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Sam’s eyes fluttered open. She blinked and stared at the dark green tent roof. Why was she in the medical tent? Last thing she remembered was working in the pyramid on the planet. Shooting O’Neill. Whoops.
She closed her eyes when a mild headache set in. They’d been attacked by Jaffa.
Her eyes snapped open. It hadn’t been just a dream. Throat sore, she had to swallow against the lump there. He was gone forever. She’d never be able to joke with him again. Or trade sandwiches. Or hear him talk about one of his brothers playing a prank on him.
Her breath hitched and she closed her eyes as the tent roof blurred. One of her best friends, dead. How was she supposed to deal with that?
They’d left him behind on that hostile alien planet. Guilt washed over her as questions stabbed at her brain. Could they have prevented his death? What if she and Daniel hadn’t insisted on spending another day on that planet to continue their research? She’d begged O’Neill the previous day to let her analyze the wall of the burial chamber further. If only she hadn’t.
I’m so sorry, Jason.
She drew a calming breath. Lifting her head, she tried to sit up against the dizziness. Her foot bumped against the side of the bed. Pain shot up her leg and she winced.
“Ouch.” A white bandage wrapped her ankle. Her eyebrows rose. “What happened to my foot?”
“Sprained your ankle.”
She jerked her head around. O’Neill lay on the field bed next to hers, his arm bandaged. Quickly, she wiped the back of her hand over her cheeks. The last thing she needed now was to give the impression she couldn’t handle a mission.
O’Neill held her gaze. If he noticed her tears, which she was sure he did, he had the decency not to comment on them.
“Hey.” He gave her a gentle smile.
She looked at her foot. “What happened? I don’t even remember walking back to camp.”
“You stumbled in here and pretty much fainted at the entrance.” Concern flashed across his features. “Gave us quite a scare there.”
“I fainted?” Sam stared at him and dropped back down against the soft pillow. Fainted. How embarrassing. She closed her eyes.
“Shocking, I know.” O’Neill’s wry tone made her turn her head.
“I fainted, like a little girl?”
He chuckled, a glint in his eyes. “Oh yeah.”
“And that’s when I sprained my ankle?”
“According to Janet your ankle was already sprained. You just didn’t feel the pain because of the shock.”
“Oh.” Warmth spread across her cheeks.
“Ah, don’t worry about it, Carter. You made it back to camp. Pretty impressive, all things considered. It was your first real field experience, and you did good. Don’t worry about the fainting. McKay once fainted because he hadn’t eaten for five hours on a mission. So I’d say you’re pretty hard-assed in comparison.” He smirked.
Had he really just compared her to… “McKay? Sir, he doesn’t even have field training.”
Another chuckle from him. Clearly, he was just teasing her. She sighed and stared at the roof. Their mission had turned into a disaster. Jason had been killed, but more importantly, she’d come very close to dying. If O’Neill hadn’t pushed her to the ground…
“Thank you for saving my life, sir.”
“Pshaw.” He waved off. “We’re a team. It’s what we do.”
“Right.” She looked at the bandage around his upper arm. “How’s the wound?”
“Ah, I’ve been through worse.” He shifted and looked at her nonchalantly. “It’s nothing. The doc says, it’ll only take a few days to heal.”
Oh, that was just so male. Lying in a hospital bed, but pretending he was completely fine. “Why are you in the medical tent then?” She gave him a cheeky smile.
He returned it with a mocking frown. “Because somebody shot me with an alien energy weapon. The doc wants to keep an eye on me for a coupla days to make sure it didn’t cause any permanent nerve damage.”
Blood drained from her face. Oh boy. She’d walked right into that. “Whoops. Again, sorry, sir.”
“You’ll be stuck here with me. Funny how things come back to bite you in the six, isn’t it?”
A soft laugh bubbled from her, and his lips tugged into a gentle smile. Then he turned to lie on his side, his gaze fixed on her face.
“Carter, I meant it. Your performance was impressive. If you hadn’t taken those last guards out, we might not have made it back alive.”
“Jason didn’t.” Her voice shook. There. She’d said it. She’d spoken his name aloud. Why did the reality of his death threaten to crush her? She blinked against the stinging in her eyes.
