“From every point of entry - a wormhole branches into multiple paths. The subdivision continues until at length you are deposited back into space/time. The journey can be random, or with purpose. Destination is the key. Every portal has a distinct space/time signature. The only destinations you can realize, by design, are those of which you have foreknowledge. The more you travel, the more signatures you will catalogue. Our Ancients have given you the ability to recognize these subtle differences. Since every destination is surrounded by similar unrealized realities, the closer you travel, the more you must maintain absolute engrossment. And never return to a familiar place prior to the last time you left. Your next journey may lead to a permanent unrealized reality.” – various, “Unrealized Reality” (Farscape)
Teal’c is in a vast desert, nothing but gently sloping sands as far as his eye can see in every direction. There is no Stargate, no sign of how he came to be here. The cannon he used to destroy Tanith’s ship is still in his hands. He grasps it tightly lest it disappear, as the Stargate must have.
At the sound of a faint clanking noise behind him, he whirls around. A man stands there who was not present a moment before. He looks roughly the same age as Bra’tac and is wearing Jaffa armor, but he is no Jaffa; he does not carry himself as a warrior does, even an old one, and he bears no weapons. His eyes are flat black, the opposite of a Goa’uld’s flashing gold. There are no footprints in the soft sand to indicate which direction he came from.
“Who are you?” Teal’c asks. His cannon is very visibly pointed at the man, who gives no outward sign that this distresses him at all.
“My name is unimportant.” The man pauses. “However, a being I once encountered from the planet to which you were traveling denominated me ‘Einstein.’”
Teal’c wonders who exactly from Earth Einstein has met and how the alien knows his intended destination. There are more pressing matters, though. “You are not a Jaffa,” he challenges, hoping that pointing out the obvious fallacy will not anger the man.
Fortunately, it does not. “I took this form to facilitate communication,” Einstein concedes easily.
He reminds Teal’c of the Asgard, somewhat. The same bluntness, the same sense of superiority. That, combined with the stated desire for communication rather than violence, is reassuring. Teal’c lowers his weapon. “Where am I?” he asks.
“You are within the wormhole network. This scenery is a construct I have devised so as to make you more comfortable.” For an instant, the world around them grows cold, icy, with black water swirling at Teal’c’s feet, but then the landscape settles into endless desert once more.
“Why am I here?” he asks.
“Your Stargate malfunctioned as a result of a massive burst of energy while you were in transit; hence, you were unable to rematerialize at your destination.”
His own fault, then. But he cannot bring himself to regret the extra moments spent on the planet, ensuring the utter annihilation of Tanith’s ship. And Einstein has only partially answered his question. “Then why am I not dead?” he demands.
“I was given permission to catch you before your consciousness was destroyed. It has been decided that, in order for your universe to progress as it ought, you must be present for several critical events in the future.” At Teal’c’s slight frown, he continues. “Fear not; our goals align. My people desire the downfall of the Goa’uld as much as yours do.”
This does not reassure Teal’c; he harbors little hope for the survival of the Jaffa rebellion in the event that a powerful species with the ability to manipulate wormholes changes its mind. “You are an Ancient, are you not?” Teal’c realizes.
“The Ancients are an offshoot of my race, yes. Although, unlike them, we do not have a policy of non-interference.” That still sounds ominous to Teal’c, but he does not want to object to his own salvation. “You are needed. For the sake of your universe, you cannot remain trapped here; yet it is impossible to navigate without extensive knowledge of wormholes. I will help you return.”
“Why have you not returned me already?” Teal’c wants to know.
“I am unfamiliar with your home,” Einstein explains. “You must understand, every wormhole has an infinite number of exits, each located in a specific place at a specific time. In order to reach a destination, the traveler must know exactly when and where they want to go, and they must be able to recognize the unique signature of that exit. I have never traveled to Earth; therefore, I am unable to determine the proper point of egress.”
“But I have traveled to Earth,” says Teal’c slowly. “I know its coordinates in space, although I lack a point of origin. Could I guide you to it?”
“Knowledge of location in space is insufficient. Exiting the wormhole at anything other than the proper time could prove disastrous,” Einstein warns. “You would need to familiarize yourself with the way signatures feel, and then extrapolate from that the correct one. But the closer you get to your destination, the more similar the signatures are.”
“But you could help me do this. Allow me to wander and catalog, and then pull me back.”
Einstein nods, but looks concerned. “You should know that I personally do not approve of this. Even such scant knowledge could be dangerous. To yourself, to your people, and to mine.”
