Big thanks to Channach for plot-editing this chapter and to Raven Clark for style-editing this chapter with me.
Yawning, Jack crossed the last meters to the science tent and entered. He raised his eyebrows. Carter and McKay debated while she scribbled some notes on a whiteboard in the corner.
Why the hell didn’t anybody at camp sleep anymore? It was past ten at night, for crying out loud.
Both scientists turned. Carter’s face lit up. “Sir. I just told McKay about your idea.”
“Swell.” He grimaced and rubbed his temples. “What idea was that again?”
“The Stargate, sir? You asked if we couldn’t just bury the Powhatan Stargate.” She looked at him as though he was supposed to understand.
“Right.” Hadn’t they established that wasn’t an option? “So?”
“We don’t bury our gate. We’ll bury the one on the Aschen home world. In a manner of speaking.”
“Ah. And how did I suggest we do that?”
Her mouth tugged into a smile, her eyes twinkling. “You didn’t, sir.”
“Thought so.” God, his head pounded. He hadn’t had enough sleep for this line of discussion.
“But there’s a pretty simple way.” She turned back to the board.
McKay scoffed and rolled his eyes. “Depends on your definition of simple.”
“Rodney, it’s not that hard. We took the dialing device apart once and—”
“Yeah, well, there’s a big difference between taking something apart and understanding how it works.”
“Not if we devote all our time to studying the gate. Besides, with the help of the Tok’ra, we might make faster progress. Don’t forget they know a lot more about gate technology than we do.” Carter scribbled on the white board again.
Jack yawned and sat down on one of the boxes. “Why don’t you two explain the details of what was apparently my idea?”
“Well, sir.” Carter turned to him again. “The idea is to shut down the Aschen gate.”
“By burying it?” As though the Aschen couldn’t unbury it again.
“No, sir. A virus would do the trick.”
“A virus.” He leaned forward. “Go on.”
“Sir, we know the Stargate is composed of two components. A gate, and the dialing device, which tells the gate where to open a wormhole. If we manage to write a virus to randomize the coordinates in their dialing device, we’ll disable their Stargate.”
Rodney folded his arms and rolled his eyes. “Or they’ll just manufacture their own dialing device.”
“Okay.” Sam looked at the whiteboard and tapped her lips with the pen. “What if we tackle the code in the Stargate?” She turned. “We saw it in the alternate universe. The other versions of us had assembled their own dialing device. That implies the core code has to be written directly into the gate. The dialing device is merely an input component. Like a computer keyboard.”
“Carter.” Jack got up and buried his hands in his pockets. “Didn’t you say in our tent that the Aschen would just come with ships if they can’t gate here anymore?”
“Yes, sir. I think they would. If we disabled our side of the gate.” She turned back to the whiteboard and drew an illustration. A large planet with lots of smaller planets around it. Then she pointed at the large one. “This is the Aschen home world. One of these small ones is Earth. Now, let’s presume we cut the connection to the gate here.” She erased the black line connecting Earth to the Aschen home world. “We’re cut off, and the Aschen will load a ship and get here as fast as they can. If on the other hand, we disable the gate on the Aschen home world…”
Jack leaned forward on the desk as she erased the lines to all of the planets. Damn, her plan was starting to sound intriguing.
“…they’ll be cut off from all of the worlds in the Aschen Confederation. Their entire society depends on their colonies. Their food and resource supply would be cut off. They have a few ships, but not nearly enough to re-establish contact to all their colonies. Or provide the population of an entire, completely overpopulated planet with enough food.”
Jack stared as her as she turned to him.
“I’m not saying it’d be easy. But the colonies are essential to their way of life. What happens if you have a population of one hundred, but you only have enough supplies for ten of them?” She looked at Rodney, and then her gaze locked with Jack’s again.
He straightened. That was one hell of a good idea. If they could make it work. “Instability. Chaos. Riots and civil war.”
She nodded. “That’s what I thought. If we disabled their Stargate beyond repair, they’d need all their remaining means of transport to supply their own population with the bare necessities. And probably prevent a war.”
Jack swallowed hard. “Carter.” The room spun a little when the immensity of her plan dawned on him. “Did you just come up with an idea to take down most of the Aschen Confederation?”
