrical engineer and high school student and truck driver.
The goons push her through the humming, muttering corridors of Hogwarts. Again, Ba’al sits on the dias in Dumbledore’s office, the ride next door quiet and still. Candles burned. The men push Carter into a rickety wooden chair. Outside, there's chanting, piped in through speakers. It seems to soothe Ba'al's pretty face like a summer breeze or lemonade.
Destroyer of Worlds. Destroy her. Destroy her.
Ba'al lifts a plastic glass filled with brown liquid.
“Butterbeer?” the Goa’uld asks.
Carter, who hasn't eaten or drank anything for over twelve hours, eyes the glass of frothy cream soda with the avaricious gaze of the starving, but bites down on her bottom lip. “You’ve got to be kidding.”
“You know,” Ba’al says, licking a spare drop of butterbeer from where it trickles down the side of her glass, “your people never really forgot the Goa’uld. We’re everywhere. In your dreams, in you past. In your future. Who the hell do you think Voldemort is? Face it, Colonel. We are your past, and we will be your future. Now, just agree to help me, and everything will be fine.”
“I don't help the enemy.”
“But you will. I don’t have to torture you for the information,” said Ba’al. “In fact, since the death of my beloved first host, I’ve found that it's quite advantageous to refuse to finish the... blending process, as those excreble Tok'ra would call it. It's the reason I'm still alive; why your NID never found me. It allows me to do things like this.”
The men hold her arms back, tight and painful, a gun at the nape of her neck. Ba'al comes closer, and panic sets in, grabbing at her gut. She twists, shoving herself back against the gun's cold barrel, daring them to shoot her, because, oh God, it would be better, better than this --
She feels the nameless girl's lips on hers, and then succumbs to the darkness of the suppressed for the second time in her life. As Ba’al wraps around her brainstem, she thinks of Cameron, that night outside Atlanta, the full moon on his bare shoulders, the warmth in his skin, and holds the memory there until the darkness takes her.
“We’re getting out of here.”
The words are blurry, and his vision doubly so; he swears he sees Carter kneeling at his side, picking at the rope around his wrists. He feels like hell. “Sam.”
Her voice. “Yeah, Cam. It’s me.”
Something is wrong. His gut lurches. He put it down as nausea, as need, as her form blurs on the sides. Fucking sarcophagus.
“What’s going on?”
“We,” she says, stressing the first syllable, “are getting out of here. I found the location of Phoenix Base, Cam. There are cars in the parking garage; some of them still have to have gas. We’re going to hotwire one before they know we’re gone.”
Idly, Cam thinks of leaving the sarcophagus, and his stomach ties itself in a nauseous knot. “N-no,” he whispers. “Can’t leave. I gotta go back for the sarcophagus.”
Sam drags him to his feet. “You can walk. Come on, Cam. Walk.”
“Sarcophagus,” he moans. “Just leave me, Sam.”
“General O’Neill did it,” Sam said, “and so can you. Get up. Cam.”
“No,” he breathes.
“You're going to stand,” she whispers.
And right there in the middle of the castle, with the darkness around them and the magic slipping up the walls, Cam feels her lean forward — and for a moment they are just Dorothy and Shaft again, and her hands are at his collar, his neck, slipping to his hairline and bringing him in close — and her lips are on his neckline, her words --
He sees stars.
“You can,” she says, grabbing his shoulder and pushing him away.
He stands. The world whirls around him. He can't see. Was there gunfire on the way to the car? Goddamn it, why couldn't he see --
-- and then there's Carter with her hand on his leg, and the purr of an engine, and they're in a car on the highway, dodging half-burned wrecks and dead bodies not a half-hour from Phoenix Base.
Goddamn it, I must have blacked out, he thinks. Did she carry me the whole way to the car?
“Thanks,” he croaked.
“Better chance of getting there if I have you along,” Carter says.
He chuckles. It comes out airless and hoarse. “Oh, is that what I'm good for?”
She’d escaped from the holding cell, Carter explains, then; for all of the security measures Universal had, they were still regular security measures, and after ten years hotwiring ha’taks, no lock could hold her for long.
She doesn't explain further, and Cam — fighting nausea and desire and the fact that he really, really wants to clock someone, or burn the Goa'uld's magical castle, or hit up Jurassic Park and get back into the sarcophagus — sits up in the passenger's seat to watch out the window while Carter's practiced hands clutch the driver's wheel tight and strong.
“How did you know I was --”
“Another prisoner told me he had a sarcophagus,” Carter answers, dodging a group of burned-out bodies in the middle of the road, their white bones broken and sticking up towards the sky. Nausea. “He seems to enjoy it. He seems --” and she pauses, as if she was thinking of the right word — “Well, I guess as an interrogation technique it's actually quite effective – if you're a Goa'uld. It not only breaks down the will of the prisoner, but the addictive effects of repeated exposure to the sarcophagus make the subject a little more amenable to what the interrogator has to say --”
Mitchell coughed as the sun hits him from behind a cloud. “You know a lot about that,” he croaks.
