Aversion Therapy

By: sharilyn

EMAIL: sharilyn

 

"Carter, would you explain something to me, please?"

Jack O'Neill's voice was calm and steady where he stood, his mud-covered hands relaxed on the barrel of his P-90; his silvered head was tilted at a quizzical angle, and to the uninitiated his quiet tone might even have sounded pleasant. But as Samantha Carter stood at the base of this newly discovered world's stargate, praying for all she was worth that her commander would NOT turn and look back at her, a premonitory shiver of dread trickled its way down her spine in tandem with the cold, fat drops of moisture that had found their way down inside her slicker.

As the apprehensive second-in-command of this off-to-a-bad-start mission cleared her throat experimentally, she felt movement beside her and lifted her head in time to see and feel Daniel Jackson nudging her in her right side with silent insistence, his moisture-fogged glasses hiding what was undoubtedly a frantic expression in his blue eyes.

Answer him, Sam, Daniel mouthed beseechingly at her, giving his head a quick jerk in Jack's direction. As Sam glared at her friend and elbowed him back--harder than he'd poked her, she noted with grumpy satisfaction--Jack O'Neill straightened his head and began to turn, the movement as languid and lethal as that of a panther about to make a killing leap onto its helpless prey.

Anticipating the irate, dangerous glitter she knew would be blazing out at her from her c.o.'s brown eyes, Sam felt herself tense up as the Colonel's body continued its implacable about-face. Drawing a deep breath, Sam forced an almost painfully fake smile onto her lips and called out much too cheerfully:

"Yes, sir, I'll certainly give it a try, sir! Um, what exactly did you want me to explain?"

From beside her Daniel gave a little snort that quite clearly said, 'You are so dead'; and as Jack's body completed its graceful turn in the midst of the sea of gray-green mud he'd inadvertently tumbled into on clearing the gate, Daniel found himself hurriedly moving away from Sam's general vicinity. He was taking no chances that even a glimmer of the fall-out from Jack's laser stare might accidentally land on him, as well, frying him where he stood. Sorry, Sam--nice knowing you--his hasty retreat spoke for him.

Craven coward, Samantha sniffed silently at her departing comrade and then drew herself up straight and tall, determined that for once she would NOT take the blame for the MALP's faulty telemetry, the UAV's indecipherable flyover scans, or any other screw-ups made by the machinery the SGC used in a cursory move to investigate new worlds before sending actual people through the gate to explore.

"Carter...yes, Carter--you, who stated unequivocally that 'all-scans-show-that-P5X-JSG-is-a-perfectly-hospitable-planet-for-SG1-to-explore\ '...Yes, Carter, you're the one I'm talking to...Now, as we stand here, and we can all see that I am SO not happy--so NOT in tune with the whole 'hospitable' ambience of this place--I would just appreciate it if you would explain, if you would tell me...why the HELL you let Hammond send us through the gate to yet another freaking MUDHOLE, where I'm sure it must rain 99.9% of the time and where, as I'm sure we've all noticed, I just fell on my ASS in about a foot of smelly,slimy...arghh--!"

The Colonel's furious tirade ended in an unpleasantly horrified squawk of outrage as he released his hold on his gun and began slapping wildly at something on his back, hidden down inside his clothes. His gyrations might almost have been comical had he not had such a deranged grimace of apprehensive disgust on his lean face; and as their commander began frantically stripping his P-90 and then his slicker off his body, his team mates rushed down the rain-soaked stone steps they had been standing on to offer their assistance.

"No; stay back!" Jack snarled at them, pausing long enough in his crazed dance to wave the others away. "There's something--wiggly, no-legs, snake-like...There might be others out here, so keep back!" Contorting his face into a terrible grimace, Jack fumbled to untuck his shirt, all the while shaking it furiously away from contact with his skin, trying to dislodge whatever creature it was that had found its way under his clothes.

All three of his team mates exchanged brief, worried glances, and Daniel mouthed uncertainly, 'Goa'uld?' Sam found herself biting her lip, her head shaking in automatic, vehement denial: NO. No, it couldn't possibly be; but oh, God, wouldn't that just be their luck...

"I will assist you, O'Neill; I believe my symbiote should protect me," Teal'c called out and hurried past his two anxious friends, his large body moving with commendable grace and speed through the thick mud spreading out beyond the gate and the steps leading up to it. Sam and Daniel could only watch helplessly as Teal'c quickly lifted Jack's shirt halfway up his chest and swept one muscular arm up and across the expanse of the Colonel's back.

"Do not move."

The Jaffa's words were short and sharp, and Jack forced himself to stand perfectly still, his half-angry, half-fearful gaze fastening onto Daniel's across the muddy distance between them. Daniel nodded his head slightly, the gesture conveying both mute concern and support; and as Jack forgot even to breathe, Teal'c grasped the something that was sliming and sliding its way up the Colonel's spine and tore it free of its suction-like hold on Jack's naked skin.

"Kill it!" Jack barked out angrily as Teal'c lifted five inches of bluish-gray, seemingly headless ugliness into the cold, wet air. The Jaffa's stoic features twisted with perhaps the smallest bit of revulsion as the blindly seeking, amphibious blob he now held pinched between his thumb and forefinger suddenly extruded six suction-cupped feet from the amorphous mass of its body and tried valiantly to stick itself to the Jaffa's strong arm.

"It is not Goa'uld; and though I would not presume to make a guess as to its nature, I do not believe it meant you any harm, Colonel O'Neill." Teal'c was plucking at his tenacious new friend as he spoke, patiently attempting to disengage its delicate but incredibly powerful feet from his skin. With an expression of disgust Jack O'Neill leaped over, ripped the pulsing blob away from his friend and hurled it several feet into the midst of the mud expanse surrounding them. The creature landed with an unpleasantly squishy plop and then bunched itself up into a distinctly indignant ball, its form resembling nothing so much as a rather large gob of animated phlegm.

"Eeewwww," chorused simultaneously from the three humans watching, and the affronted slime ball extruded two gelatinous foot-pods and dug itself down into the mud with a speed that left its human audience gaping idiotically at the place where it had been. All that was left to mark its passing was a tiny air bubble atop the mud, which popped after a moment with a delicate, farewell burp.

"Are you well, O'Neill?" Teal'c asked calmly after a strained beat of silence, his head nodding the slightest bit toward Jack's back. "Perhaps I should check, just to be certain the creature did not bite or otherwise injure you."

"I thought you said it meant no harm," Jack grumbled, his face still a rather unhealthy shade of pale beneath the scattered drops and smears of mud dappling his cheeks, forehead, and chin from his earlier ungainly sprawl. But when Teal'c merely lifted one ironic brow in response, Jack turned and grudgingly submitted to the other's careful perusal of his back.

"I see no markings of any kind," Teal'c announced momentarily, and both Sam and Daniel released pent-up breaths, exhaling fine clouds of white vapor into the chilly air along with the release of their silent tension.

"You are fine, Colonel O'Neill," Teal'c reassured his scowling commander, his tone more suggestive of giving an order rather than dispensing comfort.

"I am NOT fine, Teal'c," Jack retorted grouchily, leveling a dark glare on his three team mates as he tried without much success to tuck his wet, mud-splattered shirt back into his equally wet and muddy pants. "I am covered in cold, smelly mud, I have bruises on top of bruises from rolling down those damned, slippery steps, and some big, nasty, slug-looking, blob-thingy of animated mucus just tried to--to--well, who the hell knows what it was trying to do! And where there's one, there's probably more of the suckers...maybe LOTS more. I can just see the tragic report of our demise--'SG-1, slimed to death by giant booger-snails.' Out of my way, people, I'm going home. H-O-M-E. AND--not for the last time, I might add--I WARNED you about taking some damn-fool piece of junk machinery's word for what's 'habitable,' Carter; you gotta triple-check everything having to do with those damned MALP transmissions BEFORE we leave...You LOVE doing that kinda stuff, after all, you know I count on you to weed out some of the REALLY bad places...Dammit, Carter, whoever the idiot was who programmed that MALP and fed you the b.s. that this place was HOSPITABLE...so help me, when I get my muddy hands around his geeky throat..."

Ranting and raving and swearing disgustedly to himself under his breath, Jack squelched furiously through the mud, his eagle-eyed gaze darting suspiciously about him all the while for the slightest sign of more of the mucuslike critters. Practically snarling with ill-tempered impatience, the mud-encrusted Colonel bullied his way past Sam and Daniel, who were still hovering uncertainly on the bottom step of the stargate platform. With Jack's rough passage between them, the two were forced to grapple wildly at one another to keep from tumbling down into the mud in the Colonel's' furious wake.

"There is nothing to see here but mud--and rain--and the so-interesting native life forms of this place...and yes, Daniel, I know what you're thinking, you're thinking for all we know that giant booger that tried to assault me just MIGHT hold the secret cure to every disease in the universe...but guess what?! I JUST...DON'T...CARE. I don't care, don't want to hear it...and Carter, don't you even start with me, you're already on my shit list, telling me the images were good, that everything would be just fine and dandy..."

Muttering an impressive roster of increasingly coarse expletives to himself, Jack stormed up to the DHD and began furiously punching in coordinates, letting loose with a few newly invented choice words when his agitated brain failed to recall the final symbols for gating back to earth. Sam and Daniel shrugged uncertainly at each other behind his back, their discomfited gazes urging the other to say something, DO something to calm their exceedingly ticked-off commander before his whole head exploded in a blast of sound and fury. Jack O'Neill had most definitely gotten up on the wrong side of the bed this morning, Sam found herself thinking ruefully; but even that lame explanation wasn't adequate to explain the commander's extreme ill humor. Something deeper and more disturbing was definitely up with him, and if the disastrous direction this mission had taken was any indication, it was going to be a hell of a long day ahead for the team before ANY of SG-1 saw their beds again tonight.

"We may not leave at this time, O'Neill."

Teal'c spoke up now with remarkable composure from the middle of the mud field where Jack had left him; and when the Colonel turned slowly--curt disbelief plastered all over his face at the Jaffa's seeming insolence--his angry eyes widened with even deeper astonishment at the sight of his formidable warrior friend standing surrounded by what appeared to be humanoid figures actually crafted from the sludgy mud beneath Teal'c's feet.

"Whoa, Nellie!" Jack whistled, instinctively scrabbling for his P-90. "What the hell--?!"

"Holy Hannah!" Sam's exclamation followed fast on the heels of Jack's amazed outburst, and Daniel squeezed her arm warningly when she would have gone for her own weapon.

"Wait!" he cried, his soft outcry belied by the fierce urgency underlying his voice. "You can't aim at them, you might hit Teal'c. And we don't know what they want yet--"

"We don't even know what they ARE yet, Daniel," Jack corrected grimly, refusing to lower his weapon. "Just...um...keep still, Big Guy," he ordered Teal'c. "Don't startle them or anything."

"I would not presume to do so," Teal'c murmured in a reproving tone; he stood lightly in the midst of seven unimaginably strange figures, all of them seemingly having conjured themselves just a moment before from the abundant supply of fresh mud stretching for as far as the eye could see.

Each figure balanced itself on two recognizable legs, and each possessed a torso with a vaguely rounded but completely featureless head of some sort atop it; but there the vague comparison to something human ended. Some of them seemed to be sporting more than the requisite two arms, and one or two of them seemed to be on the brink of sprouting another head or an extra leg or two. The smallest figure rather proudly displayed four appendages extending from its torso and was currently waving all four 'arms' with enthusiastic abandon, flinging muddy bits and spatters of itself all over Teal'c's uniform in the process.

As the other three members of SG-1 watched in mute fascination, the 'mud people' began--slowly but with clear intent--to move in on Teal'c, closing implacably around him with much squelching and sucking and gurgling of the mud comprising them. Their bizarrely graceful locomotion churned up the inert goo lying beneath their 'feet', and Jack watched in dumb amazement as some of the mud on the ground seemed to leap up as if alive and attach itself to the animated mud creatures encircling Teal'c's watchful form.

"So, Daniel..." Jack began quietly, his tone deceptively casual. "If we can't shoot them, just what do you suggest we do? After all, I don't see any high-powered water hoses close at hand that we could use to blast them back into the muck from whence they came."

"Maybe Teal'c should try to communicate with them," Daniel offered tentatively, and Teal'c's raised eyebrow of polite disbelief echoed the disgusted look Jack sent in Daniel's direction.

"And how do you propose he should do that?" Jack snarled softly, edging back down the steps till he stood on the one just above Sam and Daniel. Gesturing for them to step aside, he moved between them and clumped down onto the last step on the platform, one foot hovering uncertainly over the muddy expanse spreading out before him.

"No! Do not enter the field," Teal'c ordered, continuing to stand still as the mud figures drew ever closer to him. "We have no clear idea at this time as to their intentions, O'Neill; it would be foolish to risk more personnel until we know what it is they intend for me."

"I won't just stand here and let them hurt you, Teal'c," Jack returned with quiet conviction, his finger twitching on the trigger of his gun. "Maybe bullets can't hurt these...things...but they might just slow them down long enough for you to get the hell out of there."

"And if these...creatures...are friendly, Jack?" Daniel interjected, lifting a hand and settling it half-warningly, half-beseechingly, on Jack's shoulder. He felt the commander stiffen under his touch, but he gave Jack's tensed muscles a small squeeze nonetheless and continued persuasively.

"Maybe this is just their way of communicating, Jack," Daniel insisted softly, his blue eyes alight with a mixture of curiosity and fascination beneath his concern for Teal'c. "Maybe this planet itself is somehow alive and is using...pieces of itself...to reach out and make contact with us."

"Do you mind telling me what solid scientific basis you have for that wild premise, Dr. Jackson?" the Colonel murmured, his voice low and silky and dangerous. "You want me to stand here and let these...mud things...do God knows what to one of our team and not even lift a finger to prevent it, all on the basis of some shaky theory?"

"I have voluntarily chosen to accept the 'attentions' of these creatures, O'Neill," Teal'c spoke up, a slight note of reprimand entering his voice. Jack bit his lip as he struggled to keep himself from pointing out that it was volunteerism after the fact and that Teal'c hadn't exactly had any choice in the matter.

"I am willing to risk my safety for a few seconds more, if it will facilitate some form of communication between these...beings...and ourselves," Teal'c continued with remarkable calm.

"Well, I am NOT willing to risk one of my team, Teal'c," Jack spoke up stubbornly, a hard line of irritation creasing his forehead. "And last I checked, I AM still in charge of this goddamned, sorry excuse for a mission."

His eyes flashing dark anger, Jack turned to scowl into Sam's worried face and gestured peremptorily toward the DHD at the top of the platform above them. "I'm going out there with Teal'c now," he informed her tersely. "If these frigging mudballs eat us alive, I want you to dial home, drag Daniel's ass back through the gate with you, and DON'T come back. I'm sick and tired of Hammond ending up having to write condolence letters full of lies and empty sympathy to families who can never even know the true nature of what their loved ones did for a living. To fight the Goa'uld and keep earth safe is one thing; but to wander off into a glorified mud puddle and become lunch for some disgusting life form we never even could've imagined in our nightmares is something else entirely. I won't have any more deaths laid at my doorstep. You got that, Carter? Daniel?"

"Jack--" Daniel began, and Sam simultaneously shook her head in denial of the Colonel's hard words.

"Sir, we don't even know what these things are or what they want yet," she argued hesitantly, her concerned gaze flitting from Jack's stony face to Daniel's worried frown. "Shouldn't we at least try--"

"Just shut up and follow orders, Major," Jack growled; and before either of his two nonplused team mates could say a word, the lanky Colonel stepped off into the thick mud and began striding grimly in Teal'c's direction, his P-90 held up before him like a shield.

"I do not believe you should procede, O'Neill," Teal'c began; but Jack merely flapped an irate hand in his direction and continued slogging his way through the mud, his gaze fixed with grim intensity on the dripping, flowing blobs of mud that had completely encircled his Jaffa friend and now stood no more than eight inches' distance from Teal'c's solid frame.

The beings seemed to take no notice of Jack's determined progress in their direction; with eerily sentient sucking noises the seven moving pillars of mud extended crude appendages and joined one with another in the manner of children holding hands to encircle another child in the midst of some juvenile game. But this was no game to Jack; he'd seen and endured too many 'gone-to-hell-in-a-handbasket' missions before this one to fall for that peace-and-love claptrap Daniel was so fond of spewing every time they ran across some weird new life form.

Life was so damned precarious, he thought morbidly to himself as he advanced toward the globs menacing his friend. Here and breathing one minute, just so much ruined meat the next, he mused darkly in a bleak continuation of his foul mood. Shit; it's like 90% of the things in nature are out to get us--for every benevolent race or species we come across, there are ten more just waiting to take a big, honking bite outta our asses. Well, screw that; I say it's time to make some mud pies today and score one for OUR side for a change. Then I just wanna go home, drink a LOT of beer, and watch some meaningless tv till my frigging eyes glaze over and I pass out, he added silently to himself, a formidable scowl twisting his features.