With everything that had happened, she really didn’t want to give O’Neill the impression she was a fragile little girl who couldn’t handle the reality of the field. Experienced as he was, he’d probably seen a lot worse, and lost countless friends.
I wish I could handle it as well as he does.
“Sam… There was nothing we could do to save Morris. Everything must have happened quickly, otherwise he would have warned us over the radio.” O’Neill’s voice was gentle but there was an underlying determination in it.
“We just left him there. On that planet.” She cut off and swallowed hard. “His family won’t get to bury him. His brothers. They…they won’t even know what happened to him.”
O’Neill remained silent, but the expression in his eyes changed. She turned to lie on her side, facing him, her palm wiping across her cheeks again.
“Sir, does it ever get easier?”
“What?” The tenderness in his gaze made her breath catch.
“Losing people under your command. Losing friends.” She studied his features, noticed the changes as pain flashed in his eyes.
“Never.” He shook his head. “But you handle it differently. You kinda learn to live with the possibility that, every time you step through that gate, you might end up losing a person you care about.”
Sam closed her eyes and released a shaky breath. “That’s worse than the thought of losing my own life.”
“It is. Focus on why we’re risking our lives and those of our friends out there. Doesn’t make it easier, but it helps.” He cleared his throat and she heard him shift. “Morris was a good guy. Someday, he’ll be remembered by the public as a hero.”
Sam looked at him. “Thank you, sir.”
Why did his presence make her feel so safe? Why did his words offer so much comfort? Maybe they did have at least one thing in common.
She had lost a friend. He’d lost a member of his team. They shared the same pain, the same hopes and dreams.
A weak smile crossed his face, his dark eyes still locked on hers, soft wrinkles showing around them. Her heart skipped a beat. Being here with him felt good. Less lonely. Safe, and very disconcerting at the same time.
“And how are we feeling?”
The spell broke. Sam turned her head. Janet beamed at them as she walked towards their beds.
“I see sleeping beauty is awake.”
Oh God. She cringed. There was a nickname that would stick.
Janet grinned. “How are you feeling, Sam?”
“Good, actually. Except that my ankle is sore.”
“Well, I’m not surprised, you sprained it pretty badly. It was amazing you were even able to walk in here standing upright.” The doctor picked up the file attached to the end of Sam’s bed and took the ballpoint pen fastened in the right chest pocket of her white coat. “It’ll take a while before you’ll be able to walk. I want you to take it easy for at least two weeks. No fighting or training.“ She sat down at the side of the bed and felt her pulse. “Any anxiety or panic?”
She swallowed, shaking her head. “Nothing I can’t handle.”
“You were in shock.” Janet looked down to make some notes in her file. “I gave you a mild sedative, so you should be able to sleep. I can give you more if necessary.”
Sam shook her head once more. “I’m fine.”
“Okay. Just take it easy the next few days.”
Janet got back up and threw a sidelong glance at O’Neill while she put Sam’s file back down.
“How’s the shoulder?”
Sam raised her eyebrows at the grumpy edge in his voice.
“Mmhmm.” Janet looked up at him. “You can complain all you want. You’ll stay here until at least tomorrow.”
“End of discussion, colonel. You may be commander of this camp, but in this tent I’m the one in charge.” She pulled out a little flashlight and checked his eyes for unusual reactions. “Any problems besides the arm? Nausea, headache, dizziness?”
She switched off the lamp. “Good. So far it looks like the weapon didn’t do any permanent damage.”
O’Neill took a breath as if to say something, but Janet lifted her hands. “You are staying.”
Sam lowered her head to hide a smile. Damn, he hadn’t joked when he’d told her the doctor could be strict. She pulled the blanket up over her body.
Janet attached O’Neill’s file back where it belonged. “I’ll allow McKay and Sheppard to report to you, as long as you don’t get up. They’re waiting outside.”
She left, and only a few moments later, Sheppard and McKay entered the tent.
“Hey, Carter.” Sheppard touched her blanket, a grin spreading across his face. “I hear you used the Colonel for target practice?”
O’Neill frowned at the younger soldier. Sam’s cheeks heated. Another thing that would stick forever. She really hated how fast news spread around here.
“I know you won’t believe me, but it really was an accident.”
