Prisoners of Ataroth

By: sharilyn

Email: sharilyn

 

I ain't Lord Byron, neither do I own the rights to Stargate or the fictional characters portrayed on the show...

I.
My hair is grey, but not with years,
Nor grew it white
In a single night,
As men's have grown from sudden fears.
My limbs are bow'd, though not with toil,
But rusted with a vile repose,
For they have been a dungeon's spoil,
And mine has been the fate of those
To whom the goodly earth and air
Are bann'd, and barr'd--forbidden fare.

JACK

They think they can break me, that they can fool me into believing the others are dead. And I'll admit that as the days pass with no sign of my team--and with not a hint of a goddamned rescue from the folks back at the SGC, either--I have increasing instances of doubt and dread concerning our situation. But I've earned every one of these new, even grayer hairs that have appeared on my head since I've been locked up in this place, and I don't intend to let the bastards win. Whether gray hair, or a thatch on top as white and snowy as my old, dead great-grandpa's...who cares? I'm still ME inside, where it counts, still full of piss and vinegar; and a little thing like dank imprisonment and torture hasn't cured me of it yet. Been there, done that, don't even want the t-shirt this time.

I won't give in to boredom and despair, refuse to spend the last days of my life shut away from the light and air on some backwards hellhole in a part of the universe whose exact location I'm not even sure of. (Aw, dammit, I'm starting to get as long-winded as Daniel, for Christ's sake...) So let's try the patented O'Neill version, instead, shall we? We came through the stargate, Carter, Daniel, and myself--lucky for Teal'c, he had earned some down-time and was off visiting his son when the rest of us scored this oh-so-lovely mission...Anyhow. We came, we pissed off the natives for some damned reason we'll likely never understand, and at that point we were beaten pretty much senseless and tossed here, into the bowels of Hotel Vermin, where the fun just never stops. Yep, that about covers it.

Oh, there's the little glitch of not knowing what the hell has happened to Carter or Daniel for the last little while, but I know the games these fuckers keep trying to play with me; I know my friends aren't dead, no matter what my 'keepers' say. Because you see, if Carter and Daniel weren't alive here anymore, I WOULD know it, would sense it in every part of my body, right down into my snarky little soul. I feel them here, somewhere, and they 'feel' alive to me. Battered, unkempt, mistreated...but alive. And I keep telling myself I'll figure out some way to get us all out of here, to do what I was trained to do and to get my team home again.

But the ideas haven't exactly been jumping into my head like fish into a boat. (That IS a familiar phrase, isn't it? Sounds good to ME, anyway,though I'm sure Daniel would be smirking slightly now with that superior, 'Jack and his maloprop--, malapoop--' well, whatever the hell that word is. You know, the one that means I get my sayings a tad mixed up at times.)

Jesus, I'm sitting here in the damp and dark, trying to explain puns and word plays and crap like that to a rat. Sorry, Mort, my furry little rodent pal; no offense intended to your kind, but I'm pretty damned sure you don't understand a frigging word I'm saying, anyway. You just sit there as usual, wiggling your whiskers at me and cleaning your ugly, naked tail while your beady little eyes glare at me. Hey, I'm getting a flash of deja vu or something here...you wouldn't happen to have a distant cousin back on Earth--yes, I TOLD you we're talking DISTANT--by the name of Maybourne, would you...? Naw, you're much more handsome than that rat bastard; and you actually HAVE a chin...But the eyes; damn if those beady eyes aren't just the same.

So, okay, where was I, Mort? God, I'm starting to lose it here a little bit, I really am; not that I'd ever let on to my kindly guards. You won't tell, though, will you? You wouldn't 'rat' me out, excuse the bad pun; there's another one that would have Daniel rolling his eyes at me while groaning with that longsuffering patience of his that's really nothing more than elitist snobbery, just cause he can come up with puns in nearly two dozen languages...

I'm babbling again, aren't I, Mort, gibbering and prattling like some senile, imbecilic old woman who can't remember where she left her teeth five minutes ago but can tell you every damned detail of a dinner she cooked twenty years in the past. Well, I haven't been here quite that long, but it's starting to feel like it. If I could just get SOME sign that the others are doing okay, that they're hanging in and not giving up...

Shit. Cheese it, Mort (how's that for a bad pun?), the fuzz is on its way in. God help me, did I just say 'fuzz?' Either I'm channeling Timothy Leary or I've REALLY got to get out more. Face it, Morty, you never take me anywhere. You just skitter out beneath that damned locked door and run off to party with your disgusting rodent buddies all night while I sit here alone, ignored and unappreciated...and I just can't take the pressure of being the only one who GIVES in this relationship. We just don't TALK anymore, Morty...And speaking of talking--

Oh, hey, fellas, beloved keepers-'o-mine; what's it gonna be today? Maybe some caning, some red-hot tongs, a bit of 'chain-the-Colonel-from-the-ceiling-till-his-shoulders-dislocate' again? We haven't done that one in awhile...Well, geez, you don't have to be so touchy about it, just offering up some creative suggestions for a change...Here's a novel one, if you'll just stop HITTING me and DRAGGING me long enough for me to spit it out...How about you give me back my sweet little P-90, line yourselves up along one wall like the good-little, sadistic bastards we all know you are, and help me provide poor old Mort here and his thousands of hungry wives, kiddies, and other assorted relatives with an all-you-can-eat buffet...Ouch! Dammit, that smarts! So; you're not thrilled with that suggestion, I take it...Well, then, why don't we just cut to the chase?

Damn you, you ugly rejects from Hell, what have you done with my team?! Where's Sam, what did you do to her?! So help me, if you've hurt her, if you've laid even a finger on her like THAT...(Sorry, Carter, but I don't care HOW sexist and outdated that sounds; I KNOW what rape can do to a person, male OR female...)God, you stupid fucks, isn't it ENOUGH, already? And I'm telling you, my 2IC had better be all right.

And Daniel; if I don't get my archaeologist back with all his ultra-brilliant marbles still intact (and the rest of him, too, for that matter), there's not a hiding place anywhere in this universe that will conceal you from me when I come after you. Yeah, I'm talking to YOU, I don't give a shit HOW many times you punch and kick me...easy to be tough when you've got me chained up tighter than a medieval virgin's chastity belt...just give me two minutes with one or a dozen of you, unfettered, just two frigging minutes...

Ah, shit, here comes the tiresome part, where they beat me unconscious yet again...this can't be good on the old cranium, much less the gray matter inside it...Save my place for me, Morty,old buddy, remind me later what we were discussing, okay?...Just two minutes, you freaks of nature, two min--


II.
There are seven pillars of Gothic mould
In Chillon's dungeons, deep and old,
There are seven columns, massy and grey,
Dim with a dull imprison'd ray,
A sunbeam which hath lost its way,
And through the crevice and the cleft
Of the thick wall is fallen and left;
Creeping o'er the floor so damp,
Like a marsh's meteor lamp.
And in each pillar there is a ring,
And in each ring there is a chain;
That iron is a cankering thing,
For in these limbs its teeth remain,
With marks that will not wear away...

DANIEL

This place could REALLY use a new decorator. Oh, God, is that a weak attempt at HUMOR coming from yours truly today? My condition MUST be severe, if I'm channeling Jackisms even before daily swill time. Jack...Please, Jack, just be all right. You have to be okay...

I heard it all, just a bit ago; very faintly, to be sure, but I've come to recognize Jack's hoarse screams all too well...It's both astounding and dismaying, how much abuse he takes before he just can't hold the screams in anymore...

It was bad this time, I think; really bad. I can't stop shaking now with the memory of it, can't stop the rise of acid bile in my throat as Jack's agonized screams echo in my mind. Huddled here in the dimness now,with the cold band of steel that's always fastened too tightly around my ankle digging into my flesh, I rub absently at both the old scarring and the new abrasions crisscrossing my skin and attempt, futiley, to send comforting thoughts Jack's way. I hope--for his own sake--that he's unconscious now, that his body has gone into protective mode and shut his mind down temporarily so he can escape at least some of the pain. But knowing him, he'll doggedly pull himself right back out of it, slog his way up past the peaceful darkness into those first, gray eddies and swirls of discomfort and keep plowing grimly ahead till he's right in the thick of the worst pain and suffering imaginable.

Why? Why does he do it, why doesn't he just give in, let them have their way? Why does he continue to fight them, to antagonize them every single day that we're in this awful place? Because he's Jack, that's why. And to anyone who knows him, that's all the explanation needed. He's Jack, and this is who he is; this is what he does. He doesn't give up; he doesn't give in. And if he thinks that keeping our captors busy with his own torture sessions might keep some of the heat off of Sam and me, then so much the better in his book. I know how he thinks, and I know he doesn't believe the stories they tell him of Sam's death and mine.

God, he must be so pissed right about now. Half dead, beaten and tortured to the brink of endurance, of life; and still completely pissed at the end of it. When will the Atarothians learn that; when will enough be enough? There's no new information we can give them, not a chance of diplomacy at this stage of the game; so why do they still hold us here, still put us through all this pointless torture and pain? Do they fit under the same general rubric as Jack O'Neill,only reversed 360 degrees, carrying out their sadistic games just because it's who and what they are? Do they do it because they enjoy it, or because for them it serves some unfathomable purpose far beyond the ken of mere human explorers such as ourselves?

I don't know; I have no answers. All I can do is sit here, cold and hungry and shivering nonstop from both fever and nervous reaction, my senses reaching out into the darkness beyond my cell. Trying vainly, desperately, to hear ANY sound from Jack, to pick up on the slightest sign that he's still alive, still strong enough to come back from one more brutal session at our captors' hands. I wish I could sit by him now, touch his shoulder and offer him a few brackish dribbles of water; I wish I could gently wipe the blood from his face and look into his pain-glazed brown eyes and let him know he's not alone, that I'm with him and urging him to hang in there, to stay strong in his soul...

I wonder if Sam heard the Colonel's 'session' just now,if she's chained in her own filthy, dank cell at this moment and wishing she could be there for Jack, too. I know how hard this must be for her, not being close enough to tend his injuries and give him some point of human contact in this hopeless place, in the midst of his pain. Sam is a brilliant scientist, a capable soldier; but she is also a closet nurterer, a woman whose compassion must be raging now against the injustice of being chained and fettered in helpless misery while Jack suffers, alone and untended.

Oh, God, they're passing close by now, dragging something heavy...they'd never pass this way if he was conscious, never let him know for sure that we're still alive, still determined to be reunited and to make it out of here...all three of us, together.

"Jack! Jack, it's me!" I yell now, as loudly as my ravaged voice can stand; wobbling more than a bit, I drag myself to my feet and take two clanking, hesitant steps toward the barred door of my cell. "Jack, it's Daniel; hang in there, Jack, don't let them break you!"