Carter's quiet for a moment, considering. “General O'Neill talked about it,” she says. “After he got back from Ba'al's fortress.”
The car hums underneath him as Carter fiddles with buttons.
“Talking about it. Doesn't seem much his style -- oh my God, air conditioning,” he ekes out.
“Ha,” Carter said, and giggles.
“Sam, I think I'm gonna vomit,” Mitchell replies.
“Not in the car,” she says, prim, keeping her eyes on the road and her hands on the wheel.
He is soon too sick to answer.
In a roomful of dead technology, Corporal Leanne LaRosa wakes from a long, bloody nightmare to see Shrek staring back at her with a bright, jaundiced smile. She takes a breath still full of cobweb-nightmares and sits up, scrambling to make sure the memories are gone --
“Quiet, my lady.” A woman's voice. Brunette, middle-aged, with a doctor's hands at her pulse, a flashlight in her eyes. She'd never met her, but she knows her name – Doctor Greene. She knows another name, too --
Ba'al, snake god.
Doctor Greene's eyes are full of fear, and Leanne wonders for a moment until it all hits her like a falling rollercoaster – the battle the snake the darkness the darkness the darkness the screaming hordes death death worlds spinning underneath the stink of the tau'ri the sweetness of pain sweet death --
“She's screaming,” someone else says.
“She had a pretty bad knock on her head,” the doctor replies. “I wouldn't be surprised if she had a concussion. No – no, don't tell anyone. Stay here. It wouldn't be good for the settlement.”
“Good for the settlement?” shrieks another voice, tinged with hysteria. “There are Ori troops coming straight for us, and you're wondering what's good for the settlement? Put her in a fucking wheelchair, show her to the crowd, and break out the guns, for Chrissakes!”
Lost in the darkness, Leanne searches for her name, for the face of her father – and finds only terror, and the memory of golden walls stained with blood, and the pain of a thousand years' death. Christ, she thinks. The false god of the Tau'ri. No, Christ, my savior, Christ, who died on the cross for our sins and the sins of the Goa'uld and --
“Savior?” whispers the doctor. “Savior. Tell us what's happening. The Ori are coming. Savior – please --”
Outside, she hears the trumpeting of a bloodthirsty army.
Mitchell drifts for a while in dreams of white light and death before Carter's warm hand touches his shoulder and shakes him awake.
“Come on. We need to walk the rest of the way,” she said, her voice flat. “We're almost there.”
He opens his eyes to see the hot Florida sun piercing the front of the car and drags himself back up into a seated position. His head has been cradled in Carter's lap as a pillow. He thinks he ought to feel embarrassed about that, but there's very little left in his brain except for the need to get back to the sarcophagus. He can't remember anything --
“Yes?” she replies, her voice carefully distant.
“Not everyone survives the sarcophagus withdrawl.”
She chuckles dryly. “You will.”
“But if I don't, I have to tell you something.”
A hand tights on his shoulder; she hauls him up, her muscles taut and strong after so much time on the road. The hands of a friend who'd always been there for him; for whom he'd been a support himself. The hands of a friend with whom he'd gone too far, and didn't care -- “You really don't need to tell me anything, Mitchell,” she says, quietly.
“I love you,” he says, careening down a path he swore he'd never go. But death – death changed things, he thought, as the sun his her angular, hungry face, bright and orange and hot.
“It’s the sarcophagus,” she hisses. “It's making you like this.”
Gunfire. “I'm sorry,” he said, dragging her down into the weeds and out of sight. Carter has a 9-mil; he searches for his gun but doesn't find it. With the way my hands are shaking, I'd probably shoot myself in the head before I'd bag a zombie, he thinks. Shit.
“Cam, focus up,” she said, dismissively; the normal faraway look of Carter preoccupied with finding a situation to a problem was replaced with a bright, strange vulture's gaze. “Let's go. We're taking the back door. There are Ori less than a mile away, but they're approaching from the other side of the park.”
“How do you know? I can't see a damned thing.”
“Of course you can't,” she says, patting his head. “That's why you have me.”
In front of the Contemporary Hotel, the scrub palms and tall grasses reclaim the parking lot, nodding and bowing in the humidity. From behind cover, he narrows his eyes and can barely make out the attack from across the parking lot. The soldiers weren't trained Ori troops; they were simply local zombies with local weapons, hollering and firing off pistols and semi-automatic weapons.
“Where's the Prior?” he said.
“There's no Prior?” she said, reloading the gun.
Mitchell narrowed his eyes. My whole kingdom for some binoculars. Or decent vision. “No, but that doesn’t mean there ain’t one at the party somewhere,” he said. “We gotta move, Sam.”