Accompanied by this inner monologue every step of the way, Jack forced a path through the sucking mud that pulled at his heavy boots, his gaze focused on the disturbing sight of his friend surrounded by those creepy columns of living mud. He failed to note how the deep imprints of his feet in the mud were almost instantly filled in and smoothed over behind him by the inrush of new mud filling up the indentations he left with each step; his lips set in a thin line of stubborn resolve, Jack approached Teal'c and the strange mud creatures just in time to witness the seven separate columns morph with startling swiftness into a solid wall of mud, each figure flowing wetly into the other until only the top of Teal'c's bald head was visible above the encircling wall of mud now separating him from Jack.

"Teal'c!" Jack yelled hoarsely, his face twisting into a grimace of fury as he raced toward the living wall of mud trapping his friend on every side. "Teal'c!"

"O'Neill!" Teal'c began; but before he could even move or try to defend himself, the circular wall of mud stretched itself up and up above the Jaffa's tall frame, transforming itself yet again from a seemingly solid wall into something that stretched and flowed like greenish-gray taffy. Jack could only watch in momentarily frozen shock as the suffocating, strangely elastic membrane of mud moved with lightning speed to drape itself completely over Teal'c's form, wrapping the Jaffa's body up as tightly and efficiently as a spider wrapping a helpless bug in unbreakable skeins of silk.

"Teal'c!!" Roaring out the other's name, Jack charged across the muddy field, unslinging his P-90 as he went and swinging it up and around to the side as if he meant to use it as a club with which to beat the second skin of living mud off his friend. But even as he heard Sam and Daniel yelling something incomprehensible behind him, Jack knew that the gun was useless; he tossed it carelessly into the mud at his feet and began bellowing curses as he charged furiously straight at his team mate.

Friendly, my ass! he was thinking fiercely as his body impacted Teal'c's mud-coated form with stunning force,sending both of them to the ground; if this is how 'communication' works on this planet, then to hell with it.

"Don't even think about it, Daniel!" Jack yelled furiously over his shoulder as he felt the mud shift and crawl with viscous fluidity over both his and Teal'c's skin. "I told you, get your asses back through the stargate! Carter, start dialing NOW!"

Jack gave a grunt of dim approval as his mind absently registered the familiar sounds of dial-up scant seconds later; assured that the rest of his team would reach safety, the Colonel straddled Teal'c's threshing form and began clawing at the tough, oddly clingy covering of mud that had completely obscured the Jaffa's body. It was no use; the mud flowed around Jack's desperate fingers like cold, molasses, reforming itself into a smooth carapace that seemed to be quickly hardening over Teal'c's body, nose and mouth included.

"You're suffocating him, you bastard!" Jack growled, unsure who he was directing the comment to. It seemed ludicrous, talking to mud, but there was a definite intelligence at work here SOMEWHERE, and Jack was becoming almost as furious as he was frightened.

"Let him go!" he yelled again as Teal'c managed to move one mud-encased hand just enough to claw with iron-strong desperation at Jack's scrabbling fingers. Help me, O'Neill, the Jaffa's frantic grip seemed to say, and Jack felt a surge of wild despair rush through his body as the intractable, unstoppable mud defied his every effort to scoop it away from Teal'c's mouth and out of his nose.

"Son of a bitch--!" Jack exploded, and then he was fighting his own hopeless battle, writhing and falling onto the muddy field at Teal'c's side as a new, gelatinous mass of undulating mud drew itself out of the morass of the ground and flowed like a form-fitting glove over Jack's body.

Jack held his breath and closed his eyes and mouth tightly as cold, slimy mud flowed in a sinister caress over his face,a quantity of the stuff plugging both nostrils while more slithered with a thick glubbing sound down into his ears. Jack could feel the cold, relentless invasion of the mud over every part of him, could feel the terrible, suffocating swiftness with which the cold glop covering him was hardening into an impenetrable shell.

For a brief second the Colonel's raging mind held the incongruous image of a vanilla cone being dipped into warm chocolate, the kind that hardened almost instantly into a delicious, crunchy shell around the ice cream; the analogy was strangely apt, he supposed, but there wasn't much dignity in dying with visions of himself looking just like a dipped cone fading in his brain.

Now, if this isn't just a completely sucky way to bite the big one, Jack thought gloomily to himself, just as the very earth beneath him tranformed itself into liquid sludge and sucked him down, down, down into the thick bog, right before Sam's and Daniel's horrified gazes where they stood at the DHD.

Teal'c was taken, as well, his completely encapsulated body drawn under by the wet, unbelievably strong suctioning action of the mud. It happened with surreal rapidity, the disappearance of both Jack O'Neill and Teal'c into the muck beneath them; and as the powerful whoosh of the engaged stargate followed close on the heels of the final, sucking kiss of the mud that had taken their friends, Daniel and Samantha Carter could only exchange looks of silent disbelief as they turned and went for help, each wondering if it was already too late.


Part Two

"What the hell just happened? Would someone--anyone--care to tell me just what's going on?"

Jack's voice sounded, low and decidedly unhappy, in the quiet darkness surrounding him. When no answer was forthcoming, the disoriented Colonel pulled himself up to a shaky sitting position and began to pat himself down, substituting hands for eyes as he tried to ascertain his current condition and make sense of the fuzzy grayness blocking his memory. He had no idea how long he'd been here, or exactly how he'd come to be here; and he sure as hell didn't know WHY he was here.

Mud. He remembered mud, cold and slimy and clinging...it was all over him, everywhere, pulling him down...Teal'c! His heart pounding, Jack swept his hands in a blind arc all around him, calling his friend's name and snarling a low oath when there was no reply.

"Okay, O'Neill; just think...think about this. Obviously you're not dead; blind, maybe, but not dead. And where did all the mud go? My clothes and skin feel clean, as near as I can tell in the dark." Muttering to himself, Jack pulled himself to his feet and realized he had no shoes or socks on; as he ran his hands over his clothing again, he also realized that he wasn't dressed in his uniform anymore but seemed to be wearing some sort of loose-fitting pajamas.

"Hello!" he called out now, his voice a mix of cautious inquiry and rising frustration. "Can anyone hear me? How about a little light in here?"

For a moment there was no response, not a sound save for the dying vibrations of his own voice; but then, gradually, an unidentifiable source of light began to rise around him, starting out not much more than a dim glow and building slowly but steadily until Jack found himself standing in the middle of a completely bare white room. There were no windows and apparently no doors, and the white tiles under his feet seemed to merge seamlessly with the white walls, confusing Jack's understanding of his own physical location within this space and upsetting his sense of equilibrium, as well.

"Let there be light," he murmured sardonically now under his breath, closing his eyes briefly to regain his wobbly balance. Though the light had arisen in gradual increments, thus saving his sight from the sudden glare of illumination after an unknown period of darkness, the new brightness currently surrounding him sent sharp fingers of pain into his skull nonetheless. He felt weak and hung-over, and his growing concern for his missing team mate caused the pain in his head to intensify as stress-induced neurotransmitters sent messages of discomfort along the fuzzy pathways of his brain.

"Well, it seems that you either speak English or are somehow reading my mind," Jack spoke up again, wincing as the sound of his own voice grated in his ears. "I mean, how else would you have known to bring up the lights when I mentioned the subject? So...I'm just going to go on the assumption that you're listening to me right now, whoever you are, and that somehow you're understanding everything I say. And my next...request, I guess you'd call it...is to know the condition and location of my companion, Teal'c. I want to see him...NOW."

There was no reply to his request, and as Jack squinted around him at the featureless white walls, he felt a frisson of anger building in a slow, boiling wave from his midsection up into his chest. Glaring down at the plain, eggshell shade of his new wardrobe, Jack plucked distractedly at one short sleeve of the loose, shapeless top he wore and tilted his head back to scowl up at the white ceiling some six feet above his head.

"Come on, give me a clue, here," the Colonel ordered with quiet exasperation, forcing himself to keep his tone reasonable. The fact that his headache just couldn't support yelling was a definite help in keeping the volume down on his increasing anger, he thought with grim irony as he did a slow pivot around the room. I'm getting really tired of being in this room, and I'm thirsty as hell, too, he thought absently as his brown eyes surveyed the unrelieved whiteness of his prison. And as the first, tantalizing images of a tall, cold glass of water entered his mind, unbidden, there was the slightest shimmer in the air before him, followed by the surprise appearance of the very glass of liquid refreshment Jack had just been thinking of.

Giving a short bark of disbelief, Jack found himself fumbling instinctively to pluck the glass from midair, marveling as he did so at the fact that the glass seemed to be floating quite steadily and serenely on nothing more than the air itself. As his fingers closed around the glass's solid circumfirence, Jack darted a suspicious glance around him but saw no sign of any hidden devices or machines that could have conjured such a neat trick.

"And you expect me just to drink this, no questions asked?" he spoke aloud again, grunting as he studied the clear, cold liquid in the transparent container through narrowed eyes. "For all I know, this is some kind of truth serum or even a deadly poison."

But a quick sniff provided no helpful clues beyond the observation that the liquid did indeed appear to be nothing more than fresh water; and as it seemed ludicrous that these unknown beings would clean him up and dress him only to poison him the second he awoke, Jack shrugged and downed the contents of the glass in one long, grateful swallow.

"Thanks...I think," he mumbled with ill grace as the water revived his disoriented body and cleared some of the cobwebs from his mind. "But I still need to see my friend, the other one you...brought here. He IS here, isn't he?"

Jack spread his arms in supplication and turned in a slow circle, his quickening brown gaze searching every crevice and corner of this strange room for anything that might give him an idea of the type of captors he was facing. But his bland environs offered no clue, and a sigh of annoyance passed Jack's lips as he waited for some response.

Just as the rather startling idea entered the Colonel's head that Teal'c might appear out of thin air in the same way the glass of water had, Jack felt a strange, nauseating shiver of disorientation roll through his body from head to toe and instinctively reached out to clutch for support that wasn't there. His eyes closing against the terrible wave of vertigo overtaking him, Jack swallowed down a surge of nausea and forced himself to open his eyes again, gasping at the sight that now greeted his uncertain gaze.

"Beam me up, Scotty," he whistled in grudging admiration for the manner of transport he had just undergone. He was definitely somewhere else now, Jack registered with apprehensive interest; and while there was still no sign of the mysterious engineers of this unknown technology, Jack did recognize the impressively muscled figure seated in a serene pose of meditation halfway across this new, more colorful enclosure.

"Teal'c!" he called out in stunned delight; as he started eagerly across the space separating him from the Jaffa, Teal'c opened his eyes and greeted the sight of Jack's unexpected presence with a slow, dignified nod of his head.

"O'Neill," he intoned with calm steadiness, and it was only the glow of unqualified welcome and relief in the Jaffa's dark eyes that let Jack know the other had been as worried for him as he had been for his missing companion.

"You all right, Big Guy?" Jack asked, and Teal'c rose effortlessly to his bare feet, his expression slightly sardonic.

"I am well, O'Neill," Teal'c replied, stepping forward to receive Jack's enthusiastic embrace. His strong arms lifted to give the Colonel a solid thump of returned greeting, and Jack grinned at him with undisguised relief as he stepped back to study the other man.

"Love the outfit, T," he snorted softly, and Teal'c gazed down at his own eggshell pajamas with resigned equanimity.

"These clothes are most comfortable," Teal'c volunteered, refusing to be drawn into Jack's gentle jest. "But I would prefer to have my uniform returned to me. This costume has no pockets in which to store food or weapons."

"Well, maybe our lovely hosts have just sent our things out to the dry cleaners," Jack retorted snidely, casting his gaze around the confines of this new room. It was a much larger space than the one Jack had awakened in, and the walls were a pleasant, soothing shade of pale blue. The floor beneath their feet was made up of some sort of patterned tiles, each one colored a different, restful earth tone; the tiles felt slightly warm against the soles of Jack's feet, and he rocked back and forth experimentally on the balls of his feet as Teal'c waited patiently for whatever his commander had in mind.

"So...what's the story, Big Guy?" Jack said after a minute, raising one eyebrow as he captured the Jaffa's gaze with his. "What do you know about this place?"

"No more than you do, I am sure," Teal'c replied gravely, shifting his gaze from Jack's and surveying their accomodations with a slight frown. "I recall being...attacked...by what appeared to be some sort of sentient, mudlike substance; I became aware that the same thing was happening to you, but I was helpless to free myself and come to your aid." Jack winced guiltily at this, disturbed that Teal'c should somehow feel responsible for the choice Jack had freely made to enter the field; but the Jaffa was still speaking, and the Colonel tabled his discomfiture for later.

"I seem to recall being sucked underground, but by then my consciousness was fading," Teal'c continued imperturbably. "When next I returned to full awareness, I was in this place, clean and warm and dressed as you see me now. I attempted to initiate communication with our unseen captors, but my efforts to solicit information were met with silence. Next I studied the confines of this place, attempting to find some type of exit or hidden surveillance; but I was unsuccessful in this endeavor, as well. I was concerned for your wellbeing and inquired as to your condition, as I had the feeling someone was carefully listening in and observing my movements and actions. But I received no reply. At that point I made the choice to sit kel-no-reem for a short time in an attempt to reach some clarity concerning the situation; it was then that you appeared, O'Neill, most unexpectedly. I was quite pleased and relieved to see you, my friend." Teal'c's dark eyes softened almost imperceptibly at this admission, and Jack nodded once, lifting a hand to grasp the other's muscled forearm in an affectionate grip.

"I'm damned happy to see you, too, Teal'c," he replied quietly, and for a brief second his brown eyes glowed warmly. Then remembrance of their current circumstances returned and snatched the gentleness from his gaze, the warm friendliness of a moment before replaced with wary anger.

"I guess the question now is WHO we're dealing with and WHAT they want from us," the Colonel sighed, stepping back from Teal'c's concerned regard and taking a few restless steps across the warm tiles on the floor. "You've seen absolutely no one since you woke up here?"

"No one," Teal'c affirmed, and Jack ran a distracted hand through his short hair. "My symbiote has not seemed unduly disturbed, but that does not mean that those holding us captive are not a danger to us. I have yet to reach any conclusions concerning the reason for our captivity here."

"Well, don't look at me," Jack snorted drily, turning to flash Teal'c a rueful half-smile. "I wasn't exactly having a perfect day BEFORE all this happened, and being rolled up in mud and sucked underground was just the icing on the cake, you know?"

"I have been aware that you've seemed...troubled, O'Neill," Teal'c responded gravely, his dark eyes filling with respectful inquiry. "Major Carter, Daniel Jackson, and myself have all been most concerned for you; but we did not feel it was our place to intrude on your privacy without your consent."

"I appreciate that," Jack sighed, flicking the Jaffa an uncomfortable frown. "I...okay, look. I just have some things I need to work out for myself right now. Just...just crap that recycles itself every so often, stuff I never quite seem to get a hold on...it's nothing to do with you guys, really, and I'm sorry if it's seemed that I've been taking it out on all of you. Not very professional of me, I suppose, bringing all my personal baggage to the job with me every day lately."

"SG-1 is a team, Colonel O'Neill," Teal'c replied thoughtfully, his eyes resting on the other man's slumped-shouldered figure without judgment or rancor. "We work together to reach solutions to common problems, to share both victories and defeats, to provide unconditional support to every member of the unit. The Major, Dr. Jackson, and I are also your friends, O'Neill, and we will do whatever we can to assist you in any way that we can. If and when you wish to share whatver it is that is troubling you, we will be honored to listen."

"Thanks, Teal'c." Jack's face lost some of its angry edge, the deep line of stress in his forehead smoothing out the tiniest bit as Teal'c's words sank like soothing balm into all the cracked, hurting places of Jack's spirit. Both Teal'c and the Colonel were intensely private men where their inner feelings were concerned, and it wasn't easy for either of them to undertake this particular conversation. But as they exchanged silent looks of understanding, each man knew that the exchange was necessary; each needed to reaffirm the friendship and support that stretched between them and bound them to each other with invisible cords of loyalty and respect.

"Well, Dr. Phil would be ecstatic, I'm sure," Jack joked tiredly now, then waved away Teal'c's mystified look of inquiry. "Never mind; let's just try to figure out where we are and who's holding us here against our wills. And we need to figure this situation out and get the hell out of Dodge before Carter and Daniel end up blatantly disregarding my orders and come back with reinforcements. I'd prefer to get out of here and get ourselves home under our own power before our better halves convince Hammond we need rescuing."

"I concur," Teal'c responded with a slight nod of his head. "It befits our status as warriors to save ourselves from our present difficulties. But our captors seem unwilling to converse with us; how do you propose that we make direct contact with them?"

"Well, maybe we've just been making this whole thing too complicated," Jack replied, pacing restlessly as he thought aloud. "When I was in that other room and felt thirsty, all I had to do was envision a tall glass of water and it appeared right in front of me." As Teal'c raised a curious eyebrow, Jack nodded confirmation of what he'd just said and continued thoughtfully.