Uh oh; that was maybe not such a good idea, at least not as far as my own immediate future health is concerned. As the last, thumping steps of the Atarothians dragging my best friend down the stone corridor outside die away, the door to my cell is suddenly flung open and two of the 'regulars'--the ones who make it a point to pound on me at least once a day and usually more often--enter my humble abode, with a light of something less than sympathy glittering in their flat, gray eyes.

"So; I guess it's my turn,now," I murmur quietly, forcing myself to stand quiescent before them. "With Jack senseless, it's safe to beat me right here and now, isn't it? No need to drag me halfway to the center of the earth first so he can't hear me scream. You guys are clever, I'll give you that; you figured out early on that what would hurt Jack even more than having to hear his team mates scream in pain would be for him to believe we're dead, for him to think that he failed to save us. For that little touch of evil alone, I hope you pay. Damn you, I hope you pay." And then they are on me, and there is no more time for talking.


III.
They chain'd us each to a column stone,
And we were three--yet, each alone;
We could not move a single pace,
We could not see each other's face.
But with that pale and livid light
That made us strangers in our sight.
And thus together, yet apart,
Fetter'd in hand, but join'd in heart,
'T was still some solace, in the dearth
Of the pure elements of earth,
To hearken to each other's speech,
And each turn comforter to each...

SAM

God, I hate this place. I hate the rats, the cold, the bugs, the swill they pretend is nutrition; I dread and detest the sessions of torture that occur regularly here, and I still shudder when I recall just how I learned that Atarothian males and human females don't 'fit' together sexually...(I suppose I should be grateful that the Atarothian who was testing my 'mating' potential called it quits before he got to that one, final point in his investigation; but pardon me if the particular road leading to his discovery isn't one I care to travel down again--even in memory.)

I sit here now in my little, vermin-filled cell, filthy and reeking and weak with hunger, and allow the tears to roll, unchecked, down my face; I tell myself it's okay to cry, since these tears are not for me. I want to lash out in useless rage for what they're doing now to the Colonel, want to gouge their damned, creepy gray eyes out and and wipe those self-satisfied leers off of their ugly faces...

Colonel O'Neill is screaming again, and the raw sound of his physical duress is such a blatant violation of the privacy and sanctity of his spirit that I can't help the hot, angry tears falling from my eyes. God, he must hate exposing what I'm sure he would see as his weakness to anyone else, to his tormentors and fellow team members alike. It seems profane to the extreme that he should be stripped bare of his habitual, laconic steadiness, reduced after endless minutes of horrible abuse to raw, agonized screams of unbearable pain. I've never considered myself a vindictive or evil person, but God, I wish these bastards would all die.

As I huddle on my bug-infested mat of straw, fingernails raking absently along the itchy, encrusted skin of my arms, I keep replaying that first day of our capture over and over in my mind, remembering how furious I felt--how trapped and impotent--when the Atarothians chained us to those pillars deep in the bowels of their dungeon keep. We were all rather the worse for wear by that point, but I can clearly recall how the Colonel still continued to fight, how he tried to break free of the aliens' hold and come to my aid. They beat him even worse for that, beat him till it was all he could do to keep standing when they finally wrestled him into place against his own, mold-slimed column and wrapped length after length of iron chain around his slumped body.

I couldn't see all of what they did; actually, I couldn't see Colonel O'Neill at all once they stood him up against that pillar. From my chained position against another column several yards away, I had no clear line of sight to either the Colonel or Daniel, but from the obvious, telltale sounds alone, I could discern what was happening to my team mates.

"Daniel, Carter...you guys all right?" The Colonel's voice was little more than a rasping whisper, but the sound of his concern even above his own pain was enough to strengthen my resolve and harden my will. Dimly I was aware of Daniel offering up a rather lukewarm assurance that he was still in one piece; and as one of the Atarothians grabbed me by the hair and spit his foul-smelling saliva into my face, I closed my eyes briefly and schooled my shaky voice into some measure of calm.

"I'm fine, sir," I replied, biting my lip hard right afterwards to hold back a cry of pain as one of my tormentors stamped down, HARD, on my foot. "How are YOU doing, Colonel?" I tried to keep my tone light, to pretend for all three of us that things weren't as bad as they really were.

"Oh, just peachy...right as rain. Maybe I'll do some crunches later, just for fun," the Colonel gasped out, and I bit my lip hard again as I heard the unmistakable sound of an Atarothian fist impacting human flesh. The Colonel again, definitely; but even as my ears tracked the assault, I heard the sound of Daniel being dealt the same treatment against a column somewhere off to my left.

"Daniel!" I called out in terse concern as he gave a particularly pained cry; and after a long beat Daniel's strained voice replied shakily.

"Here, Sam...I'm here. Ah...I guess I've lost my glasses, I can't tell just where you are...you okay, Sam?"

"Fine," I answered, then cried out despite myself as a huge hand flew up to slap my face. The force of the blow slammed the back of my head against the moldy column behind me and sent a cascade of white, flashing sparks of agony pinwheeling behind my closed eyes. I guess I blanked out for a minute, because the next thing I remember was Colonel O'Neill calling my name once, fiercely, and then again.

"Dammit, Carter, answer!" he growled out, and dimly I realized it wasn't ME he was angry with; oh, no, his rage was reserved for the ones holding me up against that damned column, two of them winding cold strands of iron chain around my waist while another pawed at my left breast with his flat, greedy eyes gleaming into mine. I could hear the anxiety underlying the fury in the Colonel's voice, and I forced myself to shake the cobwebs from my head.

"Here,sir...I'm good," I muttered rather thickly, and the low string of expletives Colonel O'Neill let loose told me that he didn't believe me; the slight slur in my voice was a clear heads-up to him that I was hovering somewhere just below 'good.,' and I knew that he was raging inside, wild to tear free of the chains and do some serious damage to our captors. But it was useless for any of us to struggle, and I knew I had to pull myself back to full alertness, had to reassure the Colonel that I was quite capable of looking after myself so he could free his thoughts down more important paths.

"I was just momentarily...overpowered...by the smell of this one's breath, sir," I quipped a bit wearily, and after the briefest pause the Colonel replied with a low, sardonic snort, the sound undergirded with relief that I really was okay and in control of my reactions to our situation. I suppose his concern might have been taken as outdated and sexist by someone who didn't know him any better; but as I listened to him give Daniel the same, protective third degree, I knew the truth behind Colonel O'Neill's questions. He cares about this team, takes it very personally when any of us is hurt or mistreated or insulted; it's as natural in him as breathing, and on that day his concern for his team--both male and female--asserted itself strongly in that dank, depressing place.

"Okay, let's all just try to keep clear heads; it looks like we're in for a rough spell ahead, folks, but we WILL make it through this. Do you understand me?" The Colonel's voice was lined with pain but utterly implacable as he struggled to pull himself completely upright against the column; and as the painful sounds of his attempts to stand tall and proud in the face of those who would take away our freedom and our dignity resounded in my ears, I closed my eyes and merely nodded, briefly unable to speak.

"We're with you, Jack," I heard Daniel rasp calmly, his voice rough with his own pain but quietly, firmly stubborn nonetheless. "Isn't that right, Sam?"

"Yes; we're both with you all the way, sir," I murmured a reply, swallowing back a groan and a surge of nausea as one of the Atarothians reached down to my shackled arms and twisted my left wrist to the point of snapping the bones.

All the way. Or so I'd promised that day. But now, huddled here all alone some nine days later, I rail at my own inability to stop the natives of this world from taking Jack O'Neill to the point of death over and over again; I feel the bitter taste of my own failure settle like a leaden weight in my stomach, and I become convinced that I cannot--absolutely cannot--listen to them torture him one more time. Not and stay sane, anyway. There has to be some way out of here, some way to weasel past their guard, to overcome their dismaying, sheer-brute strength, and find our way out of this place.

I don't know why General Hammond hasn't sent someone after us, why nine days have passed with no sign of a rescue; but that's not the issue here. One of the first things we learned before ever stepping through the stargate on missions offworld was to never count on outside rescue; once you're away from Earth and dealing with God knows what in places whose existence no human ever even conceived of, you can only depend on your immediate team and yourself to bring you safely home again.

I know that the Colonel must be shredding himself to ribbons inside, beating himself up over what he assumes to be his failure as a commander, when in reality his courage and his tenacity have given both Daniel and me the will to keep going, to keep believing that there IS a viable escape ahead...we just have to figure out the best way to go about it. That's all. We can do that, no problem; just hatch a little plan, distract a few of the Atarothian prison guards, and voila`! Daniel, the Colonel, and I will all be home in a jiffy.

"Hang in there, sir," I find myself whispering now as the Colonel's screams die away into a silence that is both blessed and disturbing at once. "He's alive," I tell myself stubbornly, fiercely. "He's going to be all right, he's just unconscious for a bit..."

But as I dimly hear the sound of heavy feet dragging a dead-weight load down the corridor outside my cell, I drag myself to my feet and shuffle angrily across the floor, my shackled ankle throbbing in protest as the metal ring around it cuts into my flesh.

"Colonel!" I call, aware of Daniel's intense voice calling Jack's name, as well, from his own miserable cell somewhere nearby. "We're okay, sir, and we're all going to go home! Believe that, Colonel; please believe that!"

But as the passing tread of the commander's torture retinue fades away into the murk of this dungeon, I have no idea if Colonel O'Neill was able to hear anything at all. Exhausted--and momentarily defeated--I slump once more to the freezing cold floor and curl my arms around my knees, as mute and fixed in my misery as Daniel is in his twin cell across the way. Both of us sit in moody silence, and somewhere I imagine Jack O'Neill crying out, once, as his battered body is dropped unceremoniously into his own dank cell.


IV.
I was the eldest of the three,
And to uphold and cheer the rest
I ought to do--and did my best...

JACK

I heard Daniel. I heard him calling me, urging me to hang on, to be strong...I KNEW he was alive, I knew it. And I'm sure Carter is somewhere nearby, too. They've moved me, taken me to a different cell; and since they dragged me right past Daniel's cell without first trying to conceal his presence within, I have to wonder what they're up to now. Maybe they figured out their 'Your friends are dead' spiel just wasn't working; maybe they have some new, even more diabolical tricks up their collective sleeve. Whatever it is, I can take it; just hearing Daniel's voice again has worked wonders as far as lifting my subterranean spirits back up to some level approaching actual hope.

I tell myself my newest injuries don't matter, that a few more broken ribs and fingers and some new burn marks on my back don't mean squat. Kid stuff, not even enough to write home about. But that other thing they did--some sort of stinging, poisonous nettles applied almost gently at first to the soles of my feet and then dragged across my instep till the bottoms of my feet felt like liquid acid eating through to the bone--now, THAT was a pure bitch. That really, really hurt,and the pain just kept intensifying, growing and growing till I was screaming without really even being aware of it. Just trying ANY old thing to relieve and release some of the agony that I just couldn't get away from.

