Violent Themes. Angst. Whumping.
Big thanks to Channach for plot-editing this chapter and to Raven Clark for style-editing this chapter with me line by line.
A/N: Lots of you were looking for more interactions with the Aschen. Here you go.
Have a Happy Shipmas 2014! ;)
Sam inhaled the mild air. The scent of corn dust and grass filled her nostrils as she looked over the wide fields. The grain swayed gently in the wind.
“Home sweet home.” Jack smirked, shielding his eyes against the sunlight. A low buzz indicated the cloaked puddle jumper took off again. Sheppard would return later on to pick them up.
She cocked her head and smiled. “I really don’t miss it…after all that has happened. After all I know now.”
“Aw, come on Carter.” Jack looked around. “Wide open fields, wind gently rustling through the crops, birds chirping. What’s not to like?”
Sam pointed at the crystal buildings of Powhatan’s city center in the distance. “Aschen central right at your door.”
Hands buried in his pockets, he trudged along the grassy path leading through the fields.
Sam studied him. Blue jeans and a white t-shirt that contrasted his tan. For once, they looked like a normal human couple.
“Carter. You coming?” Jack turned, eyebrows raised.
Smiling, she hurried to catch up. He slid one arm around her waist when she reached him.
“How far is it?” He placed a kiss against her temple.
“Not far. Just through these fields and over that hill, then we’ll see the house.” She reached her hand out and brushed the tips of the crops. They tingled her palm. How often she’d done this during harvest season when she’d still live with her dad. Just aimlessly walking through the fields with one of her study books, feeling the wind tousle her long hair.
I wonder if my tree’s still there. She turned her head and stared out onto the vast field. There it was. That lonely oak tree on its isle of grass in the middle of the wheat field with its perfect branches waiting for her to climb up.
How innocent she’d been. So naïve and hopeful for the future. Back when her days hadn’t been more complicated than asking herself which field of study she wanted to concern herself with.
Sometimes she missed those days. Life’d been easier then. Less dangerous. Or maybe it was just those hopes and dreams from her youth she missed. Before she’d been disillusioned.
“Hey, you okay?” Jack gave her waist a little squeeze.
She smiled. “Yeah. I just realize now how much my life has changed.”
His dark eyes met hers. “Any regrets?”
She scrunched her brows, thoughtful. “No. I wouldn’t do anything different. I guess I miss how easy life was back then.”
“Before you learned you were gifted.”
He gave her a gentle smile, then drew her close. “I know.”
Yes, he did, didn’t he? He understood the disillusionment that had started when she’d learned she was gifted, because he’d gone through the same thing. She leaned her head against his shoulder.
The characteristic buzz of an Aschen harvester approached. Sam stopped and turned, watching as the huge ship flew across the field. It wasn’t harvesting, which meant it probably transported a load of grain back to the Stargate in Liberty Park, to send it to the Aschen home world.
When she’d been young, the sound of the harvesters had always been soothing. Now it made her heart pound with anger. Their crops. Planted by humans, grown by humans. They’re stealing our crops.
“Wow. It’s been forever since I’ve seen one of those so close.” Jack stared up, his hand shielding his eyes from the sun.
“Yeah. I’d almost forgotten how ever-present the Aschen and their technology are up here in the North.” Thank God, they never came by Antarctica. Down there it was almost as though the Aschen didn’t exist.
Jack must have heard the anger in her voice because he turned and smirked at her. “Easy, Carter. You’re not gonna hunt down the next best Aschen, are you?”
“What? No. Why?”
“You have that look.”
“The ‘I’m-gonna-beat-up-my-training-instructor’ look.” His expression turned wry.
Her anger evaporated and she burst out laughing. Of course he remembered that. She’d probably always be known as the soldier who dared to beat up an instructor during boot camp training. Smiling, she grazed her hand against his and then enlaced their fingers.
They started walking again as the harvester grew smaller in the distance.
“You ever been to the Aschen home world?” Jack raised his brows at her.
“No.” She shook her head. “Dad was there, though. He attended a conference as one of only a few representatives of the human race when I was still a teen. Back then I was so envious. I wanted to go with him and see what it’s like.” She looked up at him. “Have you ever been there?”
He chuckled. “No. I’ve heard it’s quite different from our planet. They have almost no farmland. Every single corner of their planet is populated.”
“Yeah. Dad brought back a book for me that had some pictures. That’s why they convert so many planets into farmland. Did you know their home world wouldn’t even be able to sustain life anymore if they hadn’t set up weather and air control systems everywhere?”
“They have no forest or grass areas. The carbon output is through the roof and there are no plants to produce enough oxygen.”
“All the more strange they display so many environmental concerns on Earth.” Jack scratched his hand through his hair. “Bit hypocritical.”
“I think we’re lucky Earth is a farming planet. The alternative would be a residential colony. If they’d converted Earth into one of those, humanity would’ve already ceased to exist, and Earth would probably look a lot like their home world.”
He stared at her. “How do you know all that?”
“Old resistance reports. Daniel wrote a cultural profile about the Aschen. He gathered all his info from the old reports and the intel we obtained off-world. You should read it, it’s fascinating. He’s been working on it for two years.”
He smirked. “I can barely contain my enthusiasm.”
Laughing, she nudged him. “Don’t worry. He’s probably gonna do a briefing on the info once he’s finished.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of.”
She laughed again. Then she looked at the horizon. “Did you tell my dad I’d come with today?”
“It was an option.” Jack nodded vaguely.
