A Murmur, A Sigh

Part One

By: sharilyn

EMAIL: sharilyn

 

It's not your fault
They pushed you too far
And all of your thoughts
Came apart within so
They pushed you too hard
They pushed you too far
Fate comes, and fate heals all the worst of our debts
There's a broken man inside
There's a broken man inside
He'll break, he'll break, he'll break
The styles are gonna change
Time will go away
The styles are gonna change but I won't
If I could find a way
I'd suffer all of your pain
Time will go away but I won't.
"Broken"--Ours

Part I.

"I can't leave him like this...and I won't."

I said those words about Jack once--it seems a long time ago, now--and at the time I said them, I meant them with every fiber of my being. Jack needed me then--not just professionally, in the guise of translator for the unusual situation we found ourselves in--but as a friend, as someone he knew he could count on in the midst of all the confusion going on in his mind.

The Ancients' download of information into Jack's brain on that particular mission had overloaded his circuits, so to speak, and he had needed me there with him to help him navigate the treacherous path leading to the answer to his dilemma. I never let on afterwards--either to him or to anyone else--just how good it had felt inside to know that, of all the people at the SGC, it was ME Jack had turned to then, ME he'd needed to see him through his most difficult moments.

We were firm friends by then--as firm, at least, as it was possible for our two 'unique' personalities to be--so it probably shouldn't have seemed like such a big deal that I stepped forward and did my job and that Jack knew enough to step back and let me do it. Just the team working smoothly together, as required, right?

But it was more than that, so much more; it had taken only one silently beseeching look from Jack's desperately isolated and bewildered brown eyes to pull up something lodged deep and almost forgotten in my soul, to make me realize that the initially reluctant bond of friendship that had formed between us had become not just a grudging choice but something more along the lines of deepest necessity.

I'd always assumed that I needed Jack's friendship more than he needed mine in return, and I'd always felt that the implied imbalance in that equation somehow lessened me in his eyes and in the eyes of others; therefore, in some childishly trite display of pique, I had tried to downplay any feelings of true affection or camaraderie that might extend tentative feelers between us in the course of our working together. I had allowed myself to like Jack, but I had also made sure to hold him at a distance, to let him know that he could tread only so far in my direction before I'd irritably withdraw and shut him out. But it was only what he deserved, I'd tell myself half-angrily; after all, look how he treated me in return.

I suppose some hidden, terribly needy part of my psyche resented Jack for seeming so cavalier about our friendship, for taking my guarded offers of the same for granted, almost as his due; at least, that's how I mistakenly viewed the strangely compelling but erratic relationship between the two of us in those early days. I just couldn't see how wrong I was.

It took the incident with the Ancients and Jack's impromptu solo trip through the stargate to have their knowledge removed from his brain to really make me see that it WASN'T just my linguistics skills that Jack had needed to see him through his ordeal this time. At one point--right before he'd stormed determinedly into the gate room to initiate his lonely journey to a place farther than any of us had ever been--he had turned to me and rather hesitantly extended one hand, fingers outstretched toward me as if asking for me to reciprocate.

Our eyes had locked, and almost unknowingly I'd felt my own fingers reach to touch the tips of his in some fleeting, powerfully regretful gesture of farewell; Jack's eyes had drawn me in to his very soul in that moment, and in his dark gaze I had seen his gratitude for all that I'd done for him, as well as something much stronger and deeper. I had seen his own dependence on the bond we'd formed between us, had felt in my own pounding heart the echoing beat of the feelings of affection and humor and now, regret, radiating from his strong spirit as Jack mutely offered to me the last and best gift he might ever be allowed to give me before his departure.

Neither of us knew at that point if he would ever return from his journey; and maybe the distinct possibility that he wouldn't had made it easier for Jack to reveal the depth of the friendship he felt for me. Maybe it was that same lack of certainty that had made it easier for me to send my own silent message in return, my gaze fastening onto his with heartfelt intensity as I let him know I not only accepted his friendship but returned it, my eyes telling him what my lips could not.

We've been through a lot, Jack's wry half-smile had seemed to say, and my own somber return smile had answered: Yes. You might say that.

Take care, I had heard inside my head, plain as day, and as something immensely sad and bereft rose up into my gaze, I'd felt my lips form the soundless response: You, too. And then he'd forged grimly ahead, seeming not to hear me when I'd impulsively flung myself onto the ramp after him and reminded him, almost desperately, that if he went he might not come back. He was too far gone by then, already somewhere else in his mind; so I had stepped back, arms hanging uselessly at my sides, and merely watched him go.

And I knew in that moment that I never again wanted to feel the hollow emptiness I felt inside as he disappeared through the iris into the vast unknown. Never again, I remember thinking fiercely to myself; I NEVER want to feel like this again.

But now I do. I DO feel it again this moment--the same lost, empty sensation inside my gut, the same pain tearing at my chest and my heart and soul--and once again Jack is the focus of my despair. Despair not for myself, but for him, for all that he's been through since we came here.

As I look at him now, slumped bonelessly against the far wall of our prison in some ridiculous travesty of sleep, my stomach clenches with a roiling surge of rage and sorrow and regret, and I want to rip my wrists free of the chains binding me and go to his side. I want to cradle his bloodied, tortured head against my chest and whisper to him that it wasn't his fault, what they did to that little boy. It ISN'T his fault that a child's simple trust and innocence was so cruelly and horribly betrayed, that that same little child was made to believe a lie about Jack O'Neill and then forced to suffer the unbearable consequences of seeing that lie played out to a conclusion heinous beyond belief. Even the Goa'uld could never be this cruel, this depraved...

"Please, Jack, answer me," I try hoarsely now, my voice rough and broken in the confines of our prison. "God, Jack, you have to fight this! You can't let them do this to you, can't give in to their evil...You're letting them break you down, Jack, letting them WIN. Don't do it, don't make that little boy's suffering all be for nothing! Please, Jack..." I babble, desperate to see him pull himself up from this, sickened by all that's been done to him and by the look of total hopelessness I saw in his eyes when they brought him back this last time.

"Jack..." I begin again, and with that he rolls over slowly, so slowly and stiffly, as though he's aged forty years overnight and now can barely move his painful, arthritic limbs...he rolls, and his chains clink dully as they're stretched to the limit, chafing against his raw wrists as he extends both arms stiffly in my direction and gazes at me like someone already dead, his eyes fixed and empty and cold, so cold...

"No," he says, his voice not Jack's voice, his tone as dead and as lost and final as the lifelessness in his eyes. "No; no more. No more."

And then he rolls over again, his back to me, curled in on himself in a painful fetal position. As his whole body begins to shake and shake as if it will never stop, his name dies mute on my tongue; and I let my own helpless, impotent arms fall dully into my lap, bowing my head in agonized defeat as I close my eyes against Jack and the sight of his indomitable spirit's abject disintegration.


Part II.

They're clever, I'll give them that; fiendishly clever, to be more accurate. They took us without fuss or muss, quite coldly and calculatedly scanned our memories, then set about using them against us to gain their own ends.

That's nothing new--we've encountered aliens with similar capabilities before, have found ourselves exposed on other missions to technology that raped our thoughts just as effectively as the machines used by those who hold us now. But none of those others who experimented on us before seemed to possess even a quarter of the innate cruelty and callousness displayed by our present captors.

It was Jack they wanted, right from the start. With the rest of us the whole mind-scan thing merely seemed perfunctory, a disinterested standard procedure at best; with all of us but Jack the operation was obviously undertaken only for the purpose of quality control and perhaps just to assure themselves that they hadn't missed anything vital to their needs--maybe some little juicy tidbit concerning our leader that might be lurking in my head, or Sam's, or Teal'c's. When all was said and done, apparently our memories just weren't what they wanted. But Jack's...that was another story entirely.

I still don't know WHY they focused on him so hungrily, so intensely, from the first moment they came upon us in their tunnels. Beyond the obvious fact that he is our leader and that he gives off this innate aura of power, fearlessness, and just downright piss-and-vinegar contrariness, I couldn't say why they were so instantly enamored of HIS mind, HIS memories. But it quickly became apparent to all of us that Jack was to be the focus of their attention, the modus behind their operandi, as he so drily put it the second time they came for him. And whatever it was they wanted from him, they were more than willing to go to unheralded heights of sadistic emotional cruelty and manipulation to attain their goals.

I don't think they're even true telepaths, not in the sense of being able to read our actual thoughts as we're thinking them; it's more like they have the ability to peruse our memories at their leisure, to riffle through the metaphorical mental storehouse cataloguing our lives' events and pluck out whichever images and reminiscences they please. It still makes me almost physically sick, remembering how it felt when they attached that device to my head and a sensation like a thousand burning, scratchy fingernails combing through my brain briefly became my whole existence.

At least the procedure was over quickly, I think now with a measure of ironic gratitude for small favors. And for Sam, Teal'c, and myself it was a one-time deal. But for Jack...God.

A shudder of remorseful guilt arrows down my spine as I try to remember just how many times they've fastened that device around his head since they first took us captive, just how many times they've savaged his memories to capture every last, tormenting morsel of grief and rage and hurt dwelling deep in his mind. I'm no longer sure how long we've been here, how many days Jack and I have spent in this bare little cell while Teal'c and Sam languish in its twin next door to us; all I know for sure is that these aliens who look so disarmingly human in physical appearance have been relentlessly inhumane in their treatment of my best friend.

He's resting now at last, having fallen into a genuine sleep awhile ago; it was pure exhaustion that finally drew him down, sucking the last vestiges of wakefulness from his shattered consciousness and providing both his body and mind with some much-needed solace from the events of the past few days.

God, just don't let him dream, I think now in silent desperation as I watch him sleep; just don't bring the nightmares back. Keep from his sleeping soul the brutally vivid phantasms of the horrors he's seen and has felt responsible for since this all began.

He lies there now, manacled hands tucked fitfully beneath his armpits as he curls gingerly on his right side, his exhausted face with its hollowed angles and deeply carved planes turned in my direction as if in weary accusation. You did nothing to stop this, I imagine him saying to me in a low, hopeless rasp. You let them take me day after day, knowing what would come, and you did nothing.

"I'm sorry, Jack," I hear myself whispering aloud now, only vaguely aware of the hot tears burning the backs of my eyes. "God, I'm so, so sorry. There was nothing we could do, Jack, we couldn't fight them, nothing we did made a difference..."

And as my troubled gaze rests on Jack's vulnerable form huddled so uncomfortably on the stone floor, I'm forced to relive my own tormented memories of the things I saw them do to him--the things we ALL saw happen right before our eyes and were powerless to prevent.

"Lah'jhan...Charlie," I murmur to myself now, and to my dismay a sudden, unexpected flood of scalding tears is unleashed from my soul to spill down my bruised and lacerated face. "Sweet Jesus, that poor little boy...and Jack...Ah, God, Jack, I'm so sorry..."

And the images rush over me, flood over me against my will in a killing inundation of rage and grief, backwashed by the sounds of a little boy's terrified, agonized screams and the raw, unearthly chorus of Jack O'Neill's ravaged pleas for mercy. I hear it still, both in my head and in my soul, Jack's howls and screams of impotent horror and fury as they did what they did to that poor little boy, to Charlie-who-wasn't-Charlie but truly believed he was. To Charlie, the sacrificial lamb, to Charlie who was no more human than they are but whose blue, blue eyes stayed fixed on Jack with the broken trust of a child betrayed by his true father, asking the unanswerable question as he died.

"Why, Daddy? WHY are you killing me?"

And Jack could give him no answer, could only collapse bonelessly to his knees, retching and sobbing as Lah'jhan, the-boy-who-wasn't-really-Charlie-at-all, bled and screamed and died, broken syllables bubbling from his blood-frothed lips as his entreating hands reached out for Jack, for the salvation Jack was unable to offer him.

"Why, Daddy? Don't you love me anymore; please, I'll be a good boy now, PLEASE, Daddy, make them stop, why won't you make them STOP!..."

And as we'd all--Teal'c and Sam and me--screamed and cursed and struggled to free ourselves--to HURL ourselves at those who were murdering this precious life with such vicious sadism--Jack had broken free of the ones surrounding him just long enough to drag himself on his belly to the feet of those torturing the small life they clutched in their hands. And as we'd watched, both sickened and mesmerized by the drama unfolding before us, Jack had laboriously pulled himself up the legs of the butchers and had snatched that blood-soaked, broken little body from their murderous embrace. With the last of his own strength my best friend had scooped the child into his arms, cradling the boy's ruined blonde head in one large, inexpressibly tender hand and murmuring meaningless words of apology, of comfort, as Lah'jhan-who-was-not-Charlie drew his last, dying breath and hissed out the condemnation that would destroy Jack O'Neill's soul:

"Murderer...murderer..."

And then he was gone, just a pitiful little ragdoll jumble of floppy limbs whose blindly staring eyes--already glazed with death--stared up into Jack's with eternal accusation. Daddy. Murderer. And Jack had crushed the small body to his chest, weeping and shaking and--finally--howling, wild and keening like a mad thing. And then he had let the lifeless little corpse slide through his hands to the blood-smeared floor before surging up, before trying with his teeth, his hands, with every part of his body and his soul, to kill those who had done this.

But he was spent, wasted, used up...it was a horror of a different sort altogether to see how easily they subdued him, how indifferent their expressions were as they beat him and beat him and beat him till he lay beside Lah'jhan as limp, still, and bloody as the child's own forgotten corpse. They made the rest of us watch it, all of it; and when Jack was scarcely more alive than Lah'jhan-who-wasn't-Charlie, they were finally satisfied and ordered that the room be cleared.