“I will not allow others to be harmed by it.” Einstein can read in his eyes what goes unsaid, that he will protect it even at the cost of his own safety.
“The last time a being of your realm was given this knowledge, he came to thoroughly regret it.”
“I understand,” Teal’c replies gravely.
“Very well,” says Einstein. And that is all the warning Teal’c gets; the sand beneath his feet melts away and he is falling, spinning wildly out of control through twisting tunnels.
It would be easy to give in to panic, but Teal’c forces himself to remember decades of training with Master Bra’tac, of patiently teaching Daniel Jackson how to kel’no’reem. He closes his eyes and ignores the cosmic winds buffeting him about.
Teal’c can smell food. Steaming na’tokeem, just as Drey’auc used to make it, thick and savory with a hint of spice. He imagines himself walking home to the house Apophis gave him on Chulak, exhausted in the wake of a successful battle against Heru’ur’s forces. He feels the stony ground beneath his boots, the heavy weight of familiar armor digging into his side where one of the enemy Jaffa had gotten in a lucky blow, the pleasantly cooling breeze, and opens his eyes to Ry’ac, no more than a child, dashing to greet him.
He sweeps his son up and swings him in a circle, to Ry’ac’s delight, marveling at how easy it is.
“You won the battle, Father!” Ry’ac exclaims. “I never doubted you would.”
He remembers this day. The last perfect day with his wife and son, thinking nothing of the raid on Abydos scheduled for the following week. Suddenly, Teal’c wants nothing more than to see his wife. Ry’ac obliges, latching onto his father’s arm and dragging Teal’c down the dusty path to where Drey’auc waits just inside the house, ladle in one hand and smile on her face.
“Welcome home, Teal’c,” she greets him warmly. Her long hair has been pulled back into a loose braid, but it comes undone when she pulls him into a fierce embrace and then a passionate kiss, ignoring Ry’ac, who is making disgusted sounds at the sight.
“I love you,” he whispers in her ear, enjoying the way it makes her cling to him harder.
“Come and eat, my husband,” she urges at last, and he agrees, famished from the long walk. They settle around the table and he fixes the sight in his memory, Ry’ac chattering eagerly about his training and Drey’auc content with her home and family.
Something tugs at the back of his mind, and, between one blink and the next, he is back in the arid sand dunes. The cannon is gone as if it never existed. “Did you learn?” Einstein asks.
Teal’c takes a moment to compose himself, to carefully tuck away his memory of that precious day. “I did,” he answers.
“You traveled backwards in time.” Einstein sounds disapproving. “Such action is dangerous.”
Teal’c remembers Major Carter’s explanation of the grandfather paradox and a campfire with darting flames. “I did not change the past,” he says.
“Your mere presence in an incorrect time is enough to send out ripples, the effects of which you cannot fathom.” He pauses. “I have been observing the biologics of your universe for some time, but until now had only interacted with a single being. I had reason to believe he is not representative of most of your universe’s inhabitants, although it seems, perhaps, I may have been mistaken.”
Teal’c gets the feeling that he has been insulted. “I will be careful,” he promises. “However, I do not believe I have sufficient experience to prevent myself from entering the past again.”
“Search for a familiar place, rather than specific events,” Einstein suggests. And then Teal’c is gone again, speeding through smooth green tunnels.
He calls to mind the pictures Daniel Jackson has shown him of Earth. The pyramids of Egypt, so like Abydos, the ruins of a temple that would have towered on Cronus’ homeworld. But none of it calls to him, so he narrows his focus. The sizzling steaks at O’Malley’s, which they have not returned to since the incident with the armbands. The stiff breeze at the top of Cheyenne Mountain in autumn, the leaves a riot of colors. The serenity of his own quarters deep within the SGC, full of carefully arranged candles he bought with his teammates at a market in Colorado Springs.
As he gets closer, he feels the weight of a mountain above him, the damp coolness that comes from being deep underground. Yes, this is Stargate Command. But there is also a hint of incense, of naquadah, and he knows something is different.
“Kneel before Apophis, your god,” reverberating tones demand. Teal’c knows that voice but it is wrong, so wrong, the casual Minnesotan drawl overlaid with arrogant precision. Teal’c’s knees are kicked from behind and he falls at the feet of Colonel O’Neill. O’Neill reclines on a golden throne, wearing robes that are barely decent, his eyes heavily lined with kohl. Sitting in a smaller throne beside him is Major Carter, but her eyes shine with Amaunet’s arrogance. Daniel Jackson stands behind them, his mouth curled into Klorel’s sneer.