"Maybe we could get the same results with this situation; if we just envision our kidnappers appearing before us, then maybe they'll come."

"But how will we create an accurate picture in our minds of our captors when we have never seen them?" Teal'c asked. "If the fulfillment of our wishes is dependent on projecting an accurate mental image--"

"Oh, for crying out loud, you're almost as bad as Daniel!" Jack exclaimed irately. "Does it have to be that technical? Can't we just...request their presence inside our minds and ask them nicely to appear? What's so hard about that?"

"I suppose nothing would be lost in making the attempt," Teal'c agreed, and both men moved closer together again, Teal'c's impassive gaze resting on Jack's with quiet patience as he waited for the Colonel's next suggestion.

"Uh...let's just sit here, facing each other," Jack mumbled awkwardly, dropping to the tiled floor and sitting cross-legged; a small moue of discomfort crossed his face as his bad knee creaked a protest at such mistreatment, but Teal'c politely ignored this sign of physical weakness in his commander and dropped to an easy, contemplative pose directly opposite Jack.

"What shall we do now, Colonel?" the Jaffa asked, and Jack sighed and rolled his eyes.

"I can't believe I'm going for this whole meditative mumbo-jumbo," the Colonel frowned, then cleared his throat as he realized how disparaging the remark must have sounded to his friend. "I mean, not that there's anything wrong with meditating, it's great and all that...it's just not my style."

"Then perhaps I should lead the both of us in this particular endeavor," Teal'c replied with quiet courtesy, his steady gaze telling Jack that he understood the other completely and had taken no offense.

"Maybe that would be better," Jack agreed with reluctant relief, and Teal'c nodded and extended both hands toward the commander.

"Take my hands," he ordered, and his matter-of-fact approach saved Jack from any discomfort. The Colonel readily reached to grasp Teal'c's strong hands with his own, and Teal'c nodded approvingly.

"Now we must concentrate together," the Jaffa spoke quietly. "Inside your mind, repeat silently to yourself: We desire the honor of your presence here with us, both visible and corporeal. We desire the honor of your presence here with us..."

Grudgingly Jack repeated the mantra, stumbling a bit over the words the first few times but growing certain in his recitation under Teal'c quiet tutalage. After a moment the human nodded curtly, his brown eyes flashing a message of readiness as he gave Teal'c's hands a squeeze.

"Okay, let's do this," he ordered shortly, and Teal'c nodded.

"We will both close our eyes, take one cleansing breath, and then begin broadcasting our request, over and over," the Jaffa directed. Jack obligingly closed his eyes, feeling strangely calmed and comforted by the warm, strong contact of Teal'c's fingers firmly grasping his; as he drew in one big breath and slowly released it, he felt himself sinking down, down into a quiet space somewhere in his own mind, felt the words he and Teal'c had practiced rising up effortlessly and releasing themselves into the ether.

Good, good...he seemed to sense his alien friend's silent approval as their joint request ascended into the air between them, rising up and up and vanishing into the shadowed corners of the ceiling far above; Jack lost all awareness of how many times he and Teal'c repeated the phrase they had decided on, and time seemed to drift away from them as they shared this strange limbo of peaceful concentration. It could have been mere seconds or several long minutes after they'd first begun before Jack became peripherally aware of the sense of someone moving into the space around Teal'c and himself, bringing with them an aura of power and curiosity that drew both team members abruptly from their joint meditation.

Jack opened his eyes, still clinging to Teal'c's hands as he did so, and briefly met the Jaffa's dark, amazingly composed gaze before the unmistakable feeling of other eyes upon them drew his attention from Teal'c to their surroundings.

"Son of a bitch," the commander of SG-1 murmured softly when his eyes beheld the three beings standing a mere arms' length away, directly behind Teal'c; and as Teal'c himself turned to view the silent arrival of their captors, the Jaffa's brow lifted in a silent echo of Jack's quiet oath.

"Now what, Big Guy?" Jack drawled wryly, his mouth going dry at the sight before him. "Now, what?" But this time Teal'c had no answer.


Part Three

"I just don't understand this," Sam frowned, her blue eyes fixed on the MALP's video display. "It doesn't make any sense."

"Are you sure this is the last transmission we received from P5X-JSG before we went through the gate?" Daniel seconded Sam's disbelief, and Sergeant Erin Miller frowned defensively at the both of them.

"Yes, sir; this is definitely the footage you requested," she murmured, a tone of forced patience entering her voice. "And as you can see, there's no sign of any huge mud field directly beyond the gate platform. The ground appears dry and rather barren, with scattered tufts of wild grasses here and there."

"Yes, I can see that," Daniel murmured, turning troubled eyes to Sam's. "And when we stepped through the stargate, that's pretty much what we were expecting to find." His voice was filled with misery as he continued.

"And even if a sudden rainstorm came up between the time we first sent the MALP through to take pictures and the time we stepped through the gate ourselves, it still couldn't have rained hard enough to convert that dry field into the quantity and consistency of mud we encountered there."

"Well, impossible or not, mud is exactly what we found on that damned planet!" Sam exclaimed, angry frustration rising in her voice. "I'm telling you, General, there was this huge BOG of the stuff--"

"Really sticky, nasty, slimy mud," Daniel contributed helpfully, and Sam nodded terse agreement.

"It stretched nearly as far as the eye could see," she insisted stubbornly. "And as soon as he came through the gate, Colonel O'Neill took a header right into the thick of it. Then some kind of slimy, wormlike creature hiding in the mud tried to attach itself to him--"

"You mean the thing that WASN'T a Goa'uld?" Hammond interjected sceptically, and both Sam and Daniel glared helplessly at him.

"Exactly," Daniel muttered after a breath, and Sam nodded.

"Teal'c ran out into the mud to help the Colonel," she repeated for what seemed like the hundredth time since she and Daniel had plunged back through the gate. "And then the Colonel ordered us all to go back to base, but Teal'c was still standing in the middle of all that mud, and it just sort of--"

"Came alive?" Sergeant Miller offered sardonically, and Sam sent her a scathing look that stopped the other woman cold.

"There was nothing we could do, sir," Carter appealed to the General, who was switching his troubled gaze back and forth from deceptively placid MALP footage to SG-1's very agitated remaining members. "By that time, Colonel O'Neill had gone back out into the mud, trying to get to Teal'c; he ordered Daniel and me to dial home and get out of there, and then the mud just sort of, sort of..."

"Engulfed them," Daniel finished in a low, hopeless drone, his blue eyes darkening at the terrible memory. "The sludge just covered them both, then the ground just sort of sucked them under and they were gone. Just...GONE."

"We debated going after them," Sam muttered, her expression desolate. "But we had no defense against the mud, and if we'd ALL just vanished without a trace--"

"You had your orders, and you followed them, Major," General Hammond said quietly. "You did the right thing--the ONLY thing you could have done under the circumstances." Sam dipped her head at his words, catching her lower lip between her teeth and gnawing pensively at the soft skin as Daniel rested a comforting hand on her shoulder.

"Sir, new MALP telemetry coming through!"

Davis spoke up suddenly from his seat in front of the computer that was receiving incoming data from the second MALP Hammond had ordered sent through to P5X-JSG on the heels of Sam's and Daniel's return and their subsequent, frantic story of the dire fate of their missing companions.

"Get us a clear picture onscreen, son," Hammond ordered tightly now, and Davis nodded and began tapping busily on his keyboard, fingers flying as he obeyed the General's command. Both Sam and Daniel crowded in close, oblivious to the muted activity going on around them in the control room. Four pairs of eyes fastened onto the monitor that would soon display current conditions on the surface of the planet that had apparently swallowed up two of the SGC's best men, and a palpable edge of tension filled the air.

When the video feed finally came through, there was a long breath of silence between the four bodies huddled around the monitor. Then Hammond murmured,

"What in the blazes--?!" almost at the same instant that Daniel muttered,

"Where did THAT come from?"

"It's water," Sam reported faintly, lips puckering into a frown of bewildered incomprehension. "Daniel, the mud's a LAKE now!"

"But how did it get there?" Daniel asked, and Hammond leveled his sternest gaze on the flustered Davis.

"There's no way we misdialed and sent the MALP to a different world?" he barked, and Davis--though paling a bit--answered quite steadily.

"That IS P5X-JSG, sir," he stated unequivocally, gesturing at the screen. "Water and all."

"He's right, sir," Sam murmured, her own fair features going even paler. "Hesitantly she extended a finger to point at something just visible onscreen, and Daniel's gaze followed her finger with a sense of growing dread.

"Jack's P-90," he breathed as his eyes fastened on the object that had attracted Sam's attention; silently Hammond leaned in and saw it, too--the unmistakable shape of the gun resting on one of the lower steps of the gate platform. Jack's weapon, still covered with dried, hardened gobs of mud.

"Well, I guess that settles it," Hammond announced grimly, and at the note of finality in his voice, both Sam and Daniel lifted desperate eyes to his.

"There's not going to be a rescue mission at this time, people." Hammond delivered the bad news with his usual, calm composure, even though his eyes held weary regret. As the two remaining members of SG-1 began a vehement protest, Hammond lifted a peremptory hand and scowled them into reluctant silence again.

"I will NOT send another soul to a world whose topography changes so drastically and unpredictably from one hour to the next," the General declared sternly. "Even if someone were to go through the gate right now, what could they possibly hope to achieve, with Jack and Teal'c completely vanished and a lake that's God knows how deep covering what you both claim was a mud bog a mere two to three hours ago? What's it going to become next--a flaming pit of boiling lava? No, I'm sorry; this planet is currently off limits, both now and for the foreseeable future. The best I can do is to have the MALP continue transmitting video of the surface every few hours; if by some miracle Jack and Teal'c ARE able to free themselves from that place, then we'll stand ready to open the gate and let them through. But there's nothing else we can do for them from this side." Hammond's tone was heavy with regret but granite-firm, his shrewd blue eyes studying the lake on the monitor screen with silent resignation.

As Sam's eyes brightened and then hardened with unshed tears of sheer frustration, Daniel sent the General one last, imploring look before turning away from the monitor, his shoulders slumped in defeat.

"He never wanted to go there in the first place," he muttered to himself as he started for the metal stairs leading down out of the control room. "He was having a bad day, wouldn't tell any of us what was bugging him but SOMETHING was up...and now he's gone. Teal'c, too."

Slowly Daniel turned back to pin Hammond with a stare of quiet, bitter anguish. "I thought I'd have a chance to talk to him later, to get him to discuss whatever it was that had him in such a crappy mood," the archaeologist continued doggedly. "I was even a little ticked off with him for his attitude. But I told myself he'd be okay, that we'd get together later and talk and then he'd feel better..."

"I'm sorry, son," Hammond murmured, his eyes sending Daniel a message of silent commiseration. "Don't give up on them yet, Dr. Jackson; if there's anyone who can find their way back from a situation like this, Colonel O'Neill and Teal'c are just the ones to do it."

His words of quiet encouragement were met with stony silence on Daniel's part; and with one last, resentful look at the monitor and its watery view, the archaeologist turned away again.

"I'll be in my office," he announced tonelessly, and the heavy sound of his footsteps descending the metal stairs echoed like a death knell in Samantha Carter's soul as she watched him leave.


Part Four

"Why are you doing this?" Teal'c's voice was low and intense, each word bitten out in futile anger as he struggled against the bonds holding him in place. "Your actions are illogical, given the fact that you CLAIM to belong to a peaceful and benevolent race."

'It is BECAUSE of our concern for you and for the other that we do this.' The six-foot tall, sluglike creature looming at the side of the examination table Teal'c was currently strapped down to sent the words directly into the Jaffa's agitated mind, the mental 'sound' of its voice slipping and sliding like cool oil along the pathways of Teal'c's brain. The sensation, though not painful, was decidedly uncomfortable; and despite his knowledge that he couldn't break free of his restraints, Teal'c nonetheless found himself writhing against their unyielding strength.

"O'Neill did not mean to harm your young one when we first arrived on your world," Teal'c attempted to placate the bizarre specimen undulating gently at his side. "You claim the ability to read our minds, to look into our most private memories; therefore you have undoubtedly read O'Neill's mind and have found within his own stored thoughts one particular instance--one which concerns his traumatic experience under Goa'uld torture and implantation. You can see how the mere sight of your kind, especially a juvenile, might have triggered within the Colonel's mind an unpleasant recollection of his own past suffering, when a Goa'uld was implanted within him."

'Indeed, we have viewed that singular event from your companion's life; it was most...difficult...for him to deal with, we agree,' Teal'c's guard replied patiently. 'It is even understandable that our physical appearance might remind him to some extent of both the larval Goa'uld you carry within you and of the hideous cruelty of the Goa'uld parasites in general. We do not condemn the one called O'Neill for this personal weakness; we understand its source. However, mere understanding would not have brought back the life of one of our children had you 'killed' him, as O'Neill originally ordered you to do. Our young one has a right to the preservation and sanctity of his life, which is the very thing you claim to fight for in your travels; he was merely curious and wanted to touch the Colonel and experience his physicality and consciousness so that he might better understand the human species."

"I am sure Colonel O'Neill has offered up his most sincere apologies for his moment of violent impulse," Teal'c replied with careful neutrality, turning his head to gaze directly at the seemingly eyeless, faceless form of the giant wormlike entity holding him captive. "He lost his own beloved young one and well knows the grief associated with such a tragedy."

"Yes; your friend harbors much pain, much hidden rage and anger. He covers it well and makes the rest of those around him believe he has worked past it all...but this is not the truth. His continuing failure to come to terms with his own self-guilt and loathing has isolated him from much of the emotional bonding that is healthy and normal behavior for his species. Outwardly he functions well, and his is indeed a courageous and principled spirit; but he is still damaged deep within, still broken and wounded. And therein lies the true reason for your continued imprisonment among us. O'Neill must be cured of this damage; he must be made, even against his free will, to see how sick his inner spirit is becoming.'

Here Teal'c's verbose interrogator paused, his tone growing mildly rebuking. 'We are surprised that those of you who work so closely with O'Neill day after day remain unaware of the terrible pain which emanates continuously from his deepest mind and heart,' the being accused gently. 'Are the bonds of loyalty and friendship on your respective worlds truly so shallow, that you can ignore the needs of one you claim in the same capacity as brother?'

"I do indeed count O'Neill as my brother," Teal'c replied stiffly, withdrawing his gaze from the disturbingly empty expanse of what he loosely identified as the being's head. "I do not possess the same abilities you do; I do not have the facility for reading the Colonel's mind. Even if I could do so, I would not. I would not presume to take from him his own most private thoughts and feelings; even should they cause him pain and suffering, they are his and his alone to either share or keep to himself. I will gladly listen and do all that I can to assist O'Neill, should he invite me to do so; but I will not force my views or expectations upon him. My seeming distance in such matters is in truth a measure of my respect for him, of the high esteem in which I hold him."

'Even if your reticence results in extreme emotional suffering for your friend?' the being demanded, the tone of its 'voice' in Teal'c's head almost painful in its intensity.

"We all have our past hurts and mistakes and failures to live with," Teal'c responded stoically. "And though he might offer up a degree of sympathetic understanding, no man may take on or take away what has already transpired in the life of another--be it pain or pleasure--even though that other be a valued friend and companion."

Teal'c's dark eyes flashed almost angrily as he took a breath and continued. "I have no wish to see O'Neill suffer; I gain no joy or glory in knowing that he harbors much silent pain within his spirit. Would that I could ease the burden of it; but never, never, would I erase it entirely. If you or any other being--save perhaps the One God O'Neill himself believes in--were to do such a thing, then Jack O'Neill would cease to be the person he is. He is the man you see now precisely because his pain has carved his soul into just this particular form. A true brother accepts this and finds much that is powerful and beautiful in a man who has been thusly molded, whatever his faults might be."

'There is wisdom in your words, true,' the alien being allowed, his tone considering. 'And we are well aware of the dangers in presuming to intrude into another's mind and soul, both the conscious and subconscious layers. We do not believe ourselves to be inherently superior to any other beings, which is your fear concerning us. We are aware of our own inadequacies and imperfections, you may rest assured.'

"And yet you tell me that you intend to manipulate O'Neill into certain behaviors now," Teal'c argued, the cold anger returning to his voice. "You 'presume' to know what is best for him, yet who has given you that right? The mere fact that you can read his mind and peruse his memories gives you no especial insight into his soul; just so, I might read a book and understand the words, yet come nowhere close in my own spirit to comprehending the private meaning those same words hold for their author. I can read what the author's hands have written, what his mind has produced; but this does not mean that I know the real man lurking behind the screen of his own words."

'That is indeed well put, Teal'c of Chu'lak,' the being purred inside Teal'c's mind, a frisson of genuine admiration accompanying the thought. 'We are all most impressed with your keen insight into the nature of both your species and O'Neill's. You are indeed a worthy companion to the one you call commander. However...'

