"O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon,
Irrecoverably dark, total eclipse
Without all hope of day!"
- John Milton, Samson Agonistes
Sam shifted in her chair, mentally cursing the Colonel for not coming with her to this meeting. Paperwork? Right. He just didn't want to paste on a supportive smile and try to act interested in a science mission, even if it had been his idea in the first place. Lately, whenever they got a break from military-themed missions or end-of-the-world scenarios they'd been doing all the Daniel-esque archaeological surveys they'd avoided the year he was gone. It was her turn for a working vacation, Jack had said. Now she just had to sell the General on it.
"Sir, I'm aware that PM3-44G is not on the priority list for future missions. The initial MALP data indicated an extremely dry environment, with a very long planetary day and no signs of either past occupation or unusual mineral deposits. However, further examination of the data has revealed some interesting anomalies."
The general glanced back down at the report folder in his hands, lips pursed, then raised his eyebrows at her. "If you are referring to the multiple suns, Major, may I remind you that this is not the first time we have encountered that phenomenon?"
Sam winced. She hardly needed reminding; she had been on the SG team on the mission in question. There had not been enough time to send a MALP through for the customary extended survey before the team had Gated through, and they had been unaware that P9Q-281 had possessed two suns. They had been stranded on the planet by a malfunctioning DHD, and had nearly died of the heat before Jack, affected by a mental download from an Ancient device, had miraculously managed to come up with repair instructions.
"I'm aware of that, sir," she said, "but this system is different. The surface of the planet is very warm, but not enough to endanger human life, as long as we bring plenty of water. There are three suns, not two, and they appear to be aligned in such a way that the environment maintains an almost steady temperature; the MALP detected a variance of only ten degrees Fahrenheit during the entire 48 hours it was there, and the planet went through at least one full rotation in that time frame. I would need to do a more in-depth study of the planetary alignments in the system to be sure, but it looks as though PM3-44G never experiences true nightfall; at most, there might be an hour or so of semi-twilight while all three of the suns are at or near the horizon."
"I take it this is highly unusual?" Hammond asked, his expression slowly shifting from mild disapproval toward indulgent interest.
"Very much so, sir," Sam confirmed, nodding slightly, eyes wide. "The odds of a stable system like this forming naturally are quite small. I would, of course, be unable to do much direct observation due to the solar glare, but I think a UAV with a special electronics package could provide some of the data I'd need to confirm my hypothesis. Also, there was enough organic material in the samples to suggest that there is carbon-based life on the planet somewhere, or was, at some point; I'd like the chance to explore that."
She took a deep breath; time to hit some selling points. No matter how much the General liked his flagship team, he would need some sort of justification to note in the files. "Further, it seems likely that the third sun, the smallest, was once a gas giant like our Jupiter. If that is the case, and PM3-44G was a more hospitable planet at some point in the past, then Daniel might have a chance at finding some evidence of civilization. There had to have been a reason for the Ancients to put a Gate there, after all. If not, then our investigation might still be able to shed some light on the type of life-forms that might flourish in other extremely dry environments a little closer to home. Mars, for example. If NASA is serious about eventually colonizing the planet, they'll need to do more than just thicken up the atmosphere. The soil there is extremely sterile, and there is very little water available, so any organism that could be introduced without requiring extensive imports from Earth would be extremely valuable."
"Breathe, Major," the General said, chuckling quietly, and closed the report folder. "All right, you've convinced me. I'll put PM3-44G into the schedule for next week. Now go on; you haven't left the base before me one day this week."
"Ah, yes sir. Thank you, sir." Sam grinned at him, a little embarrassed but exultant at having won her point. Science-oriented or not, this was going to be a mission for the record books; she could feel it in her bones.
Act One: Exploration
The first touch of air on Sam's face after stepping through the Stargate always felt warm to her, due to the chilling effect of wormhole travel. She'd gotten used to it over the years. Her first breath on PM3-44G, however, made her feel like a new recruit all over again; it was like a blast from a furnace, and she gasped reflexively in response.
The wormhole slurped behind her, disgorging the rest of her team, and she stepped automatically away, raising a hand to shade her face from the incredible glare reflecting from every surface in sight. The single, smallest sun was overhead at the moment, and its bright, bluish light made her squint even through the Air Force-issue sunglasses she wore. The Gate sat upon on a small hill surrounded by a rolling plain of sandy, rocky terrain, with the suggestion of a canyon a short distance away. Further details were obscured by the haze of heat waves rising from the ground.
"Wow." The Colonel stepped past her, boots crunching in the dry soil underfoot. "Note to self: when Carter's report says 'very warm', what she really means is 'blazing hot'."
"Oh, it's not that bad," Daniel replied off-handedly, walking past them to check the DHD. "We've got water, and plenty of sun-block; it's not like we're planning on spending several days here." He stripped off his uniform jacket as he spoke, and Sam could see patches of sweat already beginning to darken the fabric of the T-shirt beneath his arms.
"Of course it feels like home to you," Jack muttered, irritably. "But some of us aren't all that fond of deserts."
"At least there are no trees, O'Neill."
Sam threw a quick grin in Teal'c's direction. Of the four of them, he appeared least affected by the heat; he'd even turned down sunglasses, claiming to have lived and fought in climates worse than this while in Apophis' service. She received only a raised eyebrow in response to her smile, but after seven years of serving with the taciturn Jaffa she'd learned to see the subtleties in his expressions. A twinkle in his eye and a twitch at the corner of his mouth gave away his amusement.
"Very funny, Teal'c." Jack turned to Sam with a carefully bland expression, and gestured toward the foot of the hill with the P-90 clasped in his arms. "So which way do we go, Carter? This is your party."
Sam schooled her face back into 'mission mode' and pointed in the direction of the narrow canyon. "That way, sir. The initial MALP readings picked up mostly cinder, gypsum, and evaporite deposits; I think a lot of this area might once have been covered with water. If there was a living culture here at one time, it seems likely that they would have moved into more sheltered areas, like that canyon, to protect themselves from the growing heat ..."
"... And regardless, any evidence washed into the canyon by receding waters would be more likely to have remained unburied than anything out here in the open," Daniel interrupted, completing the thought. "In fact, I'm surprised the Gate is still exposed; any open water here must have dried up thousands, even millions of years ago. The dust storms must be fierce." He had tied his jacket around his waist, and was now staring out at the horizon, examining the bank of dirty cloud that hugged the ground in the direction that the blue sun would have risen from.
"Think someone still visits here? Often enough to keep the Gate from getting buried?" Jack perked up at that suggestion.
"The MALP found no evidence to suggest that," Sam objected, then looked down to check her watch. "The specialized UAV I requested will be sent through in another fifteen minutes, though; I'll make sure it gets some shots of the ground while it's up. If it finds any evidence of Goa'uld or other activity, we'll know in a couple of hours."
"All right then," Jack nodded. "Let's get a move on, people. We're burning daylight."
"Uh, Jack? You do remember that there is no night on this planet?" Daniel spoke up, quirking a smile in the Colonel's direction.
"Figure of speech," Jack said in a put-upon voice, and started down the hill.
Sam suppressed a smile and moved to follow.
The team covered the distance to the canyon quickly, and without incident. They saw no evidence of any kind along the route to hint at previous Goa'uld or other civilized activity on the planet, but Sam's suspicions of organic life were proved true; as they drew closer to the narrow passage, they began discovering small bones and bone fragments scattered amongst the loose stones at their feet.
Sam called a halt a couple of hundred yards from their goal to take a few samples of the bone for testing, and a few more from the rocky soil around them to examine for trace elements when they returned to the base. If Daniel's theory about the dust storms was correct and the planet did still receive visitors, there would have to be a reason; perhaps the MALP readings had been incomplete. She planned to take more samples from the canyon floor as well, and from the strange, protruding earth formations that the MALP's telescoping cameras had detected nearby. She had a couple of theories about how they might be formed, and was eager to see which was correct.
"I think that's enough for now," she said, tucking the last bone sample away in her kit in a protective plastic baggie. "The bone fragments are too small to tell what the animal or animals they belonged to might have looked like, but they were almost certainly warm-blooded vertebrates of some kind, and definitely lived here after the planet's transformation into a desert. There must still be water available, somewhere."
