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Sam’s breath hitched when she stumbled for what felt like the hundredth time. O’Neill’s grip on her arm tightened, preventing her from falling.
She lifted the hand fan to cover her face and looked at him with a muttered curse. “I don’t know how you’re supposed to walk around in this.”
Thank God the place wasn’t overly crowded. Most Aschen focused their attention on the exposition items and didn’t notice her inability to walk around properly in Aschen garments.
O’Neill patted her hand and leaned in. “Only a couple more stands, Carter. Stay strong.”
“That’s easy for you to say, sir. You’re not stuck in one of these ridiculously tight dresses. Sometimes I hate being a woman.” Why couldn’t Aschen females just wear the same clothes as their husbands? Instead, they had to squeeze their bodies into tight skirts that prevented any kind of rapid or abrupt movement.
“Disguising as an Aschen was the only way to get in here.” O’Neill guided her to the next stand. “And if it’s any consolation, you make for a hot Aschen woman.”
She cocked her head and gave him a glance of mock-annoyance. Great. Now he was making fun of her. He could barely hide his smirk.
“I have no idea how they walk around in this all day. What if they have to run?”
His eyes gleamed. “I don’t think they are supposed to, Carter. That’s the whole point.”
Sam tensed when he placed his warm palm on her waist as they approached the next stand. His touch burned through the material. A soft shudder danced down her spine, and she swallowed hard.
She gave a courteous nod at another Aschen woman—an eerie carbon copy of herself. Same garment, same rigid stance, same emotionless expression on her face. Her arm was hooked into that of her male companion, undoubtedly her husband.
Not once had she seen one of the women smile today. Or even exchange so much as a word with their husbands. She focused her attention on the exposition items and concentrated on putting the same dull expression on her face.
After a couple of minutes, she gave O’Neill’s arm a little squeeze—the sign that she was ready to move on. He’d been right, only two more stands.
She couldn’t wait to get back to the little guesthouse they’d rented. Operating in proximity to the Aschen made her tense, especially with their location.
Powhatan City. When she’d first seen the large crystal tower that marked the city center, homesickness had almost overwhelmed her. Images of her father, Minny and her home had flooded her mind.
Soon after, the fear of running into somebody she knew had taken over. She didn’t have many friends, but she had often accompanied her father to official Aschen events. What if she ran into Larek? Or one of his friends?
She and O’Neill formed the first team, McKay and Vala the second one. O’Neill had wanted her on this mission because of her knack for heists. She had a keen eye for security cameras and the duty rotations of the guards. McKay and Sam were to evaluate the technology and compile a list of devices to steal.
Getting into the fair had been a piece of cake. It was a mystery to Sam how O’Neill had managed to acquire original Aschen dress garments. They were almost impossible to get, at least for humans. Therefore nobody had even asked for identification when they’d tried to get in. Apparently, the idea that humans might successfully disguise themselves as Aschen was so preposterous, it didn’t even occur to the security personnel.
The next stand might as well have been light-years away. Sam sighed and used her fan to cool her face. If only she wasn’t reduced to moving slower than a snail in this dress.
“I wonder if there are any Aschen jokes.” O’Neill’s wry tone close to her ear snapped her out of her thoughts.
Sam hid a smile behind her fan. “I doubt it, sir. They are generally a very rigid, grim people. Although, I’ve seen them smile occasionally.”
“Do tell.” He raised his eyebrows. “They smile? That must have been some occasion.”
“Yeah, well, actually—“ She cut off as they passed by another Aschen couple. Larek had smiled sometimes when he’d been with her. He’d smiled at her jokes, and even made her laugh. Almost like a normal human male, although he’d been a lot more reserved.
It had all been a clever act. And really not something she could explain to anyone. Most people in the resistance wouldn’t understand how she could have had tender feelings for an Aschen man. Her heart ached a little. Maybe, somewhere deep inside she still held those same feelings for him, despite his betrayal.
“Actually?” O’Neill leaned in again when they were out of hearing distance.
“The Aschen guy I used to date smiled a lot. Though now I think, it was probably all fake.” She fixated the next stand with her eyes. Then a thought occurred to her and she leaned in to him. “Janet told me you were married years ago. How was your wife?”
He cleared his throat quietly. “She was okay. Kind. Even beautiful, I guess. Neither of us really wanted the marriage, though. We were too young for all that crap. I was only twenty-five when they paired us up. Long time ago.” He smirked at her.