Sam looked at the path ahead again. Jack probably wouldn’t give her more information than that as it would involve contact-meeting procedures. He usually became this vague or curt when he couldn’t discuss matters with her. She got the message. Strange how fast they’d developed an intuitive way of communication.
She squeezed his hand. “We should do this more often.”
“What, have secret contact meetings?” His eyes sparkled.
“Go out together. You know, get away from camp.”
“We can do that. We could go out to town if you want.”
She beamed at him. “Have steak?”
“Definitely. I could take you dancing. If you’re into that.”
“Well…” She swallowed. “Actually I’ve never done that.”
He stared at her. “What did you do on dates before?”
“I didn’t have that many. Except with Larek. The Aschen aren’t really into dancing.”
“There’s a surprise.” Jack gave her a blank look. “Are you telling me you’ve never been out on a real date?”
Why did he have to make it sound like that? “Well. Except for our dates, I guess not.”
“Alright, I’ll take you out to O’Malley’s on dance night.”
“But I can’t dance.” She scrunched her brows and then laughed when Jack pulled her into his arms.
“It’s really simple. You just place your arms around my neck…” He drew her close and buried his face in her neck, pulling her groin against his. Heat shot through her. “…and then we sway.”
“That’s not real dancing.” She gave a breathless chuckle when his hands trailed along her hips.
“Oh, but I bet you after fifteen minutes of doing my kind of dancing, you’ll wanna rent one of those private rooms.” He nuzzled her neck. Sam wriggled free from him with a giggle.
“I will if you’ll go out on a date with me.” He gave her a smug smile.
“All right.” Her stomach fluttered at the thought. An actual date. With Jack. Now why did that feel so much more exciting than any date with Larek ever had? She pulled him close. “Once the new scientists arrive, I’ll take more time off.”
“Yeah, Sheppard and I already discussed this new trend you guys have of skipping sleep.”
“Ah. Carter.” Jack shook his head. “Felger fell asleep during a briefing a few days ago. McKay’s been on caffeine pills for two weeks and made permanent camp in one of the science tents. And Daniel has stacked the new tent I assigned him and Vala so full with books there’s not even space for a sleeping bag anymore.” He sighed. “I’m all for motivation, but lack of downtime can turn into a real danger in the field. Things have gotten a bit out of hand lately.”
Yeah, okay, maybe he was right. McKay didn’t sleep a lot anymore and annoyed everyone with his resulting grumpiness. Lately, Daniel always had his nose buried in a book. Felger had been so caught up in his research of the artifacts brought through the gate. And with the material she and Jack had brought back from the alternate universe…
She smirked when she remembered the general proceedings briefing where Felger had fallen asleep. His loud snoring had effectively interrupted McKay’s word flow. Rodney hadn’t been happy. Neither was Sheppard.
“And don’t even let me get started about you.” Jack turned his head to her.
Sam’s glanced at him. “I’m not on any kinds of pills.”
“No. But you also shorten sleep frequently.”
“Not because of work, though.” She gave him a cheeky smile.
He cleared his throat. “I admit, it’s at least partly my influence.”
“And I’m not complaining.”
He chuckled. “No, but it doesn’t go well with the workload at the moment. As soon as the new scientists arrive, I’ll order all of you to take a coupla days off and recharge.”
“Carter, you’re on my team. And I don’t wanna run into a dangerous situation off-world, covered by someone whose reaction time is lowered because she hasn’t had a decent sleep in a month.”
Damn, why did he have to have such valid arguments? “Yes, sir.”
As things were, she wouldn’t trust herself to react fast enough to shoot a Jaffa. SG-1’s next mission was scheduled a week from now. She’d have to make sure to get a decent night sleep before that.
“When will the scientists arrive?”
“Sometime this and next week. There’s one to join you tech guys, and an archeologist to support Daniel. And the resistance’s medical scientist is gonna join us at Cell 4. He and Fraiser designed the anti-gifted protein markers, and now they’re working on researching that Ancient gene.”
Wow. So three new scientists were going to join them. Even with just one more hand to help them sort out the artifacts, things would progress a lot faster.
In the distance, her dad’s house lay calm on a large court between fields. Fences lined the parcel. It looked just like she remembered it.
Then she tensed when a thought popped in her mind. “Did you tell my dad about our new situation?”
“Kinda.” Jack grimaced.
She narrowed her eyes. “What does that mean?”
He scratched his hand through his hair. “He knows we’ve come to an agreement. I think he assumes it’s more of a platonic nature, though.”
“Oh boy.” Sam closed her eyes. This was bound to be awkward. After all Jack and Dad were friends. “Please promise me not to, you know, discuss our relationship with him.”
“Carter.” Jack cringed. “Technically, Jacob’s my father-in-law now. You really think I wanna discuss details of our relationship with him?”
Sam smiled. “Well, last time you two met, there was this whole planning my life thing going on.”
Jack stopped and drew her close. “Yeah, that kinda went wrong. I promise it won’t happen again. I swear, the second Jacob says anything that sounds remotely like interfering, I’m outta there.”
Warmth spread through her as she studied his dark eyes. Thinking back, the situation had been messed up, and he’d gotten caught in the middle of it. He really wasn’t someone to control another person’s life. He’d never tried doing that with her since they started dating. Her gaze dropped to his lips and she leaned in.
Jack’s mouth tugged into a smirk. “You might wanna hold off on making out with me within sight of your dad’s living room window, though. Dead giveaway.”
“Oh, shut up.” She smacked his chest.
He caught her wrists and gave her a heated glance. “Wouldn’t that be ‘shut up, sir’?”