The Colonel sighed and tugged the ball cap from his head, then ran a hand through his sweaty, graying hair. "Did we take a wrong turn into some kind of alternate universe where you're the archaeologist, Carter? I thought you picked this planet because of the unusual stellar arrangement, or something."
"Oh, I did, sir." Sam checked her watch again, then squinted up at the sky. "In fact ... there goes the UAV now." The tiny automated aircraft soared by overhead, special sensor packages and cameras recording information for later assessment. "I can't make any direct observations of the stellar geography of the system, for obvious reasons; I'll have to analyze the data from the UAV when I get back. But that wasn't my only reason for coming."
Jack grunted and put the cap back on. "Carbon-based life in extremely dry environments, Martian studies, yadda yadda," he said, grudgingly. "I read your pre-mission report. I dunno. I just thought we'd get to do something a little more interesting if I put you in charge of picking our next destination - like the time we went to Cassie's planet to observe that black hole eclipse."
"That, of course, being the mission where we lost SG-7 and found out about Nirrti," Daniel put in, dryly. "I should hope this mission would be a little less interesting than that one." He had dropped into a crouch a few paces nearer the canyon than Jack's position, picking over the debris at his feet, with Teal'c looming at his back like a portable shade-generator.
"Indeed," Teal'c commented, raising his eyebrows at the Colonel.
"You know what I mean," Jack groused.
"Don't relax too soon," Daniel added, in an absent tone of voice, as he picked up a larger bone fragment and turned it over in his had. "There are tooth marks all over these bone fragments - deep gouges, and the way they're spaced, they probably came from a pretty large predator. I wouldn't want to meet up with the owner of those teeth unexpectedly."
"Not the kind of excitement I was looking for, Daniel, but thanks for trying," Jack sighed, and glanced back at Sam. "Let's get a move on, then. We'll take a water break at the canyon, re-apply sun-block, and decide where to go from there."
Daniel dropped the bone he was holding and stood, dusting his hands off on the thighs of his uniform pants. "Really, though, I don't think we have much to worry about," he continued. "The dry climate preserves things pretty well, but I'd guess the bones are at least a couple of decades old. If there were a population of these things in the area, I'm sure we'd see more recent spoor."
"That's good to know," Sam said, wiping droplets of sweat out of her eyes as she headed toward the canyon again. The glare had dimmed a bit as the blue sun dipped toward the horizon, but she knew that wouldn't last much longer; the paired red and amber suns would be rising in another hour. The lower oxygen content of the air was beginning to get to her, too; it felt as though she'd been jogging on a treadmill for half an hour, rather than walking. It was better than it could have been, though. After living at more than a mile of altitude in Colorado for the last several years, the team had become acclimatized to relatively thin air.
More details of the narrow gap became visible as they approached it. The cliffs on either side, though steep, were not particularly high - even now, there was not much shadow at the bottom. As the mirage effect of the heat haze dissipated due to lack of distance, however, something else became visible on the canyon floor. The vague whitish blurs that Sam had at first taken to be more highly reflective stone surfaces or perhaps a lighter-colored mineral resolved into something else entirely.
"Wow." Jack whistled softly at the sight. "Got your digital camera with you, Daniel?"
"The predators on this planet must be formidable indeed," Teal'c commented.
Portions of an enormous skeleton were wedged into the space between the cliffs, bones larger than anything Sam had ever seen outside of a museum. The canyon curved a little further in, but just before that point she could see a column of huge vertebrae suspended horizontally a dozen feet off the ground by the arching vault of an enormous ribcage, a macabre tunnel they'd have to walk through if they decided to explore the area further. Other bones littered the narrow space like giant-sized jack straws dropped by a clumsy hand.
"I don't ... I'm not sure, I'll have to take a closer look, but I don't think all of these bones are from land-based creatures," Daniel said calmly, lifting his digital camera to take a few shots. "The larger ones appear considerably more weathered than the fragments we found out there, and they're more protected here, too; they could have been here a very long time. I think they might - from the types of bones I'm seeing, I think they might be from sea-going creatures, wedged here when the water evaporated."
"Like whales?" Sam blurted. "Wow. That's the last thing I expected to find in this place, even if my theory about the third sun proved to be true."
"Well, consider it proven," the Colonel said, gesturing at the boneyard before them. "Shall we take a closer look?"
Act Two: Investigation
The team paused for a water break, then continued up the narrow canyon, documenting the immense skeletal remains and geological features with the digital camera as they walked. The walls of the canyon were made of the same rocky, light-colored earth as the plain they'd crossed and the low hills nearby; nothing aside from the bones seemed especially unique or out of place, but it was hard to tell sometimes what would turn out to be important at first glance. Even if nothing jumped out at them while they were here, it was entirely possible a fresh set of eyes in the scientific department might discover something in the photographs later.
To Sam, the walk felt almost like a tour through a natural history exhibit, one dedicated to the extinction of Earth's dinosaurs. She paused for a moment beneath the arching vault of the vast ribcage that spanned the canyon and gazed upward at the massive vertebrae suspended several feet over her head, mentally estimating the size of the creature they had originally come from. She felt very small in comparison, in a way she'd never felt when faced with enormous astronomical bodies like supernovae or black holes; there was something immediate and vast about these biological ruins that set off instictive warning signals in the back of her mind, as though the unstoppable machine of Entropy was poised on the brink of swallowing her whole.
She shivered a little despite the intense heat, then glanced around at her companions. Next to her, the Colonel had turned to look over his shoulder back the way they'd come. His brow furrowed a little as he studied the curvature of the canyon, which would conceal their point of entry entirely if they proceeded much further, and he glanced down at something clasped in his hand with a concerned grunt.
"We'd better not get turned around in here," Jack said, tilting the object-- a compass-- in Sam's direction.
Sam squinted through the glare reflecting from the compass' face and caught a glimpse of the needle spinning wildly around, refusing to settle on any one point. She grimaced, then reached up to swipe a fresh trail of sweat out of her eyes. "As strong as the magnetic field is, it'll probably also interfere with our radios over any significant distance. I doubt we'll be able to hear anything more than static when the SGC dials in for our checkup a couple of hours from now."
"Shades of P3X-403," Daniel mused aloud, two paces behind them, staring up one side of the canyon at an earthen spire rising to a point several feet above the rim. His hair had already begun to escape from the tan-colored bandana he'd chosen to wear today, sticking out around the edges in sweat-dampened spikes. "It might be a good idea to go ahead and check out some of these earth formations you were interested in, then head back. If the UAV images show anything important, we can always come back with better equipment."
Sam nodded, remembering what she'd heard about the problems the SGC mining teams on the Unas-settled world had faced when trying to find one of their number who had gone missing. She would be a little disappointed to head back early, but on a mission like this one where no lives were on the line, it was better to be safe than sorry. "It looks like the canyon flattens out a little up ahead, we can climb up more easily there. It shouldn't take very long to test my theory about what caused them and take a few samples."
"You spoke of multiple theories prior to our arrival on this planet," Teal'c observed calmly from his place next to Daniel. "What have you observed here to change your mind?"
Sam smiled at him, pleased at his perceptiveness and interest. "From the MALP pictures, it was impossible to tell whether the spires were formed from softer, packed earth, as we can now see they are, or rock, like the formations commonly called hoodoos back on Earth, which might have contained useful minerals. In the latter case, they would have been revealed by the passage of time, as wind and other natural events wore away the material around them. As it is, however, I'd guess there must have been something other than the elements involved in building them."
"Mound-building insects, maybe? Like Macrotermes termites?" Daniel asked, wrinkling his nose. He'd flipped his clip-on sun-glasses up for a better look, and his blue eyes almost seemed to glow in the light of the alien sun. "I've never heard of them living in an environment as extreme as this, but there's always a first time for everything, I suppose."
"Maybe not insects," Sam replied, "but I'm fairly certain some kind of lifeform was involved. The shape and composition of the columns is inconsistent with wind formation, and I can't think of another environmental process that could possibly have created them given the harshness of the environment." She wasn't sure what kind of lifeform it had been-- bacteria binding them together, something larger physically shaping them? Was something hidden beneath the spires?-- but she wanted to find out.