Skirting the park and staying in the brambles, Mitchell listens to the sound of the battle, to the rattle-crash of automatic weaponry and the dying screams of — civilians, he thinks, his stomach twisting. No, he reminds himself. The Ori-addled aren’t civilians; they’re partisan in the way only al-Qaeda used to be, fanatically committed to the salvation of a broken and sinful world. In front of him, Carter moves like she owns the place, her feet light, the gun an extension of her arm. He hasn’t seen her this together in months, not since the nightmares began and the fever she’d contracted in Alabama did a number on her sanity; something pulls at his heart and he recognizes the old Carter there,
— And something else, he thinks. What happened to her, with Ba’al?
Or maybe, a little voice whispers, something happened to you.
The thought chills him to the bone in the blinding Florida heat.
Mitchell’s gamble pays off; there’s a chained and padlocked gate in front of a brown wooden fence — a sign, weather-beaten and dangling by a rusty wire, proclaims the entrance is for “Cast Only.” Mitchell takes her gun and takes watch while Carter fishes a hairpin from her pocket and ducks over to pick the lock.
“Goddamned primitive --”
“Just watch for hostiles,” she growls.
His eyes, pricked by motion, catch a group of middle-aged men in tourist shirts running towards them, whooping about plunder, their eyes wild, their faces painted with blue Ori sigils. Mitchell thinks of his uncle and his friends on Bronco game days down at the bar, and steadies his hold on the gun.
God, he thinks. I hate killing civilians, even if they're assholes...
“Sam,” he says, “any time now…”
“If you’d just be quiet,” she snaps.
He doesn't turn, but he can imagine in the silence that follows Carter’s mouth pressing together in that way she got when she was frustrated or Landry was saying something with which she did not agree at a briefing.
“I did not get this far to be screwed over,” she says, her voice low.
“That's why you have me,” he says.
And then, from nowhere, the rattle of a P-90. Familiar red stains erupt on their chests, staining Mickey’s smile, splattering Goofy’s black ears; it’s a slaughter of the civilians behind them, the Ori-zombies, the true believers. And the door swings open behind them, and he’s caught on Carter’s indrawn breath; he turns, gun out, and finds himself face-to-face with the men and women from Stargate Command.
“Sam has an idea,” he says.
Rodney McKay, five seconds away from doing something very un-Canadian by deserting his post, walking across the room and socking a politician square in the jaw, climbs down from the Ori spacecraft’s open hatch and hits the concrete floor with a force he feels to his bones. He reaches up, toggling the talk button on the radio, and it squawks in return — “Like I told you, it’s impossible,” he says, making his way over to where Carolyn Lam is bent over her improvised centifuge. The defeated look on the doctor’s face says it all. “The spaceship doesn’t run on blood alone. It needs a Prior. A real one. Brainwaves and all. We’ll have to use Daniel.”
“That’s too risky,” Woolsey says, his voice tinny and faraway.
“I don’t care if it’s too risky,” McKay says, feeling his blood pressure rise. “We don’t have a choice. Listen, I can modify the anti-Prior cage to get past the four hours' recharging time — we could get to an allied world, Tagrea or Hebridan, our agent could disappear —”
Woolsey sighs. “Leaving a fully functional Prior. You know that’s absolutely impossible. We don't even know if they've gone Ori. You told me yourself, Dr. McKay. The cage won’t function without the kind of centralized, land-based power source Disney provides. It’ll run through the ship’s power in a month — and then, where will we be?”
McKay imagines himself, spreadeagled underneath the statue of Walt Disney, ready to burn, the crowd shouting the glory of the Ori, and shudders. “Good point. I still think, though, that maybe if we --”
McKay pauses as someone calls his name in the background. He hears shrieks; an oath or two. Over the radio at McKay's shoulder, it sounds slightly cartoonish, like the moose-and-squirrel cartoons he watched as a child.
It's one of the soldiers at the side gate. “McKay. Put the General on the line; he’s not answering his radio.”
“Sir,” McKay casts his gaze around the hangar. In the flat industrial light he can see Carolyn’s furrowed brow and Felger messing up something again and Nyan and Kusanagi rubbing exhaustion out of his eyes — but not the General. “He’s not here. Felger says he’s gone to check up on the Prior or something.”
A moment passes. “Find him. We've got less than fifteen before we have a Prior up our asses.”
McKay, very aware of the eyes of a dozen scientists on him, was also very aware of another thing: Saving the world with seconds to spare? Was what he did best.
He started barking orders.
Dave Dixon has experienced many a surprise in his life as a member of Stargate Command — the herds of blue polka-dotted space deer on the planet with the singing grasses, for example. His wife getting pregnant with a fifth child. Actually surviving that bit with the Goa’uld named the Lorax and the carnivorous trees on PXR-348 and actually getting to keep his leg after that debacle with the zombies near Atlanta.
But this takes the cake.
“Holy shit,” he says.
“Howdy, Colonel,” croaks Cameron Mitchell.
Back from the dead, the two of them stand framed by the door to Tomorrowland -- Mitchell, long-haired and looking surprisingly pale for having been out in the Florida sunlight for so long, wearing a black shirt with a hole torn right over his heart, dirt-dipped toes peeking through mismatched hiking boots that looked like they didn’t fit anyway. And the presumed-dead Samantha Carter, looking haunted and wrong, steel-bright even now in torn clothes that had once been regulation. There is a moment’s silence —
“The general is going to shit himself,” says Balinsky, dropping the gun to his side and relaxing his stance.