She cleared her throat. “Actually, you did, sir. In a way. And I don’t think it’ll take them down. It’ll destabilize them. Maybe give Earth and a few of the other border planets a chance to break free. It’s only a matter of time until they’d reestablish contact with some of the closer colonies. Maybe even transport a new Stargate from one of those planets onto their homeworld. But even then, they’d need a long time to repair the damage. It would give us a few months. Maybe a few years. If we strengthened our alliance with the Tok’ra, that might give us enough time to build a working defense.”
McKay had grown quiet as he studied the whiteboard. Jack raised his eyebrows. “All right. That’s all great in theory. Am I the only one concerned with the most obvious question here? How would we get a virus to their gate without infecting ours as well?”
“We could open a wormhole to the Aschen homeworld and send the program through.”
McKay shook his head. “That wouldn’t work. The Stargates are connected and perform automated correlative updates.”
“Right.” Sam tapped the pen against her lips again. “No chance we could work around that?”
“This goes so deep into the machine code I don’t have the faintest clue where to start.”
“Anybody care to explain it?” Jack asked.
“Well, sir, we have the theory that the Stargates are interconnected by subspace, and they update on a periodic basis. That would mean, done wrong, our virus might infect every gate in the galaxy.”
Jack scratched his head. “Would that be so bad?”
“For starters, the Tok’ra wouldn’t be happy about that, sir. And let’s not forget a lot of races in our galaxy depend on the Stargate to survive. Not just the Aschen. Or the Goa’uld.”
“Right.” What was he thinking? Of course, that wasn’t an option. “Any other ideas?”
“I can think of only one way.” She put the pen down and flinched. “The part responsible for the correlative updates is the dialing device. Somebody would have to go to the Aschen homeworld, dial Earth, distribute the virus into their gate via the interface of the dialing device, and then plant a time-delayed bomb on it.”
Jack stared at her. “That’s…ambitious.”
McKay gave a sarcastic chuckle. “More like completely insane.”
Carter rolled her eyes. “I know it’s not easy. But the resistance has done riskier things in the past.”
“Not easy?” He shook his head. “We don’t even know if we could program a virus like that.”
“But what if we could?” Sam asked.
Jack pressed his hands against his forehead. The implications of their plan were immense. An operation like that couldn’t be conducted without the help of the other resistance cells anyway. So they had to take this one step at a time. “All right, I like the idea. Just the finer details need work. You two do the research. See if you can write the program. Once that problem’s solved, we’ll look into the strategic parts.”
“You can’t be serious.” McKay gaped at him. “Colonel, that is by far the most dangerous, craziest, plan I’ve ever—”
“Which is exactly why I’m willing to try it.” Jack folded his arms. “We’re not gonna win this fight by planting minor explosives and killing single Aschen ministry officials. I’m not saying Carter’s plan doesn’t have flaws. But the basic idea has merit. If you two manage to write the program, I’ll take care of the rest.”
Carter beamed at him. “Thank you, sir.”
“I want you both to start working with the Tok’ra tomorrow. See what they know about the Stargate system that we don’t. I expect daily reports.”
“Yes, sir,” both of them said at once.
“But for now, sleep. Both of you.” Jack smirked. “Carter.”
“Yes, sir.” She put the pen down. “Good night, Rodney.”
When they were outside, she slipped a hand around his waist. “Thank you for the vote of confidence.”
“It’s a good idea. But we don’t have a program yet, so let’s not get ahead of ourselves, shall we?”
“Oh, we’ll succeed with the program. The gate is a huge computer system, which means it can be adjusted. I’ll find a way.”
Determination reflected on her face. He studied her for a long moment. Finding a way… Somehow, he had no doubt she’d manage to do just that. Suddenly, an Aschen-free Earth didn’t seem so unattainable anymore.
Jack looked up from the latest mission report from SG-3. A woman stood in the entrance, her silhouette barely visible in the bright daylight that flooded into the tent.
“I wanted to get some of the artifact reports you promised to let me look at.”
The tent flap closed. One of the female Tok’ra. He’d forgotten her name. “Sure…um…”
“Freya. I am host to Anise.” She gave him a broad smile and approached his desk with swinging hips. “You met her three days ago at the Tok’ra briefing.”