It makes me mad as hell that Sam and Daniel heard me bellowing like that; I know there was no way they could have missed it. I don't want them wasting energy they'll need for survival in worrying over me and what condition I'm in. I don't think I'll be able to actually WALK for awhile with my feet like this, but at least they're both still there. The residual agony still coursing through me in sick waves has assured me of that. I can't bring myself to look at the soles of my feet just yet; I haven't summoned up enough strength to handle what I might see if and when I do take a gander at what those bastards did to the tender undersides of my feet. I just hope the damage isn't permanent, isn't enough to get me kicked out of the service on some damned disability rap. And whatever poisonous secretion those nettles contained has my entire body burning and stinging and has my guts feeling so nauseous and watery I want to cry out with the violent cramping in my stomach. Let's just hope the shit isn't ultimately fatal, sigh. Guess I'll know in a little while...

God, this shouldn't be happening; I should be in with Daniel and Carter, building up their resolve and helping them keep their spirits up. They need to see that I'm still basically okay (and I need to see that they're in acceptable shape, too); I need for them to know and believe that there's still every chance for us to get out of this hellhole.

When they had us chained to those pillars that first day, we couldn't see each other; but we were still able to converse, to call out words of encouragement and even to tease one another a little bit. I miss that, miss being able to interact with my team--with my friends. I need to look into both sets of clear blue eyes, need to dig my fingers lightly into Daniel's shoulder and tug at the brim of Sam's cap just to let them know I'm with them, that I'm aware of their energies, their feelings.

I don't like to admit just how touchy-feely I often am with my team mates, but it's just my way of showing I care, of keeping that bond of camaraderie and teamwork strong between all of us. Plus I just seem to NEED it--the touching. And they've never seemed to mind it; so, over time, I've become accustomed to doing it. In fact, during rare periods when I've been in such a crappy mood that I couldn't bring myself to interact physically at all with the others, I've always noted what a detrimental effect my surly withdrawal seems to have on each of them. It's almost like THEY need my touch--however teasing and casual--as much as I need to give it. And now that I can't be with them in person to give them that basic form of reassurance, I feel stifled and strait-jacketed and useless.

As I lie here now, trying vainly to keep my mind off the unbearable pain in my gut and in the soles of my feet, I wish I could yell loudly enough for both Carter and Daniel to hear me--just as I'm sure they heard me yelling in agony earlier. Only this time I want to yell out words of encouragement and hope, trumpet aloud the promise of our future victory against the Atarothians...

But I find I can barely breathe now, much less summon up the energy to call out to my team in any positive fashion. I can't even dredge up my own, customarily brilliant sarcasm to see me through this pain. I'm weak, bland, about as witty and sardonic as a limp noodle. Damn, I hate those bastards who've done this to me. For the loss of my wonderful sense of irony alone, they should pay. Once I'm back up to par, once I can blast one of the fuckers from fifty paces with the force of my scathing O'Neill glare, then all will be well again. THEN I'll be ready to kick some alien ass, find my team, and hobble the hell out of Dodge.

But for now...for now I find myself curling in on my own pain, rolling my throbbing carcass into a vague approximation of the protective ball hedgehogs and armadillos adopt whenever they need to guard their tender underbellies. Dimly I wish Morty was here, and I wonder if his small, rodent mind will even miss me when he returns to my old cell to find me gone. Will he wonder where his hysterically funny new pal has wandered off to; will he miss my off-color jokes and my wry observations concerning the state of rodent society today?

"Take care of yourself, Mort," I sigh regretfully; and even as distracting as the pain is in my feet, I find myself sliding under the threshold of consciousness, too battered and weary to fight oblivion's seductive pull any longer.


V.
The other was as pure of mind,
But form'd to combat with his kind;
Strong in his frame but of a mood
Which 'gainst the world in war had stood...

DANIEL

Jack is a soldier, with a soldier's heart and mind and--in most respects--a soldier's sensibilities. But he's also so much more than that; underneath all the bluster and machismo and the terrible things he's seen and done in the defense of his country, there lies a very honorable and sensitive soul. His spirit is an amazing combination of opposites--light amidst darkness, humor amidst pathos, gentleness in the midst of all the brutality we face so often on our journeys through the stargate and through life.

It's that gentleness, that spark of compassion and humanity, that has seen this team through some very tough times together, to be sure; but right now I fear he suffers because of it. In trying to stay strong for Sam and me--in spending what I'm certain is an unconscionable amount of his dwindling stamina in worries for our well-being--I fear that he's let down his guard too much, has lowered his own resistance to torture and coercion by allowing his fears for us to weaken his defenses. He needs to stay tough now, to do exactly as he's always preached at me and park us in some safe, dark compartment of his mind long enough to do what needs to be done. To ensure his own survival and protect his own sanity.

God, I can still hear him screaming in my mind, still feel tremors of sick revulsion course through me at the level of agony I heard in his voice. He's gone utterly silent now, too silent, and it isn't just because the Atarothians have been pounding my head against the stone walls of this cell that I can't hear any sound from Jack. There's a certain distinct AURA to a silence this deep, one that lets me know he truly is silent now and that it isn't just my brutalized senses playing tricks on me. Besides, I CAN still hear the monotonous trickle-drip-plop! of brackish water coursing down the wall behind me, so I know I haven't gone deaf from this latest beating. But the profound lack of any other noise in this place has my heart tripping over itself in sudden dread.

Wincing with the pain, I stagger clumsily to my feet and hobble halfway across the cell, holding a ripped-loose, tattered piece of my shirt against the copiously bleeding gash high on my forehead. With the blood wiped from my eyes, I can almost see where I'm going; it'd be nice if I had my glasses back, but they're long gone. Maybe it's actually BETTER that everything is just a blur here; it definitely helps my nightmares to only have the indistinct outlines of ugly Atarothian faces looming in my dreams rather than some crystal-clear image to contend with.

"I don't know what I miss more--my glasses or coffee," I sigh dolorously to myself as a fresh rivulet of blood tracks its way beneath my makeshift bandage and slides down into one corner of my mouth. Grimacing, I lick the coppery tang from my lips and stiffen in instinctive dread as I hear THEM coming back again. What, was the beating I just suffered merely a warm-up for the REAL thing? Great, just great, I think with grim stoicism as the thud of inexorable footsteps vibrates just outside my locked cell. Forcing myself to show no outward weakness--another trick Jack taught me--I let the tattered, bloody bit of my shirt drop to the filthy straw beneath me and stand waiting for whatever is next to come.

I am not prepared, however, for the sight that greets my eyes when the door is rustily creaked open and then thrown back against the cell wall behind it with ominous force. As I stand peering myopically toward the gaping maw of the doorway, several blurry figures appear within its rectangular frame and seem to struggle against each other for admittance. All but one of the figures are definitely Atarothian, tall and bulky with bulbous heads, shaggy hair, and dusky, grayish skin that appears almost scaly to my less-than-clear vision; but one of the figures--the smallest one, there in the middle of the herd--bears a remarkable resemblance to a certain brilliant astrophysicist I know. And as that figure is forced through the open doorway, panting and cursing quietly in a voice taut with pain, I find myself taking a hesitant, disbelieving half-step forward.

"Sam?" I croak, and at the sound of her name Sam looks up, just as one of the Atarothians clutching her arms gives her a vicious push in my direction.

"Danie--ack!" Sam's voice cuts off abruptly as she careens into me with startling force; as we both crash to the ground, the strength of her momentum knocks the wind out of me and I find myself lying on the cold, filthy floor of the cell, with Sam sprawled bonelessly atop me. I would love to tell her how good it is to see her, but all my energies are taken up with just trying to breathe again, with sucking oxygen into lungs that seem to have been crushed on impact.

"Son of a--" Sam chokes out, her own body trembling with pain and indignation as she struggles to lift herself off me. "Daniel, are you okay?"

"Fine..." I wheeze, unaccountably relieved to find that I can breathe again, after all. Thank God Sam doesn't weigh all that much, I find myself thinking with absent relief as we both untangle ourselves under the leering eyes of our captors. Sam is looking at me with dismay on her pale face--even with blurred vision I can tell how unhappy she is with my appearance--and I shrug somewhat sheepishly as she reaches a shaky hand to the cut on my forehead.

"Oh, God, did I do that?" she groans worriedly, and I lift my hand to slide gentle fingers around her wrist.

"No, that was already there," I tell her with a wry smile, and as we gaze at each other across the dank confines of my cell, her eyes suddenly fill with tears that she blinks back with angry ferocity.

"Daniel--" she begins, but I give her an almost undetectable shake of my head and purse my lips to let her know that I don't want our reunion to proceed like this; I won't give the Atarothians the satisfaction of watching us display private emotions in front of them.

"So, is your suite better than mine, cause I gotta tell you, I really don't like the ambience here," I offer, and a genuine smile creases my face at the almost comical look of incredulity Sam sends me. I realize I must sound like I'm channeling Jack at this moment, but to me that means only good things; it means I must be doing this right, must be keeping it together and depriving our captors of any grist for their torture mill as they wait in vain for any sign of emotional weakening from either Sam or myself.

"I...mmm...frankly, my cell sucks," Sam replies, hesitantly at first but then with growing vigor. "There's mold on the walls, my straw is rotten, and the fleas are very ill-mannered." Her blue eyes spark a ghostly phantom of Jack O'Neill's consummate snarkiness, and neither one of us can help the small, satisfied smiles that manage to escape our guard as we both imagine the expression Jack would likely have on his face could he hear us now. Surprise, vague suspicion, followed by fondness and even a smug sense of pride, that we would have learned so well at the feet of the master...

"Well, this is interesting," Sam mutters now as the Atarothians bestow final, threatening scowls on us and slam their way out of the cell.

"I wonder what they're up to," I agree cautiously; and as we listen to the sound of our captors' heavy footsteps thumping away down the corridor, I can only wonder what ramifications this new development might have for Jack, wherever he is.


VI.
But he, the favourite and the flower,
Most cherish'd since his natal hour,
His mother's image in fair face...
My latest care, for whom I sought
To hoard my life, that his might be
Less wretched now, and one day free;
He, too, who yet had held untired
A spirit natural, or inspired--

SAM

Oh, God, it is SO good to be with Daniel again, to huddle together in this awful place and take silent comfort in one another's presence. He looks so wan and wasted, that terrible gash in his forehead gaping like some obscene mouth, with the drying rivulets of rust-brown blood that have flowed from the wound serving to accentuate the unhealthy pallor of his face beneath the blood trail.

I try to hide my dismay at his condition, but I know I'm not especially successful; Daniel's wry half-grin tells me that the consternation in my eyes is all too apparent. I'm sure I look rather the worse for wear, myself, but Daniel is too much the gentleman to mention it. And it puts me to shame, his quick grasp of the Atarothians' longing to wrest SOME level of emotional duress from us so that they might use it against us. I'm the one with military training, the one who should be coaching Daniel in the proper way to survive captivity; but I have to wrinkle my nose now in wry acknowledgement that Daniel has endured more than his fair share of harrowing ordeals over the past few years and has little need of my advice. His steadfast courage and quiet equilibrium in our current situation suddenly fills me with such a rush of affection and gratitude that I can barely wait for our guards to leave us before I'm flinging my arms around Daniel's neck and hugging the stuffings out of him.