“Close the goddamn door before I have to start shooting more zombies,” Dixon rumbles.
Dixon and Mitchell meet in the middle with clasped hands and then a quick one-handed slap to each other’s back; the others walk up, and there were hands supporting Carter, taking Mitchell's equipment, the faint murmur of something good happening for once, until rocks lobbed over the wall bring the professionals back to the task at hand. Dixon shouts at his crew of bedraggled SFs to mount the walls, to take out only the the combatants but to defend the entrance at all costs, and then turns to Mitchell and Carter. “There’s no time. Report to General O’Neill in Space Mountain. Colonel Carter, McKay’s about to defy orders and probably fuck everything up. Mitchell, we could use your help. Sands, get this man a gun.”
Mitchell finishes divesting himself of his pack. “There's a Prior approaching?”
“Yes. Prior’s probably behind this — there’s a whole settlement of zombies nearby — but if he were hangin’ around in the vicinity, we’d all be dead already,” Dixon harrumphs. “Most likely he's using this as a test of the faithful. How far can they get before death, all that bullshit, before he interferes himself. Heard of it before, in Atlanta and downtown here.”
“So we defend,” Mitchell says.
“We defend,” Dixon agrees.
Looking at Carter, Mitchell swears he’s never seen that particular look in her eyes. Carter’s always been methodical and scientific when it comes to science as well as a perfect soldier, any emotion behind those professional blue eyes tamped down by a ferocious commitment to duty. But this — Mitchell's never seen a thirst for blood in her eyes. But it’s there, plain as day, as she stares at him before turning to walk towards the entrance to the hangar, silent as the moment after the apocalypse.
He opens his mouth to say something when Dixon's radio squawks. A woman’s voice, steel-bright. “Colonel Dixon, this is Wray. We’ve declared General O’Neill officially missing. We think he’s gone to visit the Prior.”
Dixon shouts to his men — to the wall! Now! — And turns, squeezing the talk button to the radio. Damn thing gets so much use that he’s surprised it still works. With a twist of his mouth — 'we would appreciate it,' damn civilians need a lesson in giving orders — he barks at Mitchell. “Come on, Mitchell. Let’s go. I think O’Neill needs to know you’re here.”
Mitchell casts a look at Carter’s retreating back and feels something empty echoing around in his chest. He screws his courage to the sticking place, wheels on his broken boots and follows Dixon.
Work grinds to a halt as soon as the ghost walks in.
Chloe’s jaw works like a broken hinge flapping in a tailwind; Lam’s face is wide-eyed and blank-faced, the petri dish held tenuously in her hands like she’s forgotten the precious liquid inside. A slightly overweight young man with dark hair looks up from where he’s running math equations on a wall, and his eyes go wide, as well. Felger’s chair topples as he stands and runs over, making an attempt to grab Carter —
— and ends up on the floor, staring up at the ceiling and rubbing his jaw.
Carter’s blinking, as if pushing away a bad dream. She blinks. “I’m sorry, uh — whoever you are -- It’s been a long few years,” she says, brusque. She reaches out her hand to help him up, but McKay brushes by, mastering his happiness to see her with a gulp and set shoulders as he walks into the hangar.
“Sam. You know I’m right; tell the rest of these bozos. Better yet, tell Woolsey. The only way to fly that —” McKay pulls a thumb over his left shoulder, in the general direction of the spaceship, “— is to stick the Prior in there.”
Carter’s eyebrows raise. “… You still have Daniel?”
McKay’s brow furrows. “Of course we do. I told you that.”
“How did you possibly get the technology to last so long —”
McKay tilts his head. “You did that,” he said. And then, after a pause, he takes a breath. “Never mind. There’s no time. Flying the ship.”
Carter looks from the spaceship back to McKay. “I can do it,” she says. “But I need to modify the Prior cage directly.”
McKay stands there, absently fidgeting with the wedding ring on his left hand. “Um, there's already a team on the way —”
“Great. We’ll meet them and be back in a few minutes.” Carter’s already halfway out the door when she stops, looks over her shoulder.
Mitchell takes a few seconds to marvel about the fact that the squints have somehow rigged the tunnel generators to function on emergency lighting, something he didn’t even see in the halls of Goa’uld-controlled Universal; the bare yellow light flashes against the muzzle of his gun as the team wends its way towards the Prior chamber, and he feels the familiar weight of the P-90 as alien once again (your weapon is mother; your weapon is father, says an old Academy nerd buddy, face obscured by twenty years and one apocalypse). Occasionally, he notes the half-spent torches tacked against the wall, the old door signs noting that this door led to information technology and that to wardrobe and the other to a green room, with a half-cocked door leading to waterlogged black leather couches and a spent ammo storehouse.