Here the boneless entity leaning over Teal'c pressed itself even closer, its white, wetly gleaming body rippling with a strangely hypnotic grace as it extruded two thin, stalklike appendages with which to tap Teal'c's arm.

'However," the being continued somewhat regretfully, 'we cannot in good conscience release Colonel Jack O'Neill in his present condition. Our...inspection...of his brain and of his physical health in general has revealed to us that the stress he is battling to keep hidden within is having a markedly deleterious effect on his health. He is suppressing emotions and angers and feelings that are poisoning both his mind and body; he is in need of cleansing, of release from the current level of suffering he is experiencing.'

"And you have appointed yourselves as his physicians?" Teal'c scoffed, clenching his fingers and shooting his captor a look of supreme frustration.

'Just so,' the one at his side agreed, a wry tone entering his 'voice.' As this one turned to two others balancing themselves on gelatinous footpods some three feet away from the exam table, the others slid and gyrated and wiggled animatedly, obviously caught up in some sort of involved private dialogue with their spokesman.

'You will know me now as H'r'l'lk,' the one at Teal'c's side sent to him suddenly, turning his attention back to the Jaffa. 'Our kind are not known by the same sort of gender identities both humans and Jaffa are familiar with; we are true hermaphrodites and as such are designated as both male/female. But I sense in your mind that you 'see' me as a male, and with that I am satisfied. And I wish to assure you now that no true harm will come to your friend; we wish merely to assist him in releasing some of the strongest self-destructive traits currently residing within his mind. We regret that your participation will be required to accomplish our goal...but comfort yourself in the knowledge that any suffering you undergo in the process of assisting your companion will be minor and easily repaired.'

"And when O'Neill realizes what you have done?" Teal'c lashed out, his arm muscles bunching like steel bands as he tried once more to escape his bonds. "When he sees that you have forced even the smallest amount of suffering upon me in some misguided attempt to 'assist' him, will not his mental and emotional torment--his sense of guilt and responsibility--be increased even more? Along with terrible anger, I can assure you. O'Neill will not take lightly the abuse or mistreatment of anyone close to him. Of this you are well aware."

'It will be...complicated,' H'r'l'lk agreed musingly, bobbing his/her body gently from side to side. 'As with all medical or pschiatric procedures, there is some degree of risk involved. But my kind are all in full accord; we must weigh the small trauma which our intervention will cause O'Neill against the much greater probablility that his continuing to suffer in silent isolation will cause him serious health problems in the near future. We will do this as gently as we are able, Teal'c of Chu'lak; but be sure, we WILL do this. And as I have just said, your own participation, though minimal, will be required. But we believe your own suffering will prove negligible; and as a positive side effect, we believe that you too will benefit from this treatment; you will find renewed healing for your own spirit, as well.'

And with those disturbingly cryptic words, H'r'l'lk and his companions vanished, leaving Teal'c strapped to the metal-gray table in the cold white room that surrounded him. Alone and raging impotently against his own helplessness and the ordeal that was about to come--both for himself and for O'Neill--the worried Jaffa closed his eyes and forced himself to sink down into meditation, his circling thoughts settling into resolute calm as he sought for some way out of this dilemma.


Part Five

"Where's Teal'c? What the hell have you done with him?"

Jack's voice was a snarl of anger as he paced restlessly around the generous confines of the blue room, his bare feet slapping against the warmed tiles beneath his soles as he carried on a running commentary to the unseen worm creatures he knew must be listening in right now. Despite their silence and the lack of their physical presence, Jack could sense an intelligence, a wariness, lurking in the solitary air around him; and he had had just about enough of this ridiculous waiting game.

"Okay, look; after meeting you guys, I realize that the--the 'being' we ran into outside, in the mud, was probably one of your own kind. One of your children, maybe? If that's the case, then I apologize for being somewhat...rough. I meant no offense, I just didn't understand or realize..." Jack's voice trailed off, and he heaved an aggravated sigh as he remained alone, with no sign of the slimy, six-foot tall denizens of this place appearing before him to accept his grudging apology.

"If you have a vendetta against me--some sort of reparations you require for what I did--then let's just get to it, shall we? My companion had nothing to do with it, he was just trying to help me out...so you've got no reason to keep him here, to harm him. Wherever it is you've taken him, I'd appreciate it if you'd just let him go now, if you'd be so kind as to send him back through the stargate. You've got me, I'm the one you want..."

"...Or not," the disgruntled Colonel added under his breath when some moments had passed with no response of any kind from his unseen captors. Sighing, Jack gave up his useless pacing and plopped down onto the tiled floor, drawing his knees up and loosely clasping his arms around his shins as he pondered what might be happening to Teal'c right now. He just hoped that the Big Guy wasn't being made to pay for Jack's own less-than-positive reaction to the aliens whose world they had entered, so blithely unaware of the presence of its native inhabitants.

Reluctantly Jack had to acknowledge the fact that he was less than thrilled with the physical appearance of the ones holding Teal'c and himself captive here; despite his unwillingness to prejudge another race, species, or individual, Jack just couldn't seem to help the very visceral gut reaction of disgust the sight of these newest aliens evoked in him.

They were just too much like the snake-heads, he mused glumly as faint memories of being Goa'ulded flickered at the edges of his distracted mind. And even though they were obviously very advanced and were most likely reading his mind right now--ferreting out his helpless antipathy for their physical form in the process--Jack couldn't chase away the small tremor of distaste that ran through him as he recalled how it had felt to have one of these beings' children crawling up his spine. He had never been opposed in the past to giving piggyback rides to other peoples' children, but this...this particular instance was just asking for more than he could comfortably give. Even knowing now that the creature which had 'assaulted' him outside in the mud was most likely nothing more than a curious, playful child, Jack had no wish to relive the experience, much less repeat it.

Maybe they'd taken Teal'c, not to punish him but to study him, Jack mused worriedly to himself now; after all, Junior was similar enough in form to their own kind that these new guys would most likely find the symbiote of great interest. Jack wondered if these beings had ever heard of the Goa'uld before or had ever had dealings with them; he found himself hoping uneasily now that their vague similarity in appearance didn't presage the same sort of similarity in temperament and the capacity for sheer evil that the Goa'uld came equipped with.

'O'Neill.'

The creature that appeared in front of Jack now did so with such silent rapidity that the battle-hardened Colonel couldn't help the bitten-off oath of startled surprise that left his lips; scrambling awkwardly to his feet, Jack stepped back two wary paces from the worm being's uncomfortably close proximity and forced himself to let his arms hang limp and nonthreatening at his sides.

"So...you're back," Jack muttered dourly, his shrewd brown eyes studying the creature that weaved gracefully back and forth before him. He thought he recognized this one from before; it had an unusual brown splotch on the top of its...head?...Jack mused uncertainly, a mark its two companions from before had not shared. Of course, this one could be a completely different splotched...whatever they were called...than the earlier one; but Jack didn't think so. Oddly enough, there was something familiar and unique about the being that had just appeared before him, something Jack recognized from before.

'Indeed, we do NOT all look alike,' the alien suddenly spoke inside Jack's head, a note of mixed humor and gentle reprimand attending the smooth words. 'Just as you differ markedly from your companion, I would hope that my own physical appearance possesses unique attributes shared by no others of my kind.'

"Well, um...I DO seem to 'know' you somehow," Jack allowed reluctantly, and the worm creature waggled its upper half approvingly.

'Indeed,' it repeated. 'You are intelligent and observant, admirable qualities in one burdened by such a stiff, uncomfortable carapace. It must require a lot of concentration for you to think and move simultaneously; so many hard edges and awkward appendages to manipulate!'

"Well, we make do," Jack returned drily, and the being before him nodded what was obviously its head in thoughtful consideration.

'You may call me H'r'l'lk,' the worm thing sent now, the slightest note of pride slithering in amongst the words appearing in Jack's mind. 'My kind bear a nomenclature unpronounceable by your human vocal apparatus; therefore I will not attempt to teach it to you. My personal name is impossible for you to utter, as well; the name I just gave you is merely a crude approximation. In the same vein, you may call my people by the name 'Rrg'hur'a.' Listen now, and you will know the true sound of both my peoples' name and my own.'

And as Jack stood fidgeting before the creature, steeling himself for what would come, the being sent an incomprehensible series of almost musical sound into the human's brain, the liquid rush of it singing through Jack's mind like nothing he had ever heard or imagined before. As the last notes died away, a strange, dizzying buzzing filled the Colonel's head and sent him reeling drunkenly to his knees, hands flying up to cover his ears as though he could physically block out the notes H'r'l'lk had sent directly into his mind.

'Truly, neither your bodies nor your minds are able to process the beauty of our true naming,' the worm creature sighed regretfully now, and as Jack swallowed down acid bile and cracked one eye open to glare up at the alien, H'r'l'lk glided gracefully toward him on one elegant footpod, a sense of determined purpose radiating from its elongated body.

'You are concerned for the other, for Teal'c,' the alien began without ceremony, hovering just above Jack as the disoriented Colonel shook away the last dregs of nausea and forced himself not to flinch back from the worm's approach.

'And you are indeed correct; we find the symbiote he carries within him to be a fascinating subject for study,' H'r'l'lk continued. 'So similar to us in basic physical structure, yet so savage in temperament and intellect. It is a pity that your friend must endure such a hostile, negative presence within his very body in order to survive.'

"Yeah, well, it's not like Teal'c had a lot of choices, growing up on Chu'lak," Jack grunted aloud, rubbing a distracted hand across the back of his neck. He was developing a killer headache, and what little patience he'd forced himself to exhibit earlier was quickly dissipating.

"Look; Teal'c may not like having Junior in there, but he NEEDS that symbiote to stay alive," Jack continued grimly. "And I would hope that you and your...people...realize that and won't do anything to harm Teal'c. He's a good man; he's done nothing wrong here."

'I did not mean to imply that he is not an honorable being,' the alien returned imperturbably, its glistening outer covering expanding and contracting gently, as if the creature were breathing. 'We mean the Jaffa himself no harm; but we find that we MUST study his symbiote more closely. It is an important opportunity in the science of parallel evolution that we cannot afford to bypass. We have not yet encountered the Goa'uld species on our world, nor do we wish to have dealings with beings of such primitive savagery. In order to protect ourselves against possible future visitation by these beings, we need to become better acquainted with their unique peculiarities. This 'Junior' which Teal'c carries provides us with the perfect opportunity to do so.'

"And just how do you propose to study Junior without harming Teal'c in the process?" Jack demanded, rising to his feet and lifting clenched fists in H'r'l'lk's direction. "If you remove the symbiote, Teal'c will sicken and die. I've explained that to you already!"

'We know this, indeed,' H'r'l'lk responded calmly. 'And we have informed Teal'c that anything more than the briefest removal of his symbiote may not prove necessary...should you cooperate with us instead.'

"Me?" Jack growled blankly, a scowl crossing his face. "But I'm human; I don't HAVE a symbiote in me. How the hell can I help you?"

'You carry within you the full memory of being...invaded...by a fully mature larva, one ready to take over your body and become an adult Goa'uld,' the alien worm sent smoothly into Jack's mind. 'And while the physical dissection and study of Teal'c's larval Goa'uld would yield up some useful biological information, we are more concerned with the social customs and behaviors of these beings, who have the audacity to call themselves gods and to ruthlessly subjugate all other races they come into contact with.'

'To some extent Teal'c can assist us with such intimate knowlege,' H'r'l'lk continued. 'His mind can provide us with thousands of violent, bloody images of the torture and murders he carried out while in the service of these beings; he can also attest to the reluctantly shared knowledge of the arrogance and hatred spewing daily from his symbiote into his own conscious awareness. In this way our knowledge of these creatures is increased. It is indeed a cruel fate your friend must live day after day, enslaved to such a foul creature for his very survival. If we could safely remove this 'Junior' from within him and give him back full health, we would. But we cannot; our technology, though advanced, was not designed to accomodate or cure alien physiologies.'

Something akin to a sigh filtered now into Jack's consciousness from the worm creature studying him so intently, and Jack felt a shudder of apprehension jolt its way down his spine as his captor continued 'speaking' to him.

'The information Teal'c is able to provide to us is indeed valuable,' H'r'l'lk was sending, a note of quiet purpose entering the words. 'But he cannot truly describe or understand what it is to actually be TAKEN by a Goa'uld, to feel oneself lose all control over one's own body, one's own voice, one's own will; to become trapped inside the shell of all one once was as some hideous, vicious creature wrests the final dregs of autonomy away and procedes to plunge his or her helpless victim into an unending, waking nightmare. I see this very experience in your mind now, O'Neill; I read the horror of it in your thoughts, in your very body language as you tremble before me. YOU can help us to fully understand such suffering, such desperation; YOU can show us how to fight it, how to fight BACK against wills as strong and psychotically violent as those the Goa'uld possess.'

"Looks like you've already found out all you need to know," Jack retorted sourly, not trying to hide the black rage boiling up within him at the alien's casual inspection of some of his darkest, most agonizing memories. "You seem to have the basic gist of just what those bastards do down pat; I don't see how I could offer anything beyond what you've just taken from my mind."

'In that you are mistaken,' H'r'l'lk disagreed, sliding its flexible body one step closer to the Colonel's stiffly held figure. 'You are perhaps unaware of it, O'Neill, but when that Goa'uld was inside you--however briefly--it did more damage than you know. The physician who treated you, the minimal help and counseling you received afterwards--none of it was sufficient. It was not enough. You were led to believe that the Goa'uld's influence over you was completely expunged, that the loathsome creature was completely dead, not even the smallest scintilla of its intellect or its hold on you left behind.'

"I'm fine," Jack snarled, not wanting to hear this, not wanting to deal with the rising wave of panicked sickness churning up inside him. "It was over and done with a long time ago; if--if SOMETHING of that son of a bitch had been left behind in me, don't you think I'd have noticed by now? I don't know what the hell you're trying to imply here, but--"

'The one that was in you,' H'r'l'lk sent the words past all of Jack's infuriated protestations, its tone as serene and certain as ever. 'The one that was in you did indeed leave something behind, just before its unwilling death; something so small, so subtle, that your conscious mind might never know of its existence. Even your subconscious shies away from the dark, twisted presence that lingers within you, this tiny bit of Goa'uld cruelty that the one who once writhed inside you left as its calling card.'

"What the hell are you talking about?" Jack rasped, fighting the urge to dig his fingers into his scalp as a terrible, blinding headache began to build within his skull. "There's nothing left of that evil in me, NOTHING! You don't know what you're talking about, it's just some trick you're trying to pull..."

'We do not wish to harm you or Teal'c; we wish only to help the both of you,' H'r'l'lk insisted, forcing his inexorable will, his unstoppable words, onto Jack, as relentlessly as Hathor had forced her damnable larva into residence in Jack's horrified body and mind that terrible day.

"If you want to do your good deed for the day, then let us go," Jack gritted out, slitting his eyes to glare up at the white monstrosity looming over him. "If you want to prove to us that you're not the same sort of creatures as the Goa'uld, then return us to our world, unharmed. What lies inside our minds isn't your business OR your concern. I never asked you to look in my head, to rape my memories for your own selfish purposes!"

'Sometimes treatment must be delivered despite the protests of the one being treated," H'r'l'lk interrupted clearly, the smallest frisson of apology echoing behind the words. 'Sometimes the patient must endure a moment's discomfort in order to attain a permanent cure.'

"I'm not sick; and I don't NEED to be cured of a damned thing," Jack snapped back, taking a threatening step in the alien's direction. "Look, this whole day has been for shit, all the way around. I don't want any more hassles, don't mean you or your kind any disrespect; I just want to get the hell out of here and take Teal'c AND Junior with me. Why is that such a hard thing for you guys to agree to? I promise you we'll stay away from here after this; we won't bother you anymore. Just...just respect US enough in return to send us back now. That's all I'm asking."

'Indeed we will return you through the stargate, as you call it,' H'r'l'lk countered calmly, extruding two thick, strong appendages and gesturing toward Jack with them as though attempting to persuade him of his/her sincerity. 'We will see that you return unharmed...eventually. But first, we would heal you. We would have you understand that you harbor within you still the diseased, poisonous fragments of a creature which meant you nothing but harm and ill will, one who continues to inflict great pain on your life even beyond its own well-deserved death. Once you have seen and accepted this truth for yourself--and once you have allowed my kind and your companion Teal'c to assist you in removing this 'thorn' from your side, so to speak...then and only then will we send you both home. Then and only then will we stabilize the conditions outside on the planet's surface so that your people may expect your return.'

"Oh, great, just great," Jack snarled, wanting to lunge in a rage at the sinuous creature before him but sensing it would do him no good to try. "Of all the planets in the freaking universe, we land on one with giant worms harboring some twisted, messianic complex! Look, if I want curing, I'll go back to earth and find a good shrink--a psychiatrist. How's that? If I agree to go lie on some doc's couch and tell him how bad that nasty, naughty snakehead made me feel, will you let us go?"