"Tomorrow we do again," Aliph, the leader of these inexpressibly twisted beings had announced with quiet authority; and as they hauled Sam and Teal'c's struggling figures through the door, one called Dromar dragged me on my knees, arms behind my back, over to Jack's side and flung me down on top of him.

"You, clean him up," Dromar rasped tonelessly to me; I felt his hands move behind me to release me from my bonds, and with a last, slight sneer he left me there, watched over by two guards and the small, quivering form of a handmaiden who entered the room with a steaming bowl of herb-laced water and some cloths and spare clothing.

Wordlessly I had turned my attention to Jack's injuries, tending him as gently as I could while the same frightened handmaiden was joined by another, the two of them murmuring low exclamations of shocked dismay as they struggled to lift poor Lah'jhan's lifeless body and carry it from the room.

Silent tears of rage made wet furrows down my face as I carefully drew the blood-stained cloths over and over across Jack's face and down his body, wringing the crimson evidence of his savage attempt at retribution into the bowl of water rapidly cooling beside me. When a congealing froth of blood-flecked bubbles had amassed thickly on the water's surface, the guards spoke harshly to me, ordering me to get up, to carry my friend back to our cell.

Closely flanked by their massive forms on either side, I had struggled to lift Jack into my arms, carefully balancing his dead weight over my left shoulder as I marched resolutely between the guards, keeping my head down and my eyes on the floor directly ahead of me as we made our way back to the cells.

So that was it, I remember thinking dully as I trudged along, my spine protesting silently at Jack's limp weight; all those days of grooming that little boy to believe he really was Jack's son, of throwing the two of them together to foster a bond between them, of making Jack remember all he'd lost even as they made the child, Lah'jhan, long for something he had never really had...all of it designed for that one moment--that ultimate lesson in depraved heartlessness and cruelty--because they recognized that Jack would not give up our world to them, would never help them do what they wanted to do...

And tomorrow it starts again, I think hopelessly to myself now as I sit here, knees drawn up to my chest and my eyes never leaving the slow, sometimes halting rhythm of Jack's chest as he breathes and moans and reaches out to grasp helplessly, longingly, at a miracle forever beyond his reach. Tomorrow it starts again, and God forgive me for not knowing how to make the nightmare end, for failing Jack in a situation of need that makes the whole Ancients episode seem like a child's silly game.


Part III

No more, I told Daniel; no more. I remember saying it, remember the look in his eyes right after the words left my mouth. That's all I WANT to remember, all I will allow myself to think about now, as I lie here in terrible pain. NOMORE/NOMORE/NOMORE/NOMORE, I recite like a mantra, over and over as first seconds, then minutes, then hours trickle silently away...

Thank God Daniel shut up; thank God, or the Devil, or whoever the Hell it was that closed his mouth. I just couldn't take it anymore, couldn't bear to listen to his well-meaning but empty exhortations for me to hold on, to not give in to despair. How dare he urge me to keep going, to stay strong...how dare he expect me to still BE the same old Jack after what those bastards did to that little boy? My God, didn't he SEE, didn't he HEAR?...No, no more; NOMORE/NOMORE/NOMORE...

But it won't stop.

When Aliph first brought the little guy in to me, I almost wet myself from the shock of seeing Charlie standing before me, dressed in soft blue robes with that shock of shiny blonde hair and those intensely alert and curious blue eyes studying me right back. Of course I knew it WASN'T my Charlie; my Charlie died years ago, when he was a little older than the tyke standing inexplicably before me in the middle of Aliph's interrogation chamber. I knew then that this was going to be bad, so very very bad...but oh God he looked SO much like Charlie, and he smiled at me with such simple, ingenuous charm...

God, stop this, why are you thinking about this, remembering this?...Please, make it stop! But I can't. All I can see, whether my eyes are opened or closed, is that little kid standing there, just sort of wringing his hands together and shifting from one bare foot to the other, his eyes sliding half-anxious, half-excited glances my way. God, he was so like Charlie, the way he fidgeted and hummed and vibrated with barely suppressed energy! I still can't shake it off, how those incredible eyes of his seemed to assess every part of me from my head to my toes as he stood waiting with a woman who appeared to be his mother, all of us poised for Aliph to speak, to explain.

"I won't give you what you want," I remember saying after a strained moment of silence, my eyes going cold and hard as they shifted from the little boy's fascinated regard to the pale, vaguely aristocratic face of Aliph, Regent of the Triad of Whatever-the-hell. Who gives a flying fuck, I think now, just as I thought that first day. Take your triad and shove it so far up your--

Ah, God, that hurts, flexing my body like that! Funny, how I could forget even for a second how badly they beat me, how relentlessly every frigging part of my body aches and throbs and pulses with pain now. But that only means I'm alive; not a luxury the kid has anymore.

Shit, what they did to him, the way they hurt him and made him scream...and all I had to do was tell them, all they needed from me was submission to their plan...but I couldn't do it. Even for Charlie-who-wasn't-Charlie--even for this incredible little kid whose real name, I discovered early on, was Lah'jhan--I couldn't do it.

So they killed him; after days of putting the two of us together, forcing me to spend hours with him engaging in games and silly stories and father/son sorts of activities...and after days on Aliph's part of giving him anything he wanted, of pampering and spoiling and doting on the kid as if he was some much-loved and favored grandson...that fucking bastard stood there earlier today and had his henchmen kill that sweet, gorgeous little kid in cold blood.

Oh, yes, it was a stroke of evil genius to use the boy against me like that, to lay the responsibility--however misplaced--at my doorstep. He knew I WOULD feel responsible, the bastard; he knew all along what my answer would be, the only answer I could give. He knew what would happen even as he showered Lah'jhan and his mother with gifts. That kid was dead already from the minute Aliph singled him out because of his uncanny resemblance to Charlie, to My son, the sunny-faced little boy still alive in my memories, memories they stole from me with that fucking gadget...

And his blood--Lah'jhan's innocent blood--is now and forever on MY hands, MY head, MY soul...because I let them do it. Because the lives of seven billion souls on earth were deemed worthier somehow on the great O'Neill balance sheet than the life of one small kid who'd been brainwashed and hypnotized into believing his name was Charlie and that I was his father, his very own Daddy.

Murderer, he had hissed at me with the last of the breath left in his dying lungs; murderer. How did he even know that word, such a little boy, a child who only the day before had giggled and shrieked with glee as I tossed him over my shoulder and did my best airplane impression with him riding on my back all around the room...Daddy. Murderer. Oh, God, just make this all go away...

"Jack?"

I hear Daniel's voice now, as if from a great distance, though I know he's only seven feet away; I hear the restless clink and rustle of his chains as he pulls fretfully away from the wall, futiley trying to close the unbreachable gap between us. I guess a part of me feels sorry for not answering him, for shutting him out so completely; but as irrational as it is, I find myself blaming him, too, blaming ALL of SG-1, for not preventing Lah'jhan's death.

There was nothing they could do, the small remnants of my rational self whisper mournfully inside my head. They're hurting, too; they've been beaten and tortured, as well, have been forced to watch you suffer, suffer so terribly...and you know Daniel won't let this rest, won't stop trying, you might as well answer him, give him SOMETHING so he'll leave you alone again...

But my throat has sealed itself shut, my fingers twitch and tremble and scrabble along the floor with the need to draw away, to pull myself as far as I can from Daniel's concerned voice and those piercing, all-seeing blue eyes that will never let me go, never let me escape into the nothingness I need now, into the dark oblivion that has already swallowed another innocent boy's unblemished soul...

"I know you're awake, Jack; God, c'mon, talk to me! Please, Jack, you can't give up, we've got to find a way to make them pay, to get Aliph...don't you want that, Jack; don't you want him to pay for Lah'jhan, for what he did?"

Daniel's voice is a low, fierce diatribe in my head, the savage words startlingly harsh coming from one who is usually such an arbiter of peace, of understanding. I know what this is, I know WHY...standard shrink technique, try to get the traumatized person's focus onto something else, try to give the poor bastard another reason to keep going, to keep breathing...and if revenge isn't a good carrot to dangle before this old warhorse, what is?

Good on you, Daniel, I think dully as I envision Aliph's head exploding like a ripe melon under an onslaught of bullets from my P-90. No, too good for him, too damned quick. Good on you, Language Man, for making me think of other things, other goals, than the one I really want for myself right now. Hell, I'd clap for you if it wasn't such an effort to even move.

"Jack..."

Damn him, he just won't quit; and damn me, I can't give him what he wants, what he needs. I'm done, Daniel; all used up, tired of this shit, tired of death and hopelessness and cruelty for no goddamned reason except the fact that certain beings have the power to live that way, to throw their amoral, immoral, corrupt weight around.

And who's to say that I'm any less evil than they are? That kid screamed my name, begged me to make them stop, begged for my help, for his life...and I killed him. Just as surely as if it had been MY hands twisting and wrenching and snapping his little bones, MY hands choking and gouging and hurting him so terribly, with such efficient finality. I caused his death, even if only by default--just as I helped make it possible for MY Charlie to die under my gun, under my roof, where he was supposed to be safe and sheltered and grow up happy and protected...

I know they'll come again soon, I know they'll drag me up and out and take me back to Aliph for God knows what new sadistic game; and when they come I'll try to make you proud, Daniel. I'll do my best to kill and kill and kill some more, all of them that I can. I'll play commander one last time and try to get the rest of you home, try to save at least three valuable lives to atone for all the others I've taken. But after that, Daniel, my friend, all bets are off. And now I just want to sleep, to slide down and down and feel nothing...


Part IV.

I know Jack hears me; I know he's awake. But there's nothing I can do, no way I can get through to him. Cursing the chains that hold me affixed to the floor--the heavy links preventing me from going to my best friend's side--I give the manacles at my wrists one more ineffective jerk before wearily leaning my head back against the unyielding wall behind me. God, I can't remember when I've felt so helpless, so useless. First that little boy, and now Jack...

Please, Jack, talk to me, I want to plead with him; at least just roll over and let me see your face, your eyes. Anxiously I think to myself that if I can just see the expression in his eyes, then I'll know. Everything about Jack--his thoughts, his moods, sometimes his very soul--can be read in his amber gaze...at least by those of us who know him well, who know the real man behind the official rank and symbol of his job.

I'm sorry, I send mutely to him once again, for what must be the tenth time in the last hour. I'm sorry. Sorry about Lah'jhan, sorry about Charlie, sorry that we had the misfortune to end up on this hellish planet in the first place. Most of all I'm sorry that there's not a damned thing I can do to make any of this better, to make the events that happened earlier today any more bearable for you as you lie so rigid and defeated across the cell from me. Jesus, Jack...

Yes, I know he's awake; and I know he's gone to some place in his mind so dark and lost and far from me that I probably don't have a hope in hell of making a connection to him now. It hurts me, watching the stiff, pain-filled way he holds his body, seeing how his muscles shake and quiver and jerk ever so slightly with the horrible discomfort his abused body is forced to endure as he huddles on the cold floor. But even worse than his physical pain is the mental and emotional agony emanating from every taut line of his battered frame. And I can't even go to him, can't even press a hand to his forehead to comfort him or squeeze his hand to let him know he's not alone.

"You should try to sleep, Jack," I offer lamely after a bit, knowing that there's nothing else I can say, no miracle remedy I can produce from some hidden magic hat that will take his pain away. But I need him to know that I'm still here with him, that I feel for him and grieve with him and will do whatever I can to help him.

"You're my friend, Jack, and I wish I knew what to do now, what to say to you," I continue quietly, gazing down at the blood-encrusted bracelets of iron circling my wrists. "I wouldn't dare be so stupid and shallow as to say I can even come close to understanding what you're feeling now, what you're going through. And we both know there's nothing to make any of this any better. I can't do ANYTHING to make this hurt less, Jack, and it kills me to admit that," I murmur dejectedly to his unyielding back.

"I know you're probably lying there, eyes wide open and as blank as the wall in front of you, just wishing I'd shut the hell up and leave you alone," I continue with quiet ruefulness. "And I will...shut up, that is...soon. But not before I remind you that I AM here, Jack, as close as they'll let me get...just as ineffectual as always, mind you, but I'm right here. And I...I need you to come back from wherever you are, Jack-- as selfish and cruel and demanding as that might seem to you right now, I need you to be here with me. Sam and Teal'c need you, too; God, how's that for added pressure? So...please try, Jack; get some sleep, think it over, and then please, just...well. I know it's a lot to ask, so I'll stop right there."

There's no answer to my pleas, no sign at all during any of my quietly impassioned speech that he's even heard me; my head is pounding now, and I feel like throwing up as images of Lah'jhan's body rear up before my mind's eye in gore-reddened technicolor. God, if I can't get the sights, the sounds, the death smell of this day out of my head, how much worse must it be for Jack, who was so much more involved?

And what's next on Aliph's agenda; what can he possibly do after this to top the unparalleled savagery of the murder of one small boy? They'll be coming back soon, I know; coming back to torment Jack even further, to bombard him relentlessly with ever-escalating atrocities till they've broken him completely, till he's nothing but a destroyed ruin they can manipulate and control like an animated puppet. He's close to it already, close to that final breaking point; and as I huddle here with Jack's unresponsive form becoming nothing more than an indistinct blur in the shadows of encroaching evening, I want to tear out my own hair and claw at my own skin in a paroxysm of helpless rage and sorrow because I don't know what to do. God help me, I don't know what to do.


Part V.