Carter joins them at the crossroads, emerging from the shadows with gun in hand, McKay behind her, his omnipresent tablet computer shoved on the crook of his arm. Mitchell idly wonders where the hell he's been getting the power to run the damned thing.
“Sam?” says Mitchell.
“We need the Prior,” she says. “We cannot fly the ship without him. We’re going to have to find another way of controlling him.”
“Damn,” Mitchell says.
They’re around the corner in a flash, where they find Lee. He’s breathless, and near-screaming — “The Prior,” he wheezes, “he’s got General O’Neill.”
And the old to-and-fro, the muscle-memory of the battle; Dixon takes point, his team falling behind him in the old dance of experience, Mitchell with his gun cradled and ready. The door opens — inside, the Prior is in the midst of ripping the bars from the ground, O’Neill shoved insensate and unbreathing in the corner of the room. Above them, the ceiling shakes; Mitchell guesses a wall has fallen somewhere, and puts the thought out of his mind that more friends have fallen with it. In an instant, Lee is skinny and desperate at the controls, his fingers shaky and feverish, and Mitchell has just five seconds to register the fact that the Prior is Daniel —
Daniel! It's true —
— before his once-friend cries out in agony, throwing himself against the back wall, nails gouging chunks from the drywall and blood with it, too —
“Daniel, by all that is holy, I will shoot you,” Mitchell hollers.
The Prior straightens as a tense, crooked silence descends over the room. Next to him, Carter is straight and steady, her P-90 raised, her stance slightly skewed, her eyes moving from O’Neill to Daniel, curiously empty of the emotion Mitchell expected of her at a time like this (because hadn’t they talked it over, night after night, their hands on their guns and their eyes watching the long, long road? All the things they should have done?) It’s Lee that punches in the last few buttons to make the sick green light slither up from the circuits lining the floor and the Prior shiver in disgust one more time. Behind him, McKay and one of the squints takes a pulse from the General; one man moans in half-conscious agony.
The once-Daniel shrinks against the wall, his lip turned in derision. “And you call me the betrayer,” he whispers. “Adam, accepting the apple from Eva, the poison sweet on his tongue.”
“Now, I wasn’t here for most of this — I was busy trying not to get blown up over Kansas,” said Mitchell. “But I’m pretty sure it’s not me doing the betraying here.” He tightens, and feels the year’s ache in his shoulder.
“Cam,” Carter says. “Let me.”
“I don’t think he’s listening, Sam,” Mitchell replies.
“He’s alive,” mutters one of the squints. “That's enough.”
“Daniel,” says Sam, “we need you to help us.”
Daniel’s lips press together in derision. “Said the spider to the fly,” he returned.
Dixon tightens. “Mitchell —”
Carter drops her stance.
“Trust me,” she says, her voice cold, walking forward.
“Always,” says Mitchell.
And in that moment Carter takes a step forward from the line of defense, her hand turning out and her weapon going useless in her palm; the Prior steps towards the shining, electric-crackling bars in derisive response.
“Step away, Colonel,” says Dixon.
“Five seconds,” replies Sam.
“No fucking way,” Dixon hollers. “Too dangerous. Stand aside. Colonel.”
“Dixon,” says Mitchell. “Give her five seconds.”
The room crackles with the power of the unsaid.
“Dr. Lee,” breathes Carter, her angular face illuminated by light that the rest of the world had long since forgotten. “Is the Prior shield at one hundred percent?”
The small man, ragged and damned and haunted, looks down at the display, and then back at Carter. “Ninety-eight percent, Colonel. I don’t know how long it will hold.”
“Only one thing left to do, then,” she breathes.
The gun makes a ferocious clatter as it hits the floor; Carter approaches the Prior in the cell, her fingers separated, their tips pointing at the ceiling, her arms far from her body. The Prior hovers just behind the bars as if she were a mirage or an angel, and they slipped close, too close —
“You will not succeed,” the Prior says. “The Rising has already begun.”
“I always succeed,” says Carter, and leans in for a kiss.
Her eyes flash, glowing alien white as all hell breaks loose behind her.
It’s too late. By the time Mitchell and Dixon grab Carter by her shoulders and drag her back from the unholy embrace, the damage is done. The symbiote slips past Daniel’s stolen lips with a final flick of a bloody tail and the Prior screams, stumbling back, his Ori-lightened eyes going blank for a few seconds. Carter’s suddenly a bony, unconscious obtrusion between them, and during the precious seconds they have to waste slipping her to the floor, the Goa’uld has opened Daniel’s mouth, lifted his hands to his head, and started keening laughter high and long —
“What the fuck —” Dixon, stepping forward, his eyes murder. “Mitchell! What the fuck!”
“I didn’t —” Mitchell protests.
“How the fuck did you not know that wasn’t Colonel Carter?”
“I was dead!” Mitchell hollers. “In a sarcophagus coma! That's probably why he put me there, so I couldn't fucking tell who he was!”