Sam gave him a cheeky smile. “Come on sir, you’re not that old.”
He winced. “Not that old? Ouch, Carter.”
Her eyes widened. “That sounded so much better in my head.”
He squeezed her arm with a grin. Sam shifted her eyes back to the next stand.
“What happened after you found out about your test results?”
O’Neill shrugged. “The usual. Not even one week after I learned, I was taken to the Aschen medical center in Powhatan. After a lot of testing, they presented Sara to me. We didn’t share any ancestry. Apparently, our combined DNA was promising.” His face became serious. “Sara was a quiet woman. They assigned us a house and told us that I had one year to get her pregnant.”
“Oh my God.” Cold poured into Sam’s veins when she realized just how close she’d come to having the same experience. Just a few years back they’d loosened the restrictions. She would have had two years to become pregnant. A shudder went through her.
“They gave us a fixed schedule for everything: eating, drinking, sleeping, working. Sex.” His face darkened, and he grew quiet. Another couple passed by close enough to overhear their conversation.
When they were alone again, he went on. “I was too young to understand the extent of their control over us. So I just tried to comply with the schedule to the best I could. I tried to make things as—um—pleasant for Sara as possible. Still, it was hell for both of us. She’d been engaged to another guy. He wasn’t gifted, so the Aschen didn’t recognize the union.”
“That’s horrible.” Sam’s voice came out almost toneless.
“Yeah. In retrospect, I could have handled things better. Our marriage only lasted a few years. Our son died soon after his birth in a hovercraft accident. After that, Sara just disappeared.”
“Did she…?” Sam swallowed hard. It wasn’t rare for gifted women to kill themselves, but it was never talked about.
O’Neill shook his head. “Nobody ever found out for sure whether she ran away, or committed suicide. Eventually, the Aschen Ministry filed official divorce papers so they could pair me up with another woman. I made sure to disappear before that could happen.”
“You think she’s still alive?”
“I’d like to think that. She was a good person, and I hope she found the happiness she deserved.”
Sam sneaked a glance at him. He truly was a remarkable man. Gifted men were usually a lot less caring or considerate of their wives’s feelings.
His head turned and their gazes locked. “What?” His voice gentled.
“Nothing.” Sam gave him a weak smile. Careful there. He was also the man who’d lied to her and invented a fake marriage to dump her. Time to take off the rose-colored glasses.
They passed by a group of four Aschen men engaged in an intense discussion about one of the artifacts.
Sam shook her head and lifted the fan again to hide her anger. “The ‘gifted’ system is despicable. Nobody who hasn’t been victim of it understands how much they humiliate you and take away your liberties.”
O’Neill’s gaze rested on her for a pause. “It’s even worse for women. As a man, at least I was allowed to work. They assigned me a well-paid job in the Aschen Ministry, and awarded me with a number of benefits after my son Charlie was born. Sara got nothing. The pressure just increased after Charlie’s birth.”
“Women’s sole duty is to bear children. There’s no regard for what they want. They just have a fixed time schedule, are pumped up with hormones and vitamins, and ordered to have sex with their ‘husbands’, whether they want to or not.” She scoffed, then realized where she was and masked the sound with a little cough.
“That’s probably because a woman’s enjoyment isn’t a biological necessity for the whole process to work. Guys kinda gotta enjoy it to be able to, you know… So they give them incentives.” He cleared his throat.
Sam’s head jerked around to him. “It’s despicable.”
“Most men don’t care the least bit about their wives’s feelings. They’re after the reward they earn for every successful offspring they father. I hope someday somebody will treat the Aschen just like they treat us now.” She fisted her hand.
O’Neill patted her arm. “Easy, Carter. When we succeed in driving them off Earth, I’ll make sure to keep a few just so that you can kick them through the Stargate one by one.”
A giggle threatened to bubble up and she quickly lowered her head and bit her lower lip. They reached the next stand. Perfect timing.
Sam focused her attention on the technology. A larger crowd of Aschen surrounded them, all studying the pieces of technology with interest.
She swallowed. When she’d still lived in Powhatan, it had never bothered her to walk among Aschen. Now they made her uncomfortable.
“We’re almost through.” Jack’s rasp washed warm against her ear. “Vala and Rodney are coming towards us from the other side.”
Sam lifted her head to look at the people walking towards them. She smirked when McKay pulled impatiently at Vala’s arm. Hopefully she’d taken O’Neill’s lecture about not stealing anything to heart.