I knew the bastards wouldn't leave me alone for long; I'm learning how Aliph thinks, how he operates, and I know he meant for me to lie here in unremitting pain and think about the kid just long enough for it to stick with me, just long enough to grind the hurt into my guilt-blackened soul deep enough to fuck me up but not so deep that I won't have room left in my spirit for a little more suffering, a little more horror.

I think I dozed a bit just now; one minute Daniel's voice was floating across the cell to me, his concerned tone barely impinging on my numbed consciousness...and then, even as the word 'sleep' formed itself from the jumble of syllables Daniel was tossing my way, everything faded out around me, granting me an all-too-brief respite from this particular, hellish reality.

But it wouldn't do to let me get TOO comfy and cozy in my private little world of sweet oblivion; oh, no. I'm sure my 'nap' couldn't have lasted more than twenty minutes before the clang of the cell door opening just now jerked me awake again. And ah, yes, here they are--Aliph's three favorite butt-kissers--come to drag me out for some more fun and games.

But maybe, just maybe, I don't want to play. And maybe I'm in no mood to hop to like a good little prisoner and just meekly follow where I'm led. Fuck you, you assholes; if you want me, you're going to have to work a little harder this time to get me where you want me.

The Three Stooges look like they're just spoiling for another round with me, and I realize with a sort of grim exuberance that I'm only too happy to oblige. I know that unless Aliph has specifically decreed otherwise, these clowns are probably going to hurt me REALLY badly this time, even worse than before; but I don't care.

"I don't want to hear it, Daniel," I say rustily now, anticipating his reaction; and as I pull myself to a stiff sitting position on the floor, I spare one brief glance his way before the advancing wall of Aliph's muscle boys can completely cut off my line of sight to my friend. Daniel knows me too well, I think with dry resignation as the brief flicker of my gaze catches him going into full anxiety mode on my behalf; he knows I can't just let Lah'jhan's murder go by the wayside, that I WON'T just fold my hands and meekly return to the sacrificial altar where so much innocent blood was spilled today.

I can read his face so clearly, so easily: Daniel rightly senses that the ONLY reason I'm even marginally cognizant of my surroundings right now is the overriding thirst for revenge--for retribution--that's burning me up from the inside out. I know that I'm not quite sane at this point, and I know he knows it, too. And as his gravely worried blue eyes try to hold my own--as he silently tries to plead with me to hold it together, to remember my duty both to myself and to the team--I realize with a sudden, poignant upwelling of affection just how well I know him in return...and just how quietly pervasive his influence has been in my life since I met him.

This is Daniel Jackson, my team mate and my friend, and he can no more huddle there against the wall doing nothing than I can stand up and go quietly now with these grunts from Hell. He HAS to try to get through to me, to make me find some reason to go on, to keep doing the fucking job; but he isn't doing it for the job's sake. As always, he does it for me, for MY sake--over and over his has been the hand extending the lifeline, the olive branch, the quiet force of will and spirit needed to bolster me when my own strength is lost or foundering.

And as I look at him now--my gaze dismissing as of no account the three dark figures standing between us--Daniel literally extends his hand to me again, blood-streaked fingers stretching across the space separating us as if desperate to reach me, to break through the protective barrier I've begun erecting against everything outside myself--Daniel included. I can't do what he wants me to do; I can't think rationally now, or sanely. The blood I've shed, the pain my body has suffered, just isn't enough to assuage the dark need inside me.

I've never been a masochist, and God knows I've had plenty of extreme experiences that would fulfill about a million wet dreams for those inclined to such things; but right now, lying here with my eyes on Aliph's men--my gaze hooded and expectant on their mocking faces--I crave the bone- crushing smash of punishing fists, the breath-stealing pain of being punched and pummeled and abused. I couldn't save the kid--yet another mother will sleep tonight and all the nights to come with no small, warm body to rock in her arms, no tousled head to kiss good night--all because of me. Because I did my fucking job. Because I tried to save the whole goddamned earth, and now I realize I was a fool to think I could do it.

He's going to win, Aliph is. This time around, I think that maybe--finally--I've bitten off more than I can chew. It was a terrible way to learn the lesson, and something tells me school still isn't quite over yet. There are undoubtedly a few sessions to go before the final bell rings, before Aliph's erased everything I was and still am, before he's used me and then used me UP. He'll let me die...eventually...when none of it matters anymore, and there's no one left to care. And for the few pitiful survivors of my perfidy--for those left on the earth to suffer once I've given him what he wants--my name will become nothing more than a curse, my memory an abomination to the human race.

So I need this now; I NEED to atone, to hurt, to give hurt BACK on behalf of the earth and of a little boy who was powerless and blameless and wronged beyond any measure of recompense, of forgiveness. I know that my actions from here on in are completely selfish and that I've failed SG-1; I'm deserting them now, leaving them to their own devices in their time of greatest need. When these men take me from here and I do what I have to do, I will be putting the burden of salvaging this mission and ensuring the continued, free existence of that fragile blue ball we call Home square on my team mates' shoulders. I suppose I feel sorry about that, if this dull, exhausted ache in my soul is any indication; I'm sorry about Daniel, too, that he's had to suffer so much tangential grief through his association with me...I'm sorry that I haven't been a better friend to him.

But at least I can spare him ONE tiny bit of unpleasantness, I think now; I can shield him one last time from the full brunt of yet another of my own pig-headed decisions. What's to come between the Three Stooges and myself won't be denied, nor would I want it to be; I'm as hungry for the confrontation ahead as they are. But Daniel doesn't need the grief, the emotional pain and suffering, of seeing it play out right before his eyes. This much I can do for him--one last gesture of friendship, of appreciation for all he's done for me.

"It will be all right," I tell him now, distantly amazed that my voice emerges so steady, so calm. "Just sit tight, Daniel, and try to stay as close to Sam and Teal'c as you can. Everything will be okay."

"Jack..." he begins, his tone not at all calm, not the least bit steady. His voice is tight with fear, with almost unconscionable dread, and I know he isn't fooled by my sudden complaisance. "Dammit, Jack--" he quavers helplessly, his eyes growing dark and huge as his face blanches of all color. "Don't..."

Nothing else emerges from his lips, no caveats, no threats, no pleas...he leaves the thought unfinished, the both of us knowing it's too deep and terrible and hopeless to ever speak aloud. It's failure and death and the giving up of something I never thought I'd willingly let go; and Daniel's shattered gaze tells me that he sees and understands. A brief flare of wild grief dilates his pupils, and he begins to pant as if all the oxygen has been sucked from the room, the sound that rattles from his lungs short and harsh and terrible to hear.

Don't...The word hangs heavy in the air between us, and as I stumble woodenly to my feet, chains dragging and clanking discordantly around me, a crooked grin comes to my face.

"Missed me that much, didya boys?" I murmur silkily to Aliph's henchmen; and as one of them unfastens my chains with a look of pure anticipation on his face for what's to come, I can hear Daniel mumbling, over and over:

"Oh, God, Jack, no; oh, God, please..."

And I want to tell him, don't worry, buddy; don't waste your time on me. Jack O'Neill's going to be just fine, Jack's gonna do some damage of his own now before all is said and done. But not here, in this cell; not in front of you, Daniel--my friend.

"Shall we go, then, fellas?" I ask politely, the fires banked, the embers barely smoldering far back in my eyes. Lethargic, weak, harmless, that's me...yes, let's go, let's take this outside...

And they oblige me, thank God; thank God they're too fucking stupid to realize, to SEE how much more painful it would have been for both Daniel and myself had they forced him to watch yet again the damage they can't wait to inflict on me. So drunk with their own blood lust that they can't think straight, the Stooges escort me to the cell door, their faces distorted almost demonically with savage anticipation.

Daniel's shouted imprecations go unnoticed, unanswered either by them or by me; I'm glad, so fucking glad, that they don't even seem to know he's alive in the cell, that their attention is focused so completely on me that Daniel might as well not exist for them at this point. It won't be so for long, but at least I've bought him a respite, bought him some time.

Funny, how I can find gratitude in my heart for this one small kindness they've done me, for waiting till they've slammed the cell door shut behind us and we're safely out of Daniel's view before they slam me against the wall and tear into me. So nice of them, I think absently as the pain comes in one great big SHOUT that consumes my world; come on, you bastards, show me what you've got. And they do.


Part VI.

I need not to be alone now. I need Sam and Teal'c here; I need their faces, their voices, the touch of their hands holding me up as I fall onto my face in this cell and scream soundlessly, endlessly, into the uncaring void surrounding me.

Jack...

He thought to spare me from witnessing the brutality Aliph's men had planned for him; even though we both knew what their appearance in our cell likely meant for him, Jack hid the physical pain those bastards had already inflicted on him earlier and pulled himself to his feet with no more concern than he might show for three old pals come to visit. He purposely drew their complete attention, held himself and his rage in check long enough to slide me right below their radar. He made sure their focus stayed only on him; he taunted and toyed with them just enough to insure that my own powerless presence across the cell would go unnoticed.

He WANTED them to come for him, I realize now with grim dismay; he was hungry for the pain, for revenge--however paltry and fleeting it might turn out to be--and ready to just let go of the final constraints of civilized sanity that had gained him nothing here but untold suffering. From the moment the three of them stepped into the cell with us, he was already loosing the threads of his control, already preparing himself for that last, willing freefall into the abyss.

But he still had just enough of the old Jack O'Neill in him, just enough of the protective Colonel/friend still glinting out at me from behind his eyes, to work the magic he's always worked so well...to wield the powerful, innate charisma he's always exuded without conscious effort. I was just as caught up in it as Aliph's men--even knowing Jack as I do, as familiar with his methods as I am--I fell for his peculiar brand of cynical charm every bit as hard as the devils who'd come to hurt him, to help destroy him.

Damn you, Jack, I mourn brokenly now as I sit here, clutching hard links of chain in my hands and squeezing till the imprint of iron is embedded in my raw flesh. It shouldn't be this way. You shouldn't have to face Aliph alone, I think dully to my absent friend, my chest tightening with a combination of fear and sorrow. The rest of us should be there with you--I should be with you. God, Jack, what they did to you, out there in that corridor!

I'm haunted still by the sounds I heard, by the relentless, sickening impact of fists on flesh and bone, by the wordless grunts and growls and harsh expulsions of air from both Jack and Aliph's elite guard as they waged an uneven, three-against-one battle just outside the cell. It was bad, really bad, and a part of me wanted to laugh hysterically at the very notion that Jack thought he could shield me from any of it, from even one brutal second of what I heard them doing to him. Did he honestly think only hearing and not SEEING it would make it any easier for me to bear?

I wonder if Teal'c and Sam heard it, too, if they're even now sitting chained in their joint cell agonizing over Jack's fate as desperately as I am. Helplessly I close my eyes, trying to block out the memory of the unmistakable crack of a bone breaking, followed by Jack's low, agonized grunt of pain. I'll never forget the sound he made--something halfway between a sharp hiss and a guttural, bitten-off scream--and a surge of bile rises in my throat as my imagination all too vividly fills in the missing picture to go with the gruesome sound effects.

Dammit, I HAVE to get out of here! It's torture of a different sort to be left here, chained and forgotten, while Jack is the focus of all their evil, the locus of Aliph's megalomaniacal plan to infiltrate and dominate Earth. God, it sounds like the plot of every bad sci-fi B-list movie ever made, I think glumly as I work the chain's rusty, blood-encrusted metal links between my fingers; but it's all too true, all too real. For reasons known only to himself (and to Jack as well now, I believe), Aliph has decided that the success of his plan rests wholly on Jack's shoulders. Yesterday, when he had all of us lined up together on our knees in his audience chamber, he kept ranting and raving about the righteousness of his vision, going on and on about the holy rays of divinity shattering the darkness, expounding on his notion that Jack must become his emissary, the new savior of both our worlds...

But what good is a dead savior, I think, picturing what was just done to Jack; and then I catch myself snorting out a choked, sardonic laugh as I realize that several million Christians back on Earth might have an answer for that question. And as far as some of these alien societies are concerned, true divinity isn't even required to pass their 'godhood' test; just whip out a Goa'uld sarcophagus or similar regenerative device, and voila'--you have your very own resurrected messiah, handily reusable for any number of insane religio-political campaigns.

Well, Jack isn't going to end up like that, I tell myself now, dismayed at the lack of certainty in my own mind concerning that particular statement. It's obvious he knows something the rest of us don't-- that during these past several days of being sequestered from the team and forced to play Aliph's sadistic, twisted game of pretend father to that poor, murdered little boy, Jack learned other truths, picked up other, chilling information that he either wouldn't or couldn't share yet with the rest of us. And nothing I've said or done during our brief hours alone together in this cell these past few days has broken through the barrier he erected against me early in our captivity.

I can't stand this; part of me is just so damned ANGRY with him for shutting me out, for taking on the full burden of this mission's disastrous turn and refusing to let the rest of us help him or take even a little bit of the heat. But that angry part of me cowers in shame now as I visualize the injuries Aliph's henchmen inflicted on Jack not two hours ago right outside the door; when I remember the agonized gurgling noises that were all Jack was capable of making near the end, my stomach clenches with severe nausea and I find myself rolling onto my side on the cold floor, tucking my chin into my chest and sliding my manacled hands between my thighs in a vain effort to hold the sickness at bay.

What are you doing, Jack? I ask helplessly now, uselessly, as hot acid rushes up from my gut and fills my mouth. What the hell is this about? Why is this happening, and what does Aliph have planned for you next? Far back in my mind I can't help but wonder where the rest of us fit in into Aliph's machinations; surely he would have killed Sam, Teal'c, and me already if we were of no use to him. Unless we've been the sword hanging over Jack's head, the bargaining chip Aliph intends to use to keep Jack in line...Just as he had Lah'jhan killed--apparently as punishment for something Jackrefused to do--so too could our fates be if Jack continues to resist whatever it is Aliph wants from him.