From behind them, another voice. O’Neill stands at the door, newly awake, the wall supporting his weight; his eyes are sunken, and blood is trickling out of his nose. Behind him, one of McKay’s scientists — the tiny Japanese woman, someone Mitchell had only ever seen on sight — “My sidearm,” he says quietly, and the scientist presses the gun into his hand.
“After all this time, General, and you’re simply going to shoot me?” said the Goa’uld in Daniel’s voice — the exhaustion palpable, and Mitchell can see that when the Goa’uld lifts his stolen hand that it trembles.
O’Neill’s eyebrows shoot up, and he stands a little taller. “Yeah. I am. And we’ve met?”
Daniel’s shoulders sag; the Goa’uld seemed to stumble a little as he dragged himself back up to a standing position. His eyes flashed as he looked from Mitchell to O’Neill, a twisted little smile on his face. “Let’s skip the pleasantries. I am a god, with powers beyond even Ra’s wildest dreams; this is not a negotiation.”
The general’s eyes are unreadable; Mitchell’s mouth is dry as an Abydos summer.
“Ba’al,” O’Neill says. "Can't you just stay dead?"
“This need not be unpleasant,” Ba’al says.
“Too late,” the General says.
On the floor, Carter stirs; a moan escapes her mouth, but she does not open her eyes; the only sign of distraction in O’Neill’s battered frame is the twitch in his trigger-finger and the anger at the corner of his left eye.
“The only way you are going to be able to fly that ship is with my host plugged directly into the ship interface. You know I'm right; I picked it out of your darling Carter's brain. Let us be succinct. The only reason why the Prior did not kill you earlier is the efficacy of this… power-limiting device. But every device breaks. And every device can be overcome. There is an army out there, General; three Priors and hundreds of poor, brainwashed excuses for Tau’ri. Now, granted, they want their minions to do most of the killing, good for morale and such, but you will not survive the Priors. Your ammunition and your anti-Prior defenses will only last so long, and they’re so, so hungry. I must admit that it would be entertaining to watch you die; poetic, really, with your vaunted Tau’ri stubbornness the final nail in your coffin —”
O’Neill moves forward, between Dixon and Mitchell; the colonels keep their weapons trained on the Goa’uld. “If you think for one second I will let a Goa’uld with the power of the Ori at his fingertips loose in the galaxy, with nothing but his word between us and —”
Above them, an ominous rumbling.
“Ah, here they come,” says Ba’al, blithe and condescending. “They won’t recognize me as being anything other than a brother in the will of the Ori; but I am afraid, General, that they will recognize you. And then I will be free in the universe anyway, without the Tau'ri to stop me. Let's talk.”
The general’s hand trembles, and Mitchell sees the set of his jaw as he makes his decision.
“Mitchell, you take a team,” he says, quietly. “You and Carter. She's had Ba'al in her head and she'll have his memories.”
“Sir —” Mitchell says.
“Ba'al,” the general reiterates, his eyes on the demon in the cage. “You take them where they need to go. You help them find the Ark of Truth. Then you can do whatever the hell you want, Ba'al, get however much of a head start you care about, enslave a few worlds, fuck everything up. Just get them off this hellhole of a planet and stay the hell clear.”
A slow smile spreads over Daniel’s stolen mouth. “That is a very kind offer,” he said. “I accept.”
* * *
Carter stumbles back to consciousness with blurry vision and what feels like a herd of drunken, rabid zebras running over her head and a dead man sitting cross-legged next to her. Shadows moved in the background; she hears shouting, hollering, and tasted the remnants of blood on her tongue. She coughs; turning her head, she caught the sleek silver outline of the ship they’d managed to capture in the first bloody days of the invasion and a warm, thrilling feeling spills out of her heart.
The ship hums as if it's alive, and inside her chest a joy that wasn’t completely her own shudders into being, a lust that transcends anything she’d felt before – it was almost like that time when she held the Tau’ri woman's very heart in her hands, watched it beat out its life, watched —
The man crouching next to her reached out for her hand and she realized that she’d been screaming. He had a quiet, terrible smile on his face, and it took her a moment to realize that she was staring at a ghost. A warm, living ghost.
“Oh, God,” she whispered.
“Glad to see you, too,” O'Neill said.
“You have to know — it’s Ba’al, sir — I couldn’t stop him —”
His smile twisted into something terrible and incredibly sad. “I know, Carter. It's not your fault. We've seen that rerun before.”
Memories – Mitchell in a car. Words she didn't want to hear. No, that she wanted to hear. Mitchell's alive. Her breath catches --
“Cam. Where is he? Is he all right? Sir —I thought you were dead,” she said. And paused again, taking a breath as if her lungs couldn’t handle it. “And I couldn’t —”
He put her hand down by the side of her hip and rocked back on his heels, rising to his feet. “No time for regret right now, Carter. You have to get up. Lam’s gonna give you a neuro-something-or-other to help you with the memories, and then you’re to get geared up for —”
“Sir, this is important —”
“Ah, ah, Carter, not right now when there are —”
She reaches out and grabs his wrist. “I meant what I said that night at the cabin. Every word.”