"Well, we won't find out standing here yakking about it," Jack groused. He removed his ball cap again, ruffling his damp hair to dry it a little, then settled the cap back on his head and made an elaborate 'after you' arm gesture in Sam's direction. "Get to it, Carter."
"Yes sir," Sam replied. She exchanged amused glances with Daniel, then took point again, heading toward the lowest visible section of the canyon's now-sloping walls.
The blue sun had begun to set, flickering at one edge of the horizon, and a golden-red glow lit the sky afire at the other. Shadows pooled strangely in and around the giant bones at the canyon's floor as the vaguely underwater hues that had previously characterized the landscape grew progressively warmer. Sam kept an eye on one of the spires as she walked, and was puzzled to see that a dark patch she'd noticed at the top didn't move at all in the shifting light; she'd assumed it was a shadow before, but that clearly wasn't the case. It almost looked as though the spire were hollow... but what could have caused it?
The narrow canyon opened out slowly as the walls dropped, then widened suddenly as the team turned a corner, joining a vast, shallow valley crowded with more of the titanic skeletons. The sight struck Sam speechless for a moment; it looked like nothing so much as a killing ground, or perhaps an elephant's graveyard. More of the skeletons were complete here than had been in the canyon, and they varied more widely in size; the rib bones of one particularly large specimen jutted up against the horizon in a grotesque parody of trees, with tatters of lichen at the tips providing a semblance of leaves and branches.
The sight reminded Sam just how hot and thirsty she was. She called another quick rest break, making sure to dampen her collar and the sleeves of her uniform shirt for a little extra relief once she'd swallowed a few mouthfuls of lukewarm water. Daniel's lips were beginning to crack in the dry heat, so she shared her SPF 30 lip gel with him; he'd brought his own, but he'd forgotten to remove the chocolate bar he habitually carried from that pocket of his vest, and his tube of gel was completely embedded in the resulting sticky goo.
Finally, the team approached a small grouping of the spires. She could see another, much larger cluster of them in the distance, rising up from a swell of ground like the spines of a hedgehog; it almost made her wish she'd brought along one of the ground-penetrating radar scanners the SGC kept on hand for sizable geological and archaeological surveys.
Sam tapped the side of one of the spires with the heel of one hand and found her suspicions confirmed. "It's hollow," she said, marvelling, and unslung her kit to retrieve the small rock hammer she'd brought with an eye to securing possible mineral samples.
"That seems... unlikely," Daniel commented, a thoughtful expression on his face.
"Well, it sure doesn't look like something you'd find in Vancouver or Egypt," Jack replied with a shrug, rapping a second column with his knuckles. "I've always wondered why we don't come across more seriously alien landscapes out here. Is the galaxy really that boring?"
Daniel opened his mouth, looking a little indignant, then shook his head and shut it again; he'd had this argument with Jack several times before. Sam grinned at the pair, still enjoying the renewal of their familiar banter after so many months without it, then stepped past them with the rock hammer and struck firmly against the wall of the first spire. Small chips of packed earth came away under the head; after a moment, a section gave way entirely, creating a small hole into the interior of the column.
She took a moment to secure a few of the earth fragments she'd removed for later study; the flakes had a texture reminiscent of dried mud, a distinct oddity on a planet whose intermittent cloudcover was all dust and no moisture. While she was packing them away, the Colonel stepped forward with a flashlight in hand, shining it into the opening she'd made.
"Nothing in here," he said, tilting the light first upward, then down. "It's like the inside of a chimney. Big hole at the top, hollow all the way down. Can't see the bottom, though; looks like it opens out into a cave."
"I wonder if they're all like that?" Daniel mused, looking over at the larger, distant complex of spires that Sam had noticed earlier.
"Let's find out," Sam suggested, picking up the hammer again and moving to strike the column Jack had tested with his hand. The wall was a little thicker on this one, but was no more difficult to pierce than the other, and soon she was peering into the interior of another empty earthen tube. This spire was angled more toward suns-rise than the other had been, however; she could see a small area of the cavern floor beneath, spotlit by the suns' red-gold rays.
"I don't suppose there's any easy way to get down there," she said dubiously, more curious than ever about the origin and purpose of the earthen formations. She'd never seen anything quite like them before.
Jack shook his head. "I didn't see any cave mouths on our way here, and without climbing gear I'd rather not try to shimmy down one of these things."
And of course they had to be concerned about the possibility of predators, too, Sam thought. Maybe whatever had chewed up those bones out by the Stargate had moved on a long time ago, and maybe it didn't lair underground, but there was no way to be sure without going down there, and the chimney-hole entrances would make it difficult for them to escape in a hurry if they needed to.
Daniel frowned and began digging in his own pack. "Wait a minute, I have an idea..."
Jack frowned at him. "If this idea of yours involves you going down there alone..."
"No, no..." Daniel cut him off. "I'm just looking for... ah, there it is." He raised one hand, revealing a spare digital video recorder he'd probably been carrying 'just in case'. "Do you still carry duct tape, Sam?"
"Never leave home without it," she assured him. She retrieved the roll for him, then watched with an intrigued expression as he secured the video recorder to the end of a coil of rope from the Colonel's supplies with a series of knots and expertly applied squares of tough, shiny silver tape. The camera didn't have a light of its own, so he incorporated a flashlight into the assembly too, aimed forward of the lens and fixed into the 'on' position.
"MALP on a rope," Jack commented, grinning as he examined Daniel's completed handiwork. "Sweet."
"You'll have to widen the hole a little," Daniel replied, nodding, as he wound the coil of rope around his arm. "I'll pass the camera through and lower it down into the cavern, then let it spin around a little to get a good look at all the walls before pulling it back up."
"Good idea, Daniel," Sam agreed, and picked up the rock hammer again to widen one of the holes.
Teal'c stepped forward, shaking his head, before she could do so. "Allow me, Major Carter," he said, then raised the butt end of his staff weapon from the ground and used it to strike repeatedly at the nearest column. The dirt crumbled easily at the blows, flaking away and falling into the widening hole to rain down on whatever lay inside.
"Thanks, Teal'c." Daniel pressed the button to turn the video recorder on, then began slowly lowering it through the opening.
Act Three: Discovery
Time seemed to crawl as Daniel lowered the camera slowly into the interior of the hollow earthen spire. The paired suns marched slowly up into the sky, scorching down on the stark, barren landscape around the team, and Sam could feel every individual drop of sweat that trickled down the damp skin of her back and between her breasts. It was a good thing the SGC never issued T-shirts in white.
Teal'c and the Colonel were alternately watching Daniel's progress and the landscape around the spires, keeping an eye out for trouble. Though there didn't seem to be any threat worth noting on the dead, arid surface of the planet, they had been fooled before. The tips of Jack's ears were beginning to redden a little under the onslaught of the suns' rays; Teal'c's scalp was covered in a fine sheen of sweat, and the gold symbol on his forehead was a blaze of reflected light. Sam felt the skin of her own face tightening a little despite the industrial strength sunscreen she'd slathered on, and promised herself a long soak and a moisturizing facial when she got home.
"That should do it," Daniel finally announced. He had leaned forward slightly, glancing down through the opening to watch the progress of the camera as it descended into the cavern. "Going to spin it a little more, and..." His voice trailed off, and he frowned. "What was that?"
Jack perked up, turning away from the scenery to fix all his attention on Daniel. "What was what?"
"I thought I heard... Whoa! I think there's something down there..."
"Daniel? What are you seeing?" Sam asked, both alarmed and curious at this new development.
"What's down there, Daniel?" Jack said again, trying to capture the archaeologist's attention.
Daniel fliched, then took an abrupt step backward, and this time Sam heard whatever he'd been hearing, too; faint high-pitched echoes, something like sonar but distinctly organic in origin. "I don't know, but whatever it is, it doesn't seem to like the flashlight," he said distractedly, and began pulling the rope up as quickly as he could.
He wasn't quick enough. A few seconds later, the rope abruptly jerked out of Daniel's hands, then stopped again; he'd wound the surplus around his right arm so as not to let it slip accidentally, and it caught there, pulling him off-balance with sudden force and dragging him toward the hole.
"Hey, ow!" he exclaimed, digging in his feet, but he failed to gain any traction in the loose, rocky dirt.