'It is time for the healing to begin,' H'r'l'lk stated unequivocally, brushing aside Jack's sarcastic diatribe as if he had never spoken. 'Teal'c has been prepared already and indeed cannot be made to wait much longer; we must remove ourselves now to his location so that preparations can be made.' And before Jack could so much as blink, H'r'l'lk and the tranquil blue room winked out in front of him, replaced with a surge of overwelming blackness and disorientation that seemed to suck away the last bits of Jack's conscious will.


Part Six

"What's the latest report?" Daniel asked wearily, lifting bleary eyes to Sam's harried face as she slipped into the archaeologist's cluttered office.

"Water's gone," Sam replied dully, not a flicker of hope or relief crossing her face as she slumped bonelessly against Daniel's desk. "Now there's some sort of howling windstorm going on; it's almost blown the MALP off the gate platform. The computer is clocking wind gusts of up to seventy miles per hour so far. There's still no sign of Jack and Teal'c."

"And Hammond's still saying no," Daniel filled in tonelessly, gazing without expression at the pencil he was idly twirling between two fingers.

"Yep," Sam agreed, her forehead creasing in a frown of helpless frustration. "He's to the point where the instant I stick my head in the door, he just scowls and gestures at me to go away again. I know he's taking all this almost as hard as we are and is just as frustrated, but that doesn't make me feel any better."

"Well, whoever or whatever took them," Daniel began quietly, not meeting Sam's eyes; "Whoever it was, they're obviously doing their best to make sure we don't try to go after our people. Somehow they're regulating the weather conditions, manipulating everything we're seeing on that planet to keep us from coming back. The question is, why? What do they want with Jack and Teal'c--what's happening to them over there right now?"

"I'm not sure I even want to know," Sam sighed mournfully, then shrugged and shot Daniel a chagrined frown. "No, that's not true; I DO want to know. I guess I'm just afraid to find out."

"We should be there," Daniel muttered fiercely, his eyes glinting dark fire as they held Sam's worried gaze. "Whatever it is they're going through, we should be with them. We're part of the team, part of that damned mission; it doesn't seem right that we're back on earth, just sitting here waiting."

"You know what the Colonel would say to that," Sam replied quietly, and a brief grimace twisted Daniel's face.

"He'd probably slap me ever-so-gently upside my head and tell me to stop being stupid," the agitated man groused, dropping the pencil onto the desk and taking off his glasses. "He'd remind me how there's no guts or glory in charging in blind, no smarts involved in putting ourselves in harm's way in some misguided attempt to gallop to the rescue--"

Sighing deeply, Daniel knuckled his eyes and resettled his glasses on his nose, blinking rather owlishly at Sam as she reached to lay a comforting hand on his arm.

"And yet we both know he's counting on us to never give up, to keep at it till we figure out just what's happened to him and Teal'c and how to bring them home," the weary astrophysicist smiled, a light of mute frustration reflecting from her blue eyes.

"The thought that the Colonel or Teal'c might be hurt or suffering right now, waiting for us to DO something from our end while all we CAN do is sit and wait, is maddening. Dammit, Daniel, I'd rather be wherever they are, take the chance that they're not just living it up in some hedonistic alien pleasure palace--"

"Whoa! Whoa! How often has THAT ever happened to us?" Daniel interjected, and Sam wrinkled her nose at him as he sent her a rueful half-smile.

"But I wish that WOULD prove to be the case this time," Daniel finished quietly, eyes going dark again. "Right now all we can do is hope they're not undergoing some type of torture or experimentation."

Neither team member voiced aloud the other fear they both shared--the grim idea that one or both of their friends might be dead. As an uneasy silence filled the space between them, Daniel clasped his hands together atop his desk, brooding over Jack's earlier irascible mood and praying that he would have the chance to see the other man again and ot offer up to Jack a listening ear and his unconditional support.

"We'll find them," Sam murmured now, standing up straight and heading back to the door with new purpose in her eyes. "We're going to find them, and they're going to be okay."

And as the door closed quietly behind her, Daniel struggled to find the echo of his friend's conviction within his own worried heart.


Part Seven

"Teal'c! Just what in the hell are you bastards doing to him?"

Jack's voice rang out with unmitigated fury as he stood in the white exam room next to the metal table holding Teal'c's helplessly strapped-down form. The Jaffa's eyes were closed, and he appeared to be unconscious; though Jack could detect no overt signs of injury to his friend, he felt a twist of apprehension curling round his gut at the Jaffa's unnatural stillness.

'He remains unharmed, O'Neill,' H'r'l'lk reassured the agitated human as Jack ran a gentle hand across Teal'c's broad forehead. Funny, Jack thought absently to himself; I've never really had the chance to touch his tattoo before.

"What have you done to him?" Jack demanded, his voice lower now but no less angry. "Why is he unconscious?"

'It is for his own protection,' H'r'l'lk responded, moving around to the other side of the exam table to take a place next to another of his kind. This one was busily checking several strange machines that featured some type of wire-thin cords running from the machines into the flesh just below Teal'c's left collarbone; there was no blood visible, and the wires had been inserted and melded so skillfully into Teal'c's skin that they seemed almost a natural part of the Jaffa's own body.

Even as Jack stood uncertainly on the other side of the table, longing to reach across and rip the mysterious wires loose from his friend, he had to admit to himself that the Rrg-whatever-the-hell these critters called themselves were amazingly versatile physically. They seemed to have the ability to extend any number of flexible, rubbery appendages at will and to manipulate the smallest of materials with complete ease, then retract each appendage once its usefulness was done, reverting back to their original bloblike configuration. Jack found himself wondering just where these creatures' weak spots might be and how easy it might or might NOT be to injure--even kill--one of them; as the violent conjecture flitted through his mind, the alien weaving next to H'r'l'lk drew back as if deeply disturbed and veered sharply to the left, turning its body as though desperate to avert its attention from the thoughts O'Neill was broadcasting so clearly to it.

'We are not impervious to your weapons; I am sure you could injure us quite severely with your bare hands, as well, O'Neill,' H'r'l'lk sent to him, his/her tone carefully neutral. 'But we are not without our own unique defensive capabilities, which I decline to share with you at this time. Suffice it to say that we have made...arrangements...for a swift response should you attempt to harm one of us in any way. Please; let us 'get down to business' now, as your kind might say. We have no wish to keep Teal'c sedated any longer than is necessary.'

"Why sedate him at all?" Jack growled, running his fingers gingerly over the raised gold scar on his friend's forehead; finding a peculiar degree of comfort in the simple, repetitive motion, Jack continued his distracted stroking of Teal'c's dark skin as H'r'l'lk extruded a long, thin appendage with two smaller, fingerlike protruberances wiggling on the end. As Jack's nose wrinkled in instinctive distaste at the sight, H'r'l'lk extended his 'fingers' and tapped them lightly against the shirt-covered entry to Teal'c's pouch.

'We must temporarily remove the symbiote from your team mate's body,' H'r'l'lk explained calmly, keeping its 'fingers' pressed against Teal'c's pouch even as Jack let loose with a string of expletives and tried to wrench the alien's tenacious grip free from his friend.

"You'll kill him!" Jack gritted out, unable to stop himself from cringing at the smooth, somewhat moist texture of the alien's white flesh beneath his grasping fingers. "You've got to know that, just from reading Teal'c's mind; he needs Junior to stay put! Look, whatever you want to do to me, just hurry up and DO it, already; there's no damned reason for you to involve Teal'c in this. After all, I'm the one who needs 'healing'--isn't that what you've been trying to tell me?"

'Just so,' the alien replied steadily, smoothly withdrawing the appendage Jack was clutching so angrily back into the main mass of his/her body and leaving the flustered human holding onto thin air.

'To do what must be done for you, we require the assistance of 'Junior,' H'r'l'lk continued. 'And while it is indeed true that Teal'c initially bore grave misgivings about the upcoming procedure, we are certain that he will re-evaluate his doubts once he reawakens and realizes the good his purely temporary sacrifice has brought about. You are surely aware that he would do all that he could to help you, O'Neill.'

"That doesn't mean I'd let him do it," Jack growled, stepping back into a wary, defensive posture as two more worm creatures suddenly materialized on either side of him. "And if you're all reading my mind right now, you know damned well that I'll fight you every inch of the way on this. Whatever plans you have for me, you're going to have to carry out by force. And if I survive whatever you intend to do to me, I'm probably going to do my best to kick all your asses...or whatever...when you're done."

'From you we would expect no less,' H'r'l'lk countered wryly; and before Jack could do more than pivot his body and launch a rudimentary attack, he felt himself being taken down by a veritable army of wriggly, rubbery, incredibly strong worm creatures that appeared out of nowhere, just as the first two had moments before.

"Aagghh!--" Cries of disgust and fury were ripped from Jack's mouth as he struggled helplessly beneath the crushing onslaught of H'r'l'lk's brethren; doggedly the human continued to fight, even as the feel of so many moist, muscle-ringed, serpentine bodies holding his own flailing figure down sent shivers of disgust through him.

"Damn you to hell!" he gasped out as one of his attackers suddenly sprayed some sort of liquid from a previously hidden orifice midway along its shapeless body, aiming with deadly accuracy so that the fine mist of whatever it was hit Jack full in the face and upper chest.

"Damn you all, you've got no right!..." Jack tried to keep fighting, but almost instantly he could feel his muscles locking up, could feel the terrifying, steadily creeping spread of complete paralysis rushing through him as a result of whatever chemical or hormone his attacker had sprayed him with.

'For this I apologize, O'Neill,' he heard H'r'l'lk dimly in his head, gagging helplessly on his own spit as the other worms slowly and carefully lifted themselves from his now-limp body and left him sprawled in an undignified heap on the cold white floor.

'You are indeed most stubborn; and I realize how...unpalatable the next phase of your treatment will seem to you. But it is necessary, all of it necessary. Later you will see; later you will appreciate. And now we begin.'

Silently H'r'l'lk glided around the table holding Teal'c's unconscious form and moved to a position at Jack's feet, eyeless head bobbing gently as the alien creature studied Jack's heaving, prostrate body with an air of faint regret.

'We must lift you now and immobilize you on another table, O'Neill,' H'r'l'lk explained, gesturing to some of the waiting aliens clustered around them both. 'It would probably seem less traumatic for you were we to close your eyes for you during the transfer. And please, do not fear; the neurotoxin my colleague emitted is very selective and will not affect either your vision or your breathing for long. Even though it might feel right now as if you are choking, the sensation will soon pass. You have received no permanent damage.'

As Jack glared helplessly from his prone position, silently daring the worms around him to get anywhere NEAR his frozen-open eyes, H'r'l'lk nodded to the others and moved with them to close in around Jack. Wanting to scream his everliving head off, Jack could do nothing but grunt once, unintelligibly, as an anonymous worm appendage reached out and slid its cool, shiny dampness over the Colonel's desperate eyes, drawing the panicked human's eyelids down over his wildly staring pupils and completely cutting off his sight.

Jack heard more than felt the somewhat laborious transfer of his body from floor to exam table, heard the faint snick! snick! of straps being tightened across his chest and legs as he was readied for whatever horrors H'r'l'lk and his kin had planned for him. Desperately Jack tried to move, to fight; but he was helpless, hot tears of rage and frustration squeezing from his tightly closed eyes to trickle down into his ears. The aliens had gone eerily silent, conversing telepathically as they rustled and slid and moved around both Jack's and Teal'c's tables with brisk efficiency.

Oh, God, Jack raged inwardly, infuriated beyond measure that these slimy bastards could read even his most private thoughts, that even in his head he couldn't escape them. WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME?! he screamed silently at H'r'l'lk, fighting his restraints in his mind if not in physical reality. WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS? There was no reply, and Jack could feel every nerve he possessed stretching to the limit as he waited for whatever might come next.

'All is ready now, O'Neill,' H'r'l'lk's voice sounded suddenly in Jack's head; and as the Colonel made a half-successful attempt to open his weakly fluttering eyelids once more, he could hear the aliens doing something to Teal'c over on the adjoining table. Jack's skin began to crawl as he recognized the high, angry shrieks of a disturbed larval symbiote, and he wanted to scream out furious curses at the aliens as he realized what they were doing. They were removing Junior from Teal'c's pouch now, withdrawing the enraged, juvenile Goa'uld from its secure home into the cold, unfriendly air of this room.

No, you stupid fucks! Put him back, put the frigging snake back in its pouch! Jack wanted to roar; but the continuous, traumatized keening and shrieking Junior made so close by told Jack that no such thing was happening. A fuzzy semblance of vision was beginning to return to Jack's watering eyes, and he blinked and squinted furiously in the direction of Teal'c and the displaced symbiote that was making its supreme displeasure known in no uncertain terms.

'We may begin,' H'r'l'lk sent gravely to the room at large, the indistinct bulge of his/her body blocking from Jack's sight much of what was now taking place with Junior. But then the alien moved aside, slithering with uncanny grace over to the head of Jack's table; and as Jack's vision began to clear in earnest, he was horrified to see Junior being firmly held by another worm creature in some sort of metallic clamp, the symbiote's body writhing and threshing wildly as it continued to deliver shrill screeches into the air.

"What?--" Jack began thickly, struggling to break past the temporary paralysis affecting him, trying to push the words out more clearly. "What the hell?--" But then his eyes widened, a well-remembered horror springing back to life in their tortured brown depths as the worm creature holding onto Junior pivoted with alarming swiftness to dangle Junior's raging, disgusting body directly over Jack's heaving chest.

"No...NO, GODDAMMIT!" Jack bellowed, beginning to buck and thresh as earnestly as he was able to against the weakening effects of the paralytic agent still in his system. "Jesus, no! You can't implant him in me, he's not old enough yet, you'll kill the both of us...and Teal'c, too...God, NO! Stop this, stop this now, I can't do this, oh God I can't, never again...you bastards, oh you bastards--"

And then Jack O'Neill could only look down in abject horror as Junior was settled carefully onto his chest and released.


Part Eight

"I really think we should give it another shot, sir." Sam's tone was a mix of quiet respectfulness and downright pleading as she grasped the edge of the conference table and leaned earnestly in the General's direction, her blue eyes glued to his somber face.

"Conditions on P5X-JSG haven't worsened appreciably in the last two hours, General," Daniel added helpfully, straightening in his chair and casting Sam a nervous sidelong look before turning all of his attention back to Hammond. "If Sam and I hurried and took along only minimal supplies, we might be able to find some shred of evidence, however small, that would help us figure out just exactly what did happen to Jack and Teal'c. And if we get to the planet and see that conditions are worsening again, we can dial back out in seconds and return home. At least let us TRY, General. Please."

Two sets of intense blue eyes drilled with merciless force into Hammond's own sapphire gaze, the expressions behind those entreating stares tight with grim resolve. If nothing else, these two are determined just to wear me completely down, Hammond groused silently to himself as he sent both Carter and Daniel a heavy frown of displeasure.

"You people just don't know when to quit, do you?" the General sighed wearily after a beat, lifting a hand to rub his palm irately across the back of his neck. Muscles stiffened by hours of tension protested tightly as George's fingers slid across them, and the beleaguered base commander swallowed back a wince of discomfort as both Sam and Daniel continued to stare at him with laser-focused intensity.

"The longer we delay, the worse things might go for Jack and Teal'c," Daniel insisted in a low, emphatic tone. "And if we let this window of opportunity slip by us, we may not get another chance to gate to that planet and look for them before it's all too late. We can't just keep sitting here twiddling our collective thumbs, for God's sake!"

"I wouldn't call the research that the dedicated people on this base have been doing for the past several hours on behalf of our missing men just 'twiddling' thumbs, Dr. Jackson," Hammond retorted severely, finally beginning to lose patience with the younger man. "And I know that you don't believe that, either. I realize that this whole situation is very frustrating and that both you and Major Carter would like to be taking some definitive action right about now. But you people are ultimately MY responsibility, just as Teal'c and Colonel O'Neill are; and I will not allow either one of you--or anyone else at this facility--to just rush blindly into what continues to be a very unstable situation."

As looks of almost unbearable tension settled onto the two faces down the table from him, George sighed heavily and dropped his gaze to the unmarked pad of paper resting on the conference table before him. At times like these, Hammond mused resignedly, being in command really sucked, as Jack would say. A morose silence settled over the conference room, broken only by the faint noises of busy personnel to-ing and fro-ing just beyond the private confines of this meeting. George could feel the relentless, angry stares Daniel kept sliding his way, could hear the slightly adenoidal rasp of the agitated archaeologist's breathing and Sam rattling her latest MALP report read-outs in her seat beside Daniel, her reproachful glances in Hammond's direction filling the air around them with her mute disappointment. Why do I ALWAYS go against my better judgment with this team? the disgruntled commander of the SGC sighed inwardly to himself when he could bear the tension no longer.