It knocks the wind out of O’Neill’s sails; he stares at her for a second, and opens his mouth to say something back when a dirty, hurried scientific tornado arrives at her bedside, tablet clutched underneath his right arm.
“Oh, good, you’re awake,” says McKay. “Knew you’d figure it all out. Excellent to see you, by the way, sorry about the Goa'uld. General, we’ve lost Main Street, and evac teams are loading into the Mountain now; there’s still a chance that if we get on the last few trucks we can get out with minimal casualties. But she has to leave. Right now. There are Priors on the way.”
Sam feels the world around her getting quiet as the noise in her head carries on, loud and violent. They’re talking about her, but she can’t seem to hear them over Ba’al laughing behind her eyes, far more powerful than Jolinar’s ghost, and suddenly there’s blood on her hands —
Mitchell’s voice. Alive. She drags herself off the cot and an attempt to get up is foiled by O'Neill, who grabs her shoulder and shoves her back down. “With all due respect, sir, you have no idea what we went through out there. She's in no condition to go. She —”
“— is going to follow her orders, Colonel, just like you are,” said O’Neill, quiet and dangerous.
“It's okay, Cam,” she says. “I can do it.”
Mitchell's hand is on his weapon; his eyes flicker over to her, and they are filled with regret. “I know. Yes, sir,” he says.
And suddenly Lam’s distracted her from the voices inside and outside of her head by kneeling in front of her with a bottle of Disney-labeled water and and a syringe, and the voices stop just long enough for her to enter the quiet routine of the medical checkup. Lam checks her eyes, her ears, her pulse. “This is the last of it, Colonel. You’re probably going to have trouble in a few hours, when it wears off — but you should be good to go for liftoff and getting through the Ori defense line,” she says quietly, and Carter twists off the cap and downs a good amount of the water in one gulp, closing her eyes as she feels the tiny pinprick of the needle and the hot gush of the medicine into her body.
“I'll be fine,” she whispers.
“Of course,” says Dr. Lam, as she rises again.
And then, Jack’s voice, drowning out Ba’al in her brain like loud music running through a single earbud, and he drops back to a crouch in front of her, Mitchell silent behind him. Carter blinks to banish the fact that she sees four of them, not two.
“Carter. I need your attention. Mitchell's going with you. Think of it is the road. Just a little longer this time. Find the Ark of Truth, and come back before we're all dead. Those are your orders,” says O'Neill.
Carter shakes her head. “I’m staying, sir. I can't let you —”
“Carter, you're the only one who's had Ba'al in your head. You're the best one to get around him.”
Blood. Death. Ba'al's ghost, laughing in her brain. “Sir, you know what you're asking me to do,” she whispers.
Hello, roomie, says Ba'al, the newest voice in her head. Now, won't this be fun?
He twists around and crouches next to the cot again; in the space behind him, she sees —
“Daniel,” she breathes.
“Carter, no —”
It’s the most fascinating disconnect she’s ever experienced — seeing her friend’s body wearing the the blackness whose legacy still pulls at her brainstem, the naquadah tripping tiny electric shocks all the way down to her nerve endings. She rises, clutching at Jack’s shoulder to maintain her balance, and hobbles towards the imposter, feeling control return to her own body like a slow rising tide.
Ba’al stares at her implacably from behind another set of eyes. “I promise I won’t throw you out the airlock. It might even be fun.”
She closes her eyes and shakes her head. “If you betray us,” she says, taking a breath, “when – when you betray us, there'll be a bullet with your name on it. Right to the back of the brain.” She breathes. “Daniel would want it.”
“I already know that,” says Ba'al, smirking.
Oh, God, she thinks.
It's not like it was, with Jolinar, she thinks. Jolinar let her see, Jolinar at least shared her eyes, her breath, the nerves under her skin. But Ba'al brought darkness, and silence, and that's what it must be like to die, as he went rooting around in her memories --
And suddenly she's accosted by memories that aren't hers; Ba’al less than a few hours ago, checking the inside of the ship and the hundreds of equations written on the back of old memos about the things long-dead children used to love. Ba'al walking the halls of Hogwarts. Ba'al in his ha'tak, murder on his hands. And everything in her head echoes — the battle, the roar of the truck engines firing up just outside, the shouting of men, the presence of Cam and Jack just behind her, her own breath in her own lungs.
“You can't have them,” she finally says. “And I don't want yours.”
Ba’al makes a self-satisfied, ridiculous noise. “I don't want your memories,” he said, and of course he'd know what she'd meant, of course he would, they were tied together now in a way more horrific and intimate than any other -- “All of that whiny bitchiness over your mother's death, all of that misguided pining after --”
Mitchell barely grabs her shoulders as she launches herself at the Goa'uld; O'Neill grabs away her gun as she raises it, her finger barely grazing the trigger.
“Sam, we gotta go, there'll be time enough for this later,” Mitchell says.