“Hey, no need to justify yourself.” Sheppard sat down on the bed next to hers, his eyes sparkling. “I know, Jack can be infuriating at times. Shooting your superior officer, though, that really takes guts.”
“Either that, or stupidity.” McKay rolled his eyes and folded his arms. “Every real scientist knows better than to just activate alien technology before knowing what it does.”
“Don’t listen to him.” Sheppard’s voice became slightly hushed. “He almost blew up an entire solar system once, because he said, everything was under control.”
McKay glowered at Sheppard, “It was not an entire solar system, and I did have everything under control.”
“Rodney. You had four nuclear warheads stuck in prelaunch mode. How much more out of control do things actually have to get for you to admit that you don’t have everything under control?” Sheppard shook his head. “We were twenty seconds away from being toast. If I hadn’t stopped you—”
“Fine.” McKay’s face took on a slightly redder shade. “Maybe things got a little out of hand. The point is, I did get it under control. And I didn’t shoot you.”
Sheppard grinned at Sam. “Only because he didn’t dare to.”
O’Neill cleared his throat. “Okay, enough now, Sheppard. Didn’t you want to make a report?”
“Oh, right.” McKay walked over to stand in front of O’Neill’s bed. “I had a closer look at the lightning gun and…”
“The lightning gun?” Sheppard interrupted with a hint of disbelief in his voice. McKay turned his head to him, eyebrows raised.
“Yes. It’s a gun that shoots lightning. A lightning gun.”
“I thought we agreed on calling it a phazer.” Sheppard got up from the bed.
McKay gave a sarcastic chuckle. “No, that’s what you called it. Actually, lightning gun is a lot more precise for the mechanism with which…”
“Kids!” Jack frowned at them. “Can we get down to the point?”
Sam bit her lower lip to suppress a chuckle. Okay, so it wasn’t just her. He did have a dislike for wordy explanations and off-topic discussion in general.
“Well, as it turns out the weapon—” McKay shot a sidelong glance at Sheppard, “—is exactly what Sam believed it to be. It shoots a single, focused beam of electric energy at its target, causing a short circuit. In the human body, the results are extreme pain and paralysis. Interestingly, the effect seems to increase if you shoot it more often. I would advise not shooting more than once at a human being, unless you want to kill them. It works similarly on inanimate objects. We managed to open an electric lock mechanism with it.”
“Can we build more of them?” O’Neill sat up to lean his back against the wall behind him.
“In short? No.” McKay shook his head. “The technology is way too advanced for us to recreate. At least with the materials we have here. At this point we’re not even exactly sure how it works.”
“Okay, so recreating it is out of the question.” O’Neill looked at Sheppard. “We’ll advise all Stargate teams to watch for more of those lightning guns. Maybe one of our off-world trading partners has some for sale. Ask Maldoran about her black market contacts.”
Sheppard nodded. “Will do.”
Sam cleared her throat and sat up. “Sir, I was thinking. Given what happened on the last mission, why don’t we turn one of the planets we’ve already been to into an off-world base? Sort of like an emergency evacuation address. We wouldn’t have a problem with our Stargate window anymore if a mission went wrong.”
McKay let out an exasperated sigh. “Didn’t you receive all the old resistance reports?”
“Rodney.” Sheppard frowned at the scientist. “There are thousands of reports. Cut her some slack, will you?”
O’Neill locked his gaze with hers. “It’s been done before. More than once, actually. Back when the Stargate missions first started, one of the first efforts was to establish an off-world base. Initially, the plan was to move the entire core of the resistance to another planet.”
“What went wrong?”
Jack scraped his hand through his hair. “A coupla things. We had three off-world bases. All of them were destroyed by Jaffa warriors. I was stationed on the last one when it was destroyed.”
Sheppard cleared his throat. “He was lucky he survived. Only five out of thirty people stationed there did.”
Sam held her breath. He’d nearly died defending an off-world base and lost almost all of his teammates. Numbness spread through her. And she couldn’t even deal with the loss of Jason. How had he managed to go on after that?
She looked at O’Neill. His face gentled. “Long story short, the efforts to establish an off-world base cost twice as many lives as all the Stargate operations combined ever did. So we put the idea to rest. The price is too high.”