"Daniel, are you REALLY all right?" I whisper against his neck, and he gives my back a comforting pat in reply, his slender fingers rubbing small circles of reassurance against my skin. The physical contact is an exquisite blend of pain and joy, as my back is still severely abraded from my most recent beating; but the pain is secondary to the delicious comfort of having my brother-in-spirit here with me, warm and alive and filling my misery-laden soul with a blessed surge of revitalizing energy.

"I'm fine, Sam, really," Daniel is murmuring, his breath warm against my cheek. "How are YOU doing?" He gently but firmly draws back far enough to check me over, to peer into my face with disarming acuity despite the fact that he's missing his glasses and surely can't see much of my features beyond a wavering blur.

"I'm good," I reply with just the right amount of deprecating, wry humor to allay his most immediate concerns. "A bit...fragrant, maybe. Decidedly bruised and scraped and sick of gruel and fleas, as well...but over all, good."

"You're more than good; you're damned beautiful," Daniel grins, and a rather surprised flush of pleasure heats my dirty face as he leans in to plant a chaste but affectionate kiss on the tip of my nose. "I've been so worried, Sam; I thought that I could hear you a few times and hoped that you were somewhere close by, that you were okay...but I wasn't sure if it was really you or if I was just imagining it, if it was just wishful thinking."

"I heard you, too," I return somberly, and I can't help the morose tone in my voice. "I...heard...when they beat you, a few days ago." Tears rise in my eyes again, but I force them back as I reach out to brush a finger across Daniel's grimy cheek. "I'm sorry, Daniel, so sorry."

"I'm fine, Sam," Daniel replies, and a note of impatience enters his voice. "Sam...what about Jack? Have you...seen him at all, these past several days?"

"I heard him," I say bitterly, my gaze flying up to meet Daniel's; in the depths of his suddenly anguished blue eyes I see my own grim horror and anxiety mirrored and find I cannot look away again. "His screams...oh, God, Daniel, after awhile I just wanted it to stop. I didn't want him to be dead, didn't want it to mean that...but I just wanted it to stop. For them to stop hurting him like that..."

"I know," Daniel utters in a low, intense monotone, and his gaze goes as bleak and furious as I have ever seen it. "We have to get him out of here, Sam; we have to get ALL of us out of here. I don't think he can last much longer, not if they keep...torturing him as they have been. I think they've focused primarily on him up to this point because they know that he's our leader; but if we don't get away soon--"

"Our turn will come," I finish bleakly, and Daniel nods, his expression carefully neutral.

"And then we won't even be able to help ourselves anymore, much less rescue Jack," he continues with grim logic. "So we have to think of something soon, DO something to save ourselves...and I don't know what the circumstances are back home at the SGC, but it appears that we can't count on any sort of rescue from that quarter. So it has to be up to us."

"We'll figure something out," I agree, smiling somewhat ruefully as Daniel wraps his hands around mine and squeezes our fingers lightly together. "First we need to figure out why they've put us in together, what they plan to do with us or TO us next; and we have to find out where they're keeping Jack and how to free him."

"Oh, is that all? Piece of cake, then," Daniel smiles wearily, and as I give a small snort of exasperation, my team mate's countenance lightens briefly before sinking back into gloomy introspection. "Sam, what if Jack is too hurt for us to move him, to transport him..."

"Don't even go there right now, Daniel," I scold him gently, leaning forward to very carefully press my forehead against his, mindful as I do so of his cut. "We're going to help ourselves out of this cell, and then we're going to help Colonel O'Neill. He'd never give up on us, and we won't give up, either. Agreed?"

"Agreed," Daniel nods, and then, with a strangely wistful sigh, he murmurs: "Sam? Do you--do you wish Teal'c was here? I mean, even though it's great he's NOT, I wouldn't wish this on even my worst enemy, much less Teal'c...it's just...I guess I'm saying..."

"I miss him, too," I whisper, sending Daniel silent understanding through the pressure of my fingers around his. "I think if he WAS here, we would find ourselves taking great strength and comfort from HIS strength and courage. He's part of us, part of this team; it's only natural that we would miss him now, miss the bond we all have together. Teal'c would understand that, just as I understand what you mean."

"I think he's doing everything he can from his end to get us home again," Daniel murmurs, and a tiny thrill of relieved excitement snakes its way down my spine as I realize I agree.

"I know he is," I concur, and Daniel and I exchange small smiles here in the gloomy, damp confines of our prison. "And with Teal'c and the General working to find us from their end, we can't come up short by not doing our part on THIS end. So, before those goons come back for round two of whatever lovely new game this is, maybe we should do some strategizing."

"You took the words right out of my mouth," Daniel smiles tiredly, and I force down the thread of anxiety rising in my chest at his shaky pallor and merely nod decisively, determined to put myself in the Colonel's shoes and approach this from the angle of what HE would do. Ironically enough, the Colonel may be his own best chance for survival in this place--albeit once removed and viewed second-hand through a lowly astrophysicist's eyes. And if I can put myself inside his head, do what he would do, then by extension he will have saved Daniel and me, as well, all without moving a muscle. I'm sure he would appreciate the humor in that, and I can only pray that I will have the chance to share the joke with him one day soon.


VII.
What next befell me then and there
I know not well--I never knew;
First came the loss of light, and air,
And then of darkness, too.
I had no thought, no feeling--none--
Among the stones I stood a stone,
And was, scarce conscious what I wist,
As shrubless crags within the mist;
For all was blank, and bleak, and grey,
It was not night, it was not day,
It was not even the dungeon-light
So hateful to my heavy sight,
But vacancy absorbing space,
And fixedness--without a place;
There were no stars, no earth, no time,
No check, no change, no good, no crime--
But silence, and a stirless breath
Which neither was of life nor death;
A sea of stagnant idleness,
Blind, boundless, mute, and motionless!

JACK

I don't know what was in those damned nettles, but I think it's killing me. Now, isn't that a bitch? To survive all I've survived, to go through all the shit I've gone through--only to croak off because of some stupid-ass WEED?! Geez, that would just be my luck. Daniel must have some obscure, ironic myth he can compare this to, some helpful reference in a musty papyrus somewhere that holds the cure for whatever this damned toxin is that's destroying my system...

Too bad he's not here to share his knowledge, to at least hold my hand as I lie dying. Not that I could feel it at this point; everything has pretty much gone numb, which in a backwards way is a blessing--at least I can't feel that pain in my feet anymore, or the terrible nausea that had me writhing in the floor earlier.

God, I know my eyes are open, know it's not yet night here in this freaking slimepit; there should still be the faintest, marginally yellow glow of light from just outside my cell, filtering in under the door...But I can't see anything anymore. I've gone blind, as blind as my crazy old Uncle Liam, who used to run around naked in the chicken yard screaming about secret agents come to steal his eggs cause they were made of plutonium...

Holy Christ, why would I remember that, now that I'm on my deathbed? You'd think I'd have loftier things to dwell on, that at the very least I'd have some sort of spiritual, life-experiences flashback. Not this ridiculous mental image of scrawny, blind, crazy-as-a-loon Uncle Liam scaring all the chickens with his shriveled little wanker flopping about as he feverishly tried to gather up all the hen's eggs before the feds came to create giant, mutant killer chickens to terrorize us all...

Oh, God, let me die; if this is all I have left in my head to spend my last minutes thinking about, just kill me and get it over with. Dammit, this is worse than the torture, even worse than the thing with the nettles...Please, I find myself thinking with the last of my fading energy; please, Man Upstairs, don't let this happen to Carter and Daniel. I guess I've failed them, didn't do my job; but don't make them suffer for MY mistakes, MY weakness. If You're still out there, if You have any compassion and mercy at all, You'll help what's left of my team get home. I know I don't usually have much use for You these days, never seem able to find it in me to sit and have a conversation with You...but what I'm requesting now isn't for me. Just...get my team home, please. This isn't even the worst we've had it, and it's downright demeaning that we should all die so ignobly here.

I can't feel my arms, my legs; it's getting hard to swallow, to breathe...I feel panic rising up in me, the frantic need to gulp in huge draughts of fresh air...but I've forgotten how to make the muscles work in my diaphragm, forgotten all the steps needed to keep my heart beating, my brain alive...oh, God, I've just realized--I don't really want to die. Not here, not like this.

Daniel! I cry out for him inside the confused jumble of my thoughts, pull his name and the faint outlines of his face from some crumbling file in my mind; Daniel, I need you here, please don't let me die alone...

Almost I can feel him with me, can imagine--if I try really hard--the faintest pressure of his fingers gliding sadly across my cheek before moving to take my lax, unfeeling hand and curl his fingers around my palm. I know he's not really here, that he's shut away somewhere nearby in his own private hell; but somehow it helps to imagine him here. It slows my panicked struggles to breathe, makes it easier to surrender my fear of dying and let myself sink quietly, effortlessly...

Carter. She'll take this hard, very hard; I wish I had some way to tell her I expect her to go on, to stay strong and to move forward and make me even more proud of her than I already am by advancing in the ranks, by showing all those stuffed shirt mysogynists still lining the ranks that a woman can be a damned good soldier and an invaluable team member...I'm babbling, oh God I'm babbling but I don't want to die alone, it's so dark and I wonder am I dead already, why is it so dark, there's no sound, no light, no movement anywhere...have I been sent, literally, to Hell; is death nothing more than this horrible descent into slow, empty oblivion?

But I still think; I AM thinking, aren't I? Not just some final, spastic flickers of fading electrical current in my brain, just the death throes of everything that used to be Jonathon O'Neill...no, dammit, no. I think, therefore, I STILL am. Somewhere, someway, I exist. And beneath the fear and horror of this whole thing, I'm getting pissed. Really, sorely pissed, cause this is all too much like being Goa'ulded, like watching your body, your will, being taken from you and not a damned thing you can do about it...If God truly is a Goa'uld, then we're All hellbound, every last, doomed soul of us...

No, no, that's blasphemy; God isn't a snake...Hell, after that snafu in the Garden of Eden with another slimy serpent, I doubt if He has much love for the crawlies, even if He did create them originally. Well, Sir, it wouldn't be the first time someone's creation popped back up later to bite them on the ass...no disrespect intended, Sir...Geez, even as I'm dying I HAVE to be irreverent and snarky...? No, this isn't right, if I was truly dying I'm pretty damned sure I'd be doing at least a LITTLE on-my-knees-begging-for-mercy schtick; even I'm not THAT heretical and lost. Am I? Tell me, God, am I truly, irredeemably lost? Have I seen too much, done too much that was evil, to ever know true peace in Your kingdom? Is there really a place where Charlie waits for me, where everything makes sense and is good and true and right, forever? If there is, how can I ever enter in, with this hardness over my heart?