“Lemme kill the fucker,” she responds. “'Cause if we don't right now, Mitchell, we'll be dead by Saturn, I've seen it --”
“If you don't go, we'll be dead by Toontown,” replies O'Neill. “And you can't kill Daniel.”
“That's not Daniel,” Carter says.
The scene is shattered by a screaming Richard Woolsey, who has just entered the hangar from the front tunnel; Congress is behind him, equally incensed, all of them causing Carter’s nausea to slip into overdrive; dizziness hits the dark spaces where the symbiote had been and causes her to shrug back into Mitchell's grasp. Her hand at her head again, she fights off a memory of a torture chamber, dark, smelling terrifically of Tau’ri fear, the beauty of their frantic worship — the scene disappears as McKay shows up, thrusting gear into the cockpit of the vessel, yammering about the things she’ll need to find the Ark of Truth.
And all the while, Ba’al stands there like a marble statue, transfixed by the sheer hilarity of it all — and Carter can nearly hear him, can hear how he’s amused at the sheer stubbornness of the Tau’ri rushing to save their pathetic little lives —
-- and then, as if she'd been lost in thought and hadn't noticed, there’s suddenly a security detail at her elbow, helping her gear up. She tears away from them, crossing to Ba’al and letting her fist fly. She’s still terribly shaky from her experience as a temporary host, but the feeling of her knuckles colliding with the snake’s jaw almost overcomes her sadness at having to punch out a good friend; Ba’al stumbles back and returns the blow, shoving Carter straight back.
She loses her balance; the room moves like a whitened tilt-a-whirl. “He's never going to die,” spits Carter-snake-- regaining some of her composure. “You let him on that ship and he’ll build an empire, Cam. I’ve seen it. Let me go, he's not the last clone —”
The ground rumbles; the last of the team rushes in from outside and all around them is the noises of shouting, of boxes and bags being loaded and clattering across the floor, of faraway gunfire coming closer and closer with every passing moment. Mitchell takes over for the gearing crew, shoving Kevlar over her shoulders and locking it around her ribs. “We’ll take care of it. We're SG-1. We always take care of it.”
McKay appears again, popping in fron the side. “Time to go. Now. We’ve got to evacuate the hangar before we can retract the ceiling and let you out; we’re pretty sure being exposed to the fumes from the bloodfuel could be pretty nasty, if not… um. Lethal. So. Samantha, I —”
The Canadian locks eyes with her, and for one short moment, she sees fear.
“Keep them safe,” she says, unable to say anything else.
“Of course I will. Just don’t take too long, okay?” he says, his voice faltering towards the end.
And then it’s Woolsey in front of her, as she shakes the cobwebs from that same time-dilation effect she experienced after Jolinar's death. The man’s chin works, as if he wants to say something but just can’t spit out the words; finally, he settles on something and stretches to his full, uneven height, the loosened necktie and dented glasses in memory of the fact that he's been hunted like a dog, the broken president of a deadened zombie country.
“Mister Woolsey,” she says.
He clears his throat. “For the record, I also think this is a terrible idea,” he said, his ratlike eyes darting once to Ba’al and back to her. “But I think that if there’s someone who can salvage the situation, it’s you. I haven’t had hope in a very long time, but today —”
“Mister President, we have to go,” says the young man on his detail, and he’s summarily whisked away – leaving herself face to face with O’Neill.
“Sir,” she says.
“Go,” he whispers.
Above her, the whine of the base alarm.
“It's not fair,” she says.
He's fighting something; his throat tightens. “No,” he says. “It's what is.”
“I meant what I said,” Carter replies. “You should know that.”
O'Neill swallows. They linger over a pause as broken as their dreams. “I know,” he said. “Mitchell. He's a good man.”
And Mitchell's at her shoulders, hauling her into the ship, which is shivering to brightness under the caress of Ba'al's stolen fingers. “Cam,” she says as Ba'al begins the pre-flight check, blue Ori light bathing Daniel's face, “I just meant to say –“
“You don't need to say anything, Sam,” he says, and shakes his head, stopping to grab her hand for the barest of seconds.
Above them, the launch ceiling opens to reveal the kind of blue sky that had been above Antarctica that day; peaceful, warm, as ominous as a Fourth of July morning. Mitchell straps her in the back seat and Ba'al takes the controls of the Ori ship, Daniel's soul alight in his throat and his smile a devil's grace. And during the four minutes before they break atmo, they see nothing but fire.
In the firelight, asleep, her hand writ orange and black with equations he'll never understand.
That was enough for Mitchell.
Love is a terrible thing that shouldn't exist after the Ori. But it does, and in the firelight Mitchell wonders if that's all the proof he needs that God still exists.
“Think they'll come back, sir?” McKay says, sliding the clip into place.
O'Neill raises his weapon, staring down the sights at the Ori advance. There was a Prior at the front, and his staff gleamed with blue fire.
“It's Carter,” he says, as if that explained everything.
And then the enemy is upon them, and the eternal fire, and the glory of forever.