Teal’c cannot help the reflexive denial. “You are not my god,” he growls, earning himself a blow to the back of the head that sprawls him on the floor. He picks himself up, glaring, ignoring the blood trickling down his neck.
“Tell us the location of your rebel camp,” Apophis orders, his eyes flashing golden. He raises a hand, bringing his kara kesh to bear directly on the mark that denotes Teal’c as Apophis’ First Prime.
It is difficult to think through the pain the ribbon device is drilling into his forehead, but Teal’c must figure out why he has allowed himself to be captured by Goa’uld forces; if he truly was the leader of a rebellion and knew strategic information, then he would choose to die first, and he would ensure that he had a means to do so at all times. Unless...
The agonizing light releases him for a moment, and Teal’c takes a moment to breathe harshly through the pain. Apophis is talking, but his words don’t penetrate the ringing in Teal’c’s ears.
A tooth at the back of the right side of his mouth hurts. Teal’c hadn’t thought much of it before; given the bruises covering his body, he had assumed it was the result of a punch to the jaw. He probes it now with his tongue, careful not to let the movement show, and sure enough, one of the teeth feels different.
Teal’c has no other weapons, and does not believe he would ever be cowardly enough to fail to commit suicide if necessary. Therefore, the tooth must contain some means of destroying the Goa’uld. A bomb, perhaps, created by one of the SGC scientists who escaped the initial assault on the mountain.
While Apophis continues to rant, Teal’c meets the eyes of each of his teammates in turn. He knows better than to even hope for a flicker of familiarity; no matter how hard his friends may struggle, the host is never a match for the parasite.
“I am sorry,” he tells them, and bites down hard on the tooth.
And then he is back in the false desert, on his knees, the black-eyed man crouched over him looking thoughtful. His pain is rapidly fading away, although the adrenaline is not.
“What was that?” he gasps, shaken.
Einstein straightens. “The wormhole network connects all places and times. Even ones that do not come to pass.”
“You speak of alternate universes?” With effort, Teal’c stands.
Einstein nods. “There are infinite paths your life can take. Infinite realities. I am surprised you know of this.”
“I have encountered alternate realities before,” Teal’c tells him. He doesn’t like them. “I consider none but my own to be of consequence.”
Einstein shakes his head. “The universe is not stable. It is constantly in flux; the course it takes is informed by the decisions of every living being within it, by forces beyond even their control.”
“I do not understand.”
“Time is fluid. It can be shaped. Altered.” Einstein sketches a motion in the air, and Teal’c can almost see the threads of time bending around the alien’s hands. “If you travel to a destination and are not retrieved, that reality will become yours from then on.”
“So there is a chance that, through my actions, my reality may cease to exist.”
“Yes,” Einstein confirms, no hint of concern in his voice.
“Then should I not stay here? If my wanderings endanger my reality, would it not be better to die?”
Einstein smiles. “Fear is good. It will keep you vigilant. However, the role you play in shaping the course of history is vital. You must return.”
“Even at the risk of doing irreparable damage?”
“You shall not.”
“How do you know?”
“I have faith that, when you are ready to permanently enter a reality, you will select the right one.”
Teal’c feels he will need to travel a lot more in order to match Einstein’s level of optimism. “Then I am ready to try again,” he says. With a nod from Einstein, he is gone.
This time, instead of searching for a specific planet, Teal’c looks for his team. He sees a flash of an SG-1 patch and follows it. From behind, the man who wears it closely resembles Daniel Jackson, but the archaeologist has never worn a P-90 with such casual ease, and Teal’c has certainly never felt quite this mixture of amusement and annoyance towards Daniel. Intrigued, he gets closer until he finds himself blinking in the dappled sunlight of an alien coniferous forest.
“Yo, Teal’c, come on. Whatcha waitin’ for? We gotta get a move on if we want to make it to the village in time for Carter and Jackson’s shindig.”
A dark-haired woman in pigtails who has been walking just ahead of Teal’c turns to take his hand. “Wouldn’t want to miss that, would we, Muscles?” she says lightly and swings their arms together, skipping a little. “It’s all Daniel’s been talking about for weeks.”
Both she and the man who spoke before are wearing SGC uniforms, but he has no idea who they are. Except he does.