But I don't think that's the reason the rest of us are still alive--I'm sure that Aliph has learned enough about Jack and our team and the way we function as a unit to realize--to understand--that ultimately we can't and won't allow our actions to be ruled by the threat of harm or even death to another on our team. We all knew the risks when we signed on, knew that if it ever came down to a situation like this, the team would necessarily be sacrificed for the greater good. But what is the greater good in this situation? And where does the rest of SG-1 fit in to Aliph's plans?

God, I'm MAD at Jack all over again now, for leaving the rest of us in the dark, for coming back to this cell day after day with his soul growing ever darker, ever more silent and withdrawn behind the impenetrable shield of his brown eyes...refusing to listen to me or recount his experiences, refusing to give me the WHY of this whole situation. Keeping secrets, keeping silence.

Why did you shut me out, Jack; what have they done to you, that you would go so willingly into the arms of unspeakable pain and suffering--to torture and terror--without a backward glance? And what are they doing to you now, I think helplessly, the knot of fear I feel for him growing so huge and leaden in my belly that I begin to retch uncontrollably, my body heaving and shaking with each surge of nausea rippling through me.

Sweet Mary, just let him survive this, I find myself half- praying as the sickness and the fear emanating from my body fill my cell with their sour stench; help us, some-damned-body help us...help HIM...before it's too late. But my silent pleas go unheard in the encroaching darkness, and I'm left with nothing but the nightmare audio track of Jack's agonized breathing in my head to usher me into another solitary night.


Part VII

"Why are they doing this?" I ask Teal'c, unable to hide the despair in my voice; as I lift my gaze to his across the cell, his somber brown eyes meet mine with silent empathy, his hands lying palms-up on his powerful thighs in a pose of thoughtful meditation. Outwardly he displays none of the fear and rage that currently vie for dominance inside my own agitated mind, but I know him well enough to read the dark glint of wrath he holds in taut abeyance far behind the steady pulse of his gaze on me.

"Aliph thinks to break O'Neill, to destroy his mind, his body, his spirit...until nothing remains but an empty vessel, which he may then fill with whatever he wishes," Teal'c speaks quietly, his voice amazingly calm considering the horrific content of his words.

"When the man we now know as Jack O'Neill ceases to exist--when his body is but a broken shell--then Aliph will procede with his plans. I am sorry, Major Carter, but I believe that the torture O'Neill has thus far endured is but the beginning; much worse is still to come for him...unless we are somehow able to stop it," Teal'c concludes grimly, and his hands curl into tight fists on his thighs as he turns his face toward the cell door and the terrible memories of the sounds we heard not so long ago just on the other side of it. Sounds that still sicken me to recall them...

It seems to my fevered imagination that the gut-wrenching reverberations of Colonel O'Neill being beaten and brutalized mere feet away from us still echo hauntingly in the corridor outside our cell; I can hear it so loud in my head right now--the horrible, blood-filled gurgle of his breathing, the harsh, gasping sobs he made as they dragged him away at the end like he was just so much garbage, like he was nothing.

And the whole time it was happening I found myself wondering what the Colonel was thinking, knowing as he did that the rest of us were just on the other side of this damned wall but completely unable to help him or to intervene. I know he would have preferred that we didn't hear the solid, sickening thud of his ultimate defeat, that moment of inevitable surrender when his brutalized body just couldn't fight any longer. And that knowledge makes me so angry with myself now, makes me irrationally furious with my ears for hearing what he didn't want us to hear--with my mind for not being able to disconnect my soul and my senses from what was happening to the Colonel outside that door.

In some bizarre fashion I was made to feel like a sick voyeur listening in on a moment so private, so strangely intimate in its intense suffering, that for other ears to hear it was almost a sacrilege, a violation of something holy. Teal'c and I--and Daniel, too, I'm sure--were mute aural witnesses to the dehumanizing of one of the most HUMAN beings I have ever known, and the realization of our unwilling inclusion in Jack O'Neill's brutalization is enough to make me sick.

But at the time I was helpless against the truth my senses presented to me; when they first began to hurt the Colonel, my eyes locked on Teal'c's, both of us exchanging anguished, stony stares as full comprehension of our powerlessness washed over us. I thought to draw strength from Teal'c's presence with me, to find--as I have countless times before-- something in his dark gaze that would help me know what to do, that would show me how to handle the terrible feelings rising inside me. But as the heinous assault on Colonel O'Neill continued, I found I couldn't look at Teal'c any longer.

The sense of helpless, enraged shame that had taken over my soul compelled me to turn my face away, both from Teal'c's grimly shuttered gaze and from the performance of unbelievable cruelty going on outside our cell. I wanted to shut my ears against the sadistic symphony Aliph's guards were playing on the Colonel's body, wanted to completely block from my mind the horror of what he was going through--so alone, so vulnerable, yet still so quintessentially determined to give back as good as he got...

And as I sit here now wrapped in stifling folds of guilt, I find myself hoping with uncharacteristic savagery that the Colonel at least got some serious licks of his own in before they took him down.

"Aliph will not let him die," Teal'c speaks up suddenly, his tone flat and somehow resigned; as I raise one questioning brow in his direction, Teal'c taps one long forefinger against his knee and continues speculatively:

"For O'Neill to die at the hands of the guards would be completely counterproductive to their master's grand scheme; indeed, we cannot be certain that Aliph even intended for O'Neill to receive such brutal treatment when he was sent for. However, if the beating the guards inflicted WAS sanctioned by Aliph, it seems fairly certain that its purpose was well thought out beforehand and intended to further weaken the Colonel's resolve. I feel confident that Aliph possesses the technology to heal O'Neill of his injuries so that the next phase of his 'project' might begin."

"And we're SURE Aliph isn't a Goa'uld?" I rasp out caustically, drawing my knees up to my chin and resting my chained wrists atop my kneecaps. "If not, he certainly knows how to mimic their style."

"Aliph is not Goa'uld, nor are any of his people--at least, none that I am aware of," Teal'c replies seriously, his eyes studying my weary expression with a compassion that suddenly makes me long to go to him and wrap my arms around the warm, solid strength of his chest, to seek out the simple comfort of both hearing and feeling his hearbeat against my cheek.

In some ways Teal'c seems to know me better than either Daniel or the Colonel can profess to; in some indefinable sense he and I have bonded on a level that goes beyond words, beyond convenient explanations. It's true that I've always looked to the Colonel for strength and leadership, and to Daniel for intellectual stimulation and gentle, easy camaraderie; but Teal'c is the team member I'm instinctively drawn to in my darkest times. His eyes, his voice, the slightest touch of his hand...these are the things that anchor me to myself and to my purpose, the things that often give me courage to keep going when everything seems hopeless. And right now, as my weary gaze meshes with his, I see in his eyes that he knows what I am feeling and is regretful that he is unable to offer me the familiar comfort of even the briefest enfolding of his arms around me.

"We have to get out of here, Teal'c," I say grimly now, my voice trembling slightly with anger. "We have to get to Jack--to save him-- before Aliph destroys him for good." My tone is a mixture of cold rage and abject helplessness, and I give the length of chain trailing down my right leg a vicious yank of frustration as Teal'c's eyes rest calmly on this outward show of my inner agitation.

"I concur," he says simply after a moment, his hands reaching to gather up the heavy links of his own chain to twist them between his strong fingers. "Aliph is playing a game--a more dangerous game than he realizes--with O'Neill, and I fear he may have tipped his hand too far in having the boy killed right before the commander's eyes. He intended the experience to be a way to crush O'Neill's spirit completely, to break him down enough so that his will might be more malleable; and I do believe it is true that for a time the Colonel will lose himself in useless recriminations and guilt. He will feel compelled toward self-destruction, toward rage and madness and hatred. That time is now at hand, and it is during this interval that O'Neill will face his greatest weakness; it must necessarily be during this interval that Aliph will attempt the next phase of O'Neill's 'conditioning'. Therefore we do not have much time to 'save him,' as you say."

Teal'c's face has taken on that intense, implacable expression I know so well--the one that says some serious hurting is about to be unleashed on anyone not on OUR side--and as his gaze returns to me and momentarily softens with silent reassurance, I find the leaden weight of hopelessness that has been pressing against my chest suddenly growing inexplicably lighter. To all outward appearances, nothing about our situation has changed; for all intents and purposes, the predicament the Colonel is in still seems destined to end in tragedy.

But as I lose myself in my Jaffa friend's steady obsidian gaze, I can feel the faint resurgence of hope and determination stirring in my breast; I remember all that we've survived together as a team, all that we've learned about courage and will and how sometimes even the inexplicably miraculous can occur along the way. And I know that, as the Colonel himself would probably say right now if he could, beaten doesn't always mean defeated.

"We WILL leave this place still a viable, living team of four," Teal'c rumbles quietly out of the growing darkness as night's shadows descend across our cell. "Believe this or relinquish all hope; no other choices remain."

I hear the silence just after his words, fraught with the tension of awaiting my response, of judging my willingness or lack thereof to make this mission have an ending other than the one Aliph intends. And as Teal'c's chains clink once, restlessly, in the deepening gloom, I send a smile across the space between us and murmur with utter conviction:

"I believe, Teal'c; I believe."

"I believe, as well; may it then be so," Teal'c's voice murmurs calmly, and for one brief moment the ghostly after-rasp of the Colonel's agonized struggles for breath is banished from this space, swept away on an updraft of renewed hope and determination.


Part VIII

NOTE: All the lyrics (~) in this section are from the song "Whisper" by Evanescence.

~ Catch me as I fall
Say you're here and it's all over now ~

When I hear myself calling for him--crying out his name in a ruined voice seared raw with screaming--some distant part of me feels shamed by my own self-betrayal, by my own broken neediness. The image of his face is a shattered mosaic in my mind's eye, the sound of his voice an almost-forgotten whisper of sanity still lurking deep within my ravaged soul; and though I try to eradicate every thought of him from my mind, he abides with me still, refusing to give ground, refusing to let me protect him through my silence.

"Daniel..." I feel myself struggling to force his name past the abraded tissues of my throat, helpless to stop the action even as self-loathing surges on a bitter tide through my veins. My faltering will sickens me, and I writhe with humiliated shame for revealing to Aliph and the Stooges yet another weakness they can use against me, for offering up yet another potential sacrificial victim on the altar of their sick fanaticism.

Shut up, I think dully to myself; just shut your fucking mouth...but my tongue refuses to obey the disjointed order from my wrecked brain, stubbornly insisting on its own agenda instead. I try to bite down on the two determined syllables crawling up from the back of my throat, but my goddamned, traitorous tongue curls slyly around them and drags them inexorably forward to the blood-encrusted portal of my mouth, forcing my gritted teeth apart just long enough there to eject the secret mantra into the emptiness that has become my whole existence: Dan-iel. My team mate, my friend, he who's become my hidden source of strength during the toughest moments of my life...though I've never come right out and told him so.

~ Speaking to the atmosphere
No one's here and I fall into myself
This truth drives me into madness
I know I can stop the pain if I will it all away ~

Focus...a little focus here, dammit; tell yourself there's no one here--nothing here--that can touch you anymore, everything gone away...You can do it, O'Neill, fall and fall and then fall some more, so deep into yourself that all thought, all meaning, becomes lost, irretrievable. Go deep, so deep, that Aliph can never reach you. Give them nothing else; let the madness come, let it cure the pain...let it save you, in a fashion.

"Dammit, Jack, stop being so pig-headed! Can't you just listen to me for once?"

Suddenly I hear Daniel's exasperated voice in some part of my fading consciousness, and the memory of the familiar expression of mingled fondness and aggravation on his face each time he's uttered those words wrings a sudden gasp of tortured regret from my chest.

Daniel wouldn't want me to do this, I think; he wouldn't want me to just give up this way. He above all people has become intimately acquainted over the years with my stubborness, with my take-the-bull-by-the-horns philosophy for dealing with life's problems . And I know my behavior right now would be a grave disappointment to him, that he would expect more from me than this pitiful display.

~ Don't turn away
Don't give in to the pain
Don't try to hide
Though they're screaming your name ~

You don't know, Daniel; you just don't fucking know what they've done to me, how BAD I hurt...this is too much, it's too hard. Aliph knows exactly what he's doing; he's a master at this shit, he knows just what will break me, destroy me...and the physical torture is just the surface of this particular iceberg.

During my life I've experienced just about every kind of paralyzing agony that the human body CAN experience, and the number the Stooges have done on me over these past few hours is nothing new under this sun or any other. I'm not exactly thrilled that I couldn't help the unearthly howl that ripped its way up from my gut when Aliph's head asshole dug his fingers deep into the broken bone of my right arm, grinding the ragged edges against each other till a sharp shard of splintered bone pierced the muscle and flesh of my arm and was exposed to the agonizing kiss of the open air. And I'm not proud to admit that I lost control of pretty much every bodily function when Stooge #2 contributed to the fun and games by squeezinging my testicles in one massive hand and applying slow, crushing, relentless pressure...

I can't remember what else they did to me after that; I know that they brought me to the very brink of death, and that the whole time they were working me over, Aliph stood on some sort of narrow raised platform at one end of the room and literally SCREAMED some sort of crazed, fanatical diatribe at me, interspersing his unholy rhetoric with a chanted mantra of my name: OH-NEALL, OH-NEALL...