"One more hour," Hammond barked out suddenly, his disgruntled tone sounding harshly in the startled quiet. "If the current planetary conditions remain as they are for one more hour, I will authorize a brief--and I DO mean brief--recon trip back through the gate to P5X-JSG. I'm afraid, however, that I can't spare any other people to go with you, SG-1; Major Carter, you and Dr. Jackson will be going on your own, with no extra backup in case of emergency. Is that understood?"

"Yes, sir; completely understood, sir," Sam babbled, her cheeks flushing with a combination of excitement and relief. Her gaze slid to Daniel, who had his head bowed and was taking deep, controlling breaths in an effort to contain his own emotions; briefly his determined blue eyes held Sam's, and some silent, private message flared between them. Then Daniel lifted his gaze to Hammond at the end of the table and rose to his feet, nodding with a polite gratitude that was underscored by a building, restless energy and the need to get moving.

"Thank you, General Hammond," Daniel murmured, and Hammond nodded brusquely in reply.

"You're both dismissed now to gather whatever supplies you might need," the General spoke, keeping his voice steady even as a torrent of private doubts flowed through his mind. "But be aware--if conditions should suddenly change again or worsen on that planet in the next hour, this mission WILL be scrubbed. Understood?"

"Yes, sir," both remaining members of SG-1 chorused, then exchanged looks that plainly said, Let's scram before he changes his mind again. Hammond sank back into his chair, sighing tiredly, as he watched the two hurry from the conference room, heads together as they whispered urgent plans to each other on the go.

God help them all, Hammond found himself thinking, not for the first time. He had a horrible presentiment that one of these days one or more of SG-1 was going to disappear through that gate for the last time; and he could only hope and pray that today wasn't going to be the one.


Part Nine

I'm in Hell, Jack O'Neill thought dazedly to himself, his throat hoarse from yelling; I'm in fucking Hell, and these giant worm bastards are the Devil's own minions.

As he lay strapped to the table, heart pounding triple time beneath the weight of the writhing presence on his chest, Jack felt something within his mind begin to crack; he sensed tiny fissures spreading, growing, turning into dangerous fractures that split and yawned and threatened to spill him over the edge into a dark, gaping abyss from which there was no return. He thrust and threshed and surged up against the straps holding him fast, body rigid with terror and a disgust so deep and pervasive that its power threatened to push the panicked human to the point of snapping his own bones in his struggle to escape this.

'Calm yourself, O'Neill; this must be done. No lasting harm will come to you!' H'r'l'lk sent strongly into Jack's mind, but the words were just so much gibberish to their recipient. Ah, God, it would have to be Junior, Jack was thinking dully, fatalistically, as he bent his wrist past the point of all tolerance in his mad efforts to reach the fastenings on the straps across his chest. Teal'c will never get over this, he'll always blame himself even though he had no choice...Gods, take it away, take the little son of a bitch AWAY from me...!

"No...no, not like this," Jack heard himself mumbling drunkenly, weakly, his voice lost and pitiable in counterpoint to Junior's venomous hissing and screeching. Hungrily the symbiote reared its head, questing for just the right point of entry into Jack's body: Ready or not, here I come! the foul creature seemed to gloat as it zig-zagged with dismaying speed up the span of Jack's chest and wrapped itself around the straining column of the Colonel's throat.

'Hold it in place, just there,' H'r'l'lk sent, and Jack cried out in fear and revulsion as one of the giant worm creatures reached to grasp Junior's tail between the metal pincers of the clamp used earlier to extract the larva from Teal'c's pouch. Enraged at being thwarted in reaching its final goal, the symbiote flailed and threshed against Jack's skin, the touch and sound of it reverberating like a neverending nightmare along Jack's flesh and into his head.

'With this one we will locate and access the psychic remnants of the evil creature Hathor implanted within you,' H'r'l'lk was explaining, the amorphous bulk of his body looming over Jack in a macabre continuation of the horror show featuring the traumatized human in the role of helpless victim.

'We will not allow 'Junior' to enter you or harm you physically, O'Neill,' the alien was murmuring as one of his colleagues continued wrestling grimly with the unbelievably strong form of Teal'c's anger-maddened symbiote. It was all the bigger worm could do to prevent his much smaller and fiercer evolutionary cousin from ripping loose of the clamp and burrowing straight into Jack's spine, and Jack was almost beyond rational thought at all.

His body soaked in sweat, every limb and muscle exerting itself to the utmost in a savage effort to attain blessed freedom, Jack was only fuzzily aware of the mumbo-jumbo H'r'l'lk was funneling hypnotically into his tumultous thoughts. Something about acting as a go-between for Jack and Junior, some vague explanation about forcing Junior and Jack to link minds through H'r'l'lk so that Junior might ferret out the last, nasty remnants of whatever evil Hathor's protoge had left behind in Jack's head.

'We will force the symbiote to cooperate, to tell us just what his predecessor left behind within you,' H'r'l'lk was saying, but Jack didn't care. Jack didn't give a rat's skinny ass what Hathor's little snake-puppy might have left behind; that bastard was long dead and gone, and that was all Jack needed to know.

But now these damned, giant, psycho worms wanted to mindmeld him with another of the nasty Goa'uld bastards, and Jack KNEW he couldn't deal with that, oh, no; no way, no how, end of discussion. Didn't matter that Junior had saved Teal'c's life more times than Jack could count or that Junior's presence within Teal'c's body was vital; Jack didn't kid himself that the little imp from Hell who'd had a nice, cozy ride inside his friend's pouch all this time was ever going to be anything but pure evil, just like all the others. He knew that any 'link' he might be forced to share with Junior would result in nothing but bad, bad shit flowing into his mind, the same shit H'r'l'lk claimed to be trying to eradicate from Jack's head from before.

Why couldn't his captors SEE that, see that they were only putting Jack through living Hell again for no ultimate good? Jesus, just make this stop; make this all stop, Jack heard himself chanting over and over inside his mind; but the only beings that seemed to be listening obviously had no intention of putting a merciful end to this horror.

'This symbiote's thoughts are most vile, O'Neill,' H'r'l'lk sent warningly now into Jack's struggling mind. 'It wishes only to harm you, to express its ongoing disgust for all you have done against its kind. It knows of your many missions, knows also of the affection you harbor for Teal'c, whom it considers nothing more than an empty vessel for its own growth and comfort. This being holds you in utter contempt and is viciously amused that you were made to suffer so severely when you were implanted before.'

"Tell me...something...I don't...already know," Jack managed to gasp out, swallowing back a surge of burning nausea as Junior reared itself right up in front of Jack's face. The abominable sight of the symbiote's gaping, hungry mouth shrieking at him was almost more than Jack could bear; closing his eyes, the distraught Colonel tried desperately to regain control of his panicked emotions and to force down the overwhelming waves of abject horror that had him shaking and sweating helplessly against his restraints.

God, just don't let Junior get inside me...just hold on to him, don't you DARE lose control of him...Jack's silent pleas to both H'r'l'lk and the alien being in charge of Junior were all mixed up with H'r'l'lk's increasingly urgent demands for Jack to calm down, to listen, to open his mind to what must be first revealed and then expunged forever...

"Can't!..." Jack grunted, twisting his head to one side as Junior snapped irritably at his nose. "God, stop this, stop!...No more, can't listen, can't think, dammit!--"

'You must listen; you MUST attend to what rises now inside your mind,' H'r'l'lk ordered, his words pressing firmly, inexorably, into all the closed, resisting places in Jack O'Neill's consciousness. 'The Goa'uld which resided so briefly within you indeed left its signature; and though Junior does not wish to assist us in this endeavor, he is unable to withstand the concerted efforts of myself and my colleagues in reading his mind. As soon as I open a channel between his consciousness and your own, he will have no choice but to answer truthfully when I demand an accounting of any remaining Goa'uld influences he sees in your mind.'

"If you let that son of a bitch inside my head, I'll go completely insane," Jack growled out, his voice dead serious. "This can't work--this WON'T end well, I tell you! For the love of God, please stop this now, please take Junior and put him back in Teal'c, before Teal'c gets too weak to function. I'll do anything you want, tell you every freaking thing I can remember about Hathor and being snaked...just stop now. Please..."

Jack didn't know who he despised more right at this moment--H'r'l'lk and his kind for putting him through this, or himself for begging now like some spineless coward. He'd always thought of himself as a strong man, as someone who could get through almost anything because he carried within him the flame-forged iron will of the natural survivor, because he knew his own strengths and limits and knew just who and what he was. But this...

This was it, the proverbial straw to break the camel's back. This was the secret horror that lurked always in the dark, dingy corners of Jack O'Neill's most secret soul--the horror of losing himself, of having all that he was and felt and lived for torn away from him, his very will stripped and razed and demolished. As the evil, sibilant hiss of Junior's hatred and contempt began to filter through to him across the shaky bridge of H'r'l'lk's mental control, Jack clenched his jaw so hard his teeth ground painfully together; his fingers clawed futiley at the cold metal of the table beneath him as H'r'l'lk began to force open the human's deeply buried memories of Hathor and the implantation, prying apart Jack's last remaining defenses as easily as if he/she were peeling away layers of tissue paper.

"No," Jack whispered, unaware now of the tears dripping from his eyes, eyes gone dull with hopeless exhaustion and unwilling surrender. "No..."

'See now, human trash, what insidious gift the mighty Hathor delivered into your diseased mind when she gave you one of her own beloved children,' Junior's oily, obscene thoughts crowed triumphantly somewhere in the shattered morass of Jack's dwindling consciousness; and as both H'r'l'lk and Junior invaded the last portal of O'Neill's weakened mental defenses, the Colonel's body went completely rigid as he screamed and screamed and screamed.


Part Ten

Screaming. Somewhere there was screaming.

Teal'c was pulled from reluctant oblivion, one part of his groggy mind trying to process and evaluate the strange weakness attacking his body while another part fretted over the disturbingly familiar voice that kept up its agonized screaming so close by.

Unaccustomed to finding himself so enervated and confused, the Jaffa warrior opened his eyes and tried to sit up, grunting once in unhappy surprise as his body met the unyielding barrier of some sort of restraints before falling back, helpless, against the hard surface he was lying on.

Biting back an angry oath, Teal'c drew in a breath and tried to take in everything that was going on around him, his muscles tensed for instant action. As the sight of several six-foot tall worm creatures surrounding a metal table nearby meshed together in his mind with the unbearable screams coming from that same table, Teal'c's heartbeat surged into his throat, his dark eyes filling with rage as he struggled to break his bonds.

"O'Neill!" Teal'c cried out, his voice hoarse and dismayingly weak. "O'Neill!"

With sickened dread the shaken Jaffa listened as his friend screamed once more, then went mercifully but fearfully silent; at almost the same instant Teal'c realized that his symbiote was gone, and a frisson of pure horror shuddered through his now-compromised and weakened system.

"My symbiote," Teal'c growled, an expression of deepest chagrin settling over his face. "O'Neill...what have they done to you?"

As one of the faceless worm creatures at the next table began to turn in his direction, Teal'c clenched his fists and demanded in a voice trembing with rage: "What have you DONE?"

'Quiet, now--quiet. The process is at a critical juncture and must not be disturbed or interrupted,' came the admonitory 'voice' of the worm creature now sliding its way over to Teal'c's side.

"Tell me you have NOT attempted to implant my symbiote into Colonel O'Neill," Teal'c responded, murder glaring from his obsidian gaze. "Tell me you would not be so unutterably foolish and evil as to even conceive of such a thing."

'Your symbiote will be returned to you soon, never fear,' the alien worm sent to Teal'c, bobbing its upper half nervously back and forth as Teal'c cursed his helplessness and the terrible weakness draining his muscles of their usual fierce power.

"Why is O'Neill screaming; what have you done to him?" Teal'c demanded, and a distracted ripple ran up and down the worm creature's shiny, elastic body.

'The melding of O'Neill's mind with the symbiote's is proving to be...difficult,' the creature admitted reluctantly, and Teal'c uttered a low, feral growl, baring his teeth at the being weaving so uncertainly beside him.

"You cannot do this to the Colonel; release me at once!" the Jaffa barked, arm muscles bulging as he summoned all that remained of his fading strength in one savage but ultimately futile effort at bursting his restraints.

'You can do nothing now; the whole process is too far along--' the alien sent into Teal'c's infuriated mind; and as the last of the Jaffa's waning vitality drained from him in a sudden, sickening rush, Teal'c found he could do nothing but lie limp on the cold metal table, his eyes straining to catch a glimpse of O'Neill's now ominously silent form across the small room.

'H'r'l'lk intercedes now on behalf of O'Neill,' Teal'c's self-appointed translator continued. 'He has created a unique, three-way channel of telepathic communication between O'Neill, the symbiote, and himself and is even now attempting to coerce the Goa'uld larva into seeking out any stray remnants of hypnotic suggestion left behind in O'Neill's mind by Hathor's offspring.'

"Are you implying that O'Neill's mind was 'booby-trapped' in some fashion upon his implantation?" Teal'c ground out, an expression of angry concern crossing his face as he briefly caught sight of Jack lying limp on the adjoining table.

'Just so,' the worm creature responded, extending one appendage in a tentative gesture toward Jack. 'And in answer to the question in your mind--no. Colonel O'Neill has NOT been programmed to become a future assassin, as in the unfortunate case of the To'kra, Martouf, which I see now in your memories. H'r'l'lk has sensed that Colonel O'Neill's 'brainwashing' was of a different sort--the Goa'uld which so briefly inhabited O'Neill's body held such hatred for its human host that when it knew it must die, it made sure to leave behind a multitude of deeply subconscious 'suggestions' that would, over time, begin to eat steadily away at O'Neill's sense of identity, of morality, of self-worth.'

As Teal'c held himself still, absorbing the truth of the words this creature was sending to his mind, the alien drew itself up to its full height and continued somberly.

'With each passing month since the failed implantation, the cleverly seeded insults and excoriations left behind in the Colonel's mind have begun to travel like silent, deadly poison from the darkest depths of your friend's subconscious, whispering their taunts and derision into O'Neill's weary dreams; more and more the parasite's fiendish mental sabotage is working to undermine the strong foundation of both O'Neill's spirit and intellect...whispering to him at odd moments of his own evil, of his own selfishness and moral weakness and of the ultimate, overriding futility of any and all of his paltry human endeavors.'

With Teal'c's dark eyes intent upon him, the worm creature shifted restlessly, absorbing the morass of conflicting thoughts churning in the Jaffa's mind while its powerful telepathic skills picked up on the concern and helpless rage Teal'c was feeling now on O'Neill's behalf.

'H'r'l'lk is currently attempting to gain--through the shared knowledge of all Goa'ulds--important information from your symbiote concerning what was done to O'Neill; 'Junior,' however, does not relish the idea of bringing these secret threads of blackest malice into the light of day, where their falseness and treachery can be viewed by all and seen for the lies they truly are. H'r'l'lk and the others you see gathered now around O'Neill are attempting to forge a telepathic bridge between the mind of your friend and that of your symbiote, with H'r'l'lk acting as a 'buffer' to shield the human's traumatized consciousness from all but the most minimum awareness of 'Junior's' essence touching his. We wish to--to 'persuade' the symbiote that it is in its own best interests to cooperate in this matter so that it may then return safely to its pouch within you. But the creature merely scoffs, asserting its certainty that our kind are as weak and vapid as humans and would never risk YOUR life, Teal'c, by depriving you for long of its presence. Rather than assisting us in finding every last scintilla of soul-destroying lies which Hathor's offspring planted inside O'Neill's mind, 'Junior' tries instead to take these same vile thoughts and drive them ever more deeply into the Colonel's spirit. O'Neill's mind is in a state of traumatic shock; both his strength and will grow weaker as the process continues. But we dare not stop now; if we do, there may be no way to ever return O'Neill to a state approaching normal mental health.'

"You and your kind were wrong to take this problem upon yourselves," Teal'c responded coldly, his midnight gaze drowning the undulating worm creature at his side in waves of silent disgust. "Even if you are right that O'Neill's mind WAS attacked in such an insidious manner by the Goa'uld who was implanted within him, it should have been HIS choice to make as to whether he wished for any sort of treatment or therapy to deal with his...condition. But now you have taken that free choice from him, stripping him of his will just as remorselessly and as relentlessly as Hathor's snake did when it sabotaged his mind without his conscious knowledge."

'We believed there was no other way to cure him,' the worm replied quietly, its tone only vaguely regretful. 'Only we possess the ability to forge a mental link that will enable your symbiote to root out every bit of the evil its brother left within O'Neill's mind; only OUR telepathic powers are strong enough to subsequently erase these harmful, deceitful suggestions from your friend's thoughts so that his spirit might see the truth of who and what he really is and make a complete recovery.'

"He cannot recover if the process itself proves fatal," Teal'c retorted brusquely; and as a low, heartwrenching moan sounded from Jack's figure on the other table, Teal'c jerked agitatedly beneath his restraints and raised his voice in anger.