“In your dreams.”
He grinned, then pecked a kiss on the tip of her nose and released her.
Only ten meters separated them from the stairs leading up to the front door. Sam quickened her step, wanting to jump up the stairs, expecting to see Minny open it with that mixture of strictness and a smile, as she’d always done.
Jack’s hand closed around her wrist in a steel-like grip, forcing her to stop. She turned, brows raised, and saw him stare at a point next to the house. Two Aschen men in grey Justice Agency uniforms disappeared behind the house.
She held her breath. Aschen justice agents? Walking to the back of the house? What were they doing here?
“We have to leave. Now.” Jack’s hushed whisper next to her ear snapped her out of her bewilderment. She stared at him. Gone was the playful man she’d just bantered with a minute ago. Something had gone terribly wrong.
She turned and followed him as he dragged her with him towards the nearest field. Voices drifted over from somewhere behind them, too distant to make out the words. He quickened, and broke into a run. She followed suit.
He raced into the field. Ten meters, fifteen meters. Then suddenly he stopped and ducked down. Sam stifled a yelp when she almost stumbled over him. He wrapped one arm around her, steadying her against his chest. His breath came fast and hard in her ear.
“Jack, what’s going on?” The crops shielded the house from her view. Which probably meant people near the house couldn’t see them either.
“Aschen justice agents. Jacob’s been made. So will we, if we’re not careful.”
Sam went rigid. Dad has been made? “What?” She didn’t even try to mask the panic in her voice. “Made, how? Where is he?”
“Most likely arrested.” Jack squeezed her hand gently.
“But… You don’t know that. Maybe the justice agents are here because of a break-in. Or—” Yeah, right. Cause the Aschen justice department would take care of that. They usually sent local order officials in those cases.
“There’s too many of ‘em. There’s two behind the house, and I saw three more combing the fields. I didn’t see their hovercraft, either. This whole thing is typical for one of their raids. I’ve seen it before.”
Sam lifted her head to peek over the tops of the wheat. He was right. Three agents gathered in front of the house now, while two more walked out the front door. Pointed in their direction. “I think they saw us. Two of them were in the house.”
Jack muttered a curse and pulled her back down. “That’s what I was afraid of. Come on. We’re gonna have to crouch.”
He turned sideways, crouching through the field. Thank God, it was a windy day. The wind would shield their movements. The stems of wheat brushed harshly against her skin as she followed Jack. It hadn’t rained in a while, so the hard ground should conceal their footsteps.
Finally, Jack stopped. She halted, waiting for his lead. He lifted his head, looked in the direction of the house, and ducked back down with a curse.
“They’re combing this field now. We’re gonna have to keep going.”
“Jack.” Sam grabbed his arm. “There’s an old mill about two miles through the fields behind the house.”
“Alright. Sounds like a plan for now. We gotta cross the road somehow.”
“There’s a little canal at the end of this field. We could pass through under the bridge.”
“Perfect.” He gave her shoulder a little squeeze. “Come on.”
They crouched again. Sam flinched. Her legs burned from the unfamiliar movement. She started counting her steps, counting the meters, anything to keep her mind occupied. At last they reached the little stream. Clear water gurgled peacefully along the pebbly ground.
“Careful about footprints. Let’s get down there.” Jack pointed towards a few rocks leading down to the stream. Right. Their footprints wouldn’t be visible on the stone, but the same couldn’t be said for the muddy ground near the water.
The stream was only ankle-deep. Quietly, they moved through the water, then under a low bridge. No fast movements, otherwise the splashes of the water would give them away. They waded along the stream, past the bridge, and then another twenty meters until Jack finally signaled towards a little canal.
Designed to provide a drain for rainwater, it led right up into the cornfield. Perfect. They followed the canal, then took a right turn into the field. Hurrying through the huge corn plants proved more laborious than crouching through the crops had been. The plants were stronger, and it took a considerable amount of effort to bend them aside.
After a good fifteen minutes, Sam stopped. “You think we lost them?”
“No.” Jack stopped and wiped his palm across his forehead. “My guess is this entire region’s swarming with agents.”
“Oh God.” Sam paled. “Why are there so many agents around?”
Jack’s face darkened. “General procedure. They were waiting for us. They probably arrested Jacob and then waited.”
Sam’s eyes widened. “How would they know we wanted to visit?”
“My gut tells me we were set up. That means we’re probably dealing with search parties of thirty or more people combing the area.”
“Set up?” Her heart pounded loud in her ears. Set up. That meant somebody had ratted them out. Somebody at camp? The idea was so unthinkable it left her dizzy. If there was a spy among them, how could she trust anyone?
“Sam.” Jack touched her cheek. “Don’t worry about the details now. We’ll handle it. It’s not the first time. I just wish I hadn’t dragged you into this.”
“But what if somebody at camp—”
“Doubt it.” He drew her close. “If it was someone at our camp, the Aschen would know about our Stargate program and how much intel the resistance has actually gathered. My guess is, it was someone in the Powhatan cell. Someone working close with Jacob.”
Sam swallowed hard.
He squeezed her shoulder. “Let’s not overthink. Now we gotta focus on staying off the radar until we can contact Sheppard.”
She closed her eyes. “Are they gonna kill dad?” Oh god, did she want to hear the answer to that? Her stomach tightened.
She opened her eyes, seeking his gaze.
“He’s more valuable to them alive at the moment. They want information.”