"Daniel!" Sam lunged for her friend, but she wasn't close enough to get a grip on him before he was yanked into the column; the Colonel was closer, but the handful of T-shirt he managed to get hold of was torn right out of his grip. Daniel's right arm was dragged into the hole, then his entire upper body as something continued to pull sharply on the other end of the rope.
"Daniel Jackson!" Teal'c grabbed for him this time, gathering handfuls of the material of Daniel's BDU pants and pulling backward with all his might. Jack managed to get a grip on him, too, on his second try, wrapping his fingers around Daniel's belt as Teal'c pulled him slowly back out of the hole. Sam fumbled for her combat knife, then darted forward as soon as Daniel's entangled arm emerged from the column. The rope parted easily under the sharp blade, releasing Daniel to collapse onto the ground with a pained grunt.
"So much for the camera," he said, panting, as he fumbled at what was left of the rope with his free hand.
"Let me get that, Daniel." Sam resheathed her knife and knelt next to him, unwrapping the length of rope where it had tightened around his arm. "Forget about the camera, you're lucky it didn't break your arm. Are you all right? What was that?"
"I don't know." He flexed his wrist and elbow a little once the last of the rope was removed, and grimaced in pain. "I couldn't really see much, just movement in the shadows as the flashlight swivelled around. Then something lunged at it-- it had a wide head and a long tail, but it moved too quick to see much in the way of details. I think there were several of them, but only that one came anywhere near the light, so it was hard to tell."
Jack snorted and reached down for Daniel's uninjured arm, pulling the archaeologist back to his feet. "Must have been pretty big to pull you off your feet like that. Think we found that large predator you were talking about?"
"Possibly," Daniel said, distractedly, still flexing his arm. Bruises were already starting to form, dark and angry-looking under the skin. "Like I said, I couldn't see much, and they moved very, very fast. I'm sure the camera got at least one good shot, but--"
"Well, we're not trying that again," Jack interrupted him. "Doesn't matter what's down there, whatever it is, is dangerous. It probably can't climb up after you, but I'd rather not take the risk."
Sam glanced at the suns again, a quarter of the way across the sky, then down at her watch, and nodded. "The UAV should be on its way back by now, and the SGC will be dialing in for a check-up any minute."
"Good," Jack grunted. "Let's get moving. I'd rather not wait around to find out if there are any more of those things around here." He picked up Daniel's pack, ignoring the younger man's protests, and shook his head. "Figures you would kick over a nest of womp rats, Daniel; 'bout all that's missing from this re-enactment of Tatooine now, is an old guy in a dress."
Daniel snorted, but his expression had lightened. "Careful what you wish for, Jack. I can think of a few system lords out there still who fit that description."
"Indeed," Teal'c agreed, one eyebrow raised and a barely-there smirk signalling his amusement.
Sam choked at the mental image of Ba'al or Anubis playing Obi-Wan Kenobi to Daniel's Luke Skywalker. No-- more like Emperor Palpatine to Daniel's Anakin, given the general Goa'uld attitude. And wouldn't that be a disaster! A Goa'ulded Daniel was way, way up there on the list of things Sam hoped she never lived to see.
Jack looked faintly pleased with himself for his tension-breaking joke, but it didn't impair his alertness any as he took point, leading the team back toward the canyon. Sam shook her head and fell into third, the smile slipping from her face as she watched Daniel trying not to limp in front of her. The only injuries immediately visible from his close encounter were the bruises on his arm, but he'd hit the dirt column with enough force that he was probably bruised from armpit to thigh under his uniform, not to mention how badly the torque must have wrenched his shoulder. Janet would not be happy with him when they got back.
The boneyard seemed even more like a killing ground to Sam as they passed back through it on their journey back toward the Gate. It was still possible that the creatures Daniel had just caught a glimpse of were merely an essentially harmless transient population reacting defensively to their intrusion, but somehow she doubted that. SG-1's luck had always run perpendicular to the easy route. Daniel could find one artifact and use it to correctly predict a tribe of Unas in the hills; surely, it was no coincidence that he'd nearly fallen into a nest of large, unnaturally swift animals shortly after pointing out carnivorous teeth-marks on a handful of splintered bone.
Teal'c covered every solitary spire atop the canyon's walls with his staff weapon as they walked, and the Colonel was paying even more attention to the walls than he had before, as though looking for any sign of an additional entrance to the underground caverns. Sam could feel the effects of their alertness on her own attitude, as the hair stood up on the back of her neck and refused to lie back down. Just once, she would have liked to participate in a mission that went off without a hitch; as it was, she couldn't shake the feeling that the trouble wasn't over yet.
They stopped once more before making the final push to the Stargate, just inside the mouth of the canyon where they'd first gotten a look at the whale-sized skeletons. It was pretty clear by that time they weren't going to be chased back to the SGC, for which small grace Sam was quite thankful. Even better: the whine of the UAV overhead was a welcome reminder that the primary objective of the mission was still within her reach.
Sam smiled a little as she turned her head up to follow the sound, shading her eyes with one hand as the little automated airplane flew through the glare of the paired suns. In half an hour, it and she would both be back through the Gate, and a wealth of data on this implausible solar system's structure would be hers to decipher. She enjoyed her job as team-second on SG-1 very much, but scientific mysteries like this one were the icing on a very tasty cake.
She jumped a little, startled, as another sound interrupted the UAV's familiar buzz, and gazed across the rocky plain to see the second chevron locking into place on the Gate. They'd obviously missed the time set for their first check-up, but standard procedure would have the SGC dialing in at regular intervals afterward, and this activation didn't fit that pattern. She checked her watch again to be sure, then exchanged alarmed glances with the Colonel and moved backward without being told into what little cover there was behind a large rock propped against one of the canyon's walls.
Daniel snugged in behind her, and Teal'c and Jack found their own cover behind convenient skeletal fragments on the opposite side of the canyon. Sam wriggled her fingers and toes as they waited, mentally adding up all the times they'd been trapped like this within sight of the Gate, mere minutes before they would have escaped. On a world with a slave population or valuable resources, however, that was a risk that could be planned for; she was even more baffled at the idea of a Goa'uld visiting this barren place than she had initially been at the idea of the Ancients building a Gate here to begin with. Maybe it was the SGC after all; the obvious alternative-- someone leaking SG-1's itinerary to their enemies-- was a sour weight in her stomach.
The rest of the chevrons lit in quick order, and the horizontal flush of an establishing wormhole quickly settled back into a pool of shimmering blue. Sam fumbled in her vest pockets for her binoculars, and saw the Colonel out of the corner of her eye doing the same as they waited to find out who their visitors were. After a moment's pause, a pair of Jaffa with unfamiliar insignia on their foreheads stepped through the gate.
Jack groaned audibly. "For crying out loud. You recognize that symbol, big guy?"
Teal'c rumbled an affirmative. "It is an ostrich feather, the mark of a minor Goa'uld called Shu."
"Shoo?" Jack's eyebrows shot up at the name. "As in, 'shoo, go away?'"
"No, as in Shu, the Egyptian god of the atmosphere and of dry winds," Daniel muttered in Sam's ear. "Also a personification of the sun's light-- rather appropriate, considering. According to mythology, he's one of the sons of Ra."
"Probably not a fan of ours, then," Sam joked half-heartedly, watching as several more Jaffa stepped through the wormhole. Several pair after the first two Jaffa carried-- or dragged-- another figure with them, and all bore staff weapons.
The Jaffa were still coming through when one of them abruptly looked up in the direction of the UAV's flight path, and Sam cursed silently, realizing what was about to happen. So much for my research, she thought dispiritedly as a blast from the Jaffa's staff lashed out and knocked the unmanned plane into a tight, descending spiral.
The other Jaffa dropped their charges in a heap before the gate and fanned out, forming an alert, protective perimeter as the last of their companions finished Gating in. All told, there were some two dozen Jaffa and half a dozen prizoners present when the wormhole finally winked out.
Act Four: Lights Out
"Damnit," Jack hissed, lowering his binoculars for a moment as he leaned back against the canyon wall opposite Sam and Daniel. "How much water you got over there, Carter?" he asked quietly, lifting his sunglasses to meet her eyes directly.