"Release me now!" he ordered, eyes flashing. "You know that without my symbiote I am too weak to cause any of you bodily harm; indeed, soon I will be completely incapacitated. But if this process must continue, then I would stand for as long as I am able at my friend's side; I would offer him my own mental support as well as assisting H'r'l'lk in communicating with my symbiote. After all, I know the creature's temperament better than anyone else. You must allow me to help; we cannot allow O'Neill to die."

A long moment of tense silence greeted the Jaffa's words; briefly all movement stopped in the beings clustered around Jack's prone body, and Teal'c felt a curl of fear and helpless rage spiral up in his belly as he glimpsed the appalling sight of 'Junior' twined tightly, so tightly, about Jack O'Neill's throat. The symbiote continued to writhe and struggle, emitting several high-pitched squeals into the heavy silence of the room; and as another pitiable groan of extreme distress escaped the Colonel's body, Teal'c could stand it no more.

"I will force 'Junior; to cooperate," he uttered in a low, fierce tone. "I will make my symbiote see that I am perfectly willing to sacrifice my life for that of O'Neill's. I do this freely and with full awareness. H'r'l'lk, release me now, so that I may assure my symbiote that if it does not do as you ask, I will refuse it entrance ever again into my pouch. It will die, just as surely as I will. Release me, I implore you."

And as the Jaffa waited, his dark eyes resting intently on Jack's limp form, the worm creatures weaved and bobbed and seemed to come to a joint decision. Slowly Teal'c's translator turned back to the weakening man's side and extruded three nimble, resilient 'arms,' each one equipped with a delicate set of digits that reached out to unfasten the restraints holding Teal'c down.

'It is done,' that one sent quietly into the Jaffa's mind, and with a brief nod Teal'c allowed the alien to help him first sit up, then slide shakily off the table to his feet.

"Take me to him," Teal'c ordered, and as the worm creature bunched its muscular body into an accomodating pillar of support, Teal'c leaned against it as both moved slowly to stand beside the Jaffa's suffering friend.

"I am here, O'Neill; I am with you, my brother," Teal'c breathed down into the pale, unresponsive face of SG-1's commander. And to the worms he added, roughly: "Finish this."

'Indeed,' H'r'l'lk sent back, a note of pure determination in his/her 'voice.' 'Indeed.' And with Teal'c's stubborn resolve added to the mix, the excruciating procedure continued.


Part Eleven

I can't do this, I can't do this, please, don't make me do it...

The sheer weight of horror whimpering brokenly from Jack O'Neill's mind cut into Teal'c's heart like a knife, causing the usually stoic warrior to buckle in empathetic pain where he stood at his friend's side; only vaguely aware of the fact that one of the worm creatures had moved to physically support his sagging form, Teal'c grunted as he felt his own mind drawn ever deeper into the disturbingly intense link H'r'l'lk had opened between himself, O'Neill, and Junior.

'Speak to him now, Teal'c,' H'r'l'lk's 'voice' sounded in Teal'c's disoriented thoughts, the unique tenor of the alien's communication rising above the competing mental noise of the others who were caught up in this bizarre bond. 'Let O'Neill know that you are with him, that he is NOT alone in this endeavor.'

"What would you have me say?" Teal'c rumbled slowly, the spoken words dying away as the thought itself traveled instantaneously to everyone else sharing the telepathic link. Teal'c sensed his symbiote's startled, distinctly displeased reaction to the Jaffa's arrival at this strange party, but he would not let himself be distracted at this juncture by the infuriated pejoratives erupting from the larva's consciousness.

'O'Neill--your comrade is here now, come to assist you and lend you his strength; can you not speak to him?' H'r'l'lk prodded gently, and after a beat Jack O'Neill's almost unrecognizable voice whispered, both orally and within his own trapped mind: "Teal'c?"

"Indeed, it is I, my friend," Teal'c responded, reaching almost blindly to fumble Jack's hand into his own. As his dark fingers closed protectively around Jack's weak, scrabbling grasp, the Jaffa warrior felt a strong shudder of emotion surge through his body and mind together and realized that he was catching the tail end of Jack's own agitated feelings.

"Teal'c...make it stop...God, make this stop now, make it go away..." Jack's words resounded painfully in Teal'c's mind, the intense suffering in every syllable tearing at his soul; as the human's grip tightened desperately around his, fingernails digging into Teal'c's hand, the Colonel's glazed brown eyes opened just enough to telegraph an anguished plea into the other's helpless gaze.

"Junior..." Jack gasped out, his features twisting into a grimace of pure revulsion. "Don't let...inside...kill me first, Teal'c...PROMISE! No, God, no..."

"I will not let my symbiote take control of you, O'Neill," Teal'c responded gruffly, squeezing Jack's hand and cursing the terrible weakness creeping through his own body. "'Junior' will not find itself a new host so easily."

"Out...want it out, all of these voices, creatures...OUT," Jack rasped, his eyes blazing briefly before slipping closed again. "Jesus, Teal'c, why are they doing this? Why...why are you here, helping them?"

The traumatized accusation in the Colonel's scream-ravaged voice twisted sharp needles of guilt into his team mate's chest, and in that instant the frustrated Jaffa wanted nothing more than to reclaim his strength, lay waste to every other interfering entity in this room save himself and O'Neill, and get his friend the hell out of here. But things were much too far gone for that; like it or not, H'r'l'lk was in control of all that was taking place now, and Teal'c could do nothing more than offer up his support and the comforting timbre of his voice guiding O'Neill through the rough waters rising around them.

"I am not here to assist these beings, O'Neill," he corrected gently, pushing aside the surge of physical weakness that rose up within his body in that instant. "I am here for YOUR benefit...and mine, I must confess. I do not wish to see you harmed further, and I have no intention of allowing my symbiote to create yet more trauma for you in the midst of this...procedure. I must add that--where 'Junior' is concerned--I very much need for the larva to be returned to my pouch, as quickly as possible. Thus I confess to at least some degree of self-interest in the outcome of this event."

"Strong, Teal'c...you're so...fucking strong...to have that--that freaking MONSTER living inside you and not go completely insane...God, I can't take this, I'm 'hearing' Hathor's snake all over again in my mind...ugly, hateful, nasty things, Teal'c, telling me such bad, bad things--"

"Lies, O'Neill; you know that the things that creature left with you are nothing more than falsehoods, planted in your deepest mind in a fashion perfectly in keeping with the cowardice and deceitfulness of the Goa'uld race. There is nothing of substance in the ghost phrases you are hearing, nothing that is real or able to harm you. You KNOW who and what you are, O'Neill, as do I; you are a man of principle and honor, an expert warrior whose heart is as strong and as clear as any I have ever known. You will NOT give in to the feeble attempts of a long-dead Goa'uld to destroy all that you are, all that you have yet to do in the fight to keep earth safe; and only see for yourself, my friend, how my symbiote is nothing more than a trifling nuisance right now, powerless to work its own, paltry evil against you. Indeed, you have all the power, O'Neill; YOURS is the mind which will control and direct the larva's, guiding it in the task of uprooting the last of these false suggestions from your mind. I am with you now, no harm will befall you..."

And as Teal'c spoke on, ruthlessly quelling his enraged symbiote's every attempt to break past the Jaffa's vigilant guard and directly attack Jack's psyche, the exhausted human lay on the metal table in the midst of a circle of intense alien concentration, his harsh respirations slowing and evening out as the larger part of his panicked hysteria began to fade.

"And I thought...MacKenzie was bad," Jack mumbled, his hand curling trustingly around Teal'c's as H'r'l'lk half-bullied, half-guided the recalcitrant 'Junior' through the painstaking process of locating the last remnants of implanted suggestions in Jack's mind. "Weird...damn, this feels so weird, Teal'c!"

"You are doing very well, O'Neill," the Jaffa returned staunchly, trying to ignore his own growing lassitude; as trickles of stress-induced sweat ran down Teal'c's dark face, he felt his legs buckle again and almost lost his grip on Jack's hand. Quickly two of the worm creatures moved behind him to shore his listing body upright, and Jack's pulse jumped as suspicious concern for his team mate overcame his worries for himself.

"You're sick, Teal'c," he murmured accusingly, pulling up every ounce of extra concentration he could manage in order to distract himself from the peculiar form of 'brain surgery' taking place inside his own head right now; focusing on Teal'c's condition instead, the Colonel reached past the protective mental barrier the other was trying to erect against his discerning senses and was not at all pleased with what he found.

"You've gotta get Junior back where he belongs, Big Guy," Jack urged, trying weakly to lift his head off the table. "Gotta...fix you up, make you strong again..."

"All will be well, O'Neill," Teal'c reassured the human, fighting back the weakness that was steadily overtaking him. "Do not concern yourself with me; merely allow H'r'l'lk to complete this procedure, so that we may BOTH receive the benefits."

"Trying..." Jack returned grumpily, the blessedly familiar glint of the patented O'Neill irascibility surfacing in his consciousness amidst the ragged tatters of the trauma he had endured thus far today. "Trying, dammit...but you know...don't like crowds, geeky scientist types poking and prodding, snake-heads messing with my lovable charm...tough, too many voices here in my head, worse than Daniel and Machello..."

'We will soon be done, O'Neill,' came H'r'l'lk's soothing drone in both Jack's and Teal'c's heads, and Teal'c was both encouraged and comforted by the sudden quiver of renewed strength in Jack's hand where it rested in his own.

"Together, buddy," Jack rasped hoarsely to the Jaffa now, the words closing the two men in an intimate bubble of fraternal solitude that effectively shut out everything else going on around them. "Together...all the way."

"Indeed, my brother; all the way," Teal'c agreed with grave dignity; and as the Jaffa's two alien helpers propped his drained body up next to Jack's prone form, Teal'c took solace in the slow but certain resurgence of determined will emanating from the human, a resolve that transferred new hope, new energy, into the Jaffa's own debilitated form through the clasp of O'Neill's fingers with his.


Part Twelve

"What do you think, Sam?"

Daniel's voice sounded in Sam's ear, quiet but intense, and as Sam studied the featureless plain stretching to the horizon beyond the stargate platform where they stood, a small sigh escaped her.

"At least the winds are dying down," she replied, quirking one wry brow in Daniel's direction. "And I don't see any signs of lakes or killer mud; I say we step off this platform and do a little exploring. We don't have much time, after all," she reminded her friend.

"You're right; if we don't find SOME sign or evidence of what might have happened to Jack and Teal'c, Hammond's probably never going to let us come back here. Never mind that the very fact that the weather patterns here ARE so erratic is most likely a strong indication that some sort of sentient intelligence is behind it all, manipulating conditions for some unknown purpose..."

"And you think this same...intelligence...might have taken Jack and Teal'c?" Sam filled in the direction Daniel's thoughts had taken, and the archaeologist smiled tightly at her, his blue eyes stubborn behind his glasses.

"Well, I'm certainly not prepared to just give the both of them up for dead, to decide that the mud bog or whatever you want to call it that sucked them down took them straight to their doom. I--I just have a strong feeling that they're both still alive, that what we THOUGHT we saw was maybe just some sort of visual hallucination or even a form of hypnotic suggestion..."

"I know, I know," he added at the sympathetic but sceptical look Sam was giving him. "I know I have absolutely nothing concrete upon which to base those suppositions; and the mud we just found on Jack's P-90 was definitely real. But I STILL think something or someone took Jack and Teal'c--alive--for purposes we've yet to discover."

"Well, if you ARE on the right track, we don't have a whole lot of time to find these mysterious, invisible beings--and hopefully Teal'c and the Colonel, as well," Sam replied, forcing a cheeriness into her voice that didn't quite reach her eyes. "So I guess we'd better get moving."

"I guess," Daniel agreed, his distracted blue gaze studying the flat terrain around them for any sign of hidden clefts, caves, or other cleverly camouflaged geographic features that might give them some clue as to the fate of their missing team members. From his current perspective he couldn't spot anything unusual or out of the ordinary about the landscape stretching with such monotonous regularity all around them; but experience had taught him that initial appearances could be deceiving.

"Let's just be sure we don't wander too far away from each other," Sam warned as the two of them began tracing a cautious path across the flat grassland. "We need to keep each other in sight at all times."

"Well, that shouldn't be too hard to do," Daniel quipped as his gaze traveled across the unrelieved flatness of the land surrounding them. "Not a lot of...trees...here. Or anything else, for that matter. Of course, if this is all just a big, fat illusion, then who knows what the REAL planet looks like. You're the expert--do we have any kind of instruments that could detect something like that? You know, some sort of energy analyzer or atmospheric gauge that would be impervious to human things like hypnosis or mental sugggestion and would therefore be able to 'see' what's really in front of us?..."

Daniel's voice trailed away as he caught Sam shaking her head in rueful negation; a fond smile flitted across her face as he wrinkled his nose at her in response, his shoulders shrugging a grudging acceptance of her superior technical knowledge.

"Sorry, Daniel," Sam elucidated patiently. "I discussed that very thing with several different science departments back on base, and we really couldn't come up with any existing earth equipment advanced enough to figure out the sophisticated kind of technology that such an illusion would require. I'm afraid that, if there IS some sort of visual trickery going on here, none of the instruments we currently have on hand would be able to detect it except perhaps in the most rudimentary fashion. And even if we did detect something, we probably wouldn't have a clue about how to turn it off or neutralize it. I'm afraid all I was able to bring with me on such short notice is a simple infrared device that can detect certain heat fluctuations, such as the higher temperature of a human body in contrast to the atmosphere around that body."

"Great...so we just get to stumble around blindly till we walk right smack into some invisible brick wall, so to speak--or MAYBE luck out and find the others through their body heat," Daniel grumped, and Sam felt a funny little twinge in her chest at how closely the archaeologist's snarky words mirrored their Colonel's habitual insouciant attitude.

"Something like that," she agreed softly with Daniel's grudging words; and with one last shared look, the two shouldered their light packs and began trudging carefully across the flat expanse of silent ground, their eyes making a full perimeter sweep that began with the short, sere grass beneath their feet and moved all the way up to the cloudless, oyster-gray expanse of sky stretching far overhead.

Gradually the two drifted further apart, both of them studying their surroundings with growing frustration as nothing in the least bit unusual or helpful leaped out at them to aid them in their search for Jack and Teal'c. Sam's nifty little heat-seeking machine remained obstinately quiescent, failing to pick up any drastic changes in the temperature around them save for the signals it regularly broadcast denoting Daniel's body heat a few yards away from Sam's position.

"How much longer we got?" Daniel sighed at one point, pausing long enough to uncap his canteen and take a distracted drink of water.

"Um...maybe another twenty minutes...then the General's going to expect us to report back," Sam replied tersely, her tone of voice expressing her own frustration quite clearly. "Damn it, there has to be SOMETHING out here, some kind of physical marker or evidence to help us find the others!"

"It isn't fair," Daniel added petulantly, a scowl twisting his features as he put his canteen away and pulled his glasses off, absently wiping the lenses clean with his shirt tail. "If you ask me, the General is being entirely unreasonable; how does he expect us to canvass the area thoroughly and gather any useful information in forty-five lousy minutes?"

A stubborn glint entered Daniel's eye, and he turned and gestured angrily back toward the stargate. "I'm not going back, Sam," he muttered fiercely, his jaw set in that stubborn clench that Sam knew all too well. "I don't care WHAT Hammond's orders were. Until I'm satisfied that I did everything I could here to try to find Jack and Teal'c, I refuse to leave."

As Sam opened her mouth in preparation to argue or perhaps even commiserate, Daniel waved a brusque hand at her and continued stubbornly. "Hammond can dole out whatever punishment he wants to concerning my insubordination once this is all over; if we don't find the others, it won't matter to me, anyway, what trouble I might land in back on earth."

"Uh, Daniel...hold that thought, would you?" Sam murmured absently, her eyes suddenly glued to the display screen of the infrared detector she held in her hands.

"Maybe you won't have to get in any hot water with the General, after all," she went on, a note of rising excitement quickening her words as she lifted a pair of modified infrared goggles from around her neck and settled them over her eyes.

"What is it? What have you found?" Daniel asked, his own voice going taut with suspense as he hurriedly made his way to Sam's side.

"Two anomalous heat signatures, over...that way," Sam replied, lifting a finger to point in the general direction the machine's readout seemed to be indicating. "Both signatures are rather large in relation to the temp readings of the landscape around them--the scanner is giving me a mass/ratio index that would seem to indicate two heat sources the same basic size as the bodies of two grown men. But it's really weird, Daniel; one minute they weren't there, then they just seemed to...appear!"

"Which way?" Daniel prodded, craning his neck to peer over Sam's shoulder at the display screen. He could feel his heart beating in a rapid tattoo of apprehension mixed with hope, and Sam's hands shook ever so slightly in sympathetic agitation as she gestured from the screen to an unremarkable stretch of grassland on the distant horizon.

"Over there," she murmured uncertainly, her forehead creasing in concentration. "I don't understand this, it looks like there's nothing there but the same, flat terrain..."