Teal’c smiles down at Vala Mal Doran. “I too am most excited to see this demonstration,” he tells her. “If Merlin’s device works the way that Colonel Carter and Daniel Jackson hope it does, we will have a powerful defense against the Ori.”
Vala leans closer and says confidentially, “I think Samantha’s just hoping that if the test is successful, she won’t have to work with Dr. McKay anymore.”
Teal’c smiles a little. “Indeed,” he agrees.
Ahead of them there is a blinding flash of light, followed seconds later by a massive shockwave. Colonel Mitchell dives behind a boulder as Teal’c falls to the ground on top of Vala, shielding her with his body.
“What the hell was that?” Mitchell asks once the shaking has stopped. He’s already on his feet, straining to see the village ahead unsuccessfully.
“It can’t have been the device,” Vala says. “They were waiting for us to turn it on.”
“Unless they felt they were in danger,” Teal’c points out, prompting them all to look upwards. There is a dark speck in the sky. An Ori ship.
“Right, okay, the woods could already be crawling with Ori soldiers,” says Mitchell. “First priority is to get back to the gate.”
“What about Samantha and Daniel?” protests Vala.
“Either the device worked and they are safely out of phase where we can’t get to them anyway, or they are already dead, along with everyone else in that village,” Mitchell says bluntly. “We need to get out of here before it’s too late.”
It still takes both Mitchell and Teal’c to get Vala moving towards the gate, so none of them are paying enough attention to their surroundings. Teal’c sees motion in the bushes just as the first shot streaks out, catching Mitchell in the shoulder. The colonel goes down with a cry, causing Vala to stumble as well. Teal’c reaches down to pull her away from Mitchell, to carry her to the gate if need be, but two blasts hit him simultaneously in the leg and the chest, and he topples to the ground instead. Before his vision goes dark, he sees both of his teammates lying beside him, blood trickling gently from Vala’s mouth.
Teal’c gasps his way back to life lying on the rough sand. There is a slight breeze now, lifting fine particles and propelling them at Teal’c’s face.
Einstein is watching him, looking thoughtful. “That was the future. One possibility anyway.” For a brief moment, Teal’c sees Mitchell on an iceberg in a black space suit facing a black-eyed man. Sees Vala alone in a cell praying to a god whose name he does not recognize; from the story she tells, though, Djancaz-bru’s actions sound like those of a Goa’uld.
“I knew his thoughts. The other Teal’c’s.”
“I am tiring,” Einstein admits. “It is harder for me to maintain the link necessary to retrieve you.”
His words make Teal’c uneasy. “Perhaps I should attempt to return home now,” he says, but Einstein rejects his offer.
“You are not yet ready,” he says, and pushes Teal’c headlong down a wormhole.
The ride is much wilder than before, and much faster. Sensations and emotions speed past far too quickly for Teal’c to catalogue, let alone investigate. With effort, he manages to maneuver himself into a side-tunnel chosen at random.
Ahead, there is only one exit. It reeks of unwashed prisoners and fear and death. There is dust mingling with blood in his mouth. Frantically he tries to turn himself around, but the inexorable current is dragging him in and he doesn’t know how to stop it.
He is wearing armor again, but this time he takes no pleasure in it. His staff weapon is warm in his grasp from being fired again and again at the defenseless prisoners in Apophis’ fortress. One of them had pleaded with him before the shooting began, insisting that he could save the prisoners with Teal’c’s help. Teal’c still is unsure why the man even tried.
Wait. No, he isn’t. O’Neill, the man’s name is O’Neill, and he has served under O’Neill’s command for more than four years now. Teal’c allows the adrenaline now coursing through him to clear his mind as he struggles to separate his memories from those of a Teal’c who never studied under Master Bra’tac. A Teal’c who is Apophis’ loyal servant.
The other Jaffa are waiting for him to tell them what to do next, but he hesitates, the realization of what this universe’s Teal’c has just done overwhelming him.
“Is there something wrong?” Ker’on asks quietly, standing at attention to Teal’c’s right.
Although Teal’c’s face is hidden beneath his serpent helmet, he still takes a moment to school it to immobility before turning to face his lieutenant. “There is nothing wrong,” he says, firmly controlling the cheek that wants to spasm. “Instruct the slaves to clean up these bodies,” he orders, command settling on him with a familiar if unwelcome weight. “Lord Apophis will want to leave now that he has selected a host for Klorel.”