That sounded logical. Jack wouldn’t lie to her, would he? “What about Minny?” Oh, God. If their housekeeper had been in the house when the raid started…
“If they got her, she’ll be interrogated. Nothing more. I doubt your father told her anything, so they’ll most likely let her go once they realize she doesn’t know anything.” He took her hand in his. “Come on. We gotta keep moving.”
Sam followed him. Working for Cell 4, she’d been sheltered from dangers that other resistance cells dealt with on a daily basis. Like being made. Or ending up in interrogation. She remembered her basic bootcamp training of how to deal with interrogations, but if they were caught…
The Aschen considered them terrorists. They wouldn’t be lenient in their questioning. She hadn’t been trained to withstand all their interrogation methods, and if she told them about the Stargate… Blood rushed in her ears. She posed a security risk if justice agents captured them.
“Sir.” He turned and his gaze met hers. “You have to make sure I can’t tell them anything if they capture us.” She swallowed hard, hoping he understood the implications of her words. “I’ve never been trained to withstand enhanced interrogation, and if I tell them about the Stargate—”
Jack raised his eyebrows. “That’s a bit drastic, don’t ya think?”
“But I don’t know how I’ll react under torture, and if I tell them anything about our operations—”
“Carter.” Jack grabbed her shoulders. “I said don’t overthink. Let’s take this step by step.” His features softened. “We’ll get outta this.”
He pulled her against him, took her lips in a kiss that lasted only a short moment. Then he grabbed her hand and turned. “Come on.”
She wasn’t sure how much time passed as they fought their way through the crops. Might have been minutes, or hours. Finally, the narrow path between the plants got wider and walking became easier.
Hopefully, they’d reach the old mill soon. It had been abandoned for decades and was nothing more than a ruin now. Thanks to many legends surrounding it, nobody ever went there anymore. It’d offer many excellent hiding spots.
Jack came to a dead stop in front of her, and Sam’s breath hitched when she almost ran into him. She grabbed his shoulders and steadied herself.
Right in front of them, not five meters away on the narrow grassy path that separated the cornfield from another one right next to it, an Aschen justice agent paced. He had his back to them, speaking into a radio in his palm.
Jack placed his index finger to his lips, signaling for her to get down.
The Aschen agent seemed oblivious to their presence. “No sign of them yet in this area, sir. They might have gone the other way.”
The radio crackled with static. Jack used the sound as cover up and slid past some larger crop flowers out of the field.
A croaky voice answered over the radio. “Understood. Keep your eyes open.”
Jack sneaked up on the man without making a sound. Sam held her breath. Was he gonna…
Bones cracked as he grabbed the man from behind and turned his head in a swift move.
She closed her eyes. Nausea turned her stomach. He let the lifeless body sink to the ground. How could he kill so easily?
He looked around, then nodded to her. Legs shaking, Sam slid out between the stems of corn plants and approached the dead man on the ground. Jack lowered next to him and searched his pockets. He studied the man’s weapon, then held it up towards her.
“You ever seen one of these?”
Swallowing hard, she forced herself to focus. Silver steel, almost formed like a zat’nik’tel. “No, they must be new.”
Her gaze dropped to the man on the ground. His eyes stared wide and lifeless up into the blue sky. Sympathy? He was an Aschen. More than that, a justice agent. He wouldn’t have hesitated to arrest them for a second. She shouldn’t feel sympathy.
Jack picked up the guard’s radio, then threw it off into the field. Right. Those radios had built-in motion sensors. Better not to be too close to one for a long time.
A movement in the field caught her eye. She squinted. The tip of a gun blinked in the sunlight. Aiming at Jack. From behind. Oh God. There was no way he was gonna see that.
Heart hammering, she pounced forward.
Jack froze, startled by Carter’s outcry. He turned, and her body slammed into his, pushing him to the ground. The air left his lungs. Then he felt her jerk against him, and she gave a pained moan.
He turned them so she was lying in the grass and jumped up. Then he pounced on the man hiding in the shadows of the corn crops. One blow and the man dropped down to the ground, undoubtedly surprised by the quick attack.
The man struggled for a moment. Jack pushed his knee against the man’s spine, then grabbed his head with both hands.
Even after all these years, he still loathed the sound a breaking spine made, hated the feeling when a body slumped against him, became heavier. He’d been trained to kill with his bare hands, and yet it seemed almost too easy.
It was the only way. They couldn’t leave behind witnesses. He spun and raced back to Carter lying motionless on the ground. He lifted her upper body. Heavy, lifeless. Except her eyes darted to him. Thank God, she was alive.
“Sam.” He slapped her cheek gently. “Look at me. Can you hear me?”
“Yeah.” She closed her eyes, grimacing. “A discharge hit my arm. I can’t feel the rest of my body.”
“Seems to be some kind of paralyzing effect.” He took the weapon he’d taken from the Aschen justice agent and fastened it at the hem of his pants. Then he lifted Sam up in his arms.
She yelped. “Jack, no. That hurts. Give me a moment—”
“Sorry, we don’t have a moment. Hang in there.” He pressed her against him and hurried off into the next cornfield. After he’d just killed two Aschen justice agents, he really didn’t wanna stick around.
Sam gritted her teeth. God, he wished he could give her a moment to rest. At last, she started moving in his arms, and her grip on his shoulder tightened. Apparently, the paralysis had worn off.
He stopped and set her down on the ground. She shook against him, and he steadied her. “Okay?”
She nodded. “Yeah, I think so.”
That didn’t sound convincing at all. Jack placed a kiss against her forehead. “Thanks. That discharge would’ve hit me.”
“Yeah.” She tried to smile through her pain.