That bastard; that insane, evil, cocksucking BASTARD!!...As I lay there in stupefied agony, he made me relive the killing of Lah'jhan who-wasn't-Charlie, told me exactly how he had taken that innocent little boy and brain-mapped false memories into his head of me as his daddy, me as the hero father come home after a long time away, supposedly off fighting some holy war in Aliph's service...

He made me remember in excruciating detail every moment since Lah'jhan first stepped through the doorway into Aliph's audience chamber--he made me see again the wide, awestruck grin on that adorable little boy's face when he first caught sight of me and made an aborted gesture of throwing himself at me in childish delight. Only Aliph's voice had held him back, his coolly commanding tones freezing Lah'jhan into reluctant place; through the use of some sort of translating device they'd implanted just under the skin at the back of my neck, I heard and understood Aliph's terse instruction to Lah'jhan:

"You will greet your father with due respect, young one."

And as that cute kid stood shifting restlessly from one foot to the other, his huge blue eyes fastened on me with a hungry need for affection that tore at my heart, Aliph turned to me and said coldly:

"OH-NEALL, your son awaits your blessing."

"He's not my son."

I remember how flat, how dead, how ANGRY the words had sounded on the strained air as they fell like heavy stones from my lips; I remember how Lah'jhan's sweet, trusting face went dead white with shock and terrible hurt as his eyes begged me to explain such cruelly dismissive words.

"My son died, as you well know, you sick fuck," I hissed at Aliph, forcing myself to ignore the small boy standing not five feet away, refusing to acknowledge the waves of confused pain emanating from his quivering body.

"No, Daddy, I'm not dead; I'm right here! Didn't you miss me, Daddy? Did you stop loving me when you were so far away?"

Lah'jhan's high, sweet little voice in all its simple, hurt bewilderment accomplished then what no amount of physical torture could have; as my anguished heart compelled me to turn my gaze back to his, the kid suddenly broke away from his silent mother's side and literally flung himself at me, throwing his arms around my waist as he wrapped both legs tightly around mine.

"Daddy," he sighed with such purely innocent love that everything inside me shattered and fragmented into a million jagged, piercing rays of devastated emotion. Suddenly I didn't give a damn about Aliph, didn't care that he and I both knew this little boy was just the newest pawn in his evil game. I couldn't help myself; my hands moved of their own accord to rest atop Lah'jhan's silky head, stroking each fine, golden strand with a long-forgotten hunger that threatened to consume me whole. Ah, God, Charlie, Charlie...

So long since I'd smelled that little-boy smell of soap and sweat--of mischief and sweetness, exuberance and energy--all rolled into one. So goddamned long since I'd experienced the loving, insistent clutch of little hands, the imperious demand of agile arms and legs trying to climb my trunk as if I were a tree in the magical forest of a child's imagination.

"I love you, Daddy," this little boy had crowed delightedly as I helplessly pulled him up into my arms, my eyes filling with scalding tears as his arms wound around my neck and he pressed messy, enthusiastic kisses all over my face. God, he felt so wonderful in my arms, so filled with light and life and every miraculous ingredient God ever cooked up for concocting the perfect kid.

"Lah'jhan's mother is relieved to see her son reunited with his father after so long," Aliph had interjected with casual indifference in the midst of Lah'jhan's exuberant greeting; and I had turned chagrined, half-ashamed eyes to the slender young woman standing nearby. Her eyes were huge and dark, filled with a depth of fear and foreboding that only a mother's intuitive heart is fully capable of experiencing on behalf of a much-loved child.

She knows, I thought then with a sick feeling of hopelessness churning in my gut; she knows just how gravely imperilled her small son is, all because he bears an amazing resemblance to the son I lost so tragically just a few short years ago. But her fear of Aliph was absolute; in his presence she dared not show her hatred of me for bringing this horror into both her life and the life of her child...she dared not speak the truth aloud that all of us knew save her beloved son.

I stood helplessly clasping him to my chest, this child whose mind had been filled with false memories, with Aliph's deadly lies, and I wondered where his REAL father was. I had the terrible feeling that I didn't want to know the answer; maybe Lah'jhan's dad was the first sacrifice on my own hapless journey to Hell, the first victim led to the slaughter in Aliph's blasphemous program to cast me in the role of unwilling 'savior' in the deranged passion play unfolding in his twisted mind.

~ Don't close your eyes
God knows what lies behind them
Don't turn out the light
Never sleep never die ~

I wanted to tell the kid's mother that I was sorry; I wanted to carry Lah'jhan over to her and place him in her anxious arms and assure her that everything was going to turn out okay. But I think we both knew already, she and I, that nothing was ever going to be okay again, that in a very short while this mother would experience the cruelest, most emotionally agonizing pain a living soul can feel.

Lah'jhan was nothing to Aliph, just a convenient tool in a mad dictator's arsenal of coercion and evil; but to this mother--and soon to me, as well--that little boy was the only ray of life and light and purity in a world gone black and foul with dark corruption. There was no earthly way that the evil, rotting soul I saw peering out of Aliph's flat gray eyes would allow an energy as free and bright and innocent as Lah'jhan's to survive. I knew it instantly, the moment my arms held that boy who was not Charlie but who was every bit the treasure of his mother's grief-stricken heart that Charlie had been to mine; I knew it, and part of me wanted to give up then and there, to do anything Aliph asked if it would save this child, if it would erase the dull sheen of horror glazing his pretty mother's eyes as she stood watching her son embrace the instrument of his own death.

But I didn't give in, I didn't surrender; I refused the devil's bargain Aliph offered me, and two unblemished souls were destroyed by my decision.

I'll never sleep again, I think half-wildly now as images unreel relentlessly in my mind; I can't risk dreaming about that mother and the unrelenting condemnation in her eyes, can't risk dreaming Lah'jhan's brutal death over and over and over...I barely survived with my soul intact when it was Charlie whose senseless death tormented my dreams, both asleep and awake; but this, now...This nightmare parade of violent, visceral images and agonized sound bites streaming through my head is not something I can push away. It waits to devour me in defenseless sleep like some ravening beast; and in a panic I half-convince myself that if I can only stay awake, I can keep all the death, all the horror, at bay; in some pathetically twisted sense, I believe that if I never sleep, Lah'jhan will never die. I won't let him be dead, I won't let it be true; I can keep him alive in my mind, in wakefulness...

~ I'm frightened by what I see
But somehow I know that there's much more to come
Immobilized by my fear
And soon to be blinded by tears
I can stop the pain if I will it all away ~

The suffering is almost bearable now; after he was done ranting and raving--and after he'd allowed his three lackeys to inflict a bit more agony on select portions of my body--Aliph had some sort of high-tech intravenous line fitted to my neck, one which even now is dispensing a solution of ice-cold, unpleasantly thick liquid into my veins. Whatever the slushy stuff is, it seems to be acting as both an anaesthetic and a healing agent, bringing a gradual measure of relief to the screaming nerves and broken bits of bone in my battered body. The blessed decrease in my pain level enables me to pull my foundering thoughts back into some semblance of momentary order, and in my head I send Daniel a silent apology for blurting out his name like some scared little kid crying for his mother.

Funny, I think with rueful chagrin; I'd never really considered Daniel as a maternal sort of figure, at least not where our friendship is concerned. If anything, I'M always the one mother-henning HIM, nagging at him to eat, to drink enough liquids, to dress warmly or take his allergy meds, keeping his butt out of trouble at every other turn...But I realize as I lie here, strapped down and helpless, that in his way Daniel is every bit as fussy and proprietary about my well-being as I am about his. And a sharp spear of guilt thrusts its way into my chest now as I imagine how worried he must be, how terrible it must have been for him to sit in that cell and listen as the Stooges beat me half to death.

Sorry, Daniel, I find myself murmuring again inside my mind, wishing that I could have spared him THAT aspect of my torture, as well. But the blood lust coursing through those goons' veins had been too strong for them to restrain themselves for even the relatively brief trip to Aliph's official torture chamber; they had no more gotten me outside that cell door than they were throwing me against the wall and tearing into me. And at the time--even knowing that Daniel (and most likely Sam and Teal'c, as well) could still hear every second of my abuse--I was more than ready to meet them halfway. In that moment I wanted the pain, wanted to smash and hurt and rip and tear in return at any patch of vulnerable alien flesh I could lay my hands on.

Stupid of me, ultimately; they beat me to Hell and back and then halfway to Hell again, all in the space of a few frenzied minutes. And by the time the Stooges had dropped my limp, bloody, flickering-on-the-edge-of-death form at Aliph's feet, I was in no condition to remember Daniel or his feelings or much of anything at all.

But now I lie here wishing I could see his face again, hoping that Aliph has left him and the others of my team alone and that the three of them will find some way to save themselves. I'm no longer kidding myself that I'm going to get out of this one; I'm beginning to recall more clearly some of the disturbing words Aliph screamed at me earlier, and I see now where all this is leading.

There's much more to come, atrocities that promise to be more horrible than my trembling mind will allow me even to imagine. I know that Aliph's plan involves stripping me of everything I was and am, destroying my personality and my will just as ruthlessly as the Goa'uld destroy their unfortunate victims when they take their bodies over. And the spectre of losing myself like that--of having my mind, my will, my soul--subverted and profaned, obliterated and then replaced with a soulless puppet conditioned to carry out Aliph's bidding, freezes my blood far more efficiently than the sludge gurgling through my veins.

Daniel, I think helplessly, his name coming to my lips without voluntary control; God...Daniel. Already I want to tell him I'm sorry for any and everything I'm about to do; I wish I could have opened up to him more, that I could have told him all about Lah'jhan and what it had felt like to spend those few, precious days playing daddy again, spending time with that sweet, funny kid and discovering a place deep in my soul that was still able to become free and silly and exuberant as a child once more. In the midst of Aliph's nightmare plan I'd yet discovered a secret fountain of joy bubbling up within me, and I wish now that I had shared a little of that with Daniel, with my friend.

It would have been a comfort to him later, I think regretfully now as a door slides open somewhere behind me and the familiar, dread-inducing slide of Aliph's silk-slippered feet slithers across the floor toward me. Yes, it would have comforted Daniel to have known that it wasn't ALL bad for me here in this place, despite the ultimately tragic end I envision lying in wait for me. He's never going to know now that Lah'jhan helped me to remember all the best parts of Charlie and me, that I spent two days building wooden towers and elaborate bridges for Lah'jhan's wooden horses to cross and had, in the process, built my own spiritual bridge back to a part of my soul I thought I'd forever buried with Charlie.

I wish I'd told Daniel some of those things, that I'd shared just a little of the deeper soul in me that I've long kept tucked away, a soul I considered private and for the most part unwelcome. It was just so much easier to live superficially, to deny both those I call friends and even myself access to layers of my soul that might reveal too much. But Daniel...he's been a good friend to me, a bastion of quiet support and unfailing patience with my more trying quirks of temperament; and it grieves me now to have left him with so small a glimpse into the true depths of my soul, into the fondness and appreciation I feel for him for all he's been to me in my life. I owe him more, way more, than I've ever given him; but now that I realize just how many things I failed to say to him, I think it's already much too late to remedy the situation.

~ Fallen angels at my feet
Whispered voices at my ear
Death before my eyes
Lying next to me I fear
She beckons me shall I give in
Upon my end shall I begin
Forsaking all I've fallen for
I rise to meet the end ~

"The healing progresses; you are ready now to listen, to receive." Aliph's voice glides into my ear as he slithers like a thin, fastidious serpent to a spot alongside my left elbow. "The healing nutrient serves also as a neural relaxer; it will assist your mind in becoming more...amenable to persuasion, more open to the truths you MUST embrace before we are able to move forward with the next phase of your enlightenment. You ARE the chosen, OH-NEALL; and yours is the hand that will wield the sword of cleansing--of divine retribution--when you lead the righteous charge against your evil, corrupted world. You WILL listen to me, you have no choice--"

"Fuck you," I mutter weakly, acidly, as one of the Three Stooges suddenly looms up on the other side of this table they've got me strapped down to. "I'm not a five year old kid, you freak of nature; I won't be brain-mapped so easily." As I speak I realize--to my own ironic surprise--that the dark pit of hopelessness I'd been wallowing in moments ago has disappeared; the thought of Daniel's spirit reaching out to me, of Sam's and Teal'c's strong support and encouragement, fills me now with a strength that is buoyed by my own renewed determination.

I know what I have to do now; I know that in the future--despite all appearances to the contrary--what I've feared as I've lain on this table will NOT be granted dominion over me in this place. I can stop it, can sabotage Aliph's plans...but I'll need both Daniel's and Lah'jhan's spirits to do it. And there's no time left, no fucking time...!

So I do what I must quickly, very quickly, lying there with my body mending even as my mind grows weaker; just enough gumption left in me, just enough pissed-off determination, to believe that I've done it, that maybe I've pulled it off...to bury deep deep inside myself the one truth that will save me, that will save us all...

Aliph will have what he wants, maybe, at least on the surface, I think now with a strange measure of drugged calm as Stooge #2 leans over to leer into my face, promising me swift, severe punishment should I resist his master's wishes. Aliph will damage me, I know, will break me down even further than he has to this point; even now he is here, whispering suggestions, lies, unutterably profane heresies against the very sanctity of human life and spirit into my unresisting ear. I want to fight him, want to rise up in horror and repugnance and the disgusted terror of knowing it has begun and that I am helpless against it...But I've forgotten what it is I fear, what it is that is so horrible, so wrong...