“Yeah. Of course.” Jack cleared his throat. Unease overcame him. As it always did when he was in the company of one of those…Tok’ra. He was never sure who he was talking to—and if there was really a difference between the snake and the host. Except for Jacob. Maybe. “Did you settle in?”
“Yes. We finished building the tunnels two days ago. We will have to talk about the food rations, though. Symbionts do not respond well to what you call, um, botapoes.”
“Potatoes. I could offer you more rice instead?”
“That will be acceptable.”
“Great. I’ll arrange for it.”
He swallowed uncomfortably when Anise held his gaze. A gentle smile played around her lips. Jack cleared his throat and got up. “Let’s see if I can find you those reports.”
He rounded the desk and walked over to some boxes. “These hold all the artifact reports of the past couple of years. There are more in one of the science-storage tents. You’ll have to ask Daniel, um, Dr. Jackson about those.”
“Actually, I’d prefer to talk to you about them. The Tok’ra think that in the spirit of good relations, we should form bonds of friendship with select humans.”
“Do they now?” Did it have to be him? Frowning, he searched through the boxes and picked up a few files. Another one of those things he’d have to discuss with Jacob. Selmak. Whoever. “Why don’t you take these for now, and I’ll see to it the rest are delivered to—”
He froze, his breath lodging in his throat when she pressed up against him. Her warm lips touched his. His stomach knotted. Snake… Snake, snake, snake, snake…
The files hit the floor. He grabbed the young woman’s arms and moved her a few inches away from him. Out of his personal space.
She tilted her head and studied him in apparent confusion. “I am sorry. I did not mean to overwhelm you. Is this not how humans on your planet express their affection for somebody?”
“Yes. No.” God. He raked his hand through his hair. Affection? What the hell had just happened? Anise—or Freya—bent down and picked up the files from the floor. He took a few steps back towards the desk. “Actually, it depends.”
“On what?” She straightened again and smiled at him.
“On…the kind of affection…and whether it’s welcome.”
“You are uncomfortable.”
Wasn’t she sharp? “A little.” He shifted from one foot to the other.
“I am sorry, Colonel. On my homeworld, people are not afraid to show their emotions openly. I should not have surprised you.”
“Ya think?” Jack flinched and took another step back when Freya approached him. “Listen, why don’t you, you know, work with those files for now? Once you’ve done that, I’ll send someone with the rest—”
“Is there somebody else you are loyal to?”
“Well. Yeah.” Wait, what did that have to do with anything? “That’s not really the point. I’m not interested in—”
He groaned when Freya crossed the distance between them. Her palms brushed his arms, and her warm, lush lips grazed his. Every muscle in his body tensed. He wanted to take another step back, but a box blocked his way. His hands shot up to grab the woman’s shoulders.
“Oh…my God.” A female voice drifted from the door. Jack urged Freya away from him. Carter stared at them, pale.
Freya gave him a courteous nod, then turned and smiled at Sam before she left the tent. Damn snake. What the hell was wrong with those people? Jumping him and then walking out as though something like that was common courtesy among the Tok’ra.
He stared at Carter. “Sam.”
She swallowed visibly. “I-I-I’m sorry. Sir. I didn’t mean to…” She straightened, walked up to his desk and threw a file down. “Here’s our daily report about our progress on developing the virus. Sir.”
With those words, she turned and marched out of the tent.
Jaw clenched, Sam had to focus all her energy on not stumbling on the uneven ground. She hurried up the hill to her science tent. Why the hell had she apologized? She’d done nothing wrong—except maybe entering without announcing her presence.
Her gut wrenched. Jack had kissed the Tok’ra. All this time, she’d thought…
She swallowed against the knot in her throat. Anger took over. He’d better have a damn good explanation for what she’d just seen. She threw aside the canvas that covered the entrance.
McKay looked up. “Back so soon? What did he say?”
He rolled his eyes. “Colonel O’Neill. About the report.”
“Nothing.” He was too busy shoving his tongue down another woman’s throat. She sat down at her desk and focused on the computer screen. She ignored the sting in her chest.