Sam’s eyes shifted to a group of people behind McKay and Vala. No, that couldn’t be!
She froze, and her pulse raced. “Damn it.” She spun so that her back faced the crowd.
Her abrupt movement immediately drew the attention of the Aschen man standing next to her. He raised his eyebrows at her. Crap, crap, crap.
She had to get out of the crowd without drawing attention to herself. Sam’s breathing quickened, and she tried to think.
Of all places, her father had to visit the Aschen fair. What were the chances? If he saw her…
She closed her eyes. A disaster that would endanger their entire operation. If he, an Aschen Ministry official, learned she was involved with the resistance… To him they couldn’t be more than outlaws and criminals.
Sam took a shaky breath. She loosened her arm from O’Neill and pushed through the crowd of Aschen towards the end of the stand. Once she reached it, she turned to walk behind it, where she’d be shielded from sight.
“Carter, what the hell are you doing?” O’Neill hissed. He caught up with her and pulled her close to keep up their cover.
Sam grabbed his arm and dragged him further behind the stand, then peeked around the corner.
“Carter.” O’Neill spun her to face him, his hands grabbing her shoulders. “For crying out loud.”
“Sorry, sir.” Sam turned her head again to observe the people going by. Had her father seen her already?
“What the hell’s the matter with you? You’re endangering the entire operation.”
One of the security guards in front of a nearby window turned to face them. His eyebrows rose. O’Neill straightened and released her shoulders.
Aschen couples rarely ever touched each other in public. Their behavior had to strike the guard as highly suspicious.
Without a word, O’Neill linked her arm in his and practically dragged her with him towards an emergency exit door at the other side of the room. Sam prayed inwardly she wouldn’t stumble now. Damn, how could she mess up like that?
He tried the handle, and the metal door squeaked open. He pushed Sam through, then closed the door behind him. When he turned, Sam held her breath at the dark look on his face.
“Are you out of your mind?”
“S-sorry, sir… I didn’t mean to… I was…” She swallowed.
“You got five seconds to explain what that was about.”
Oh boy. She’d really messed up. And he’d probably get even angrier if he learned… “I saw someone I know. Somebody who might recognize me.”
O’Neill muttered a few curses, then scraped his hand through his hair. “How’s that possible? You’re from the West coast. You said you’ve never been in Powhatan before. None of the Aschen here ever travel out of Powhatan.”
Sam closed her eyes with a wince. Was there any way to tell him the truth without admitting she’d lied to him ever since they’d first met?
Why the hell had she even lied when he’d asked if she’d been in Powhatan before? She could have just admitted to it. She should have considered the possibility her father would be here. After all, she herself had regularly accompanied him to science lectures and expositions. As an Aschen Ministry official, he was required to visit them.
“I was in Powhatan City before, sir.” She pressed her lips together.
“What?” His eyes blazed. “Carter, I asked you. I asked everyone. Call me nuts, but you said—”
“I know, sir.” She inhaled and averted her eyes. “I lied.”
He didn’t move an inch, but his stare turned into a glare, and his lips became a thin line. He was furious.
She shook her head. Maybe telling him so bluntly hadn’t been the best idea. “I’m really sorry. I didn’t think it was important.”
“You didn’t think it was important?” He visibly struggled to keep his voice down. “Carter, I asked you—”
“I know.” She wrapped her arms around herself. “It was stupid, I should have thought of the possibility—”
“Damn right, Carter, it was stupid. Never lie to me.” He grabbed her arm and dragged her down the stairs to the exit on the lower level.
No automatic lock mechanisms appeared to be in place. The heavy metal door opened without a sound. But there was no handle on the outside. O’Neill made sure it didn’t shut completely. Then he turned and grabbed her shoulders.
“What the hell were you thinking?”
“I…” Sam held her breath. His fingers dug almost painfully into her skin, and his jaw clenched as he held her gaze. She’d never seen him this furious. “I didn’t think.”
“You bet you didn’t think.” He released her and paced a few steps away before he turned back around.
Sam clenched her arms around herself again. She opened her mouth to say something, but he didn’t give her a chance.
“Doesn’t matter now. I’ll deal with you later. Vala and McKay need to get out as fast as possible, so I’m gonna get them. Did that person see you?”