Slowly I find myself relaxing into the words flowing into my mind, some part of my brain serenely considering all that Aliph says and finding a new wisdom, a new beauty, in the secret things he tells me. I'm losing myself, I think dreamily as a second infusion of cold, thick, mind-clouding drugs begins trickling into my neck; oh, God, it's all going away, all that I was...

"But now you will be something better, an instrument of holiness," Aliph's voice whispers first in my ear and then in my mind; "Now you will lay waste to the infidels! You will gladly slay your friends, your family, all who stand in the way of what must be..."

"You are no longer OH-NEALL," my master tells me; "you are become DARIUS, the resurrected messiah for a new people, a new way. And I, my most beloved son...I, Aliph, am your father. I am your GOD..."

"There is no God but You," I hear myself murmur reverently, my eyes opening to gaze full upon the visage of the one who has remade me in His image, newsprung from the blasted shell of the one who was once OH-NEALL. Somewhere far away, trapped deep within the dying cells of all that I once was, I hear a raw scream of unmitigated horror; I feel frozen fingers of abject terror scrabbling uselessly at the door of my new consciousness as the one that was OH-NEALL roars out a final, desperate expletive of denial. But that one matters no longer; his time is done, his sacrifice completed. Darius lives, and all will be as my Father has planned.


Part IX

Something truly terrible has happened to Jack. I know it, I feel it; something worse than the brutal beating he took yesterday--perhaps something even worse than death. As impossible as that seems, I believe there ARE things worse than death, things just as final and much more evil; and as I sit here in unrelieved solitude, my mind consumed with fears for my friend, something deep within me senses that Jack is lost now in the midst of something unspeakably bad. I have absolutely no evidence to back up the feeling; I have only the sudden, inexplicable knowing in my soul that he's become trapped in some horrible, living nightmare he won't be able to escape.

God, Jack, where are you? I think now in exhausted despair. All night I waited for some sign of his return, for the sound of Aliph's men returning to our cell--either to deposit Jack's battered body onto the hard floor or to drag me out to be their next victim. I waited, every nerve strained to the breaking point; but no one ever came.

As the hours passed with excruciating slowness, I tried to reassure myself that Jack was still alive, that even though Aliph's men had beaten him severely, it wasn't a fatal assault. There must be another reason why he wasn't returned to our cell, some new phase of torture or interrogation he was undergoing...Either way, it didn't bode well for Jack, and the ever-increasing agitation I felt as the minutes ticked glacially past with no word or sign of SG-1's commander began to gnaw relentlessly at my gut.

It had been some small comfort, yelling back and forth to Sam and Teal'c at odd moments during the long night; it wasn't easy to hear each other clearly through the thick wall separating us, but we managed to carry on a rather stilted conversation, assuring one another that we were all right and that somehow--some way--we would figure out a plan to save Jack and get all four of us the hell out of here.

Part of me wished I was next door with my friends, able to look into their eyes and take comfort from their presence with me in this place; I yearned to feel Sam's blue eyes on me in quiet empathy and to take strength from Teal'c's solid, reassuring bulk as he sat in a pose of thoughtful meditation...I spent a large portion of the night picturing the both of them that way, in between fighting the terrible images that kept coming into my head concerning what might be happening to Jack.

God knows what they were doing to him while the rest of us sat here in a deep funk of impotent worry and frustration; and as the first, pale rays of the dawn crept across my cell wall this morn, I realized that I hadn't been able to sleep more than a couple of hours the whole night. I'm sure Teal'c and Sam were dealing with their own stress and exhaustion, as well, though Teal'c's ability to renew his energy through meditation would undoubtedly enable him to better handle the tedium of the situation. At least he and Sam are together, and the knowledge comforts me.

"Daniel!...You awake?"

Sam's voice comes to me now from the cell next door, her words muffled by their passage through the thick stone blocks of the wall between us; she sounds tired and more than a little demoralized, and at her summons I draw myself to my feet and manage to come to a stiff, undignified standing position against the wall behind me. I can't stand completely upright--the chains staking me to rings in the floor nearby won't allow it--but I'm able to stretch my stiff, cramped muscles just enough to obtain a small measure of relief from a long night spent huddled on the cold, hard floor.

"Yeah!" I call back, my voice coming out rusty and hoarse on the unpleasantly brisk air. "I'm up; everything all right over there?"

"Just peachy," Sam calls back in a sardonic drawl, and at her usage of one of Jack's familiar, favorite expressions, a painful twist of worried yearning arrows straight to my heart. Oh, God, Jack, you have to be okay! We'll find you, get you out of here...if we can just get OURSELVES free, first, I muse with grudging irony.

"Were you able to rest, Daniel Jackson?" Teal'c asks courteously, and a small smile tugs at my lips as I imagine him waiting patiently for my answer, his head most likely cocked slightly to one side in an attentive pose.

"A little," I answer noncommittally, and as a muscle low in my back gives a sudden, annoying twinge, I force myself to do some bends and stretches to limber up. The chains fastened to my wrists and ankles clank and rattle discordantly as I move, and Sam's concerned voice comes across to me over the noise of the chains.

"Daniel, is everything okay?"

"Oh...um...yes. Sorry, Sam; just trying to get a few kinks out of my back," I answer, and her muffled, "I know the feeling," comes back to me in a voice blending humor and empathy.

"What do you think they're doing to Jack right now?" I hear myself call out suddenly, startled by my own impulsive query; I guess my inner anxiety has been hiding closer to the surface than I'd realized, and I shake my head resignedly at the heavy pause that greets me from the other cell at my words.

Way to go, Daniel; just slam right into them with that one, I think regretfully. But I know Jack is foremost in their thoughts right now, too, and I'm fairly certain all three of us will probably go insane if someone doesn't come SOON and either take us out of here or let us know some small word about Jack's condition.

"He's still alive; he has to be," Sam replies in subdued tones after a moment, and Teal'c's strong voice cuts in with a steady reassurance.

"O'Neill lives; though we are not privy to Aliph's plans for the commander, we may all rest assured that O'Neill's death is not a part of them. Wherever O'Neill is at this moment, he still survives."

"But for how long?" I hear Sam murmur disconsolately and can picture her sitting against the wall, knees drawn up and her blue eyes large and pensive in her pale face.

"I do not believe Aliph wishes O'Neill to die at all; at least not in the way you mean, Major Carter," Teal'c begins; but before he can explain that cryptic remark, we all hear the sound of the main door to the prison wing being drawn back.

The noise is loud and grates along my jittery nerves, and I find myself dropping back to the floor in a protective crouch, all too familiar with the guards' tendency to knock any standing prisoner flat on his ass. At least this way, if and when they clout me with their ham-sized fists, I won't have as far to fall, I think drily as the loud clump of several feet comes down the corridor outside my cell.

Jack...please let them be bringing Jack back to me, let him be all right, I just need to see him...Anxious thoughts circle restlessly in my head as the ominous footsteps come to a halt just outside my locked door, and I find myself tensing instinctively as the door swings open. Sam and Teal'c have gone very quiet on the other side of the wall, and I know they are listening intently for any clue as to what is going on, trying to catch the faintest sound or hint of Jack's presence with the returning guards. But Jack isn't with them.

Aliph's men--the Three Stooges, I remember Jack calling them--crowd into the cell now, their gazes settling on me with expressions ranging from smug satisfaction to indifferent blankness. Before I can say a word, two of them advance on me and shove me roughly onto my butt on the floor, one moving to my left side and the other to my right to take hold of my arms and legs and hold me still.

"So, fellas, what's going on?" I mutter somewhat shakily as the third guard crouches in front of me, his dark eyes gleaming into mine with an expression of anticipation that makes my blood run cold.

"Be silent!" he hisses, and as he speaks he reaches both huge hands into a leather pouch at his hip and withdraws two objects, holding one in each fist. I recognize the key he's clutching loosely in his left hand as the one that unlocks the chains holding me here; but as my worried gaze takes in the object in his right hand, a frisson of cold dread ripples down my spine. As Jack said once on another mission--with his usual gift for understatement, I might add--Now THAT'S a needle.

"That's...um...for me, I'm supposing," I murmur, completely unable in my unease to heed the guard's request for silence; he obligingly reminds me of his order by taking the fist holding the key and rapping it smartly against my mouth, splitting my lower lip and loosening several teeth in the process, by the feel of it.

Unable to completely muffle the sharp grunt of pain that escapes me, I press the back of my head against the wall behind me and suck the edge of my bleeding lip into my mouth, tasting my own blood and fear as Stooge #3 grins complacently at me and holds up the monster syringe in his right hand. His two friends have painfully tight holds on all four of my limbs, so that I couldn't resist even if I tried; but as I take in the hungry blood lust rising in #3's stygian eyes, I know I'm not so COMPLETELY stupid as to antagonize him further.

So I consciously relax my muscles, my rather unfocused gaze resting carefully on Stooge #3's right collarbone as he lifts the syringe and plunges it with unrestrained relish as deeply as he can into the muscle of my left thigh. God, that hurts! I think as a desperate surge of burning, liquid fire suddenly shoots through the tissues of my body at the injection site, rapidly spreading all through me. God...

You'd think that with some of the advanced technology we were able to glimpse on this planet right before we were captured, this society would have medical capabilities far above the use of primitive hypodermics. Maybe they just LIKE inflicting pain, I think hazily as whatever the stuff is that they've injected into me continues rampaging through my system.

"Come; Darius awaits you," the guard on my right says brusquely, and he nods wordlessly for #3 to unlock my chains. Pursing his lips with displeasure at having his fun with me so rudely interrupted, #3 inserts the key into the padlocks keeping me chained to the floor and reluctantly releases both my wrists and ankles from the manacles cutting into them.

"Darius? Who...um...if I might ask...is Darius?" I ask rather breathlessly as Stooges One and Two yank me roughly to my feet. Ah, God, my legs! Whatever was in that shot is burning me up from the inside out, turning my legs to two stumps of molten lava that are incredibly painful to stand on.

"Daniel?..." Sam's voice comes to me, fraught with worried tension; I know she's risking severe retribution, calling out to me like this, and I don't want her to suffer the same treatment I've just received.

"Everything's fine, Sam!" I call back as Stooge #3 drops my released chains into a noisy, clanking pile at my bare feet. "I've just had a LOVELY shot with a very big needle, and now I'm going to visit someone named Darius. I'm sure everything will go wonderfully!"

"Stay strong, Daniel Jackson," Teal'c's voice rumbles, and not for the first time I find myself simultaneously startled and gratified at just how much his steady tone bolsters my flagging courage. I have no wish to let him down, to disappoint the trust and confidence he's always placed in me; and who knows? Maybe this Darius character will be more open to rational discussion than Aliph. Or NOT, a small voice whispers ominously far back in my head.

But I refuse to listen to it; as the Three Stooges hustle me roughly out into the corridor, one on each side of me holding me up and #3 shoving me along from behind, I try to focus my increasingly wavering, disoriented gaze on the corridor ahead of me and bite back the hiss of pain that stutters at my lips as the insidious drug in my system spreads molten agony to first my stomach and then my chest. I'm barely able to drag my feet along the floor under my own power now, and as my body breaks out into a heavy sweat, I hear myself muttering dazedly:

"What...what was that...stuff? Why...?"

"You must be purified before you kneel before Darius," I hear Stooge #2 snarl in my ear. "There must be no sickness in you, no illness hiding in wait to profane and pollute the sacred moment of meeting your savior. You are being cleansed now--on the inside. Next will come the ritual bath--for the outside."

"Ritual bath?" I grit out rawly, my throat turning to sandpaper as the effects of the drug surge up from my chest into my head. "But where's Jack...what have you done to him, I want to see him..."

Suddenly I feel #3's breath hot on the back of my neck, as hot as the fire raging inside my veins from the injection; and as his lips rest almost tenderly against the subcutaneously implanted translation device in my neck, his words come to me on a low, silky hiss of malice.

"O'Neill is no more; prepare now to meet your messiah."

And before I can cry out in stunned denial at his words, the caustic poison scouring my insides reaches my brain, exploding all my senses into an incandescent fireball of agony that erases sight, sound, hearing, touch...everything burning, roaring in flames, gone...


Part X

"No...God, no. Oh, Jack, what have they done to you?"

My voice is little more than a broken whisper, my eyes dilated almost to black with the shock registering in their depths at the image standing before me.

"Do not speak!" Stooge #2 hisses at my shoulder and angrily shoves me to my knees; before I can react, the guard's heavy hand is on the back of my neck, brutally forcing my head down till my forehead is touching the floor in a helpless gesture of forced obeisance.

Oh, God, I think as my hands drop to the floor on either side of my head, my palms pushing against its unyielding surface in a vain attempt to resist the unrelenting pressure of the guard's hand on my neck. Jack, what the hell is going on here? I want to groan; but I know already, from the brief, shocking glance I just had of my friend's face, that MY Jack is nowhere on the premises. The man standing before me now is someone wholly different, someone wearing a version of Jack's body that is strangely beautiful and terrible at once.

I was marched to this room only moments ago, dressed in some sort of soft gray robes with a cowl down the back; still nauseous and confused from the aftereffects of the stuff Stooge #3 had injected into me, I blinked owlishly around me at my new surroundings and tried to piece together all that had happened since I was dragged from my cell.

All I can remember now is dragging myself up from unconsciousness to find that SOMEONE had bathed me, oiled my entire body with some sort of fragrant, lightly spiced concoction, and then dressed me in these robes. My head still fuzzy, I'd tried to ask a few questions of the three subdued, unsmiling women who were attending me upon my return to consciousness; their only response had been a silent, concerted move away from the low divan I lay on, and I watched helplessly as they melted away behind a curtained wall like wraiths from a fever dream.