“You shouldn’t have thrown yourself in the way. Though I appreciate the thought.” He gave her a smirk, trying to lighten the mood.
She glanced up at him, smile broadening. “Don’t flatter yourself. I tried to push you out of the way. I didn’t actually intend to get shot.” Yep, definitely the Carter he knew.
He chuckled. “Well, seems like you miscalculated your momentum there.”
“I didn’t exactly have much time to do the math.” She leaned against him and inhaled deeply. “Okay, it’s getting better. Those weapons seem to function similarly to zat guns. At least they hurt about the same. The effects are a bit different.”
“You good to walk?”
She nodded. One arm around her, he kept steadying her as they continued their way through the field, a lot slower now. Thank God she was doing better. For a moment he’d thought…
His stomach clenched and his grip on her tightened. Not the right moment to dwell on what-ifs.
They’d almost reached the end of the field when Sam stopped, her body shaking against him. “I’m not feeling so good, sir.”
Yeah, understatement of the year. Her legs gave way under her and color drained from her face. He pressed her against him, then let her sink to the ground. Her body started convulsing violently, her fingers clutching his arm.
“Crap.” Jack watched her helplessly. Wetness streaked her cheeks and she screamed through gritted teeth. His stomach clenched. She needed a hospital. That damn gun had probably caused more harm than they thought. There was no way he’d get her out and to a doctor anytime soon, though.
Her convulsions grew weaker, then she lay trembling next to him. Jack brushed her hair away from her sweaty forehead. Her breathing returned to normal.
She stirred, tried to sit up.
“Whoa… Easy there.” He steadied her, not caring for the Aschen on their tails at the moment.
“I’m fine. It’s better now.”
The hell she was. He heard her stifle a sob, her fingers clutching his shirt. There was no alternative to continuing on. The faster they got out of here, the sooner he’d get her to a doctor.
Not ten minutes later, she went into another attack, worse than before. She recovered quickly, but the attacks kept coming, each one leaving her weaker.
By the time they finally reached the old mill, the seizures left her close to unconsciousness. Jack dragged her inside the old building, just as another attack hit her. He covered her mouth to muffle her cries, his other arm holding her steady against his waist. Blood rushed in his ears. He was gonna lose her, wasn’t he? She needed to go to a hospital, but there wasn’t one close by where she’d be safe.
They could surrender to the Aschen in the hopes that they’d help her—but that was out of the question. He couldn’t endanger their operations. Not even if it meant losing her. He pressed his lips against her temple and closed his eyes.
She calmed, and her body slumped against him. Jack pulled her to an old dusty staircase near the wall and let her sink down onto it. She stared up at him, her blue eyes filled with the same panic that made his stomach turn.
“What did they do to me?”
“I don’t know.” He brushed his thumb over the wet trail on her cheek. “Hang in there, okay? We’ll get you back to Janet. She’s gonna fix you.”
“Nice try.” She grimaced and sat up. “Even with the jumper, it’ll take at least two hours to get back to Antarctica. My seizures started out every ten minutes. Now they are down to every six minutes, and they’re getting worse. So following the math—”
“Carter.” Jack glared at her. Yes, she was right. He’d done the math. But dwelling on it wouldn’t get them anywhere. She needed to stay positive, especially when he didn’t have any plan on how to get them out of this mess yet.
Her miserable tone made him regret his snippiness immediately. He pressed a gentle kiss against her forehead.
Distant voices drifted from outside. Both of them froze.
“Stay here.” Jack sneaked back to the door. Four Aschen justice agents approached the mill through a wheat field. Damn, just what they needed.
He closed the heavy wooden door, then hurried back to the stairs and pulled Sam up, her body still shaking. “Come on. We need to get upstairs.”
They crawled up the stairs to avoid making any sound on the old wood. Weight distribution. He just hoped the old planks wouldn’t give way under them
When they had reached the upper floor, he looked around.
Not much room to hide. The old mill wheel with its rusty hinges in the middle of the room took up most of the space. A few old barrels stood here and there. If the Aschen agents actually decided to search the mill…
They’d effectively maneuvered themselves into a trap.
“Swell.” With a soft groan, he run his hand through his hair.
Sam turned and looked at him, her back against the wooden wall. “What now?”
“We’re just gonna have to hope that they won’t look for us here.” Yeah, right. What were the chances of that? He crept along the side of the room and studied the wheel mechanics. They looked solid, but there was no hiding space anywhere within the mechanism. “Carter, is there some other room connected to this building? Something like a barn or a shack behind the mill?”
“No.” She shook her head.
“Not that I know of.” She looked miserable. “I’m sorry. This was a bad idea.”
“Don’t sweat it. It was worth a try.” Jack placed his arm around her to pull her close against him. Her body shook, undoubtedly from exhaustion. “Maybe you should—”
Below, the heavy wooden door creaked and the deep voices of the Aschen justice agents drifted upstairs.
Jack placed his finger to his lips. A soft creak in the corner made them both spin. Daylight leaked through a few cracks in the wall. Two boxes stood near the corner. Other than that, nothing.
“Did you hear that?” Jack whispered.
“Yes.” She nodded.
Okay, good, so he hadn’t imagined it. “What the hell was that?”
“Maybe it was the ghost.” She turned her head, her eyes sparkling. Well, at least she hadn’t lost her sense of humor.
Sam smirked. “There’s been this story around here about a ghost haunting this mill. It’s an old folktale, nothing more.”
Downstairs, some scuffling drifted up.