She shook her head. “I don’t think so.” Her voice trembled. Damn, she hadn’t even considered her hasty retreat might cause one of the Aschen guests to trigger an alarm. If Rodney and Vala got caught in a security check…
“Who recognized you? Your ex-boyfriend?”
She held her breath and looked up at him. Oh God, if she told him the truth now, told him she was the daughter of a high-ranking collaborator… He’d throw her out of the resistance. Or worse, interrogate her as a potential spy. “No, just an acquaintance. I don’t think he saw me.”
“Alright.” O’Neill nodded, his voice calming. “You’ll go back to the guesthouse. Lose the clothing on your way. Don’t go anywhere until you hear from me or Colonel Caldwell from Resistance Cell 1. Is that understood?”
Sam nodded. “Yes, sir. I’m really sorry.”
His eyes flared up. “Oh, you will be sorry, Carter. I’m not done with you yet. Move!”
Sam looked after him when he entered the building again. Damn, had she lost her mind? She should have just told him the truth. At least about having been to Powhatan before. It wouldn’t have been that big of a deal since she’d traveled around a lot when she’d searched for the resistance.
She’d messed up, and potentially endangered her teammates as well. Oh yeah, she was going to get hell from him. And she couldn’t even blame him.
“Not only did you endanger the operation, you also endangered our lives with that little stunt. All our lives, not just your own. Carter, this is just the kind of reckless behavior I don’t need coming from people I trust.”
Sam shifted under O’Neill’s scrutiny as he stalked around her. She kept her eyes fixated on the wall.
“Damn it, what the hell is wrong with you?”
She swallowed before she dared to look at him. If only she could express how sorry she was. She hadn’t meant to give him the impression he couldn’t trust her.
“You’re confined to this house for the rest of the stay to avoid further run-ins with acquaintances. As soon as we’re back at camp you’ll be restricted to sanitary duty for a week.”
O’Neill froze and his stare pierced her. “Did I give you permission to speak, ensign?”
If only he’d let her explain. Then again, what would she say? She couldn’t tell him about her father—not without worsening the situation. He didn’t seem to trust her anymore as it was. If she told him the truth… No, out of the question.
She pressed her lips together and held his gaze.
He dropped his arms and shook his head. “Sam, because of your misconduct, I had to pull everybody out prematurely. I was scheduled to meet an important resistance contact at the fair, a meeting I missed and had to reschedule.” He sat down on a chair with a sigh. “Moment of truth. Have you ever been involved in any kind of dubious activity?”
“What? No, sir.”
“Then why did you lie? Why didn’t you just tell me you were here before, and we might run into somebody you know?”
She closed her eyes. “I thought you’d exclude me from the mission if you knew.” At least that wasn’t a lie.
“Oh for crying out loud. It’s my prerogative to exclude people from operations when their presence endangers the mission. You’re not here to satisfy your personal ambitions, Carter.”
“How the hell am I supposed to keep my people safe when someone on my own team lies to me?”
“Sir…” His head snapped up. Her throat tightened. “I didn’t mean to lie. Or endanger the mission. I just… I didn’t think it would…” Another wince.
He had to see the desperation on her face, because his expression gentled, and he released a breath. “I know we’ve had our problems in the past. But have I ever given you reason not to trust me when it comes to resistance matters?”
“No, sir.” She pressed her lips together. He’d never treated her with less than the utmost respect. Ever since she’d started her work as a full member, he’d never excluded her from missions. On the contrary. As the leader of SG-1, he held both her and Daniel to a high standard. She’d betrayed his trust.
If only there were a way to reveal the truth about who she was without revealing that she’d lied all this time.
“Sir, I promise, something like this will never happen again.”
“No, it won’t.” He frowned at her. “I have no use for people on my team if I can’t trust them to tell me the truth. I suggest you use the time on sanitary duty to think about your priorities.” He got up and walked towards the door without a backward glance.
“Sir.” Sam moved to follow him, but the heavy wooden door slammed shut in her face.
She touched it with her hands and leaned her forehead against it. She’d really messed up. What if he never trusted her again? He was a fair and capable leader, and he’d never given her a reason to mistrust him in the field. She had to make this right. Somehow.
Maybe he’d understand her situation if she told him the whole truth. Not now, but once he’d calmed down and she was done with sanitary duty. O’Neill probably wouldn’t be pleased if he learned she was the daughter of one of the human officials in the Aschen Ministry. Still…
He was gifted and he’d been in a forced marriage. Maybe he’d understand her situation and the reason for why she’d lied. Sam groaned. Everybody at camp believed she was a salesman’s daughter from a small town near the pacific coast.