As I'd struggled to a shaky sitting position, Stooge #2 had appeared all by his lonesome and had escorted me here, none too gently; and when my confused senses recognized who it was that awaited me in this place, any joy I might have experienced on seeing him again was crushed beneath the realization that something was horribly wrong with the picture before me.

"I know this one you bring before me."

It's Jack's voice I hear now but not his soul; the physical mechanics of his speech are the same, but the cadence and intonation are just...off...somehow. And as a familiar pair of bare feet moves into my line of vision, I feel the guard's painful hold on my neck begin to loosen.

Quickly I jerk away from his grasp and raise my body from its involuntary pose of face-down prostration to a wary kneeling position. My eyes lift--strangely reluctant--to begin a slow trajectory up the body of the man standing over me, and my dread-filled gaze first takes in the soft, spotless white material of the long tunic and trousers Jack is wearing before moving with something like fear to his face.

"Hello, Jack," I murmur, keeping my voice steady only with the greatest of effort. "You're looking...different."

"I told you not to speak!" the guard snarls from behind me, and his rough hands suddenly grab the back of my robe, seemingly in preparation for dragging me bodily from the room. But Jack simply lifts one finger in the slightest motion of denial, and Stooge #2's angry hold on me is instantly released.

"Leave us," Jack says in a low, almost pleasant voice, and I can sense #2's distrustful hesitation as he ponders the request.

"You will wait outside," Jack continues to the guard, and now a definite note of command underlies his still-calm voice. He speaks in a tone which is devastatingly familiar and yet so disturbingly altered that a cold chill trickles like ice water down the back of my neck; and I have to summon all my courage to look directly into his eyes...Jack's eyes, but not.

"As you wish, Lord."

Something silent but dangerously feral within Jack's exaggeratedly patient stance serves to drive out any small remnants of defiance left in the guard looming so threateningly behind me; and with surprising abruptness Stooge #2 takes his leave of us, his departure going almost unnoticed as both Jack's attention and my own become riveted on each other.

"You are Daniel," Jack says, the blandly inquiring tone of his voice undercut by the shrewd intelligence gleaming out at me from his dark eyes. He studies me as though he's meeting me for the first time, as though I'm a stranger he's heard much about but whose acquaintance he has never made.

"You came with OH-NEALL," he adds, speaking as if that person was someone completely removed from himself, someone who isn't present here with us in this room, in his very body. His brown eyes pin me in place as I nod wordlessly, and I can feel my heart sinking like a stone as I study this man standing before me, this man who is Jack but not-Jack; his lean, almost aesthetically beautiful figure wavers before my eyes, and for a brief, panicked moment I think I might actually faint from the confused and devastated emotions roiling through me.

"Please," I say now, struggling to keep a careful balance of both respect and entreaty in my voice. "Please...Lord...can you tell me where OH-NEALL is?"

"He was your friend," Jack muses, his hands clasped gently now in front of his chest; his long, sensitive fingers touch together lightly at their tips as he peers at me over the pyramidal shape his hands have formed, and he lifts his scarred brow in a gesture so quintessentially Jack that I want to cry out with the unexpected pain of it.

Oh, God, Jack, what IS this; what has that bastard done to you? my mind screams out, even as I find my gaze mutely captured by the brown eyes that are so familiar and yet so suddenly and inexplicably alien.

"Yes," I whisper now, unable to tear my eyes from his. "He is-- was--my friend. And I don't mean to overstep my bounds, but I find myself a bit confused, here--"

"Understandable," Jack replies, a glow of strangely gentle humor coming to his eyes. God, those eyes! So alive, so alert...and yet there is nothing of Jack O'Neill present in their quietly assessing depths. I don't know who it is living in my friend's familiar form at this moment, but it isn't the man my entire being cries out for with such forlorn, desperate silence; this isn't my friend--MY Jack--this stranger before me isn't the man whose vital presence my heart suddenly mourns with an intensity that defies description.

As I stare into the face of this entity who seems to have slipped so easily, so comfortably, into Jack's body, I feel hot bile rising sick and sour in the back of my throat. Still kneeling awkwardly on both knees, I watch as not-Jack takes a slow, deliberate step forward and extends a hand towards me. Gently cupping my chin in his palm, he tilts my face up to the diffuse golden light spilling down on us from above and studies me with thoughtful consideration.

"My Father says that OH-NEALL was a fallen angel--a sly, deceitful creature of darkness, one sent from the depths of Ayol to twist innocent minds and destroy unenlightened souls," Jack speaks calmly, his thumb stroking a light, caressing path along my jaw. "Yet it was prophesied that this same angel--my Father's own long-lost and much-mourned son--would someday return here and attempt to kill the One who gave him his life, his very being, back in the distant beginning. My Father knew that OH-NEALL wished to usurp His righteous throne and claim it for himself; and he knew as well that OH-NEALL might still be turned from eternal darkness to the way of perfect salvation."

"My friend Jack is no angel--fallen or otherwise," I hear myself blurt out, my voice low and heated. God, how strange--how utterly horrible this is--to kneel here with Jack's hand gripping my chin, Jack's brown eyes burning with a subdued but no less fanatical fervor into my own disturbed blue gaze...and yet to feel myself confronting a mind--a personality--completely unknown to me.

This goes beyond mere brainwashing, I think dully to myself as Jack's fingers tighten almost bruisingly on my face. It's as if Jack's body truly has been taken over by another consciousness, another spirit altogether; but if such is the case, then I can only wonder with a sick sort of dread what has happened to the consciousness--the soul--of MY Jack O'Neill, the genuine article.

"Oh, but he was...fallen, that is," Jack sighs regretfully, gliding an absent finger back and forth across the pulse beating fast and furious just beneath my jawline. "OH-NEALL conscripted you and your two companions into his diabolical service, tricked and deceived you into believing that he was a force for good, for righteousness. But all the while he was using you, drawing and binding you to him in readiness for the day when he knew he would see you sacrifice yourselves for him at the feet of my Father--HIS Father, too, don't you see? He meant for you and your friends to serve as a distraction, for the sound of your agonized death screams to cover the noise of his own dark treachery as he sought to draw near enough to our Father's side to murder Him. But the dark arrogance that was to prove his undoing was the same arrogance our Father would use to save OH-NEALL from himself--to bring him back to the Light and to true wholeness and sanity."

Jack's voice has taken on a low, fervent pitch that sends cold shudders of revulsion down my spine; the Jack O'Neill I know would never speak like this, would never send such cultlike words of avid devotion cascading from his lips like sweet, insidious poison.

"I--I'm sorry," I murmur now, suddenly desperate to break away from this abomination masquerading as my friend. I want to scream and shriek and beat on his chest with my fists; I want to reach down, down, into the damaged corners of his once-clear mind and rip MY Jack free from this terrible, stygian darkness he's fallen into. But rather than drawing away, I force myself to inch my right hand up slowly, carefully, until my fingers brush lightly against his own hurtful grasp on my jaw.

"I'm not sure I understand this," I plead softly, my eyes intent on his. "I'm not sure who you are..."

"I am he that was fallen and then lifted up again; he who walked so long in darkness and led you and your companions far down the narrow path toward destruction. I am the son made whole again and returned to his Father with much rejoicing," Jack's lips murmur seductively scant inches from my own as leans in close--so close that I can see each individual fleck of hazel in his impossibly vivid brown eyes.

"I once was the one you call OH-NEALL, my immortal soul masquerading as the man you call friend," Jack confides now, the simple belief in his voice horrifying to hear. "That angel is no more; his soul was tried and purified by fire, his evil pride mortified and slain by my Father's righteous hand. He is become a new creature now, a bright and shining sun in the celestial realms. I am the old made new; you called me Jack, O'Neill, Colonel...but I am none of those. I am Darius, and I live only to serve my Father's will."

"And who...who might your 'Father' be?" I ask quietly, my voice trembling with the force of the rage rising inside me. I know just who the bastard is, I think furiously as Jack--oh, God, Jack, how can I fix this, how can I bring you back?--releases his hold on me and almost gently disengages my desperate fingers from his.

"You will meet Him again soon enough," Jack says now, and with his silvered hair gleaming softly under the lights, he lifts me to my feet and presses a brief, chaste kiss to my forehead. If I look closely enough at his face I can see--very faint but unmistakable--the signs of the recent severe beating my friend suffered at the hands of his 'Father.' Up close like this, I can see that just beneath his outward facade of serenity and health, Jack's body has been terribly brutalized and then hastily put through some sort of half-assed, accelerated healing. I can't even begin to imagine the depths of hell Aliph sent my friend into, and I vow that if it's the last thing I do, I'll make that son of a bitch pay.

"Your anger will avail you nothing," Jack/Darius murmurs almost conversationally now as he steps back and lets his hands fall idly to his sides. "Just as OH-NEALL could not hide from the righteous judgment of the ONE TRUE GOD, you cannot hide even your soul's darkest depths from the blinding light of His justice. It grieves me that you must suffer the tribulations still ahead for you, Daniel; that part of me that was once OH-NEALL remembers you with more than a little fondness, and in some sense I feel...responsible...now, for necessarily becoming the instrument of my Father's divine discipline.

"What are you going to do, Jack?" I find myself murmuring tersely now, every hair on my body standing straight up as a terrible, suffocating sense of doom settles over me. God, how can I make him snap out of this delusion he's under; what the hell kind of number did that sadistic madman pull on my friend? Part of me wants to hurl myself impulsively at Jack and pummel some sense back into him, while another part of me wants to turn tail and run for what could well be my very life; but as the door behind me slides open with the softest of murmurs and admits all three Stooges to stand menacingly at my back, I know that resistance, as they say, is futile.

"Growth is most often a painful process," Jack murmurs regretfully now as he extends a hand for some unseen object one of the Stooges is holding outside of my line of sight. "Enlightenment--salvation--these things are more precious than gold, more precious than life and the body itself. These are the gifts I wish to bestow upon you, Daniel, so that you may join me once more in full fellowship...so that I may once again truly call you brother. I won't enjoy your pain, my friend; but I WILL rejoice in the salvation your suffering will ultimately bring to you."

I can't believe this is happening, I think dazedly now as two of the Stooges step up and roughly grab both my arms. Oh-my-God, he's truly gone, Jack is just...GONE. This creature standing before me now, hefting a deceptively innocuous-looking device in one hand and gazing at me so steadily from Jack's beautiful, expressive eyes, is nothing and no one I could ever recognize as being the man I knew.

"I hope your 'Father' burns in Hell forever," I grit out as the Stooges shove me inexorably forward, their gazes locked with a twisted approximation of religious fervor on their new 'messiah.' "I hope Teal'c and Sam cut Aliph's balls off and feed them to him slowly for what he's done to you. I'm sorry, Jack; God, I'm so sorry," I rasp out on a despairing sob, thinking far back in my mind that this is such rich irony, apologizing so abjectly to the one who was once my friend and will now become my torturer.

"Please don't scream, Daniel," Jack whispers against my ear as he steps up close, so close, and lays a loving hand alongside my neck. "They like to hear you scream..."

For the briefest second someone else--someone heart-breakingly beloved and familiar--peers out at me from Jack's midnight eyes, and in that instant I see my best friend struggling to break free, fighting like a tormented soul to escape the fiery flames of the Hell in which he's found himself imprisoned; on a gasping breath that lasts only as long as a single heartbeat, Jack entreats into my ear, my deepest heart: "Forgive me; God, Daniel, please--!"

And then MY Jack is gone again, and Jack/Darius is smiling at me almost lovingly as he presses his innocuous little device against my temple and activates it. The pain is beyond anything the most sadistic human mind could ever envision; it's alive, voracious, a ravening beast sent straight from the same Hell that's swallowed Jack to rip me asunder as well and swallow down the bloody, ruined chunks of my soul in greedy gulps. Despite Jack's warnings--his pleas--for me not to scream, the sounds that come from my throat now are the stuff of nightmares, and they follow me down and down into a place beyond redemption.


Part XI.

My body feels like ten miles of bad road, I think dimly as I open my eyes to find myself lying on something unidentifiable but mercifully soft. It feels as if someone took a wire brush and scoured my insides with it, and for a moment I'm certain I'm going to be sick.

Swallowing hard, I manage to get my rebellious stomach under control and summon enough energy to make a quick study of my surroundings. I can't remember exactly what happened or how I got here, but I find myself in a high-ceilinged room with pale blue, curtained walls and a subdued source of diffuse golden light glowing down from above. Even my dreadfully pale skin gleams the color of warm honey beneath the light's ambience, and as I lever myself up on wobbly elbows, I realize that I'm lying on some sort of raised, thinly cushioned dais. The room around me is otherwise empty save for an almost thronelike chair situated near the room's single, closed door, and the silence that vibrates in my ears is unnerving.

Teal'c! I think suddenly, my heart beginning to pound in my chest as I try to remember if he was taken from the cell when I was, if he might be somewhere nearby; all I recall is being unchained and hauled without ceremony from the prison block, my helpless gaze going to Teal'c's darkly angry eyes as he was left chained to the floor, completely ignored by the guards who had come for me.

So I'm truly alone here, I reason now; even if the guards had returned later for Teal'c, he isn't here with me now. So I can only speculate as to his location and his condition. And as for Daniel and the Colonel...

I have a new respect now for Daniel's stoic, understated description of being given a 'lovely shot,' I think ruefully as my body groans out a pained protest with each small movement. If I was given the same stuff he was, I can only hope that he handled it a hellava lot better than I seem to have done. God, where is Daniel now? I can only hope he's feeling a lot better than I am at this moment and that nothing even worse has happened to him while I was out of it.