“We could at least determine one of the planets as a safety address.” She gave him a weak smile. “Just a place we could gate into if we got in trouble. No base or anything. From there we could safely gate back home, or wait until the next Stargate window.”
“That’s actually not a bad idea, Jack.” Sheppard scraped his hand across his five-o-clock shadow. “We could regularly scan for Goa’uld activity.”
O’Neill nodded. “We’ll have to talk about that in the next strategy meeting. It would at least lower the chances of losing teams off-world because they gotta wait for the Stargate window. But let’s move to another problem. We had to leave all of the equipment on P2X-543. Any chance we can replace it?”
Sheppard clasped his hands behind his back. “As it turns out, some of the devices will take a while to reacquire. Not to mention the notes and smaller equipment left behind. Unless you want to go back to P2X-543, we’ll probably have to go a while without it.”
“Great, just what we need, even less to work with.” McKay shook his head with another eye-roll. “Why don’t we just go back as soon as the Jaffa are gone? And by we, I mean you. Not that I wouldn’t. I mean, I would. But I’m not—you’re better qualified.”
O’Neill and Sheppard frowned at each other. Sam smirked. McKay always tried to get out of tasks he deemed unpleasant or dangerous.
“Rodney, I won’t authorize another mission to P2X-543. We already lost one man. I won’t risk losing anyone else. Besides, I doubt our stuff is still there,” O’Neill said.
Sheppard nodded. “Yeah, those bastards probably took it. Some of it was Aschen technology.”
O’Neill looked back to Sheppard. “Any way we can get around our usual middlemen to get our hands on the technology we lost?”
“Not unless you want to go to Powhatan City.” McKay sat down on the table against the wall, and pulled a chocolate bar out of his pocket.
“Why? What’s in Powhatan?” Sheppard raised his eyebrows, his eyes set on the snack. The paper crinkled as McKay unwrapped the bar.
“The festivities for the eight-hundred-second anniversary of the Aschen arrival on Earth. As always, they’re holding the annual Aschen science fair there next month.” McKay took a bite from the chocolate bar. “For an entire week all the new technology will be presented and on open display.”
O’Neill straightened. “And they’ll have all the things we need there?”
“Not just the things we need.” McKay’s face lit up. “Things we didn’t even know existed. It’s every scientist’s paradise.”
“Yes, I remember.” Sam sat up straight. Her father had taken her there once as a child. “They present all the newest inventions in one of the exhibition halls. But they only allow selected human officials in.”
Heads turned to her. She swallowed hard, and blood drained from her face when she realized that she’d told O’Neill she came from a small village near the Pacific Ocean.
Oh boy. She really had to concentrate. “Um. So I’ve heard.”
O’Neill’s eyes narrowed, and he kept his gaze locked on her for a little too long.
McKay swallowed another bite of his chocolate bar. “We could find many of the lost devices there. They don’t have weapons on display, but I’m sure you and John will come up with a few creative ways to acquire new weapons from somewhere else. As always.”
“You have to be kidding.” Sheppard turned to the scientist with folded arms. “Stealing the newest prototypes in the capital of the Aschen government? From the Aschen? We’ve never been this bold in our operations. I know we need the technology, but is it worth the risk?”
McKay rolled his eyes. “It’s a long way to Powhatan City, so I didn’t expect anybody to actually consider—”
“Powhatan it is.” O’Neill clasped his hands together. “Perfect place to be in the light of the approaching polar night.”
Sam stared at him, slack-jawed, and then saw Sheppard and McKay wore equally bewildered expression on their face.
O’Neill looked from one to the next. “What? It was your idea, people. Find a way to make it work. I’ll contact the Powhatan resistance cell to coordinate efforts with them. An on-world mission will be fun for a change.”
3 weeks later
Shivering, Sam turned up the flame of the Bunsen burner sitting on her desk. During the past few weeks, it had become darker outside, even during the day. Temperatures had dropped considerably.
Polar night. Only a couple more days before the sun would disappear completely for about three weeks. Not even the Aschen weather control systems could make up for the absence of sunlight so close to the Poles. Snow and cold winds would reclaim the land.