Ker’on bows with his arm across his chest and does as his First Prime directs.
Teal’c picks his way through the pile of bodies on the floor and finds his team. O’Neill died protecting Major Carter and Daniel Jackson with his own body. Not that it did much good; they lie near him, Daniel Jackson’s glasses smashed to pieces when he hit the stone floor. There is no sign of Skaara.
O’Neill’s watch is now bloodspattered, but Teal’c bends down anyway and gently unfastens it from the limp wrist, tucking it into his belt. He whispers the prayer for a fallen brother, and tries not to think about the fact that he just killed his team in the name of a false god.
“Einstein,” Teal’c calls, still crouched over the bodies of his friends. “Take me back.”
“Teal’c?” On the other side of the room, Ker’on frowns. Teal’c can’t bring himself to care if the Jaffa is questioning his sanity. This universe is not real, and he wants to leave.
But the fortress stubbornly remains. “Einstein?” he calls again, and finally the desert returns. But this time the illusion feels paper-thin, insubstantial. He can see the undulations of the wormhole through the sand. Then it blinks out completely, and he is on the shores of a lake, fishing lazily.
Master Bra’tac kneels on the stony beach beside him. There are no mosquitoes on this planet, one of its few redeeming features, but he has a flash of memory of himself and Colonel O’Neill at the cabin in Minnesota. He almost misses it now.
Bra’tac is old now, losing his strength, losing his mind in a way that has just as much to do with regrets as it does his advanced years.
“Today is Ry’ac’s birthday,” Bra’tac says, breaking the silence.
“Yes.” Teal’c knows. This planet’s orbit is similar enough to Chulak’s to allow him to keep track of the days.
“He will be twenty years old today. Ready to complete his training and join the ranks of Apophis’ army.”
“Ry’ac was a strong, determined child. He will make an excellent warrior.” Ry’ac almost certainly will not be given a position in the army. Not as a kresh’ta, an outcast, with a shol’va for a father. If he still lives, he probably has not even found a mentor to teach him to fight.
“Do you ever think of how things could have gone differently?” Bra’tac asks. “If we had had the courage to rebel against the false gods, to lead our people to freedom?”
Teal’c draws his line in and casts it out again. “Many lives would be lost,” he answers. “Perhaps my wife’s or my son’s. Perhaps yours or mine.”
“Is this life, then?” Master Bra’tac waves a hand that encompasses the deserted planet, the hut Teal’c built for them, the tiny garden behind it that Master Bra’tac still tends lovingly even though the days are getting colder and hardly anything was able to grow in it anyway.
“This is our freedom,” Teal’c reminds his mentor, who laughs bitterly.
“Our exile, you mean.” His voice is dark.
“There are no false gods here ordering us to slaughter the armies of their enemies, to lay waste to planets.”
“No. But there is also no honor. And what is life without that?”
Teal’c replaces the bait on his hook and doesn’t answer. Maybe he’ll build a boat in the spring, he thinks, as the world dissolves around him.
Einstein is slumped on a dune some distance away, his head down. Teal’c shakes his own to clear it, reminding himself of who he is and what he fights for, then staggers over to the alien. Behind him, the sky is darkening and Teal’c can feel the breeze steadily becoming stronger.
Einstein has managed to push himself to his knees but no further by the time Teal’c reaches him. “My strength fades,” he breathes. His words are punctuated by a bolt of lightning, which strikes the ground only yards away from them and sends sand spraying in all directions to join the grains already dancing madly in the air.
“This is your last chance,” Einstein warns him. He has to shout to be heard over the howling winds. “I will not be able to retrieve you from the next reality you enter.”
Teal’c nods gravely. “I believe I have acquired sufficient data to be able to determine the correct portal,” he says, in an effort to convince both Einstein and himself. “Thank you for your assistance.”
“Go,” Einstein orders, and Teal’c does. He falls through the wormhole, searching for any sign of the familiar.
He smells Major Carter’s hair, hears Colonel O’Neill’s chuckle, feels Daniel Jackson’s hands stir the air minutely as he gestures wildly. He tastes the peach cobbler from the commissary (they’ve added too much cinnamon again). Lets himself experience the satisfaction of knowing that Shan’auc has been avenged. This is his time. This is his place. This is his reality.
Teal’c steps through the event horizon. He sees a smoking, sparking DHD wired to the gate, an unfamiliar man with Daniel, Siler unconscious, and thinks I have failed. A moment later, he can’t remember why.