"The readout says otherwise," Daniel bit out, his tone sharp with urgency. "We can't see all that clearly from here; what LOOKS like flat ground might be some sort of optical illusion, like seeing a mirage of water shimmering on the highway up ahead of you on hot summer days. Only in this case, we're NOT seeing something that's obviously there; there must be some small dip in the land or some slight declivity just big enough to hold two men...C'mon, Sam, we've got to check it out!"

Not waiting for his friend's response, Daniel took off across the flat plain at a brisk trot, impatiently scanning the ground all around him for any sign of hidden holes or traps waiting to snare the two of them. He could hear Sam coming up fast behind him, his urgency having traveled as if by osmosis into her own slender form; as she drew up alongside him now, Daniel shot her a brief look of grim determination and dipped his head toward the infrared detector Sam still carried.

"Are we heading the right way?" he asked, and Sam merely nodded, her brow furrowed in silent concentration as she aimed the device off to their left.

"Whatever the two objects are, they're not too far ahead," she murmured after a few more seconds of breathless trotting. "Keep your eyes peeled, there has to be SOME dip or break in the landscape coming up."

No sooner had the words left her mouth than both Sam and Daniel spied it together--an almost undetectable fissure scored into the flat earth some thirty yards in front of them. Stretching for a width of about seven feet, the narrow break in the monotonous landscape was well-hidden by the fact that its edges were covered with the same short, ugly grass that blanketed the rest of the plain like a scraggly carpet. One would have to come right upon the fissure before even seeing it, and the two team mates came to a cautious stop now and exchanged anxious glances.

"What if it ISN'T Jack and Teal'c?" Daniel murmured in a low voice, and Sam's blue eyes held his in a moment of mute frustration. "I mean, what if it's something else--maybe the adult version of that worm thing that jumped down Jack's shirt? Maybe that's the source of the heat you're reading, and Jack and Teal'c are already--"

"Maybe it IS them, Daniel," Sam cut him off, her voice pitched low as his was but tinged with angry vehemence. "Maybe they're hurt and needing medical help while we just stand here yapping about possibilities."

"Okay, okay; I'm all for going forward, don't get me wrong," Daniel hurried to soothe her, a rueful expression entering his eyes. "I just thought I should offer up alternatives, give you a chance to decide if we should radio home for backup first..."

"I suppose that would be the sensible thing to do," Sam muttered, looking abashed that it was her civilian friend's practical mind and not her own military training suggesting the idea. "You're right, we should report this, let Hammond know that we've detected something...but how long is it going to take for backup to get here? Can we really afford to wait that long?" Her speculative gaze met Daniel's equally thoughtful stare, and a small, knowing half-smile curved his lips as he nodded gravely.

"You call it in, Sam," he murmured agreeably over his shoulder, already taking off ahead of her toward the hairline break in the landscape in front of them. "Tell Hammond I just wouldn't wait and that you have to go after me; tell him we'll be waiting when the others get here."

"He's NOT going to be happy with us, Daniel," Sam sighed in exasperation; but as Daniel merely waggled an indifferent hand her way and headed stubbornly toward the fissure, Sam dutifully pulled out her radio and reported in, moving after Daniel as quickly as she could. As Daniel caught his friend's side of the radio conversation with Hammond, he winced involuntarily and was rather shamefacedly glad that it was Sam and not himself getting a blistering earful concerning the direction this mission was taking. I'll make it up to her, he told himself absently as he drew near the edge of the fissure and came to a cautious halt.

"Daniel!--" Sam was calling in disgruntled tones just behind him; but when the tense archaeologist gestured emphatically for her to be quiet, she pressed her lips into a thin line and moved up beside him, brushing his shoulder with her own to catch his attention.

"Hammond's ordering us to WAIT right here," she murmured to her team mate with quiet frustration. "He says if we even go NEAR the opening without backup--"

"Shh! Listen, Sam; can you hear that? It sounds like...like someone moaning. Like someone might be in pain! It could be Jack, or Teal'c, or both of them. We can't just stand here--" Daniel began.

"Or it could be a trap, some alien creature making noises to lure us closer," Sam countered, her blue eyes worriedly scanning the dark lip of the fissure in front of them. "Daniel, I think maybe we SHOULD wait--"

"There! I heard it again," Daniel interrupted her, his expression urgent; dimly Sam was aware of her friend's fingers digging almost painfully into her arm, but the sensation faded into the background as she concentrated on listening, on trying to pick up the sounds Daniel claimed to be hearing. As his gaze bored into her own she did hear it--a low, muffled groaning that was achingly, disturbingly familiar. She recognized it in the same instant that Daniel''s jaw clenched with the same anguished recognition.

"That's Jack," he muttered, his tone low and fierce; and as Sam nodded wordless agreement, Daniel released her arm and moved quietly but determinedly toward the opening into the fissure. When he was almost to the edge he dropped silently onto his belly, pulling himself forward with intense concentration, and Sam was right beside him, the infrared detector she had been holding moments ago exchanged now for her handgun.

Careful, careful, she mouthed to Daniel, giving him several silent hand signals along with the mute admonition. Brusquely Daniel nodded to show his understanding, then the two team mates were pulling themselves up to the very edge of the fissure, Sam holding her gun in readiness as she allowed Daniel to risk the first look over the side, down into the murky darkness gaping below them.

Nothing. He could see nothing, at least not right away. As he waited for his eyes to adjust to the greater dimness below, Daniel fumbled at his waist for his maglite and held it up for Sam's perusal, lifting an eyebrow to ask her if he should use it. For a brief second Sam frowned uncertainly back at him, chewing at her bottom lip in indecision; but at the look of growing frustration Daniel was sending her, she merely nodded and readied herself to shoot at whatever unfriendly creatures that might erupt from the fissure with the intrusion of the light.

Giving her a return nod, Daniel made as if to turn on the small but powerful flashlight and then paused, his eyes softening briefly as he reached to press two fingers against Sam's cheek in a silent gesture of affection and support. Sam closed her eyes and rubbed her cheek very slightly against Daniel's fingers, accepting both the caress and his mute assurance of their friendship and teamwork; then a determined expression crossed her face, and she opened clear blue eyes and nodded her head toward the maglite. Go, she urged mutely, and Daniel clicked on the light and sent its powerful illumination down into the shadowy cleft before them.

"My God, I see them, Sam," Daniel muttered after what seemed an eternity, his stunned gaze rising to hers. "They're down there, I see them!"

"Are they alone?" Sam asked, fighting back the impulse to drop her gun, snatch the light from Daniel's shaky grasp and have a look for herself. But she held steady, keeping the gun and herself in full readiness to fire if need be as Daniel risked another, longer look down into the fissure.

"I can't see a sign of anyone or anything else down there," he verified, a hoarse note of urgency roughening his voice. "It's just Jack and Teal'c, lying there unconscious. They're crammed in the space like sardines, so I'm pretty sure there's no ROOM down there for anything else to hide. We can't wait, Sam, we've got to get them out!"

"All right, all right," Sam muttered, tucking the pistol away and rising to her feet. "I'm lighter than you, I'll go down while you hold the rope. Once I get down there I'll take the line off myself and put it around one of them, and with you pulling from up here while I push from down there, we shouldn't have any trouble bringing them both up."

"Right," Daniel nodded, and rolled nimbly to his feet; as both team members rummaged hurriedly through their packs, drawing out coils of lightweight but incredibly strong line along with thick gloves for holding and guiding that same line over the side of the fissure, their briskly efficient movements were accompanied by another series of unintelligible moans coming from the narrow chasm in the earth.

"Jack! Hold on, Jack, we're coming!" Daniel paused long enough in their preparations to call down encouragement, then Sam was geared up and ready to go. "Be careful," Daniel adjured her as she positioned herself at the fissure's edge.

"Always; just be ready to pull for all you're worth," Sam replied, and then she was sliding gracefully down into the darkness, clicking on the maglite halfway down to illuminate her own landing and make certain she didn't come crashing down atop one or both of their missing friends.

"Easy...easy..." Daniel coached himself aloud, the words coming out in short gusts of air as he tightened his grip on Sam's safety line and carefully controlled the rate at which the rope slid through his gloved hands. "Just take it slow and easy, we're going to get them out..."

And when the hastily kitted-out members of SG-11 arrived on P5X-JSG some seven minutes later, they thundered across the featureless plain just in time to come upon a sweating, clenched-teeth Dr. Jackson tugging one very heavy, very limp Jaffa warrior over the lip of the fissure. Samantha Carter's muffled voice could be heard from down inside the narrow aperture, calling up weary but thankful words of encouragement, and Colonel Jack O'Neill's unconscious body lay like a large, disheveled ragdoll a mere two to three feet away from Daniel's straining form.

"'Bout...time...you showed up!" Daniel gritted out as two of SG-11 hurried forward to assist him in drawing Teal'c the rest of the way up from the fissure. "What did you guys do, stop for donuts?"

"It was the damned coffee that delayed us," Hudson puffed as he took one of Teal'c's impressively muscled arms and helped drag the limp Jaffa onto solid ground. "We knew you'd have to have a cup to go with your jelly roll, so..."

"Uh, guys, could we save the chitchat for later?" Sam's impatient voice rose above the laconic banter Hudson was sending in Daniel's direction, and Daniel nodded a weary thanks as another of SG-11's complement took charge of the safety line, unfastening it from Teal'c's limp body and dropping it over the side of the fissure for Carter to use. When she called up that she was ready, Daniel insisted on helping the other man haul a very dirty but triumphant Carter out of the hole.

"General Hammond, we have SG-1," a third soldier was relaying into her radio, a smile lighting her brown eyes as she took in the sight of Sam and Daniel hovering protectively over the bodies of their team mates. "Repeat, we have SG-1, safe and basically sound. All four of them, sir." And as Hammond's gruff tones sent back words of congratulation and an acknowledgement that medical units would be standing by in the gateroom, SG-11 moved with relieved efficiency to help Sam and Daniel transport their recovered team mates' unconscious bodies back home.


EPILOGUE

"I regret that I can tell you nothing of what transpired on P5X-JSG, General Hammond." Teal'c's voice was quietly respectful and tinged with mild regret as he rested in bed in the infirmary, his arms folded serenely across his sheet-covered midsection.

"Doc says it looks like Junior might have gone AWOL for a bit from Teal'c's pouch," Jack offered helpfully from his own bed adjacent to Teal'c's. "She said that, besides Teal'c showing signs of incipient immune failure and stress from going briefly without his symbiote, Junior himself seemed to have suffered some sort of mild trauma."

"Thank you for that expert medical report, Colonel," Hammond replied with a wry glance in Jack's direction. "Dr. Fraiser DID mention something to that effect earlier when she came to debrief me in my office."

"Oh...well, okay, then," Jack muttered, looking momentarily chagrined; but then he recovered quickly, a slow grin lighting his face. "Just trying to be thorough, sir."

"I appreciate that, Jack," Hammond replied, a brief smile of fond resignation coming to his eyes. It was impossible to stay irritated with the Colonel, he mused helplessly to himself, some worried part of him noting how drawn and tired SG-1's indomitable commander still appeared in spite of his blessedly upbeat mood.

"How's YOUR memory today, Jack?" he added casually now, moving from his position at the foot of Teal'c's bed to stand at the foot of Jack's. "Has anything...new...come to your mind this morning? Anything at all?"

"Sorry, sir; my head's completely empty," Jack replied, then lifted an affronted eyebrow as a muffled snort sounded from the chair next to his bed.

"Oh, sure, laugh it up, Daniel," Jack grumbled, casting his friend a mild glare of reproof. "Anyway, you know what I meant. I just meant that I still don't remember anything, not after the moment when that mud stuff...ugh." A ripple of distaste crossed the Colonel's lean face, and Daniel reached out a conciliatory hand and rested it on Jack's arm. The two men exchanged brief, silent glances of understanding, and Hammond was again reminded just how close SG-1 was as a team.

"Very well, gentlemen," Hammond sighed, nodding his head at both patients and forcing a note of cheer into his voice. "We're all just very glad to have you back, safe and sound. Get some rest, and if you should recall anything from the time when you were missing..."

"You'll be the first to know, sir," Jack filled in with a small smile. "Or at least the second, after we know, ourselves. Or make that the third, cause we'd have to tell Janet that we needed permission to speak with you, and of course she'd want to know WHY..."

"REST, Colonel," Hammond ordered sternly; and with an expression of longsuffering patience the commander of the SGC slipped quietly from the infirmary, leaving his premiere exploration team to a blessed moment of privacy.

"You really DON'T remember anything that happened to you, do you?" Sam spoke up from her chair at Teal'c's side. "Not even the smallest fragment..."

"Sam..." Daniel chided gently, and she had the grace to blush as she cast an apologetic look at their two recovering friends.

"No, it's all right," Jack defended his 2IC, giving her a reassuring smile. "Believe me, I wish we COULD remember; God only knows what we might have seen and done while we were missing. I mean, it doesn't seem reasonable to believe that we spent the whole time trapped down in that crevice or whatever the hell it was. Not to mention the fact that we don't have a clue how we ended up THERE, either."

"Indeed; while I cannot consciously recall any specific events, I do believe that we were somewhere...else...for most of our disappearance," Teal'c agreed. The two men exchanged brief looks of shared mystification, and Sam shrugged and rose to her feet, a rueful expression on her face.

"Well, like the General said, guys; the important thing is that you're back home, only a bit the worse for wear; you'll both be up and about in no time. Daniel and I are so relieved to have you back--we missed you big lugs. Sir," she amended smilingly as Jack shot her a faux frown for her impudence.

"Definitely," Daniel smiled his agreement, and before things could get really sappy the door opened to admit Janet Fraiser.

"Ready for another round of tests, boys?" she chirped energetically, and Jack groaned and rolled his eyes at Teal'c while Sam and Daniel made a speedy exit in the background. Teal'c's only response was a slight, sardonic lifting of one eyebrow; he maintained his usual stoicism in the face of adversity and merely nodded gravely in response to the Doctor's murmured words of satisfaction concerning his latest vitals check.

But Jack was not so acquiescent; as Janet moved to recheck his vitals, he crossed his arms over his chest and wrinkled his nose at her in a gesture that was half-pleading, half-disgusted.

"Aw, c'mon, Doc!" he protested, grimacing as she reached to take his pulse. "Haven't the Big Guy and I been through enough trauma, already? You're liable to cause us both to have some sort of ugly relapse or flashback or something..."

"I myself feel fine, O'Neill," Teal'c declared solidly, and Jack scowled at him around the amused smile Janet was giving him.

"Work with me here, Teal'c," the Colonel complained, and the imperturbable Jaffa merely shrugged a slight apology, his dark eyes gleaming quiet humor in Jack's direction.

"Don't worry, Colonel," Fraiser was saying cheerily, releasing Jack's wrist and scribbling something onto his chart. "This shouldn't take too long. And we'll only need a LITTLE of your blood this time."

"Gee, that helps," Jack snorted disgustedly, grudgingly swinging his legs over the side of his bed and allowing an orderly to help him down into a waiting wheelchair. "Yep, that just changes everything. I can't believe I wasn't squirming in excitement at the very notion of getting poked and jabbed yet again."

"You have endured far worse, O'Neill," Teal'c scolded quietly as he accepted his own wheeled ride to the labs down the corridor. "And do not forget that I will be accompanying you to these latest...tests. We will weather them together."

"Buddies to the end, right?" Jack replied, and a strange look crossed his face as SOMETHING resonated just below the surface of his mind. Something familiar about those words, he thought puzzedly, something intimate and intense and painful--something that had drawn both himself and his Jaffa friend into previously uncharted territories concerning the friendship and support they shared...

"Teal'c?" he rasped out, feeling suddenly dizzy; and when his eyes met those of his friend, Teal'c's expression was also startled and bemused, his gaze intense on Jack's pale face.

"Yes, my friend; I sense it, too. ALMOST, a memory--a true recollection...Perhaps, in time, all will become clear to us. Perhaps we will both remember, will both understand all that happened to us. But I do know this, O'Neill; I know that, whatever occurred on P5X-JSG and whatever happens in the future, you are and will always be my friend."

"Right back at you, Big Guy," Jack returned softly, heedless of their listening audience. For one long breath the two team mates exchanged a wordless look of quietly satisfied communion, and then they were being wheeled off down the corridor, Jack loudly exhorting his longsuffering orderly to put some elbow grease into it and outrace the other wheelchair.

As her two newest patients were pushed through the doorway of one of the labs, Janet Fraiser stood in the infirmary door and watched them go, a relieved smile playing about the corners of her mouth. It might take time for their memories to return, she mused to herself...if they returned at all. Their amnesia WAS worrisome, but she would shelve that concern for another time. Regardless of whatever it was that had happened to them on that damned planet, Janet had a feeling that the two men would work through it together, giving each other the strength and support both needed to move ahead with their lives and their work as members of SG-1. After all, she sighed as she moved to finish her rounds; that's what friends are for.

End (for now!)

BACK