They'd been waiting at the mouth of the canyon for several hours already, watching to see what would happen. To their confusion, the first group of Shu's soldiers had done nothing but stake their prisoners out on long chains, several dozen yards in front of the Gate. None of the captives had their hands free, but all of them had had their feet untied before the Jaffa had retreated into guard positions around the Gate. Finally, as the red and gold suns neared the horizon again on the opposite side of the sky, the First Prime had arrived, accompanied by their Goa'uld overlord. Shu had immediately begun directing the men in assembling several pieces of technology Sam was unfamiliar with.
It had been a long, hot, dusty wait. Sam shook her canteen, glanced inquisitively at Daniel, then met the Colonel's gaze again with a frown. "A few hours' worth at normal rations. If we tried to retreat and wait them out? It could take days; I don't think we have enough."
Next to Jack, Teal'c stiffened abruptly and drew in a deep breath. "I do not believe that will be necessary, Major Carter," he said, staring intently at the equipment the Goa'uld was setting up. "If this is the world I now believe it to be, retreating from this position would be most unwise."
Daniel stirred. "What is it, Teal'c? Did you recognize something?"
Teal'c squared his jaw grimly and lowered the binoculars again, fixing Sam and then Daniel with a severe, intent expression. "Jaffa legend speaks of a world that knows darkness only once every score of years, inhabited by demonic creatures that feast on the flesh of the unwary. These rumors are often spoken of in connection to Netu; Bra'tac believed that they were old, inaccurate tales dating to a time before Sokar transformed that world with fire and poison to more closely simulate the mythical environment of Hell."
"Looking pretty accurate from here," Jack muttered. "So what are those doohickeys they're setting up that bother you so much?"
"The most accurate Tau'ri term for their function would be 'floodlight'," Teal'c said, glancing toward the setting suns. They still hovered several fingers' width above the horizon, but it would be no more than an hour before they dipped out of sight to make way for the blue sun again.
Sam swallowed through a suddenly dry throat. "Eclipse," she blurted, staring at Jack in sudden shock. "If the legends are right..."
"Those creatures, back there-- they attacked my flashlight," Daniel interrupted her, sounding horrified. "Look at the way the Jaffa are positioning those lamps-- they're set up for protection, like a fence, in a ring around the Gate."
"I think you're on to something there." Jack grimaced, lifting his binoculars again to watch the proceedings. "The way they staked out those prisoners, they're several yards outside of the ring of lamps-- they have just enough chain to stand up and run a few feet, but not enough to reach the light."
"That's barbaric," Daniel hissed, angrily.
"That's the Goa'uld for you," Jack countered, then glanced at Sam again. "Any way to tell how long it'll be until it happens, Carter?"
She shook her head. "If I had the data from the UAV, I might be able to tell, but without it?" She shrugged helplessly. "Soon, I'd guess, from the way they're setting things up."
"That's helpful," he replied sarcastically. "No chance of getting ourselves through the Gate before it happens, then."
"Probably not, sir."
"Damn it." He leaned back against the canyon wall again, thumping his head against the rock a few times. "If it's really that dangerous... we've got our flashlights and a couple of emergency flares, but the minute we light something up those Jaffa are going to see us, and I really don't like the odds. This is the last time I wish for a more interesting mission."
A sudden cacophony of Jaffa voices drew the team's attention; several of Shu's soldiers had lowered their staff weapons, pointing at the suns. Sam followed their gaze and saw--
"Holy Hannah," she breathed, as an impossibly huge, brownish arch began moving up the bowl of sky, inching upwards to meet the sinking suns.
"Is that--" Jack blurted, then fell silent, as a second curving arch joined the first, striking upward with impossible speed.
Idly, in the tiny part of her mind not awestruck by the sight before her, Sam wondered what PM3-44G's diameter and rate of spin were, and calculated the probable size of those rings based on likely values. For rings they must be, and a gas giant to follow, if the eclipse was to last for any length of time--
"Dear God," Daniel said breathlessly, as the horizon seemed suddenly to bulge. An enormous, dark curve swelled above the rocky landscape, inching inexorably upwards.
"It is upon us," Teal'c commented gravely.
For a moment, Sam almost forgot why they were on the planet on the first place, the desperate odds they faced against Shu's Jaffa and the nightmarish fate that Teal'c's legends assigned those who wandered in the dark. She'd seen her share of lunar and solar eclipses on Earth, watching them through pinholes in styrofoam cups as a child and through more sophisticated equipment when she was older. But this-- she'd never seen, never imagined anything so majestic. If she'd felt small earlier that day standing under a cage of long-dead bones, she felt positively miniscule now, faced with a such an unbelievable display of nature's might.
The bulge of the gas giant resolved itself into a partial sphere as it continued to rise relative to their position, its rings spearing outward at an angle to intersect the suns. As the first ring crossed the fiery golden point of the brighter sun, the light around them dimmed to a rusty red, as though shining through a pane of glass stained with old blood. Flashes of light flickered along the near edge of the gas giant's orb, a sparkling effect Sam recognized at once though she'd never before seen it on so large a scale.
"Baily's beads," she muttered, awed.
A few seconds later, the rings crossed the second sun as well, and the light dimmed further, casting sepia-toned shadows over everything and everyone. The Goa'uld barked several sharp commands in his dual-toned voice, and the ring of floodlamps abruptly lit up, creating a small island of brightness in an increasingly darkened landscape. No sooner had the lamps ignited, than a distant, alien series of whistling and screeching sounds began, echoing to the point that it was almost impossible to guess directionality. The creatures Daniel had encountered had made sounds that reminded Sam of sonar; in retrospect, that made perfect sense.
"They're blind," she said, a little louder, for the Colonel's ears. "The creatures-- they're blind. They use sonar to navigate. And with the light gone--"
"They're tasting their first breath of free air in two decades," Daniel said quietly, gazing back over his shoulder in the direction of the hedgehog-like mound they'd seen from afar.
The sounds grew louder, barreling in their direction at a frightening rate of speed, and Sam looked up just in time to see a flock of tiny, angular shapes flashing overhead in what little dim, brown daylight remained.
"They can fly?" Jack hissed, sounding indignant.
"They-- they must be hatchlings, babies," Daniel said. "Or maybe something different... they're much smaller than the creatures I caught a glimpse of earlier." He shifted next to Sam, rubbing stiffly at the arm and shoulder he'd bruised in that encounter.
The flight of hatchlings veered near the column of light the Goa'uld had created, then swerved abruptly away again, screeching loudly at the encounter, before flashing away over the landscape in another direction. Over their noise, Sam could hear a set of more distinct, differently-pitched alien voices, calling out from the direction the hatchlings had first flown from. The adults, if that's what they were, weren't far behind.
Sam gulped, glancing back at the brown disk erasing the sky, and was treated to another show of Baily's beads as one of the suns finally escaped from the darkening rings for a few seconds only to be swallowed up by the gas giant itself. In its wake, absolute darkness spread across the face of the planet, sparing only the Jaffa encampment.
Night had fallen.
"Well, fuck," Jack muttered, viciously. Sam couldn't see him any longer; the cover he'd chosen to block the view of the enemy also shielded him from what little stray light pollution leaked their way, leaving him deep in a pool of shadows as black as ink. Sam had thought she'd seen darkness before, but she'd never seen anything like this. When she glanced over her shoulder to catch a glimpse of Daniel, she couldn't even see the hand he'd reached out toward her; when it landed on her arm, she flinched violently, her heart thudding in her chest with the force of her surprise.
"They will be here within moments," Teal'c rumbled, eliciting another jolt from Sam's fraught nerves.
"Do it, Jack," Daniel said urgently, his hand trembling a little on Sam's arm. "We haven't got a choice."
"I know, I know!" Jack hissed back. "Just-- be ready. All hell's going to break loose when they see us."
"Understood, sir." Sam tried to inject a note of calm in her voice, and wasn't quite sure she'd succeeded.
"Here goes nothing."
Sam turned her face away, bracing herself, and managed not to flinch when the actinic flash of a freshly-lit flare bloomed in the corner of her vision. A high-pitched scream sounded from behind them, and she turned sharply in time to see a strange shape retreating back up the canyon, a wide head flaring out to blunt points like that of a hammerhead shark above a mouth full of long, sharp teeth.