The tent flap opened and Jack entered. “Carter, I need to talk to you.”
She didn’t look at him.
“I have a lot of work at the moment.”
“McKay. Can you leave us alone for a coupla minutes?”
McKay cleared his throat. “Sure. I wanted to grab a sandwich from the food tent anyway.”
Damn traitor. Sam closed her eyes as McKay left the tent.
She glared at him. “What?”
“I didn’t kiss her.”
Of all the things she’d expected, this wasn’t it. She folded her arms and cocked her head. Really? He was gonna use that routine? “What do you call it? A mission briefing?”
“She…she just jumped me. I told her I’m not interested. Well, I tried, but before I could finish, she kinda had her lips on mine and—”
“And what?” She jumped from her chair. “Your close combat skills aren’t good enough to defend yourself against unwelcome advances from a woman?”
He swallowed visibly and flinched without a word.
“Oh, for cryin’ out loud. She’s got a freaking snake in her head and she had her mouth on mine. For all I know, the damn thing could’ve jumped over if I did something wrong.” He scratched his fingers through his hair and paced up and down the room.
His reasoning was so ridiculous she couldn’t even be mad anymore. No way he’d made that up. If he’d wanted to come up with an excuse, surely it would’ve been better than that.
She pressed her lips together, but failed to stifle a giggle. Her shoulders shook as she broke into soft laughter.
“Sam.” He looked hurt. “That’s not funny.”
“Yes, it is.” She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, then crossed the distance and wrapped her arms around him. Jack O’Neill, the tough, hard-assed soldier who dealt with criminals as though they were nothing to be afraid of, scared of a woman with a symbiont in her head. “I’m sorry, sir. Jack. I should’ve known.”
“Come on.” He frowned at her. “Don’t tell me you’re comfortable with those people.”
She hid her face against his shoulder and let out another giggle.
He wrapped his arms around her, his face burying in her neck. “For the record, you’re the woman I wanna be with. Exclusive and all.”
Warmth flooded her. She met his gaze. Red lipstick lined his lips. She bit her cheek. “Did you tell her that?”
“Yes. Didn’t seem to bother her much though.” He sighed and looked around. “How’s the program going?”
“I just put the report on your desk.” She turned and looked at her computer. “We’re not making much progress so far, sir.”
“Carter, it’s only been four days. You’ll get there.” He dropped a kiss on the top of her head. “I’m gonna go brush my teeth. I feel like I’ve got snake all over me.”
Two weeks later
Jack stretched with a yawn as he approached his personal tent. God, he hoped things would return to normal at camp soon. The new recruits would be designated to their cells in a few weeks. Then things should calm down.
Provided the Tok’ra managed to settle in.
He opened the tent flap and glanced at the bed. Carter lay under the blanket. Thank God, she was here already.
“There you are. I was looking all over the place for you.”
He opened the drape. His eyebrows climbed. Carter was snuggled under the covers, eyes closed peacefully. Books and files lay scattered across the entire bed, covering her chest, her legs, and his side of the sleeping bag. One book pressed to her chest, she still had her fingers between the pages. He knelt down and carefully pulled a file away.
“Sam.” Two more books landed on the box that served as a nightstand. He nuzzled her cheek and brought his lips to her ear. “Ensign Carter.” Just a tad bit louder.
Her eyes snapped open. “Oh.” She looked down at herself and lifted the book in her hand. “God. I fell asleep.”
“Yeah.” He waved around. “Didn’t we have a deal? Something about a three-book-maximum rule in our personal tent?”
She flinched and sat up, picking up a few papers and files. “I’m sorry. I didn’t expect you to turn in so early. What time is it?”
Her eyes widened. Apparently, she’d been sleeping for quite a while. Guilt stabbed at him. Maybe he shouldn’t have woken her. She’d pulled too many all-nighters during the past two weeks.
She picked out two books and a file and handed the rest to him. “Here… these I still need.”
“Carter.” He drawled her name. “Give it a rest. You’re exhausted. They’ll still be here tomorrow.”
“You don’t understand.” She dropped back onto her pillow, looking miserable. Jack slid under the covers and drew her against him.