Another shiver. Sam lifted her hands to her mouth to warm them up. Vala hadn’t joked when she’d predicted things would become unpleasant. With the few remaining generators, they barely had enough energy to heat the tents.
Gate travel had been halted for the duration of polar night. Malfunctions in the electricity production made it too risky to send travelers through the gate. If their systems stopped working, returning teams would walk through the Powhatan City gate right into the arms of Aschen security.
Besides, everybody seemed to look forward to short vacations with their families. Sam sighed and turned the page in the book she was reading. If only she had somebody to return home to. During the past eight months, camp had become her home and the people living here her family.
There was no reason for her leave. Except maybe the cold.
An icy breeze made her shudder. She lifted her head.
O’Neill closed the tent flap and brushed the snowflakes from his shoulders and short hair, before he opened his fleece jacket.
“Still storming out?” She smiled.
He grimaced. “Yeah. It’s gonna calm down any time soon.”
Since she had never seen snow in her life, she had been enthused to experience it when she head there’d be snow at Antarctica during polar night. But in the light of the storm’s persistence and the cold, her enjoyment was rapidly decreasing.
Just that morning, she and McKay had to run out into the freezing cold to repair one of the generators. The failures would increase during the next weeks, at least if she was to believe McKay’s pessimistic predictions.
“Cozy.” O’Neill waved at her Bunsen burner with a smirk.
Sam chuckled and leaned her chin on her hand. “Efficient too. Heat and light from the same energy source. Plus it can’t be affected if the generator fails.”
“Ah. Good thinking.” He sat down on one of the boxes near the wall. “Do you have the outline for the Powhatan City mission ready?”
“Oh.” Sam turned and searched the papers on her desk. “Here you go, sir.”
Since she didn’t have any plans to go home anyway, she’d volunteered for the Powhatan mission. O’Neill seemed happy to have her along. She and McKay were responsible for choosing which pieces of technology they’d steal.
Their cell’s only task would be to gain entry to the science fair and compile a list of exposition numbers. Resistance Cell 1 would take care of the theft itself. Nobody knew how or when the theft would take place. Not even O’Neill appeared to have a clue.
It wasn’t their business. During the past months, she’d gotten used to just accepting these things. Cell operations were never disclosed to outsiders. Secrets were kept to protect them all.
Sam felt O’Neill’s gaze on her. Shifting, she looked up from her book. “Was there anything else you wanted, sir?”
“You’re really not going home?”
“You sure? This is not a place you’d wanna be during polar night. Besides, there’s really not much to do, and we don’t get much downtime. You could visit friends or family.”
“As I told you, sir, I don’t have family.” She held his gaze for a moment, then waved around her desk. “I want to use the time to work through the literature requirements at university. McKay compiled a list of research material for me to study. I want to try and catch up with the other scientists. There’s some interesting material.” She held up the book she was reading. “Like this. Did you know there’s a study about the impact of solar flares on existing or forming wormholes? The author speculates that the change in magnetic field might actually cause a shift in the space-time continuum which would open—“
“Carter.” Jack winced, and pressed his hand against his temple. “You’re already the smartest scientist as far as I’m concerned. So just give it a rest, will ya? Relax. Have some fun.”
She gave him a helpless smile. “This is fun for me, sir.”
His eyes gleamed. “Come on, you won’t even be able to go swimming anymore in the mornings. The lake will be frozen over for at least a month.”
She straightened. “How do you know about my daily swimming routine, sir?”
“I saw you.” He cleared his throat. “Every morning you go down to the lake to swim thirty laps.”
“Are you following me around?” She folded her arms and narrowed her eyes at him.
“What? No. God, no.” He lifted his hands. “I go to the lake every morning to fish for an hour or two. And you’re always there.”
“Fish?” Okay, that was just lame. If he lied to her he could at least try better than that. “Sir, there are no fish in that lake.”
“Carter, fishing is not about actually catching fish. It’s about the fishing experience.” He stared at her as though she’d just committed the greatest sacrilege. Okay, maybe he wasn’t lying. “It’s very relaxing. You should try it sometime.”
“Maybe I will.” She grinned cheekily. “One of these days.”
“I could teach you.”
“Teach me to relax?” Oh, wouldn’t he like that. Her cheeks warmed. Bad train of thoughts. Very bad. She looked back down to her book.