“You should sit down.” Jack pulled her closer into the darkened corner. If she went into another attack while the Aschen were still down there…
“I’m fine.” She trembled against him.
“The hell you are.”
A loud creak sounded from downstairs, and the voices of the Aschen agents grew louder.
“I don’t think they would hide in such an obvious place.”
“Governor Molum wants us to search everywhere, so I won’t ask questions.”
“Shhh.” Jack placed his hand over Sam’s mouth as she started into a violent convulsion against him. Shit. Shit. Shit.
He closed his eyes, pressed his forehead against hers. If only he could get her to a doctor. She whimpered into his palm, her nails digging into his arm. He leaned back against the wall. Waiting… Waiting an eternity. At last, she calmed in his grip and her body slumped against him, chest heaving. He dropped his hand from her mouth.
“I can’t take this anymore.” She panted.
“Easy. Just hang in there.” He tightened his grip around her.
Voices drifted upstairs again, and they froze. “There’s nobody here. Warren, you check upstairs.” Somebody moved around, then footsteps creaked on the stairs.
“These stairs don’t look very sturdy.”
“Just be careful.”
Sam pressed herself into his body. Jack didn’t dare breathe. Only a few more moments and the Aschen agent would inevitably find them.
Sam held her breath. Even in the dark corner, the Aschen agent couldn’t overlook them.
Another step up the stairs. How many stairs had it been? Fifteen? Twenty? It didn’t really matter. The outcome would be the same.
Behind her, Jack didn’t move or breathe. If only the tingling in her arms and legs stopped. She tried to slow her breathing, but the prospect of being arrested as a terrorist didn’t help to accomplish that.
Once the Aschen arrested them, they’d probably be taken to a secret facility somewhere. Even though publicly the Aschen prided themselves on their justice system, it was hardly justice they served. Arrests happened too fast for a thorough investigation to have taken place. Suspects usually disappeared and were never heard from again.
If they were arrested, chances were slim anybody would ever know where they’d been taken. She closed her eyes.
A hand grabbed hers. Smaller, cold. Sam jerked her head down. The pale, dirty face of a young woman stared up at her.
The ghost of the mill! She stifled an outcry at the last second. Ridiculous. Ghosts didn’t exist. Was she hallucinating? Maybe the seizures had caused brain damage.
The woman’s eyes widened and she pulled at Sam’s hand insistently. No, she wasn’t a ghost, nor a hallucination. She’d crawled out of a small hatch set into the wall, hidden in the shadows of the barrels. Fingers at her lips, the young woman waved for them to follow her.
Sam grabbed Jack’s arm and then lowered herself to her knees to crouch into the hatch behind the woman. Another room lay hidden behind the wall. Wooden beams steadied the roof, making it impossible to stand upright. Probably a tunnel to access the sails of the mill for maintenance. The stony ground was covered in dust and dirt.
Behind her, Jack crawled inside without a sound. Then the young woman closed the hatch quietly.
Neither of them moved. The heavy steps of the justice agent thumped across the other room. Sam didn’t dare breathe. It was unlikely he’d hear them breathe through the wall, but still… Better safe than sorry.
Finally, the voice of the agent rumbled through the silence. “There’s nobody up here.” His steps grew quieter, then the stairs creaked as he stomped back down to main floor.
Oh, thank God. Sam released a shaky breath and leaned against the wall. The trembling in her hands increased.
Damn. Not now. She closed her eyes. The shaking spread to her arms and legs. She’d go into another seizure. Just a few more minutes until the agents are gone.
A warm hand touched her shoulder. Her eyes snapped open and she stared into the wide blue eyes of the young woman.
She mouthed the word, “Okay?”
She shook her head, holding up her trembling hand. Jack crouched closer and wrapped his arms around her, undoubtedly to muffle her sounds if necessary. Damn, she endangered them all.
The young woman stared at Jack, eyebrows raised. He fumbled at the hem of his pants and pulled the Aschen gun out, then signaled towards Sam. The other woman’s face lit up and she turned quietly to rummage through a backpack in a darker corner.
Sam squinted in the darkness. An old mattress, a blanket, a hairbrush, water bottles, packages with dried meat. Oh my God, she’s living here.
The young woman searched through her belongings quietly, then pulled out a little plastic bag containing white powder. She grabbed one of the water bottles and poured a bit of powder into the water. Then she stirred it without a sound.
When she’d crouched back to Sam, she held the bottle to her lips. “Drink.” A whisper. “This will help.”
Sam didn’t think twice. What choice did she have anyway? Anything to fight off the seizure that threatened to overtake her with a vengeance. She took a sip. Bitter and salty. Her stomach turned.
The young woman pressed the bottle back to her lips and nodded insistently. Fighting her gag reflex, Sam emptied the contents, then dropped back against Jack’s warm chest. He rubbed her arms soothingly. Once the nausea subsided, Sam closed her eyes. Her muscles started to relax, and her trembling grew weaker.
What had the woman given her? Exhaustion crept into her bones, made it difficult to keep her eyes open. She allowed her head to loll back against Jack’s chest, and felt him nuzzle her temple. Then her awareness drifted away.
When she opened her eyes again, the pattern of light leaking in from outside had changed. God, had she fallen asleep? She shifted, and Jack’s arms around her loosened.
The younger women crouched closer and handed her another water bottle. Sam sniffed it. More of that disgusting substance. She lifted the bottle to her lips and drank. Whatever it was, it seemed to help. Her muscles had relaxed, her heart wasn’t pounding too fast anymore and he underlying tremors in her muscles had stopped. Almost back to normal.