“This technology—the Stargates—they’re so far beyond anything we’ve ever seen. I thought I knew a lot about Stargate technology.”
“You do. More than any other human. Except McKay.”
“I know nothing. I don’t have the slightest clue how the most basic functions work. It’s like an entirely new form of math I can’t make heads or tails off.” She covered her face with her hand.
“Hey.” Jack dropped a kiss against her hairline. “It was a good idea, but if it’s not possible, we can’t help it. No expectations. Not even the Aschen know that much about the gates.”
“But I want it to work.” Her jaw clenched. Oh, that damn scientist pride of hers. “I wish I had someone who could explain this to me. Jolinar has worked with us the past few days, but even to her it made no sense.”
“Saaam.” He pulled the file out of her hand and dropped it onto the two books next to her. “You’ve worked on this for the past coupla weeks. You think you’re gonna be able to solve this if you’re overtired? You need a good night’s sleep.”
“What I need is a breakthrough.” Sighing, she turned to him and buried her face against his chest. “This could be it, I feel it. I want this to work out so much.”
Jack wrapped his arms around her and spilled gentle kisses down her neck. A sigh escaped her, and her breath warmed his throat. He smiled. “You gotta relax.”
His hand rested on her thigh and he pulled her closer. Her breath hitched, as she laid her leg across his and moved closer against him. Jack groaned when her warm lips kissed his throat and collarbone. Her lips ticked his chest.
“Sam, whatcha doing?”
“Taking my mind off things.” She gave him a cheeky smile.
A grin tugged at his lips. “Well, I can help you with that.”
She giggled when he rolled her over on her back. He’d make sure she’d shut her brain off completely. At least for now.
Three days later
“It’s not gonna work.” McKay dropped the pen and slumped down into his chair.
“Well, there is no other way. This has to work.” Sam studied the whiteboard. The code was correct. And yet, the simulations produced an error. Why? “I just don’t see any flaw in the code.”
“I give up.”
Sighing, Sam dropped down onto a box, her gaze never leaving the board. He was right. This really wasn’t going to work. They were out of options. Damn.
“Oh my…” Jack’s voice drifted from the entrance. She lifted her head. Brows raised, he looked around. “There’s a distinct lack of optimism in this tent.”
Sam managed a weak smile. “We’ve reached a dead end, sir.” Her father entered behind Jack. “Dad.”
“Hey, kiddo.” He gave her a smile. Ever since his blending, he’d spent half of his time at camp, and the other half in the Tok’ra underground tunnels.
She got up from the box. Damn, she’d had a lunch date with Jack and her dad. “Is it noon already?”
“Actually, it’s past noon.” Jack glanced at his watch. “We waited for fifteen minutes. Then we decided we’d drop by. See how it’s going. You know, wave a watch around.” Smirking, he strolled over to her and dropped a soft kiss on her forehead. “I told him he’d have better chances at having dinner with you, but he wouldn’t believe me.”
She laughed and flinched at her father. “Sorry, dad.” Then she put the pen down. “We’re done here.”
“Done?” Jack glanced from her to McKay.
“Yeah.” The other scientist nodded. “Colonel, there’s no way we can write this program. We don’t even understand the programming language, and in all this time we’ve worked on it, we haven’t been able to make any progress.”
Jacob cleared his throat. “That’s a pity. Jolinar just convinced the Tok’ra council of the merit of your plan. They assured their continuing support.”
Sam shook her head. “It would take years to understand the basic code.”
“Okay.” Jack studied the whiteboard. Sam doubted it made any sense to him. “Anything we could, you know, acquire to make this possible?”
“Honestly?” McKay straightened. “What we need is somebody to help with this. So unless you can find a living ancient, there’s no way we’ll get this done. Not without years, maybe decades of research.”
Jack sighed. “It was a good plan people. You can make it a long-term project.”
“Actually… There’s someone else who might be able to help,” her father said.
Sam’s heart jumped as she turned to him. “Who?”
“He’s not really an ancient, but Selmak says he knows how to manipulate and reprogram Stargates.”
“Who?” Jack repeated her question.
“You’re not gonna like this, Jack.”
“Oh for cryin’ out loud, will you just spill it?”
Her father’s face grew serious. “Ba’al.”