Daniel...if he could be sitting beside me now, I know he would say some absolutely beautiful prayers for my soul, would beseech God and the angels to carry me to some wonderful paradise somewhere...He'd do that for me, Daniel would, because he's my friend. In spite of the darkest sides of my nature, he's still my friend; and I know he would comfort me and ease me out of this life if that was all that he could do for me. Carter, too; she'd be holding my hand, stroking my brow and talking pleasant, soothing nonsense with tears running down her face that I could no longer see...But I'd know; I'd know anyway that she was crying. They're good people--no, GREAT people--and I've been the luckiest son of a bitch on earth to have known them.

And there's Teal'c; sorry, Big Guy, so sorry that I didn't get the rest of your team mates safely home. I hope they'll make it back without me, that all of you can enjoy a wonderful reunion and go on with your lives...God, this sounds so maudlin, so melodramatic and icky...but I've never respected anyone as much as I respect Teal'c, and I'm just sorry I never had the brains to tell him so when I had the chance. I hope he'll figure it out somehow, that he'll look back someday and realize I took a chance on him, went to bat for him with Hammond and everyone else, because something in me just KNEW that he was an honorable man. I have been nothing but proud to call him my friend, nothing but thrilled to have him on my team.

I'm tired now, so tired. I no longer know if I'm breathing or not, if I still have a body and am trapped inside it or if I've gone on ahead to this vast, dark nothingness, just waiting...waiting for God to decide if I am worthy, if I can enter in to the place where I might find my son, hopefully waiting for me. But first I just want to sleep for awhile, just want this gentle emptiness to swallow me up so that the terrible fear underlying my soul now will be swallowed up, as well...God, such emptiness at the edge of this abyss! I wish Daniel and Sam were here; I wish I could see them again, tell them good-bye...I can't see, can't breathe, can't think...God help me, God--


VIII.
I made a footing in the wall,
It was not therefrom to escape...
But I was curious to ascend
To my barr'd windows, and to bend
Once more, upon the mountains high,
The quiet of a loving eye.

DANIEL

"Can you see anything?"

Sam's voice sounds impatiently behind me, and I give a small shrug without turning around. I don't dare move, balanced as I am so precariously halfway up the mold-slicked, stone wall of the cell; it doesn't help that my body is weak and shaky from the beating I took so recently and that my equilibrium and balance seem to be effected by the blow I took to my forehead. But it certainly won't do for me to tumble down on top of Sam, so I grit my teeth against the surge of weakness rising up in me and grimly continue grappling at the slimy wall for some sort of purchase to help me climb.

"I'm...almost to the slit we noticed," I puff after a moment's silent, frustrated scrabbling at the wall. "Maybe it has a view to the outside..."

"Or just a view into yet another dank, smelly cell," Sam mutters, then draws in a breath and reaches carefully to touch the back of my leg. "Sorry," she murmurs apologetically. "I didn't mean to sound so negative."

"Well, in this instance I think you can be forgiven a moment of doubt," I reply somewhat breathlessly, fingers laboriously pulling the rest of me up, inch by agonizing inch. "Um, Sam...? How much farther do I have to go? I can't really see very well from this angle, especially without my glasses..."

"Of course, how thoughtless of me," Sam murmurs, and from the corner of my eye I see her blurred outline move a few paces over so that she can tilt her head back and study the slit high up on the wall.

"Left? Right? Straight on until dawn?" I quip wryly, and the white gleam of a rueful smile shines up at me through the cell's gloom.

"Um...it looks like you'll need to move over to the left just a tad, then pull yourself up another two to three feet," Sam directs; and as I nod and begin groping off to my left for a suitable handhold, Sam sighs and frets below me.

"Daniel, why don't you let ME do it?" she huffs, accompanying the request with an irritable rattling of her ankle chains. "You've had a head injury, you passed from tired right on into exhausted a few minutes ago..."

"Don't try to act like your back isn't a mess of welts and lashes, Sam," I murmur chidingly, my tone a mixture of apology and regret for all that she has suffered. "And even half-blind without my glasses, I noticed how hard you've been trying to hide that limp. Is it a bad sprain--your ankle, I mean?"

Though I don't say it, there's no need for the inevitable follow-up; it's obvious to the both of us that she can't climb this wall with her ankle in that condition. Sam mutters a tiny expletive barely above her breath as I grimly continue to climb, but she doesn't refute my statement. Her uncharacteristic silence tells me that her ankle must be hurting very badly, indeed, and I shift cautiously sideways just enough to dart a concerned frown her way.

"Are you okay, Sam?" I ask quietly, and she gives me a nod, her blue eyes shining frustration through the dimness.

"Just...be careful, yourself," she mumbles, and I nod and turn slowly back to my task. If we can just get a glimpse beyond this damned place, just find some reference point to help us navigate our way out of here--once we've busted out of this cell first and found Jack, of course--

"Are we just fooling ourselves that we can make it out of here?" Sam asks suddenly below me, and the exhaustion and self-doubt in her voice fill me with guilt for my own, corresponding misgivings. I pause in my attempts to reach the slit that seems to offer us the promise of hope, of escape and freedom, and rest my throbbing forehead against the dampness of the wall as I try to gather my thoughts.

"Never give up, never surrender," I pant after a heart beat, and a small snort escapes Sam's lips.

"How many times has Teal'c made you watch that silly movie?" she murmurs fondly, and a smile escapes me as an image of Teal'c thoroughly absorbed in the action on Jack's tv screen rises up in my mind.

"Hey, 'Galaxy Quest' is a fun movie," I stoically defend Teal'c's taste in entertainment, and Sam sighs quietly.

"Yeah, there is something kind of heartwarming about it, how those actors all learn to work together and to become a real team, to really care for each other," she muses.

"Sorta reminds you of another spacefaring team we both know, eh?" I grin briefly down at her, and Sam wrinkles her nose at me.

"Well, I guess if we had to pick which character we'd be from the movie, I'd be stuck with the Sigourney Weaver role. But I've NEVER had cleavage like that, and I'd like to think I'm a LITTLE bit smarter than her character," Sam sighs.

"Which character would you pick for me to be?" I pant curiously, biting back an Arabic curse as my fingers lose their grip and I slip and slither several inches down the wall.

"Daniel...?" Sam's voice is tight with concern as she moves into position beneath me, her slender hands reaching nervously upwards as though to catch me should I fall.

"Fine, I'm fine," I manage to grit out, closing my eyes and wishing Sam would back away to safety. I'm afraid I really MIGHT fall, and I don't want to hurt her. To distract the both of us, I force a light tone back into my voice and pick up the conversation we'd begun a bit ago. "Anyway...which character from the movie am I?"

"Hmm, I'm not sure," Sam murmurs thoughtfully, limping back an awkward step as she sees that I'm not going to fall. "You don't really fit the snobby character...you know, the one that plays the cheap Spock rip-off character? And you're definitely not Guy, the expendable, peripheral character. So I guess you'd be the Tony Shaloub character; he IS the one who makes nice with the aliens and figures out how to communicate with them."

"And how," I agree, thinking with a rueful smile of the amorous love scene Mr. Shaloub's character has with a particular many-armed, female alien in the movie.

"Jack of course would be Commander Taggert, the Tim Allen character," Sam is continuing below me, and I hear the smile in her voice. "I have to admit, the two DO have several similar characteristics."

"Funny, I never noticed that till now, but you're right," I agree, and we both smile at each other in the dim, gray light of the cell. "So I guess Teal'c gets to be the unhappy half-alien character that Rickman guy plays, though the only real similarities I can find between the two are Teal'c's well-timed use of acerbic sarcasm and a quiet, underlying courage in the face of adversity and danger."

"This is kinda fun," Sam smiles as she watches me make my way another few inches up the wall. "We should do this with all the movies we watch together--find characters that most closely resemble all of us."

"Oh, yeah, I can just see the fights erupting, already," I sigh, but a small smile escapes me as I imagine both Jack's and Teal'c's indignation at being compared to certain popular movie characters. Such an activity would definitely liven up our regular videos-and-pizza night every week.

"Hey, almost there, I think," I gasp out as my questing fingers suddenly encounter a niche in the generally smooth expanse of wall. "I think I can feel an indentation here--"

"Be careful, Daniel," Sam adjures me, and I don't bother answering; I'm too busy carefully feeling out fingerholds in the narrow aperture above my head. Slowly, painstakingly, I curl my aching fingers around the edge of the narrow, foot-long slit and pull myself up, pressing my eyes against the dark oblong that my fingers are framing so shakily.

"What can you see?" Sam is calling softly from the cell floor some six feet below my perch, and I squint into the gloomy space just in front of my face, vainly trying to make sense of the amorphous darkness on the other side of this wall.

"Not much, actually," I sigh, and Sam gives a faint sigh of disappointment. "Um...looks like this is just an interior wall, with some sort of bare room on the other side of it...I can't really see anything--nothing helpful, at any rate."

"Oh, well; at least we tried," Sam murmurs, and at her quiet urging I begin to gingerly work my way far enough down the wall to jump to the floor. But even before I have halfway descended, an ominously familiar noise sounds from somewhere out in the corridor beyond, and Sam's hands reach to tug--more than a little frantically--at my shackled ankles.

"Hurry, Daniel, they're coming back!" she hisses at me, and as I slide to the ground in a last, desperate skid that has me landing awkwardly on my ass at Sam's feet, the loud tread of several heavy footsteps sounds just outside our cell.

"Now, what?" I mutter rather truculently, but before Sam can respond, the door is being flung wide once more and the ugly faces of five Atarothians are leering in at us across the threshold. Sam's blue eyes are huge in her pale face, and as our captors rush in to grab hold of the both of us, I can only send her a look of mute regret and wait for what might happen next.


IX.
Our voices took a dreary tone,
An echo of the dungeon stone,
A grating sound--not full and free
As they of yore were wont to be;
It might be fancy, but to me
They never sounded like our own.

SAM

I want to tell these creeps that I've had enough, that I may be 'just a female' but I could damned well still kick some ass if given half the chance. I want to tell them, but right now I'm just too tired.

They didn't need to do that, to be so rough with Daniel. When they stormed in on us, we offered no resistance at all; but they hit him, anyway. Once, twice...six times in all with their hammer-handed fists, until his face was as gray and drawn with pain as I've ever seen him. I tried to hold my tongue, to not give them the satisfaction of knowing how upset I was; but they knew, anyway. Knew and seemed to revel in it.

Once they were done hitting Daniel, they dragged us both out into the corridor, Daniel's limp, barely-conscious body dangling between two of the Atarothians while two more yanked me roughly along just behind Daniel and the others. I wanted to cry out with the pain in my damaged ankle, but I bit the inside of my cheek instead, bit it until the salty taste of blood flowed into my mouth. I wasn't about to provide them with any further enjoyment at my expense; so I ignored the bruising force of their hands on my arms and grimly hobbled along as best I could.