Silence surrounded them. No more Aschen voices drifted from downstairs. Wind howled through the cracks between the planks.
“What is that?” Jack kept his voice low. So the Aschen had left the mill, otherwise he wouldn’t be talking.
The young woman smiled. “A mixture of different minerals and saline evaporated or neutralized when you were hit by the Aschen stun gun. The sudden loss of the minerals drives your body into shock. You could have died if you’d gone without help any longer.”
“Thank you.” Sam drank the rest of the contents.
“How do you know so much about that?” Jack shifted and released Sam from his arms. She sat up.
The young woman ran a hand through her dirty blonde hair. “I was the apprentice of the doctor in my village. We had a few people coming in with the same symptoms. He realized they were caused by the new Aschen guns. Finding a cure was really easy after the first bloodwork came back.” She closed the bag with the white powder and put it away.
Jack stared at her. “Who are you? And what’re you doing here?”
“Sorry. That was rude of me. I’m Jennifer Keller.” She held out her hand.
“Jack.” Jack took her hand, shook it, and then nodded at Sam. “That’s Sam.”
“Something like that.”
His curt answer made Jennifer raise her brows. “You don’t have to worry about me. I really don’t care who you are, where you come from, or why the Aschen are after you. I have my own problems. I don’t care if you’re involved in stealing, or with the resistance.”
Resistance? Sam tensed and looked at Jack. His face remained blank, but suspicion flared in his eyes.
“Oh? What makes you say that?”
“Experience.” Sighing, she sat down. “Over the years I’ve treated my share of people coming from a—let’s say—shady background. We never asked any questions about how they got injured or who they were. But over time you develop a feeling for different types.”
Jack’s face dropped. “You worked for an underground doctor?”
“I guess you could call him that. He was a real doctor, though.”
“Oh, I don’t doubt that.” Jack’s expression gentled. “Were it not for those doctors, I myself would be dead now.”
“Jack?” Sam raised her brows. He turned to her.
“Underground doctors treat any kind of patient without asking questions. They don’t care for the Aschen law requiring them to see identification and do background checks before treatment. Many of our family would be dead already if those doctors didn’t exist.”
“Ah.” Sam nodded. How come she hadn’t even been aware those doctors existed? Well, in Cell 4 they had Janet, so there was no need to consult another doctor.
Jennifer stacked the empty bottle into her bag. “You guys are too well-mannered to be smugglers or slave traders.” Her eyes twinkled when she looked at them. “And I don’t see any stolen goods on you. My bet’s resistance, but don’t answer me.” She grimaced. “I don’t want you to have to kill me. Or something.”
Jack chuckled. Sam couldn’t suppress a grin. Jennifer’s honesty was refreshing. Definitely a person who was used to dealing with criminals.
“Who’re you hiding from?” Sam took the bottle of clear water Jennifer handed her.
“Same as you. Aschen agents.”
Jack cleared his throat. “Thief?” He waved around indicating the food and blankets. Sam nudged him with a giggle. He raised his eyebrows. “What? With the foot and all the medication in her bag?”
Jennifer smiled and tied her long hair together at her nape. “No. I’m gifted. I ran away from the breeding facility in Powhatan about three weeks ago. I’ve been hiding here ever since. I stole the medication from the breeding facility. I figured maybe I could sell it on the black market and get some money. But the region’s swarming with Justice Agents, and I’m on their wanted list, so it’s probably better to hide until things calm down.”
“You’re gifted?” Sam leaned forward.
Jennifer nodded. “I turned twenty-five six weeks ago. They came to get me soon after my tests came back positive. I tried to comply with the law, but the man they set me up with was almost fifty years older than me. According to them, we were a perfect genetic match.”
“Fifty years difference?” Sam shook her head. “Usually they take age into consideration as a factor for a match.”
“Yeah, but unfortunately none of the other available gifted people my age were suitable matches.” She visibly shuddered. “I felt like my entire life passed before my eyes when he entered the room and told me with that slimy smile he was looking forward to having me as a wife. I had to run away.”
“From a breeding facility? Quite an accomplishment.” Jack took the water bottle Sam passed him and gulped some of the liquid down.
“It wasn’t that hard.” Jennifer smiled sadly. “The real hard part was to stay hidden afterwards. I have nowhere to go. I can’t go back to where people know me without raising suspicion or being found out, so…” She shrugged.
“What are your plans?” Sam studied her. So many differences in character, attitude, motive. And yet, the young woman reminded her of how she’d run away from home. The devastation that came with living on the streets. Just that she herself had had a mission that urged her to move forward.
“I’m not sure yet. I’ll take it day by day. First, I guess, I’ll try to leave the Powhatan area.”
Sam turned her head and her gaze locked with Jack’s. Was he thinking the same thing as her? They could use another doctor to support Janet, especially with all the research she had to do. Having somebody to take care of the everyday injuries would be invaluable.
It wasn’t her place to make personnel suggestions, though, nor was she qualified to determine whether Jennifer might turn into a potential security risk. That was Jack’s specialty.
“Just how extensive is your medical knowledge?” Jack turned and scrutinized the young blonde.
“Well, I am not a doctor or anything. Women aren’t allowed to study, so…” She shrugged again.
Jack smirked. “I kinda learned not to put too much value on missing university degrees.” He squeezed Sam’s arms and she smiled.
Jennifer looked at him as if contemplating whether to answer his question. “I assisted Doctor Matsushita for eleven years, since I was fourteen. I can handle most medical emergencies and assisted in a number of surgeries.”