“Yeah, and fishing.” He rolled up the file she’d given him. “Gotta admit, I look forward to that cute little tank-top number you pull at the lake every morning.”
Sam’s breath caught. “Sir.” She turned to face him. He’d actually seen her that close? Maybe just wearing one of the standard black tank tops and matching panties as swimming gear wasn’t such a good idea after all.
His eyes sparkled. “Don’t worry, I didn’t tell anyone.”
This was dangerous territory. His gaze was too intense. Images of bar night at O’Malley’s flooded her mind and she pushed them back as heat raced through her. It hadn’t ended well then, and it had taken a while until she’d been over it. Best not to indulge in unrealistic fantasies now.
O’Neill cleared his throat again. “Just wanted to tell you that I’m going to leave with the last group later tonight. I have a little cabin up in the mountains of North America. I’ll spend a week there, fishing and…well, you know…enjoying the landscape.”
“With your wife?” Oh boy. She closed her eyes, blood draining from her face. Where the hell had that come from? She really shouldn’t use a snippy tone like that with her superior. “I’m sorry, Sir, I don’t know where that came from. That was out of line.”
He held her gaze in the soft light of the Bunsen burner. “It’s okay.”
“You were saying, about the landscape?”
O’Neill’s lips twitched. “It’s summer up there. It’ll be warm and sunny. There’s a pond right behind the cabin, and a lake close by with actual fish in it. You could even swim in it.” His gaze pierced her and Sam straightened.
What was he saying? Had he really just…? “Um… was that an invitation, sir?”
“Two people—friends if you wish—going on vacation together. There’s nothing wrong with that, is there?”
She raised her eyebrows. Why was he so awkward all of a sudden? Hell, why was she so awkward? He was right, there shouldn’t be anything wrong with that.
A week at a secluded cabin. With him. Her heart pounded. It’d be just them… With nothing to do. Oh, really bad idea. Where did the offer even come from? Just three months ago he’d turned her down with a lame excuse about some fantasy wife. Now he wanted to spend one week alone with her at his cabin?
Her smile shook. “No, sir, not at all. I’d really love to.” She looked down at her desk. Books and papers suddenly became an excellent lifesaver. “But I can’t. I have a lot of work here.”
“You could take some books with.” He gave her an endearing smile. “I might even let you confuse me with some of that technobabble. Within reason.”
A soft chuckle bubbled from her. “Sir, I really can’t.”
“Sam.” He drawled her name. Sam’s eyes widened at hearing him use her first name. She wouldn’t go down the same road with him again. Who knew what was on his mind? Maybe he was just in the mood for a quick adventure… and she was an easy choice.
Her face hardened. “I really need to concentrate on this stuff. I’ll stay here. You enjoy your vacation, sir.”
He nodded. “You sure?”
“Alright then.” He zipped up his jacket, and walked to the exit of the tent. “I’ll see you next week in Powhatan City.”
“Yes, sir.” She smiled, holding his gaze. “Have fun.”
“Yeah sure, ya betcha.”
Another breeze washed across her skin as he opened the tent to leave. Sighing, Sam leaned back over her book. Her concentration was gone.
Jack winced as he stepped out of the tent across the wet ground. The icy breeze provided just enough of a shock to make him wonder what was wrong with him. Inviting Carter to spend a week at his cabin with him? With only one bed?
Yeah, it was clear which part of him took over the thinking just now. Thank God she hadn’t accepted or he’d be in a lot of trouble.
He stuck his hands in his pockets and trudged through the wet grass downhill towards the personal tents. Snow hit his face. If it became colder, the ground would cool down enough for it to stay frozen.
With a sigh, he looked back at the science tent. Maybe he should have just told Carter the truth. Told her about his marriage. At this point, it was unlikely it would ever exist other than on paper. Jacob still hadn’t gotten back to him.
If he went back and talked to Carter now… After she heard the truth maybe she’d agree to go to his cabin with him and they could spend an entire week doing… things. Not necessarily fishing.
“Oh for crying out loud.” Since when had he become such an idiot? Maybe he just needed to get laid. By any woman. Definitely not Carter. Or a blonde. Oh who was he kidding…