She should never have told those lies. Back when she’d first met O’Neill she hadn’t been sure whether he could be trusted. Now she was so entangled in her web of lies she couldn’t unweave it again without sacrificing everything she fought for.
Jack looked around in the unfrequented barroom. Not really one of the busy days. He walked through the room and took seat on a barstool at the counter. Next to Jacob Carter.
“Beautiful evening outside, isn’t it?” Jack looked at the bartender, a young man who couldn’t be older than thirty years. “A beer, please.”
Jacob frowned at him and put his own glass down. “Where the hell were you, Jack?”
“We had to abort the mission.”
Jacob raised his eyebrows. “Problems?”
“Nothing I can’t handle. One of the rookies messed up.” Jack took a sip from the beer the bartender gave him. When Jacob raised his eyebrows, he shook his head. “We weren’t compromised, don’t worry.”
“Do you have the list?”
Jack placed a piece of paper under a napkin, and pushed it over. The older man picked it up and wiped his mouth. The paper vanished into his sleeve so covertly Jack wouldn’t have noticed if he hadn’t known.
“So, how’s your daughter?” Jack picked up his glass again. Casual conversation was the best way to cover up the purpose for their meeting. It also gave him the chance to talk about the marriage contract. He raised his eyebrows when Jacob frowned and then let out a deep sigh.
“There’ve been some unforeseen complications.”
Unforeseen complications? When would people finally learn he didn’t appreciate vague answers? “Care to elaborate?”
Jacob swallowed visibly. “She disappeared. The day after I told her about her test results and the arrangements.”
“For crying out loud, Jacob.” Jack put his beer down and stared at the older man. Unforeseen complications was the understatement of the century. “Did she… Is she still alive?”
“To be honest, I don’t know. She left me a letter saying she wanted to make her own decisions and build her life the way she chose. It didn’t sound like she was planning to kill herself.” Jacob shook his head. “But you know the world out there. The truth is, I have absolutely no idea where she is, or if she’s alright.”
Jack ran his palms over his face with a groan. The girl had run away. Because of their arranged marriage? Damn, he shouldn’t have agreed to the contract. “Why the hell didn’t you contact me?”
“Because I thought it’d be just a matter of time before she’d return home. I was worried you’d insist on having the contract annulled.”
Jack frowned at him. “It’s been nine months. God. The resistance could have performed a world-wide underground search.”
“If somebody wants to disappear, there’s no way anybody’ll find them.”
“We could’ve tried. I can’t believe you.”
Jacob sighed and looked at him. His dark eyes glistened. “At the moment, her bothers are contacting several people in the underground. I can’t initiate an open search there. The Aschen have spies everywhere. They’d find out I’m involved with the resistance.” He closed his eyes. “I just… I should have handled the situation differently. I should have listened to her. Maybe if I’d found another way…”
Jack sighed. “It’s not easy to deal with the knowledge of being gifted. I don’t think anybody could’ve made things easier on her. You tried your best. And I’m sure she’s fine. Why don’t you send me a photo and her information? I’ll check with some of my contacts, so they’ll keep an eye open. They might know people, who know people, who know people. We’ll find her.”
“Like you found Sara?”
True. Back when he’d looked for Sara everywhere, he hadn’t found a trace of her either. If a person didn’t wanna be found, chances of finding them were slim.
Jacob put his empty glass down and placed a few silver coins on the counter. “I have to leave, but I’ll come down to Antarctica in a few weeks. We’ll talk in detail about how to proceed then.”
Jack nodded. “Take care.”
He watched the older man leave, and then took a huge gulp of beer. Well, that was unexpected news. Jacob’s daughter had run away. Poor guy. He kinda understood the girl, though.
If she didn’t wanna be found, it would probably be more merciful to allow her a chance at happiness. At least this way, she’d get to choose the kind of life she wanted. If they tracked her down, she’d have to fulfill the marriage contract.
Hadn’t he done the same after Sara had disappeared? He’d broken ties with everyone he knew and just disappeared to join the resistance. Well, with everyone except Jacob, since the older man had been the one recruiting him into the organization.
Vanishing from the Aschen’s radar had allowed him to escape the system. If the girl was anything like her father, she was most likely well and safe somewhere on Earth, starting a new life.
He truly hoped she was.