Rattling noises at the tops of the cliffs announced the presence of more of the creatures, and Sam shivered, wrenching her attention away from them toward the Jaffa camp from whence the more immediate danger was likely to come. She couldn't immediately see what they were doing beyond the row of lights, but the flash of staff energy blasting against the cliff above them was answer enough to her worries. Another creature screeched loudly as the blast detonated, sending a shower of rock fragments down over their heads, and somewhere between their position and the Jaffa's camp one of the prisoners began to scream.
"We're going to have to move," she blurted. "We don't have enough cover here. The Jaffa will be able to target us before we get anywhere near them, and we'll be exposed on all sides to the creatures if we leave the canyon."
"Fuck!" Jack hissed again, sounding as furious as she'd ever heard him. "We're going to have to retreat."
"To where?" Sam replied.
"We'll figure that out as we go. Just move! And for God's sake, stay in the light!"
Act Five: Chaos in the Dark
Sam bolted to her feet at Jack's order, ignoring the discomfort of limbs made stiff by long hours of sitting. She snagged Daniel's arm as she moved, assisting him to his feet, and realized only after he hissed in discomfort that she'd taken hold of his injured limb.
There wasn't time to be gentle. She let go his arm and shifted her hand to the small of his back, then dug in her heels and pushed. He stumbled forward, nearly tripping on Teal'c's heels, his profile lit starkly by the burning flare the Jaffa thrust ahead of them. Sam readied her P-90 as she ran, activating the attached flashlight and aiming it out into the darkness. She had no idea what minimum candlepower might be required to keep the swift-moving nightmares at a distance, and she didn't intend to be left in a position to find out.
Jack fell in behind her to cover the team's six. Sam heard a few echoing alien screams as the Colonel's P-90 spoke out in their defense, interspersed with war cries from angry Jaffa as Shu's soldiers reacted to their presence. Another staff blast blew past them, detonating on the canyon's floor and throwing up a cloud of dust that briefly captured the light of the flare like a cloud of fog caught in a car's highbeams.
Scuttling sounds from the tops of the cliffs confirmed the presence of more of the creatures, watching them from above. Sam clamped down on the seed of panic germinating in her chest and focused her entire being in the moment, on staying alive. It didn't matter that there was nowhere to retreat to, Jack would think of something, and even if he didn't, there would be another way out. There had to be. This was SG-1; they had survived worse odds than this.
A third blast slammed into the earth at their heels, knocking Jack off his feet. Sam heard him go down and turned to cover him, yelling for Teal'c as she did so. "Hold up! The Colonel's down!"
Teal'c either didn't hear her, or else the flare was starting to burn out, because its flickering light illuminated less of her surroundings with every passing second. She had no idea if they'd been running long enough for that to happen; her time-sense had evaporated with the flood of adrenaline in her system. All she could think of as the shadows swarmed back in around her and Jack was that they were not going to die this way. She fired past him as he got back up to his knees, briefly illuminating the cliffs with each muzzle flash, and yelled for her teammates again. "Teal'c! Daniel! Hold up! We need to stick together!"
There was a whisper of movement to the left. Sam turned and fired a burst at the sound, catching one of the aliens in mid-leap. Dark blood spattered the rocks around it; some of it splashed back on her face, but she hardly noticed as she poured another burst into the thing to make sure it was dead. As she fired, an echoing call sounded almost in her right ear-- it hadn't been alone. She swiveled back, heart pounding in fear, and heard another voice cry out: the Colonel's, astonished and in pain.
"Carter!" Jack had nearly made it back to his feet, but a clawed alien hand imbedded in his calf yanked him back down again. He curled sideways as he fell, aiming his P-90 at the attacker; a simultaneous burst from his weapon and Sam's nearly sawed the thing in half across the breastbone. It was the first time Sam had gotten a really good look at one; aside from the strangely shaped head and the greyish coloring, the thing reminded her of nothing so much as one of the velociraptors from the Jurassic Park films. Its skin started shriveling as it collapsed to the earth, and she realized that the light was growing brighter again. Teal'c had heard her after all.
She dropped one hand from her gun, reaching down to grab Jack by the back of his BDU jacket, and started dragging for all she was worth. He complained at the treatment, yelling out as his injured leg bounced over the ground, but she didn't stop until she was right up against the solid tower of strength that was Teal'c. Several more staff blasts shot into the canyon as she moved, but none came anywhere close; from the shrieks at each impact, Sam guessed the creatures were temporarily proving more of a distraction to the Jaffa than SG-1 was. But that couldn't last forever.
Daniel knelt at her side, tearing off a strip of his T-shirt to serve as a quick and dirty bandage around the Colonel's bleeding leg. Jack lurched to his feet almost before Daniel was finished, listing badly to one side but still more than capable of action. "We gotta find some cover!" he yelled, limping toward a large rock propped against one of the canyon's walls.
Sam moved automatically to cover him, firing at every sound she heard outside the shifting sphere of light holding the darkness back around the team. She had no idea what Jack was doing-- one rock could hardly provide them all cover-- but she was operating very much on an instinctive level now. See danger, kill danger; protect the team; follow the Colonel.
"T, buddy! Some help here!" Jack braced himself as best he could and leaned his shoulder into the rock, reaching into a vest pocket for another flare as he did so. Teal'c joined him, dropping the burning flare he'd been gingerly holding on the ground beside them, and together they shifted the heavy, man-height rock to one side. Where it had been, a narrow, gaping hole was revealed.
Jack ignited the second flare, tossing it into the cavern, then paused to check for hostile occupation. Nothing moved or shrieked, and after a few seconds Jack dove inside, P-90 at the ready.
"It's clear!" he called. "Daniel! Carter?"
"Right behind you," Daniel called, inching through the narrow opening carefully to protect his injured side. Teal'c stood next to the rock, guarding the way as Daniel disappeared from sight. Sam fired a few more rounds into the shadows, then followed.
The cave proved to be quite shallow, not connected up to the nearby warren of tunnels the creatures probably lived in. Sam moved out of the way as quickly as she could, intending to give Teal'c room to maneuver, and was baffled when he didn't immediately appear in the entryway.
"Teal'c?" she called, fearing for her friend's life.
"Keep them safe, Major Carter," he answered.
"Teal'c? You get your ass in here!" Jack yelled, indignant, as a rough scraping noise sounded outside the mouth of the small cavern.
Sam understood, belatedly, as the rock that had covered the opening settled back into place, blocking her view of the canyon. "Teal'c!" she screamed, beating on the back of the rock with one bare fist.
Her radio activated abruptly, and she started as Teal'c's deep voice sounded in her ear. "The Jaffa will look for those who caused the disruption," he said calmly. "O'Neill and Daniel Jackson are both wounded; there are too many of them for us to defeat as we are. I will lead them astray."
"Teal'c, you don't have to do this!" Daniel said desperately, activating his own radio. "The SGC knows where we're at, the rescue team will probably be here any time!"
Teal'c did not answer. Daniel drew in several harsh breaths, then backed into the cave wall, sliding down it until he was seated on the cool floor.
Jack sat down more carefully next to him, looking every bit his age in the flickering light of the flare. "Not after Shu's Jaffa blew up that last MALP," he said, quietly. "They won't come through until they're sure it's not suicide-- and since we were keeping radio silence at the time, they don't even know we're still alive."
"We can't just let him die out there!" Daniel objected, angry and near tears.
"T's tough. I'm sure he'll make it. How long can this eclipse last, anyway?" Jack said, in a transparent attempt to reassure the younger man.
Sam swallowed. "I hate to be the bearer of bad news-- but if this system is aligned the way I think it is, the night will last several more hours at the minimum. And if there's another gas giant on the other side, blocking the suns from the other direction..."
Jack dropped his head to his knees. "Really didn't want to hear that, Carter."
"Sorry, sir," she said, at a loss what to do next. She was beginning to shiver a little, partly due to the aftermath of the adrenaline rush but also from the rapidly dropping temperature in the cavern. She was abruptly grateful that they had worn the jackets with their desert camouflage BDU's, despite the earlier heat, and quickly moved to sit on the other side of Daniel to conserve warmth.