“We could use another doctor. You’d have the chance to study under one of the best human doctors on Earth. If you’re interested.” Jack kept his eyes on her.
“Um.” Jennifer fidgeted. “I don’t know. I’m not sure. I mean, I don’t even know you.”
Sam couldn’t blame her for being suspicious. After all, Jennifer knew nothing about them. Jack, on the other hand, couldn’t give her more information. There was still the chance she was an Aschen spy cleverly placed to bait them.
Jack shifted to the hatch. “I’ll check the vicinity to see if they’re gone. You two stay put.”
“Jack.” Sam grabbed his arm. He turned and his gaze met hers. “Be careful.”
“You betcha.” He squeezed her hand and smiled. “I’ll be right back.
As he crouched out of their hiding place, Sam ran her fingers through her hair. He had to go without backup. Her stomach tightened. Yes, he had the Aschen gun, but still. There was nobody to watch his back.
She shifted and crouched to the hatch. Her legs trembled slightly, but strength returned to her muscles. Carefully she peaked out, listening into the silence.
No sound, except for the ever-present howling of the wind through the brittle walls. At last, after an eternity, Jack returned.
“We’re clear for the moment.” He still spoke in a lowered voice. “They’re probably still searching the perimeter, so we gotta be careful. Our best bet is to move out as soon as we can so we can contact…our friend.” He locked his gaze with Sam’s. “Can you walk?”
She nodded. If they managed to contact Sheppard, they’d be safe. The puddle jumper was cloaked, and once they were inside, they could return to Antarctica. She crawled out the hatch, then brushed the dust off her pants and leaned down to look at Jennifer. “Are you coming with?”
Next to her, Jack leaned down and peaked into the room. “We could at least get you out of the Powhatan area.”
“I don’t want to hold you back.” Jennifer took her bag hesitantly.
“Pshaw.” Jack waved her statement off. “You’re not holding us back. Besides, you kinda saved our lives there, so we owe you. Come on already.”
Jennifer scanned him as if still in doubt. “I guess it’s better than staying here in hiding.” She began stuffing some of the items lying scattered across the room into her bag.
Jack straightened and looked at Sam. “You alright?”
“Yes.” She smiled and stretched her neck. “I feel a bit funny, but it’s getting better.”
“Come here.” He grabbed her wrist and drew her into his embrace. So warm. Sam nuzzled his neck and pressed him close against her. His warm mouth dropped a kiss on her neck. “You gave me quite a scare there.”
“I know.” She lifted her head. “I’m just glad it was me who got shot and not you.” He raised his eyebrows. Smiling, she trailed her thumb across his cheek. “Well, for starters, I wouldn’t have been able to carry you away.”
“There’s that.” He pressed a kiss on her forehead. “How about in the future we just go for neither of us getting shot, though?”
“Sounds like a plan.”
He pulled her close again and tangled his hand in her hair. “Let’s get you back to Janet.”
Behind them, Jennifer crawled out of the hatch with her bag over her shoulder. “I’m ready.” She gave them an insecure smile as though she still didn’t fully trust them.
“Alright.” Jack nodded. “Let’s go. You two stay behind me. Jennifer, you do what Sam does.”
They crept down the steps. Once they reached the heavy door, Jack opened it and peeked outside, then waved at them to follow him. The air outside was fresh. After hours in the dusty room, it almost smelled better than before.
Sam looked up to the sky. Judging by the sun’s position, it was late afternoon already. How long had she been asleep up there? The wind had calmed down, but it was fresher than it had been a few hours before.
Jack leaned in to her and pointed at a hill in the distance. “We’ll head that way. Let’s hope our signal reaches Sheppard from there.”
“Yes, sir.” She nodded, then turned to Jennifer to relay the message to her. Quietly, they ran through the wheat field, ducked and always ready to take cover.
Sam scanned the fields around them. No sign of any Aschen agents, but that might not say much. In their position they were sitting ducks, and if the agents waited somewhere…
They reached the end of the field and continued on the grassy path leading uphill. The wind grew stronger, blew the short strands of Sam’s hair into her face.
“Where are we going?”
“To the top of the hill.” Sam looked at Jennifer, panting. “Once we manage to contact our friend, we’ll be safe.”
Jack stopped when they reached the highest point and crouched down. Sam turned and scanned the vast fields around them. Nobody in sight anywhere.
A few meters away from her, Jack pulled the radio from his belt. Hopefully he’d manage to contact Sheppard and the jumper. Sam smiled at Jennifer, who warmed her hands with her breath.
Jack spoke into the receiver. His lips moved, while his eyes scanned their surroundings. Hopefully that was a good sign. At last, he clipped the radio back to his belt, turned and hurried back towards them. His reassuring smile made Sam’s heart beat faster. Yes, he’d managed to contact Sheppard. Thank God, they were safe.
Suddenly the hair on the back of her neck tingled and her stomach tightened. Every nerve in her body buzzed. Something was off. One look at Jack told her he sensed it too. He slowed, came to a halt, then scanned the wheat field.
A movement in the field. Then another one a few meters away.
Aschen security agents swarmed around them, as if out of nowhere. Dozens of stun guns pointed at them.
“Hands up. Don’t move.”
Jennifer shrieked. Sam spun and looked into the faces of six more agents. Trapped.
An older man trudged towards them, the gun in his hand pointing at Jack. Grey uniform with three stripes on his shoulder. Oh, God. A high commander. Ice poured into her veins.
“You’re under arrest for terrorist acts against the Aschen government.”