As I sit up gingerly, my gaze noting with some consternation the soft, powder-blue robes draping my body, I find my thoughts turning to the Colonel and then just as quickly shying away from the last, disturbing sounds of the horrific beating he was receiving just outside our cell. I can't shake the terrible feeling of dread that rises in my chest as I try to convince myself that Jack O'Neill has survived much worse and will make it through this time, as well, just as he has on countless occasions before.

But even as I chide myself for allowing my current mental fuzziness and physical weakness to make me paranoid, the cold chill coursing down my spine refuses to diminish. Something bad is coming, I think superstitiously--something really bad. And right on cue--almost as if some dark intelligence has read my inmost thoughts--the room's single door slowly opens to reveal the familiar figure I had secretly feared never to see alive again.

"Hello, Samantha," Colonel O'Neill greets me as he enters the room on bare, silent feet; as my befuddled mind tries to make sense of both his uncharacteristic formality with my name and the very fact that he's still alive and seemingly well, he crosses the marble-tiled floor and comes to stand next to the dais on which I've been lying.

"Colonel O'Neill?" I gape stupidly, my disbelieving eyes studying the unmarked lines of his face as if trying to memorize each feature to pass some future test. My initial assessment is that he looks amazingly fit, considering all he's been through so recently, and a surge of joy begins to bubble up inside me as I pull myself to a full sitting position and reach my hand to lightly grasp his extended fingers.

"You're all right?" I breathe, and as his brown eyes rest on my face I know I should be experiencing the greatest sensation of relief that it's possible for my confused senses to feel. But even as his warm fingers give mine a gently reassuring squeeze, something in his strangely courtly stance and in the unfamiliar darkness of his eyes sends a shiver of instinctive foreboding down my spine.

"I believe I should be asking YOU that question," he retorts with quiet humor, a brief smile playing about his lips. But it's a smile that doesn't quite reach his eyes, and something about the watchful, almost clinical way he's studying my face sends another thread of nameless trepidation snaking along my still-raw nerve endings.

"I'm fine,sir," I murmur, feeling a disturbing tremor of relief as the Colonel releases my hand and takes a careful step back. His expression is courteously attentive as he gives a slight nod, seemingly accepting my brief self-assessment without question; but behind the superficial display of concern he shapes with his mouth and eyes lies an indescribable blankness that suddenly chills my soul.

Something is wrong here--very wrong, an inner voice whispers warningly to me--and it takes almost all of my small reserve of strength to curve my lips into a half-smile and prolong this bizarre pretense of normality between us by ruefully revising my self-diagnosis.

"Well, 90% fine, anyway," I sigh; but rather than spout one of his trademark sardonic witticisms in reply, the Colonel merely nods again and loosely clasps his hands behind his back, his eyes offerring me no more warmth than he might extend to a very slight acquaintance.

Idly I note that he's dressed in white robes similar to mine yet infinitely more elegant, the material much finer and softer than the fabric of my own simple garb; and as he suddenly tilts his head to one side as though listening to something beyond my range of hearing, I realize that from this new angle the entire left side of his face still bears the faint but unmistakable discoloration of recent bruising.

I wonder why I didn't notice it sooner, and part of me feels a compulsion to ask again after his health. But the strange aura of detachment he gives off as he stands listening so intently freezes my vocal chords and keeps me silent.

The commander stands not three feet away from me, but the sense of emotional distance that stretches between us right now is both disturbing and inexplicably frightening. Something is going on here that I don't understand; and as Colonel O'Neill's attention returns to me, I can feel a cold trickle of dread curl around my heart at the utter blankness in his eyes.

"I believe they are bringing Daniel to join us," he says now, a rather indifferent half-smile twitching at his lips. "He's had a bit of a rough time, but don't be alarmed by his appearance; he's still very much a work in progress at this point. My Father will have all his rough edges smoothed out soon enough."

"Your father?" I begin, my tone a tentative mix of worry and mystification; but before either one of us can speak further, the room's single door opens and admits two burly men I've never seen before. A blessedly familiar figure is doing his best to walk under his own power between them but isn't making a very good job of it; blue eyes glazed with pain rise in startled recognition as he hears his name erupt helplessly from my lips--"DANIEL!"--and a pale imitation of a rueful smile chases briefly across his face as he's escorted none too gently into the room.

"Hey, Sam," Daniel murmurs, and his gaze goes very briefly to the Colonel's calm, silent presence between us before veering off with an expression halfway between pity and revulsion. Oh, God, what's going ON here? I think despairingly as the echo of that one, deeply disturbing look from Daniel's eyes lingers on the air.

"Daniel, what have they done to you?" I ask angrily, pulling myself to my feet and swaying precariously for a moment as my head tries to figure out which way is up. "Colonel, Daniel's been hurt--"

"Don't call him that!" Daniel suddenly grits out, his tone shaky but fierce; with an unexpected surge of strength he yanks his arms free of the two musclebound oxen holding onto him and takes an unsteady step in my direction.

"That...that's not Jack," he finishes softly, a look of terrible, weary resignation settling in his eyes; and at my bewildered frown, he shrugs weakly and comes to a helpless stall in the middle of the room.

"Samantha Carter, meet Darius--the son of God," Daniel murmurs with bitter irony as he gestures toward the Colonel, and my amazed stare flits back and forth between my two team mates as I try to make some sense of the cryptic words.

"Daniel, what are you talking about?" I begin; but in that instant the Colonel suddenly steps forward and takes my right arm in a disturbingly tight grip, his brown eyes flashing at me with the first hint of true emotion I've seen him display since he came into the room.

"The one you knew as Jack O'Neill is no more," the Colonel says with deceptive softness, his lips curving in a quiet smile that is eerily chilling. "Daniel suffers still from the mistaken notion that HIS Jack--as I've come to call the dearly departed--might still be lurking somewhere within this body. His stubborness has earned him untold grief, yet he refuses to listen to reason, to embrace the truth and free himself of the darkness and treachery lurking deep within his soul. OH-NEALL is to blame; had he not poisoned both Daniel's mind and yours, Samantha--using lies and the pretense of friendship to win the both of you over--none of this...deprogramming...would be necessary now."

"Daniel, what the hell is he talking about?" I stammer with an agitated frown; but before Daniel can answer me, Colonel O'Neill gives my arm such a violent tug that I am pulled off balance and find myself falling helplessly against him. My arms flail in useless protest as he pulls me up hard against his chest and locks one strong arm around my waist, adroitly moving his bare feet out of the way as I make a reflexive attempt to stamp down on his toes and tear myself free.

"Now, Carter, none of that," Jack's voice murmurs almost silkily into my ear as he slides one hand to the nape of my neck and strokes warm fingers against my skin. A shiver runs through me, both at the use of his familiar moniker for me and at the oddly intimate physical contact between us; but the shiver rippling down my back definitely isn't one of pleasure. I still have no idea what Daniel is trying to tell me, but I've seen and sensed enough to know that the man holding me with such implacable resolve is NOT the Jack O'Neill who was beaten half-dead and dragged out of the prison block barely a day ago.

"I'm a little confused, sir," I begin hesitantly, forcing my tensed muscles to relax as my eyes slide past Jack's shoulder to lock on Daniel's grim face. The two guards have latched onto his arms and are holding him between them like mastiffs all set to fight over a juicy bone; and as our eyes meet, Daniel gives me an almost imperceptible warning shake of his head.

"I'm not surprised; perhaps I should allow Daniel to enlighten you," the Colonel is suggesting now with quiet equanimity, and I force my disjointed thoughts back online and drag my gaze from Daniel's haggard face to the Colonel's unblinking amber regard.

"I'm not sure Daniel's in any condition right now to tell me anything, sir," I murmur into the side of Jack's neck; God, I still find myself thinking of him as OUR Colonel O'Neill, still find my heart searching desperately for some evidence of the continued existence of Jack's soul inside this man whose familiar face now masks a stranger's consciousness.

"Why don't YOU explain things to me?" I add quietly, and for the tiniest second I can feel the displeased tensing of muscles in the arm locked so securely around me. But then I hear the slightest chuckle coming from the Colonel's throat as his voice emerges, devoid of any anger.

"Daniel's strong; he's held up well thus far. He is quite capable of telling you everything you need to know." Jack's--Darius's?--breath gusts warm against my cheek as he loosens his hold on my waist and draws back just far enough to slide his hand from the nape of my neck around to my chin. Gently he strokes a thumb along the line of my jaw and tilts my head in Daniel's direction, his eyes urging me with unnerving intensity to look over at my barely-ambulatory team mate.

"Like Daniel, you too will undergo all the rites of purification before you are fit to enter into my Father's presence," he murmurs to me. "And I find myself in the exalted but unenviable position of being the chosen one--the one appointed to make certain that your miserable souls are not forever lost to the endless darkness that would claim you for its own. The things I do now seem cruel; I understand that. I can see how it must appear to Daniel and now to you, finding yourselves subjected against your will to the rigors of enlightenment and salvation...and at the hands of one you once called your leader, no less."

"It will be difficult in the beginning," the man I thought was Jack sighs regretfully; "but once I've broken the impossibly stubborn wills the both of you possess, then you'll see clearly. THEN you'll know what I know, and you'll be ready to take your place at my side and march into battle to bring our Father's Light to the world you call your home."

"We won't help you," Daniel speaks up, his voice even; ignoring the painful dig of the guards' fingers into the flesh of his arms, my friend lifts his eyes to the Colonel's with quiet defiance and practically bites out his next words.

"I don't know if the real Jack O'Neill is still alive in there somewhere, lost under this ridiculous, self-righteous simulacrum of a misbegotten son of Hell that Aliph somehow downloaded into Jack's body...that's right, JACK'S body. Whoever you are, Darius--WHATEVER you are--you won't get any of us to follow you. Sam, Teal'c, and I-- we'll fight you to our last breaths, do whatever it takes to send you back into oblivion and bring Jack home--"

"You don't listen very well, do you?" Darius/Jack murmurs, a dangerous light coming to his eyes; with an abrupt motion he drags me across the floormwith him until we are both standing directly in front of Daniel and his matching human bookends.

"OH-NEALL is no more, Daniel; like it or not, you must and WILL come to accept the truth of the matter...eventually. Resistance to that truth--and to all the other, deeper truths my Father offers you--will grant you nothing but unnecessary pain. And if you insist on dragging those you call friends along with you into this pitiful delusion, then their subsequent suffering will be on your head, as well."

"I can make up my own mind without any help from Daniel...or from you," I cut in, dragging my arm free of Darius's grasp with a sudden, visceral surge of revulsion twisting at my insides. For as I look into the face of Jack O'Neill, I realize with a shattered sense of finality that it isn't really Jack looking back at me. I know that if I stop to process this terrible understanding, the magnitude of the monstrous evil that has been done to SG-1's commander will completely overwhelm me; but as long as I have my anger to sustain me, I can retain at least some semblance of control over the wave of hopeless sorrow threatening to sweep my own soul away into darkness.

"I won't waste time arguing with you," Darius/Jack retorts now, something very like ire rising in his impatient gaze. "What must be done WILL be done, and your preferences in the matter are of no consequence. Right now I must be about my Father's business, in the person of your Mr. Teal'c; he has proven uniquely resistant to the cleansing elixir and mistakenly believes that he might still save all of you from your true destinies."

"Go, Teal'c," Daniel mutters smartly under his breath, and for the briefest instant a gleam of extremely Jacksian frustration rises in Darius/Jack's dark glare.

"Leave them alone for now," the stranger in Colonel O'Neill's lean body raps out sharply to the goons still holding Daniel captive; with unhappy frowns the guards release their death grip on my friend and step back, nodding their heads in silent acknowledgement.

"I will allow the two of you ten minutes to lament and commiserate and come up with some completely hair-brained and ultimately futile escape plan," Darius's consciousness informs us in Jack's driest tones. And as something disturbingly alien observes our reactions from behind our commander's familiar eyes, I feel a terrible sensation of enraged hopelessness washing over me.

 

There is something beyond injury or injustice, something far beyond evil, in what has been done to Jack O'Neill; I don't know if the Colonel has been driven insane, taken over by some parasitic entity with an ego that rivals that of the Goa'uld, or if it's some disturbing and unimaginable combination of the two. All I DO know is that I want OUR Jack O'Neill back, and the wanting is so painful in its intensity that it steals my breath away.

As my gaze goes to Daniel, I see the same anguish burning in the silent darkness of his eyes; the tension radiating from his debilitated form is palpable, and it is a huge relief when Darius/Jack suddenly turns without another word and leaves the room, his mute henchmen hot on his heels.

As the locking mechanism engages on the door with their departure, Daniel and I merely stand looking at each other for one long, helpless moment; then he lifts trembling arms in my direction and I silently fold myself into his embrace, burying my face into his neck as my own tumultuous emotions unleash an uncontrollable bout of shaking in all my limbs. Daniel doesn't speak, doesn't try to comfort me; we both know that right now there ARE no words of comfort he can offer. For now it is enough just to be here with him, to feel his sympathetic warmth against me and to share in this terrible, sick pain that neither of us knows how to heal.

I find myself mourning Jack O'Neill as if he is already dead and gone, already irrevocably lost to us; and even as some part of me angrily insists that nothing is sure yet--that nothing's set in stone--another part of me clings to Daniel and trembles with the awful certainty that the Jack we knew and loved ceased to exist sometime yesterday afternoon.

To Part Two