He'd taken his own jacket off much earlier in the day to tie around his waist, but with Sam's assistance he struggled carefully back into it. "How many more flares do we have?" he asked quietly, feeling in the pockets of his jacket and vest.
"I dunno. A couple," Jack said, glumly. "You and Carter should have one each, Teal'c's probably got one or two."
"And there was another in the bottom of my pack," Daniel mused. "Which, of course, you left out there--"
"Hey!" Jack objected. "I was in kind of a hurry, in case you hadn't noticed."
"I have mine," Sam spoke up, interrupting them. Much as their arguments usually amused her, now was not the time. "But I didn't pack any extra flares. I brought C4 instead."
"Which would be fine if we needed to blow ourselves up," Jack said, sourly. "Damn it."
They didn't have much in the way of emergency rations or first aid equipment, either; they hadn't really been expecting to stay on the planet very long, and now they were down Daniel's portion in addition to whatever Teal'c had been carrying. Was still carrying, Sam reminded herself. She wasn't going to assume Teal'c was dead until she had proof otherwise, no matter how poor the odds.
"We should probably do something about your leg, sir," she suggested. "Before this flare burns down." She did at least still have a standard emergency bandage in her vest, and it would be worth sacrificing a little of their remaining water rations to reduce the likelihood of infection.
He shifted a little, turning the injured calf toward the light, and grimaced. "Probably so," he said. "It doesn't look too bad, but it's still bleeding and it hurts like hell. I'd like to be able to run on it when we bust out of here."
She moved quickly to carry out her suggestion. The deep gouges where the claws had sunk into his leg really needed better medical care than she was able to give him-- stitches, for starters, and better pain medication than the aspirin Daniel had on him-- but she was at least able to wash the debris out and bind the wounds up tightly. He'd have a new set of scars, but no serious impairment. Provided they got off this planet alive.
The flare burned out just after she'd finished, casting the cave into darkness. The twin flashlights on Sam's and Jack's P-90's were the only relief in the oppressive blackness, and she knew even those would have to be turned off soon to conserve battery power. The idea made her stomach churn, but there was nothing else to be done save charge back out of the cavern and make Teal'c's sacrifice meaningless.
Better now than later. Sam switched the light off, then heard a faint click as the Colonel did likewise. A hand reached for hers; Daniel's, she was fairly sure, though she could no longer see to be certain. She grasped it thankfully, unnerved by the complete and total absence of light around her, and rested her head back against the wall of the cave.
When faint blue spots began appearing in front of her eyes a few minutes later, she thought at first that her eyes were beginning to make things up, starved for any kind of visual input. She blinked a few times, then sat up straighter, staring up at the ceiling of the cavern.
The hand wrapped around hers clutched tighter for a second. "Look," Daniel said, voice barely louder than a whisper. "Are those..."
"Bioluminscent slugs," she answered, as the light brightened further and the blobs of color took on form. Of course; light would be a better biological defense on this planet than the more usual spines or poison ever could be.
Somehow, in the dim bluish light given off by the tiny creatures, their situation didn't seem quite so bleak.
Act Six: Hope of Day
Time passed slowly as the three members of SG-1 stuck in the cave rested, sharing what little water and food they had left and waiting for another option to present itself. The glowing gastropods crawling across the ceiling provided enough light for them to make out each other's features, but they were all very aware that it was still pitch black outside. The hammering sounds of alien predators bashing their skulls against the rock blocking the cave mouth were proof enough that the eclipse was not yet over.
They hadn't heard from Teal'c since he had disappeared into the darkness. Sam suppressed the urge to try contacting him over the radio-- she had a feeling that he would have tried to transmit some sort of goodbye if he'd been caught, and if he hadn't, he could very well be hiding in a place where the slightest noise would betray his presence to the enemy. He was a master warrior; he would tell her to use her energy on more important concerns than worrying about him.
Even as she completed that thought, her radio came to life-- but to her surprise, it wasn't Teal'c on the other end. "Sam? Sam, can you hear me?"
The transmission was full of static, but she recognized the voice instantly. "Dad!" she exclaimed, keying her radio as she struggled to her feet. Her muscles were stiff and sore from over-exertion followed by too much sitting around, but she was too excited to care.
"Jacob?" the Colonel asked, disbelieving. "What are you doing here?"
"I knew you were still alive!" the Tok'ra answered, relief plain in his voice. "When the SGC contacted me and told me your team was missing, I looked up PM3-44G on the galactic map. You're practically next door to the Alpha Site, so I grabbed a tel'tac and flew on over. What's going on down there? I took out a squad of Jaffa by the Gate, but there's a lot of movement in the shadows and I'm still taking fire."
"There's some kind of deadly predator here that only comes out at night," Sam informed him, speaking quickly. "But night only falls here once every couple of decades. The Jaffa belong to a Goa'uld named Shu, who appears to be using the eclipse as a means of executing important prisoners. We were unable to take the Gate, and Daniel and the Colonel were injured, so we retreated to a cave for shelter. We're safe enough for the moment, but Teal'c's still out there; he was trying to lead the Jaffa away from us. Have you seen him?"
"No, no, I-- wait. I see a light; it looks like a flare--"
The radio fell silent. Sam exchanged glances with Jack, then began checking and reloading her P-90. Jack scrambled to his feet, leaning on the cave wall, then busied himself with the same chore. Daniel stood last, his brow creased with pain as he stretched bruised and strained muscles left too long untreated. He wasn't carrying a P-90 this trip, but he did have his handgun, which he quickly checked over. Sam handed him her flashlight, as his had been lost in the initial encounter with the alien predators, and he turned it on before bracing it against the gun. All of them seemed to be feeling the same urge to motion, their hopes for survival rekindled.
"Got him!" the radio announced suddenly, a triumphal note in Jacob's voice.
Sam closed her eyes briefly, immensely relieved.
"Thank you, Jacob," Jack said, emphatically. "Now-- I don't suppose you can fly that thing close enough to the canyon to pick us up from the bottom?"
"Sorry, Jack," Jacob answered, apologetically. "The rings won't reach down that far, not unless there's another set buried down there somewhere. You're going to have to come out of there first."
"I was afraid of that," Jack sighed. "Look-- just keep the Gate covered. How many Jaffa d'you think are still out there?"
"A dozen, at least," was the pessimistic answer.
"Damn. Just be ready to grab us the second we're clear, all right?"
"Will do, Jack." The transmission ended.
Without Teal'c's help, it was going to take all three of them to clear the cave mouth again. Sam took her flare out of her vest, holding it ready in her left hand, then braced her shoulder against the rock and waited for the others to join her. Once they were ready, Jack counted down from three and they all pushed as hard as they could.
The rock shifted slowly. As it moved, grinding loudly against the smaller rocks beneath it, Sam realized she hadn't heard the sounds of impatient aliens in several minutes at least; they might actually be able to pull this off without incurring any other serious injuries. The moment she could see clear to the outside, she lit the flare and tossed it out into the darkness.
She didn't hear any shrieking noises-- but she did hear several peculiar hissing sounds coming from the direction of the flare, as if droplets of water were striking a hot grill. The rock finished moving, and they emerged into the fitfully lit canyon to find it liberally splashed with blue blood and pieces of the creatures they'd been fleeing.
"They're killing each other!" Daniel said, aghast, gazing up into the air above them.
Sam swallowed hard, fighting nausea at the sight of disemboweled predators and severed limbs strewn willy-nilly across the canyon floor. She didn't want to look up; she already knew what she'd see, and she had a feeling the same process-- territorial fight or mating flight, most likely-- was responsible for most of the smaller bones they'd found earlier that day. Several more chunks of flesh fell into the space around them as they stood outside the cave mouth. "Let's get out of here," she said, plaintively.
Daniel took their last flare from his vest and tossed it toward the mouth of the canyon as hard as he could. Between its light and the one Sam had ignited, they'd be able to traverse most of the distance to the plain without stepping into deep shadow, while leaving their hands free for their weapons. He waited for Jack take point-- the Colonel couldn't quite run, but even with a leg wound he was moving faster than Daniel was currently able to-- and Sam took up the rear. If anything attacked them from behind, she'd be best able to take care of it.