We seemed to traverse an untold number of dank, narrow corridors, most lit only by flickering torches interspersed at irregular intervals along our route; finally we were escorted into yet another unremarkable cell, this one different only in the addition of some sort of built-in stone table set into the middle of the floor.

Without a word, the Atarothians manhandled both Daniel and me into this space and flung Daniel roughly to the floor, uttering short barks of chuffing laughter when he gave a low, helpless groan upon contact with the floor's hard surface. My two handlers tossed me negligently after him, shrugging off my painful impact with one stone corner of the table on my way down and slamming the cell's heavy door closed on their way out. Breathing through the fiery pain where my ribs had slammed against the table, I sank to the floor and pulled myself over to Daniel's trembling form, cradling his bloodied head in my lap and murmuring soothing nonsense words to him as he sank into dazed semi-consciousness.

That was at least two hours ago, by my rough reckoning; and now we sit here still, Daniel sagging half-upright against me and reasonably coherent again but looking as if one puff of air might knock him flat. I can feel my ankle swelling alarmingly beneath the constricting shackle surrounding it, and as the cold iron digs ever more deeply into my ballooning flesh, I feel as if I'll go mad if I can't release my agonized limb from bondage soon. It's so hard to keep my mind off it, and my feeble inner protestations that I'm fine, that this is nothing, are growing lamer by the minute.

"Sam...we have to get that cuff off your ankle," Daniel rasps now, as though reading my mind, and I wince slightly as he moves against me and tries to force himself fully upright. "There has to be something here we can use, some way to get that damned thing open..."

"There's nothing, Daniel," I reply, more sharply than I'd intended; and as he levels a sorrowful look my way, I sigh and lift my hand to stroke his stubbled cheek. "It's not too bad yet," I lie, and he merely shakes his head in silent negation and wearily rubs his rough cheek against my palm, offering what small comfort he can through the caress. Both our voices are rusty and strained from stress and exposure to the cold dampness in this dungeon; and Daniel has to clear his throat several times now before he can speak again.

"It means something, this table," he sighs to me, one finger rising to point at the object under discussion. "They moved us here because IT'S here, and they want to use it for something."

"Something directly involving us?" I add questioningly, and Daniel nods, the gesture so slight I almost don't catch it.

"Yes, something like that, I think," he agrees. "I...um...I don't think it's a sacrificial kind of table or altar, I mean I don't see any drains or run-off channels for blood anywhere on the table..."

"Gee, that makes me feel so much better," I retort sardonically, and a flare of exhausted apology sparks briefly in Daniel's sunken eyes.

"Sorry," he whispers, and I merely give him a wan smile and lean my head against his shoulder, wondering dimly where Colonel O'Neill is at this moment...wondering HOW he is, my head still reverberating with the fading echoes of his earlier screams.

"I think there will be some sort of ceremony," Daniel continues after a beat; even in the most extreme conditions, he seems unable to completely repress his insatiable curiosity and intellectual fascination with everything going on around him. Good or bad, pleasureable or agonizing, Daniel is driven by something deep within his brilliant, questing soul to try and make sense of each experience, to give some level of meaning to everything that's ever happened to him.

"What kind of ceremony?" I ask on a yawn now, dully amazed that I am beginning to grow drowsy; even in the midst of my fear and the mingled discomforts of hunger, cold, and thirst plaguing my body, I can feel a bone-deep weariness pulling at me, trying to drag me under into blessed unconsciousness. Grimly I fight it, force my eyes open and push myself away from the negligible warmth of Daniel's increasingly hypothermic body as I make myself sit up straight.

"Ceremony...mmm...what kind, I have no idea," Daniel murmurs disconsolately, his expression narrowing into a haggard grimness that makes the gloomy shadows around us seem even gloomier and more hopeless.

"Maybe they're going to throw us a surprise party." My weak attempt at humor is met with nothing more than a monosyllabic grunt from Daniel, and once more my thoughts turn to Jack O'Neill, worry and frustration biting at my soul as deeply as the iron shackle cutting now into my sprained ankle.

"Jack..." Daniel mumbles suddenly, his unfocused blue eyes widening and turning dark with a mixture of anger and concern. "What have they done to Jack? Sam, have you heard anything from him lately, since...since the last time?"

"No, Daniel, I haven't heard a damned thing; and since they've moved us again, I'm not even sure where we are in relation to him," I murmur morosely, and Daniel sighs and allows himself to slump completely against the cold, filthy floor. His body curls protectively on its left side as he tucks his hands between his thighs, shivering with cold and the slow beginnings of shock. I have no way of knowing just how badly this last beating may have injured him, and I want to scream and shriek aloud with the growing sense of helpless frustration rising within me.

"Gonna...rest...just a minute...okay?" Daniel mumbles, and I can only nod, stretching my legs out in front of me and deliberately ignoring the sight of my grotesquely swelling ankle, still trapped in its band of iron.

"You do that, Daniel," I whisper as his breathing evens out from the ragged edge of pain to some semblance of temporary peace. I think to myself that I should probably try to sleep, as well, to snatch a few precious moments of tranquility and give my battered body a chance to heal itself even a little; but Colonel O'Neill's lean face has suddenly taken center stage inside my mind, and I find that all I can do is worry about his status and condition right now.

Please be alive, I chant silently to myself, as if the words are some magical mantra to keep him breathing. Please come back to us, be with us...Colonel, please...

And as the words repeat themselves over and over in my head, my own exhaustion finally wins out over my fears for the Colonel's condition. Helpless against the tide of darkness rushing over me, I slide awkwardly down next to Daniel's tightly curled form and drift away into the blackness.


X.
I had not strength to stir, or strive,
But felt that I was still alive--
A frantic feeling, when we know
That what we love shall ne'er be so.
I know not why
I could not die,
I had no earthly hope--but faith,
And that forbade a selfish death.

JACK

They're moving me. I can't see or hear them, can't feel them, but somehow I know I'm no longer stationary. Shit, this is creepy; I have no words to describe the sensation of HAVING no sensations, and with absolutely no way to prove I'm moving, or even living still, why do I continue to be so sure of it?

Whatever they did to me, whatever was in those nettles, it seems to be taking its sweet time wearing off. If it ever does. God, this HAS to be temporary; I can't deal with an eternity of being lost inside my own head, no one to talk to, nothing new coming in to keep the old thought processes churning and burning...

Why can't I HEAR them, at least; didn't I read somewhere that the auditory process is the last thing to go? So why is there nothing but this profound silence, a silence so deep my own thoughts seem to be SHRIEKING at me from the inside out? Why can't I see even a glimmer of light, a flicker of shadow? And I never thought I'd say this, but I'd be overjoyed for those bastards to pound on me some more right now, if only I could feel each and every vicious blow as it landed on my body.

Jesus, I pray Carter and Daniel aren't going through the same thing right now; I pray they're both still alive and ambulatory. I can't understand why Teal'c hasn't led a contingent of men to bust us out of here, why Hammond isn't pulling every string he can tweak to bring us home again. I know there has to be some serious shit gumming up the works back at the SGC for my team to be abandoned like this, to go so long without a single sign of rescue. Geez; as if I don't already have enough to worry about, now there's this. But at least focusing on the folks back on earth helps keep my mind off being this pseudo-dead stick of wood, a veggie tale...

But I'm not dead; I don't know how or why I have this knowledge, but the truth of it rests implacably in my soul and gives me some faint stir of hope. I think I'm in deep shit--that probably my condition is close to dire; but I don't seem to be able to die. Can't just click some physical or spiritual switch, here, and off myself so that there will be an end to this horror.

I couldn't do that, anyway, even if I wanted to; until I know what's happened to my team--till I know that at least Daniel and Sam will make it home safely again--I can't let go. It would be damned selfish of me to pull the curtain before the final act, not knowing how it all turned out for them; cause if there's even the slightest hope--and we're talking razor-thin slight, in my current condition--that I might be able to help my team, then I have to stick around for that. I have to hang on, even if I can't see or hear or feel a damned thing TO hold onto.

And so we're moving, we're moving...I believe that; I tell myself that I KNOW in SOME microscopic part of my body that my lovely guards are transporting me somewhere new. A blast of cold terror ripples though my disembodied mind as a sudden, horrible thought comes to me--what if they're convinced I'm truly dead and are taking me outside to bury me? Maybe they're going to toss me onto some huge bonfire or hack me into pieces and throw me to their slavering hounds...Of course, I've seen no sign to date of any slavering hounds, but you never know. God, oh God, where are we going? What the hell is happening here, why can't I FEEL anything?

Wait...something must be happening, PLEASE let something concrete be happening, something I can SEE or HEAR...I think maybe, just maybe...am I imagining it, is it all in my mind or whatever this is that's left of me...

God, I think I FELT that, felt something just now! Everything is still dark, still as silent as the grave (well, excuse me, but I can't control the mental images I'm getting in my head, especially under these circumstances...)But I could swear I FELT a physical sensation just now, a real, honest-to-God physical sensation...!

YES!! Oh, yeah, I felt that; I did most distinctly and indubitably feel that. And it hurt. All right, boys! Bring it on, hurt me again...you know what I like, you big bruisers. What the hell IS that, what are you wankers doing to me NOW...? My feet, arrghh, now THERE'S a pain I can't believe I forgot...back with a vengeance, with the burning and the fire and the acid eating through...

My stomach, oh my freaking LORD, I can't believe the TASTE that's rising up in my throat from my guts...Geez, where are the Tic Tacs when you need one?! I still can't see, but I can feel my feet, my stomach, a dull tingling in my face and hands...and I can hear a low, hollow rumbling now, an almost aqueous sound, like I'm listening to something while underwater. Those Atarothian bastards have the rustiest, grittiest damned voices you've ever heard, and I do believe I'm hearing them again. Music to my ears, boys, music to my ears.

Now, if someone would just kindly turn on the lights in here, that would be nice...let me see your hideously ugly mugs again...OUCH, you buttcrack, that felt just a little TOO real...! I think you dislocated my frigging shoulder again, slamming me up against the wall like that...At least I THINK it was a wall. So tell me, fellas, where are we going? Will there be snacks when we get there? Maybe a cold brew, a nice hot shower?

Uh oh; I don't like this, not one bit...I can feel more stuff now, sense more of my surroundings, and there appears to be something screwy with my breathing...Shit, why can't I get any air, is that ME gasping and wheezing and groaning like that? God, I can hear new voices, non-Atarothian voices, and they're both damned familiar...

Carter! Daniel! Sweet Jesus, it IS them! They're here, right close by, and they're calling to me, arguing with those goddamned slimeballs keeping us in this pit...They both sound frantic, beside themselves with worry; God, do I look THAT bad? Why can't I see them, why can't I move yet? And I don't mean to start flipping out here, but this whole breathing situation is getting downright SCARY...