They were halfway to the mouth of the canyon when both flares seemed to sputter, and chilled droplets of something began striking the top of Sam's head and sliding down her collar. Her sunburned skin stung under the onslaught, and one of her feet slipped as the dusty ground underfoot began turning to mud.
Daniel laughed, a bitter sound that held no mirth. "For who is Shu without Tefnut?" he said cryptically, and stumbled forward to slide his good arm under one of Jack's. Neither of them could afford to slip and go down at this stage of the game.
A trickle of cold liquid slid down Sam's cheek into the corner of her mouth, and she licked her lips automatically. Water. It was water-- if they'd been stuck here any longer, they might have been able to survive after all. Thank God they wouldn't have to, though.
It was just a little bit farther. Sam was almost convinced they were going to make it without complication, after all; but no sooner had she formed the thought, than a charge of blue lightning surged out of the darkness and nailed Jack. He went down like a sack of potatoes; Daniel only caught part of the charge, but he was unable to support Jack's weight in addition to his own and went down too, groaning in pain.
Sam fired at the source of the zat blast, furious at the interruption, and caught the Jaffa in the chest. He flung up his arms and fell forward into the light, and Sam caught the glint of a golden tattoo as he collapsed to the ground. It was Shu's First Prime. His master couldn't be far off.
"Teal'c!" she screamed into her radio. "Daniel and the Colonel are down! I need some help down here!"
"He's ringing down now," her Dad's voice answered, sounding concerned. "Are you okay, Sam?"
She didn't bother to answer. Of course she wasn't okay. She was tired, sunburnt, dripping with water, and the sole line of defense for her two wounded teammates in very hostile territory. How did he expect her to answer? She fired two more sustained bursts, targeting a pair of creatures swooping down on the little party, then sagged in relief as a brilliant column of light flashed down some distance away. Teal'c was coming.
He had to have some kind of portable Goa'uld lightsource with him; the guttering flares, which had been nearly extinguished by the rain, seemed dim in comparison. "Major Carter!" he called, staff leveled in front of him as he ran.
"We're here, Teal'c!" she answered, kneeling at Daniel's side to help the half-stunned archaeologist to his feet. There was no way she was going to be able to carry the Colonel, but if she could get Daniel moving, she had no doubt that Teal'c would be able to handle Jack.
A staff blast flew over her head; Sam flinched, then relaxed as she realized it was only Teal'c, defending them from a threat behind her. Then he was there, kneeling at her side, scooping Jack up and over his left shoulder. "We must hurry!" he said, urgently, staring intently into her eyes for a moment before turning and lurching back up the canyon.
Only then did she realize that he'd been wounded, too. A great rent crossed the back of his BDU jacket, and the T-shirt underneath was wet with blood. Whatever he'd been doing while they'd been holed up in the cavern, he'd been right in the thick of things.
She didn't bother to question his urgency. She was feeling pretty damned impatient to be off this rock herself. She finally got Daniel in an approximation of upright posture, and half-dragged, half-pushed him along as they stumbled the last little distance to safety.
Finally, finally, they were out from between the walls of the canyon and onto the rocky plain. Sam slipped and went to one knee, clutching heavily at Daniel to try and keep him from falling, too. Teal'c stepped close, carefully positioning Jack on his shoulder to keep all four members of the team in as tight a circle as possible.
"Dad!" she called into her radio. "Ring us up, we're clear!"
Jacob's tel'tac swung in overhead at her summons, gliding into a hover above the tight cluster of SG-1. A portal opened in the belly of the ship and the rings activated, slamming down around them. Sam had never been so glad to be caught in one of the Goa'uld transporters; one second, the team was bleeding into the mud of a hostile planet, and the next they were all safe, sprawled across the floor of the cargo vessel.
They weren't alone. A strange Jaffa, part of a chain still attached to one ankle, was laid out on a blanket against the wall nearest the cockpit. His eyes were closed, but his chest rose and fell; bandages were wrapped around one thigh, both arms, and a significant portion of his torso. Teal'c must have been in the middle of rescuing him when Jacob had arrived.
Speaking of-- where was her father? She got to her feet, helping Daniel move away from the rings. Teal'c lowered Jack to the ground along a section of wall opposite the wounded Jaffa, then went to the door separating the section they were in from the cockpit, anticipating her move. "All are aboard," he announced, clearly for Jacob's benefit.
"All right. I'll be over the Gate in thirty seconds," her Dad replied.
"Teal'c?" Sam asked, wrinkling her brow at him. "What's going on? Why aren't we getting out of here?"
"We must not allow this abomination to continue," her teammate announced, staring down at her with an impassive expression. "If we move quickly, we can disable the Stargate and prevent Shu from ever leaving this place or using it for such a purpose again."
Well. At least her choice of C4 over an extra flare was going to prove worthwhile in the end. "I'll do it, Teal'c," Sam told him. "I'm the only one not wounded." She helped Daniel settle himself against the wall next to Jack, then dropped her pack from her shoulders and dug in it to find the errant blocks of plastic explosive.
He stared at her for a moment, then shook his head. "We will go together," he said, then stepped back into the circle of the rings, refusing to take no for an answer.
She followed him, holding her breath. Seconds later, they were back down on the surface, just in front of the Gate. Her eyes had just begun to adjust to the illumination aboard the tel'tac; everything outside the reach of Teal'c's light seemed impenetrably black and threatening. Fear curdled in her gut again; she thrust it aside and stooped quickly at the base of the Gate, positioning the blocks of C4 so that it would be blown over backward and hopefully buried in loose rock. Even if it weren't fully closed, anyone trying to Gate in from the other side in the future would fall right back into the wormhole and disintegrate into their constituent atoms.
Only seconds had passed by the time the last block was placed and the timers set. Sam lurched back to her feet and joined Teal'c again, standing close up against him as he toggled the radio to let Jacob know they were done. She didn't even notice that she was blocking the glow from his lightsource, trapping it between them, until her lower left side suddenly seemed to erupt in pain.
Her heartbeat faltered; a deep chill swept over her as time seemed to slow to a crawl. Teal'c's eyes widened, and he reached out with both arms, one pulling her against him, the other raising his staff weapon to aim behind her.
The rings came down before he could fire. Something shrieked and crunched behind her; then the rings went up again, snatching them back aboard the tel'tac.
"Samantha!" a deep voice seemed to call; several other voices were calling her name, as well. Sam found herself unable to answer them as she fell back into the dark.
Sam opened her eyes to the rhythmic beep of medical machines. She blinked up at the ceiling for a moment, disoriented, then winced and turned her head away as a spear of light jabbed into one eye. "Janet?" she blurted, sure at least of the identity of her tormentor.
"You had us worried there for awhile," the SGC's chief medical officer answered, warmly. "How do you feel?"
Sam blinked away the spots from her vision and thought about that for a minute, taking stock of the current state of her nerve endings. "Like I spent too long at the beach, then got stabbed in the back," she said hoarsely. She was starting to remember what had happened on PM3-44G; it seemed like one long nightmare, far removed from the crisp, clean world of the SGC's infirmary.
"The others?" she asked, wrinkling her brow as she gazed up at Janet.
Janet smiled and gestured off to Sam's left. Sam turned her head to look and that direction, and immediately spotted her teammates: one after the other, they were lined up in beds just like hers. Teal'c and the Colonel were asleep, but Daniel was awake and busily typing away at his laptop. When he spotted her, he gave a little wave and a bright grin, then dived back into whatever he was doing.
"Under the circumstances," Janet said, "the General is postponing your post-mission briefing until the four of you have recovered. It'll be a few days for you, I'm afraid, but I had Dr. Lee bring your laptop down, and if you're a good girl I'll let you have it in the morning."
Sam would have objected, but she was still feeling rather drowsy. She gave Janet a wan smile, then closed her eyes and settled back into the pillow. Later, she would see whether Daniel had managed to hang on to his camera, whether she could get hold of the scans from the tel'tac's sensors on the makeup of PM3-44G's system, and what had happened to the Jaffa that Teal'c had saved. For now, the mission data and reports could wait.
Grateful for the infirmary's bright lighting, she allowed herself to drift back toward sleep. She had a feeling she'd be sleeping with a night light for a long while to come.
"Good night, Sam," Janet said, gently patting her arm.
She fell into dreams of shadows driven away by the sun.