I CAN'T BREATHE...I CAN'T BREATHE...GOD HELP ME, I CAN'T FREAKING BREATHE...!! Daniel, Sam...oh, Christ, don't let it be like this, how cruel can those bastards be, bringing me in to my team just so they can watch me die for real...Please, not like this, not this way...

Can't breathe, everything's tight, hot, going away, all of it going away again...breathe, Jack, breathe, oh God please breathe...


XI.
He, too, was struck, and day by day
Was wither'd on the stalk away.
Oh, God! it is a fearful thing
To see the human soul take wing
In any shape, in any mood:--
I've seen it rushing forth in blood,
I've seen it on the breaking ocean
Strive with a swoln convulsive motion,
I've seen the sick and ghastly bed
Of Sin delirious with its dread:
But these were horrors--this was woe
Unmix'd with such--but sure and slow.
He faded...

DANIEL

I come awake suddenly, startled by a sound I've come to recognize all too well; as the door to our cell begins to vibrate slightly under the rough touch of who knows how many Atarothians, I pull myself upright with stiff clumsiness and catch Sam doing the same. For one second we eye one another with wry understanding, both of us struggling to pull ourselves from exhausted sleep to some level of alertness. Then the door is opening, and my mind goes blank with shock.

Jack. Oh, God, it's Jack they're bringing in now, two of them hauling his limp body between them as if he weighs no more than a child; head hanging, limbs flopping uselessly, our commander appears either dead or deeply unconscious. Sam's gaze is riveted to the Colonel's body, her eyes wide with dismayed reaction and the desperate hope that he's only unconscious, that he'll awaken soon and be here with us, all of us together again.

As the Atarothians carry Jack's body past us, heading toward the table in the center of the cell, I become aware of a strange, distressed wheezing sound and realize it's coming from Jack. It's a horrible sound--an agonized gasping after air that just won't come--and I can't seem to stop myself from lunging toward the bastards dangling Jack so carelessly between them.

"He's choking, suffocating!" I hear myself call out, my voice sharp with fear. "You have to help him, you have to DO something!"

One of the Atarothians who's come in behind Jack and his handlers steps up now and plants a huge, filthy boot in my chest, giving one lazy push of his leg behind it and sending me sprawling flat on my back in the floor. Furiously I scramble upright again, adding my vehement protests to Sam's as we both helplessly watch our captors toss Jack's body face-up onto the stone table.

"Colonel! Colonel O'Neill..." Sam's tone is shrill with a mixture of anxiety and rising anger, and she struggles upward on her bad ankle, her face distorted with pain and rage. "What have you done to him, you bastards?" she growls, and for her trouble the one who just knocked me flat turns and slaps her once, hard, across the face.

"Sam..." I begin, reaching over to help her sit back up; her left cheek is flaming red and already beginning to swell, and a fleck of blood has appeared at the corner of her mouth. But she impatiently waves off my concern, her blue gaze angling around me to take in the sight of Jack lying flat on his back on the table, his body jerking spastically as he continues his grim struggle to breathe.

"Please, let me go to him," I beg one of the two who carried my friend into the cell. I'm sure he doesn't understand English, but there's no mistaking the entreaty or the intent of my words; he definitely knows what it is I'm requesting. Stubbornly I begin struggling to my feet, my eyes shifting from the Atarothian's ugly sneer to Jack's distressed body; and with something resembling a satisfied smirk, the one I am addressing gives a sardonic nod of his head and gestures slightly from me to Jack. Yes, the movement says--go. Go to your dying friend.

I turn on shaky legs, intent on helping Sam up so she can hobble alongside me over to the table; but even as I extend a hand to her, the Atarothian who just slapped her growls a refusal and roughly yanks Sam away from me, ignoring her pained outcry as his fingers snarl in her hair and drag her halfway to her feet.

"Go, Daniel...just go to him," Sam pants, her eyes resigned; and I nod grimly and turn my attention back to Jack. It's hard for me to walk even the short distance to the table; my legs are like rubber, and the unbelievably heavy weight of the shackles around my ankles impedes my progress.

But none of that matters; as I cross the floor, everything else briefly ceases to exist save for my friend on that table and the nightmarish, stertorous rasp of his breathing. My heart pounding with fear on Jack's behalf, I lean weakly against the side of the table once I've reached it and extend a shaking hand toward Jack's face.

He looks horrible, wasted and brutalized and turning a dusky blue from lack of oxygen. His eyes are wide open, almost bulging with the horror of this slow, agonizing death; and added to the horror I already feel concerning his condition, I am appalled to realize that he is blind now, as well. He can't see me at all, there is absolutely no light, no recognition in his eyes. Feeling my heart skip sickeningly within my chest, I reach out trembling fingers and slide them beneath Jack's neck, trying weakly to lift his head a bit, to assist him in any way I can with opening his passages to receive vital air.

"Jack! Jack, it's Daniel," I murmur intensely, bending to place my mouth near his ear. "God, Jack, what can I do, how can I help?" Jack stiffens on the table as soon as he hears my voice, his eyes going even more impossibly wide as he turns his face toward me, desperately fighting to speak. But every bit of his energy is taken up in sucking just one more molecule of oxygen into his starving lungs, and his hands scrabble weakly, uselessly, along the table's edge as his whole body arches in agony.

"Oh, God, what have you done to him? What the hell have you done?!" I scream hoarsely, reaching with my free hand to capture one of Jack's. Helplessly I squeeze his flailing fingers between mine, trying to give him what comfort I can; as he claws at my skin, my gaze swivels to pin the silently watching Atarothians and I hear myself growl, enraged and half-crazed with desperation:

"Damn you to Hell! How can I help him?! Tell me what you did, give me something to help him breathe again!" Our tormentors offer no answers, do nothing but stand and stare, and with a sob of pure frustration rising in my throat, I turn back to Jack and use what strength I have left to raise his head and shoulders off the table. Sliding my arm behind his shoulders, I pull him against me and rasp fiercely into his ear:

"Breathe, Jack; Jesus, try to breathe, try to slow down your heart, your pulse, and just focus on the breathing..." Jack shudders violently against me, his chest heaving uselessly, and I feel a wave of terrible despair wash over me as I sense the fight leaving him, sense that he's fading out and that his body just can't struggle any more.

"Why are you doing this?" Sam cries out from behind me, her voice thick with tears of rage and sorrow. "What possible reason could you have for doing this to him?"

"Please," I say now, clutching Jack's body and turning to level a beseeching stare at the Atarothian who had allowed me to go to my friend. "Please, I'll do anything...anything, just help him, just don't...Don't let him die like this...God, PLEASE!!"

My eyes have filled with angry tears, and the face of my nemesis blurs before me; but as I hear Jack's increasingly short, strangled wheezes for air begin to fade out, the one I've directed my pleas to takes a single step toward me and gestures down at Jack.

"Yes...please, help him! Just show me what to do, give me what he needs to fix whatever this is you've done to him!" I beg. My gaze shifts from the Atarothian to Jack's agonized face, and as if he is aware of my scrutiny, Jack turns his face toward me and weakly, very weakly, presses his fingers against mine.

Good-bye, that brief contact seems to say; a silent lament vibrates through his body once, twice, as he shudders and clutches my hand desperately, so desperately; good-bye, Daniel.

"NO!! NO, GODDAMMIT!" Raging, I slide Jack's limp body to rest atop the table and turn, ankle shackles clanking, to hurl myself at the nearest Atarothian. "You fuckers, you sadistic bastards--!"

"Daniel! Daniel!" Sam's voice suddenly sounds somewhere off to my right, and even as I crash helplessly up against the hard, stinky expanse of an Atarothian chest, my gaze slips sideways to see two of our kidnappers dragging Sam from the cell.

"Let her go, let her go!" I growl, but there's nothing I can do, no help I can offer either to her or to Jack. Oh, God, why wouldn't they help him, why did they make him suffer so...

"What do you want? WHAT DO YOU WANT?!" I hear myself screaming, and as I begin pummeling senselessly at the immovable arms of steel that have come up around me, the Atarothian holding me tosses me back up against the table, his expression slightly bored. As I rebound painfully off the stone and slide limply to the floor, my tormentor steps over and yanks me up effortlessly, forcing my face down and down until I am nose to nose with Jack's unresponsive form.

Help him now, the Atarothian's hand on my neck seems to say, and with a roar of rage I rear up against his hold and turn to glare at him, crying and shaking in helpless fury.

"I can't help him, you've left it too late..." I begin; but I can't believe it's true, WON'T just let this be the end. Knowing it's hopeless, fearing from the last, agonal breaths Jack took seconds ago that his throat and air passages have somehow swollen shut, I nonetheless bend over and pinch his nostrils closed, pressing my mouth over his and blowing, trying to force air past tissues too bloated to allow even a whisper of oxygen through.

"God...oh, God, Jack," I moan softly against his colorless lips, breathing once more into his mouth and feeling only the return of my own breath as it fails to find entrance into Jack's lungs. "If I had a knife, if I could cut into his trachea--" I hear myself babbling, but I know it's too late, too damned late...

Suddenly I am jerked hard from behind, pulled away from my futile ministrations to my friend's inert body; almost lazily the Atarothian clutching at my neck reaches with his other hand and dangles some sort of crude cloth pouch in front of my face. The pouch is held closed with a rough drawstring at the top, and as I stare in mute bemusement, the Atarothian releases his hold on my neck and impatiently opens the pouch. Holding my gaze with his, he reaches huge fingers into the pouch and fishes out some sort of crushed, dried leaves; smiling unpleasantly, he takes a pinch of the leaves and turns to Jack, forcing the Colonel's mouth open and stuffing the leaves under Jack's tongue. Still smiling, the Atarothian slides a finger under Jack's chin and forces his mouth closed, lightly stroking the swollen column of Jack's throat with his other fingers.

"What did you give him?" I hear myself ask hoarsely, my frantic gaze darting from Jack's gray, unresponsive face to the Atarothian's dark stare, then back to Jack's lax features again. "Will that help him...is it some sort of antidote?"

Fearing that even if it is a cure, it will prove to be too little, too late, I turn desperate eyes on Jack's still chest and search for any sign of movement, any attempt on Jack's part to breathe again. It's too late, he's already gone, a hopeless voice intones dully within my mind; and yet I keep watching Jack's chest, his throat, praying with everything that's in me for life to return, for there to still be a chance, some hope...

"Jack!" His name erupts from me in a near shout as I suddenly see it--there, that slow, convulsive tremor above his swollen adam's apple, the slightest, whistling intake of air through his nostrils...

"Come on, Jack, breathe!" I exhort him, my pulse racing wildly, legs trembling so hard beneath me that I fear I'll fall down in a heap. "Come back, Jack, fight this!"

And he does. Grimacing horribly, hands clenching and clawing and trying weakly to rise and grab at his own throat, Jack begins to live, to struggle anew for breath; his chest heaves once, twice, and a low, terrible gurgle-and-rattle sounds from his swollen throat as he tries to draw in air.

"More...he needs more of that stuff!" I yell at the one holding the pouch; but as I reach eagerly for the antidote, the Atarothian shakes his head with a distinctly malevolent smile and backs one step away. No. No, you may not have it.

"What the hell is this, why are you doing this?" I cry, grappling uselessly against him like some ninety-pound weakling confronting the high school quarterback. "Give me that, you bastard..." But my tormentor merely tucks the pouch into some hidden fold in his dirty tunic and gives me a lazy cuff on the side of my head.

Senses reeling, I find myself stagger-falling back against the table, landing half on top of Jack and hearing him struggle so pitifully to breathe. God, this is almost worse than having him die...to bring him back just this far, to offer up the hope of breath and life and then to leave him stranded half on the brink, frozen in agony. There could be brain damage if he does survive this, some distant part of me is thinking almost analytically. Permanent, irreversible brain damage...

But before I can do anything more, before I can tell Jack how sorry I am or plead once more for our captors' seemingly nonexistent mercy...the one with the pouch suddenly grabs my arm and hauls me up against him, dragging me steadily toward the cell door.

"No!" I cry out, struggling desperately. "I can't leave Jack, I won't leave him--!" My cries are ignored, my struggles worse than useless; I am pulled inexorably forward, helpless to resist the other's superior bulk and strength, and as he hauls me further and further away from Jack's choking, gagging torment on the table, I think I will surely go mad from the utter despair crashing over me.

"Jack! JACK!!" I scream out, injecting all my grief and regret and rage into his name. "Jack, I'm sorry, so sorry..." And then the Atarothian is pulling me out into the corridor, slamming the heavy door closed on Jack's lonely, terrified descent back into living hell.


XII.
My brother's soul was of that mould
Which in a palace had grown cold,
Had his free breathing been denied...
I saw, and could not hold his head,
Nor reach his dying hand--
Though hard I strove, but strove in vain,
To rend and gnash my bonds in twain.

SAM

This can't be happening...this cannot be happening. That senseless refrain keeps echoing in my brain as I am dragged out of the cell where Colonel O'Neill--where Jack--lies dying. Even though there is nothing I could have done to help him, I can't bear the thought of being wrested from his presence, of just leaving the Colonel lying there...And Daniel--how will he bear it, forced to stand alone and endure the terrible ordeal of watching our commander and friend die?

"Where are you taking me, dammit?"

I find myself cursing ineffectually as my arms are wrenched painfully behind my back and I am lifted and half-carried down the dim corridor outside the cell. Dimly I can still hear Daniel on the other side of the wall, his voice raised in fury against the Atarothians who stayed behind with him and Jack; the grief underlying his fierce diatribe tears at my heart, and I struggle helplessly in the iron grip of the two Atarothians carrying me.

"Let me go, you rat bastards!" I growl, almost weeping with frustration. "We came here in peace, we haven't done anything to you, we've done nothing wrong..."

This isn't the first time I've uttered those words, and just like every other time, my comments are completely ignored. I'm 99% certain that the ugly freaks dragging me along can't understand a word I'm saying, anyway; but for some illogical reason I find that I just keep trying to communicate, keep trying to break through to some spark of mercy or compassion buried behind the flat, gray eyes staring down at me.

Why do I even bother; why is there this overwhelming NEED in me to establish some sort of connection with every race we meet? When will I learn that sometimes such a feat just isn't feasible or possible; sometimes other races are so alien to us, so far removed from any recognizable points of shared experience, that even the most minimal level of dialogue is impossible. These Atarothians seem close enough to human that surely SOME measure of interchange and communication should be workable; but they have demonstrated over and over again that they just aren't interested. And right now they seem to have no desire to clue me in on our destination.

Already exhausted from my brief struggles, I give up for the moment and slump dejectedly between my captors, surreptitiously holding my injured ankle off the ground to save even more wear and tear on it. I can't get the image of Colonel O'Neill out of my head, can't stop hearing, over and over, the horrible sound of his breathing; and as full realization hits me that someone I care about very much is in terrible pain and dying a mere stone's throw away, I want to scream and rave with the injustice of it all.

"Why wouldn't you help him?" I ask wearily as we reach a turn in the corridor and come out into a large, open room. "Does it give you that much pleasure, to watch our leader's suffering and then to watch Daniel and me suffer right along with him? What's the point of all this--why not just kill us if you hate us so much?"

I offer no resistance now as the ones carrying me take me to the center of the room and drop me like a sack of potatoes to the floor. Stifling a moan of pain as my ankle gives beneath me, I force myself to sit upright and level a steady, disgusted glare at both of my handlers.

"So, what's next?" I mutter, and as if intuiting my question, one of the two gives me a slow, decidedly malicious smile and turns to stare at the back wall of this large space we now occupy. I don't want to give him the satisfaction of turning my gaze where he so obviously wishes me to; but to my chagrin, I find my head turning despite my best intentions, my eyes seeking out whatever it is that seems to give my tormentor such pleasure to behold.

At first I don't see much of anything; even though this room is downright spacious compared to the cells I've seen since our imprisonment here, it is still a room of cold, damp darkness and wavering shadows. It takes my eyes a moment to adjust enough to see the forbidding iron rings affixed to the wall some seven feet up from the floor, with matching rings pounded into the stone wall a mere six inches from the ground. The wall space between those two sets of rings is dark with old stains--blood stains, I realize sickly--and even more horrifying to me is the observation that the stains form the exact shape of the human body. Many souls suffered horribly against that wall before I was brought here today, and apparently my turn is coming next.

"Let's just get it over with, huh, guys?" I hear myself mutter darkly, hoping desperately in some part of my mind that they'll finish up with me before Daniel is forced to come and watch this, too. God, what plans do they have for him, once the Colonel and I are both dead? It grieves my soul to think that Daniel might be forced to die all alone, with no one left here to mourn him or comfort him at all in his passing; but if I have my way, at least he won't face his own, last moments with terrible memories of having watched ME die, first.

"Hurry it up, then, whatever it is you're after; hurry, you morons!" I growl at the idly circling forms of the five Atarothians who have entered the room and are now eyeing me with detached interest. The two already present--that formidable duo who seem to fancy themselves my chief torturers--step up now and grab my arms, hoisting me easily to my feet and dragging me over to the wall. Not even bothering to give me time to try and balance on my good ankle, they slam me roughly up against the stone, brief smiles flickering between them as I can't help crying out from the stabbing pain in my injured ankle as it impacts with the wall behind me.

"Son of a bitch!" I can't help the expletive that grits out from between my clenched teeth as I am forced to stand on both feet, the agony from my sprained ankle shooting off white-hot flares and flashes of pain behind my eyes. Choking back a sob, I writhe helplessly against the wall as my wrists are shackled and both arms are lifted high above my head; as the chains dangling from each iron cuff are threaded through the metal rings in the wall, I close my eyes against the pain in my body and against the ugly expressions of derision on the faces of my captors.

I don't see it when they loop my ankle restraints through the lower rings in the wall, but the horrible pain that shoots from my hurt ankle all the way up to my brain when they pull that loop tight is almost enough to make me pass out. Dimly I'm aware of shouting hoarsely, of offering up breathless moans and epithets of rage; but my own voice sounds so unrecognizable to me that I find it hard to believe this could really be happening. Oh, God, Daniel...Colonel...Sorry, I'm sorry...

There now, it's done. I'm hanging here, slumped bonelessly with my back against the freezing cold stone of this wall, my wrists already pulling and chafing in the iron cuffs, my shoulders screaming a protest at being raised so unnaturally high and held there without respite. My swollen ankle is a source of maddening discomfort, and I lift my left foot just far enough off the ground to relieve the pressure on that side.

So, what's on the agenda now? I ask myself silently, dully amazed that I can be this calm. In the midst of this horror, this pain, all I want to do is lie down and go to sleep. I don't want to remember or relive what I just saw back in that cell, don't ever want to replay in my mind again Colonel O'Neill's unbearable suffering. But I know that whatever they did to him, he bore it with grit and fortitude; I know he never gave in, never backed down...and I can only try my best to behave now in a manner that would have made him proud. I might be screaming in agony soon, I might be afraid; but the Colonel taught us all that even in those situations you don't have to feel you've given them ANYTHING...you never have to lose YOURSELF, he's lectured us more than once. I was never sure I understood what he meant, at least not until this moment. But now...I won't lose myself, sir, I vow grimly in honor of the Colonel's memory; no matter what they do, I'll meet my death free, still whole within my spirit. Oh, God, let that be true; let me die well here, as Teal'c would say. And if miracles truly do happen, please find SOME way to get Daniel safely home; please keep him alive.

With that thought wavering in my mind, I draw in a deep breath and pull myself up as tall as I can, forcing myself to meet the eyes of those who have chained me here. My heart is racing, my mouth so dry I can't even speak; and to my dismay my body has begun a slight but uncontrollable trembling. Please don't let this take forever, please let me die quickly, I find myself repeating over and over; I close my eyes briefly against the sight of my captors leering at me up close and personal, and when I dare open them again, I wish I hadn't.

Holy Hannah, I think mournfully, my insides seizing up with dread at the sight before me. Oh, geez, did it have to be knives...could this day GET any worse? And in the next moment things do indeed go from bad to worse as heavy footsteps sound in the corridor just beyond, heralding the arrival of more Atarothians...and with them is not only Daniel--horribly pale and shaken and still vibrating with rage--but the Colonel's limp, lifeless body, as well. As Daniel is flung roughly to the ground in the middle of the room, his eyes darting up to meet mine in grim apprehension, Jack's body is dumped summarily in a corner near the doorway, his limbs flopping gracelessly as he ends up face down on cold stone.

"Sam?" Daniel murmurs uncertainly, his battered face contorting with exhausted concern as he struggles up on both knees. "Sam..."

Within the repetition of my name on his tongue lies all the grief, anger, and worry that have filled Daniel's heart and mind this day to the point of bursting. As he sways unsteadily, with his hands reaching helplessly in my direction, I can only keep my own, trauma-dulled eyes fixed on his beautiful, sensitive face and work to shape my lips into the semblance of a faint, trembling smile.

Love you, Daniel, I send to him from my soul, feeling that love well up within me; brother of my heart, kindred spirit, friend...I'm so glad to have known you, to have shared so much...

"No, Sam," he says now, his voice barely audible. My eyes widen slightly as he anticipates my thoughts and shakes his head in stubborn negation. "No. Hang on, Sam, just...please. Whatever they have planned...Hang on."

His eyes order me, beseech me...but as his extended hands are roughly forced down to his sides by one of the Atarothians, my gaze veers helplessly from Daniel to the Colonel's still body, seeing in Jack's silent form the harbinger of my own death. God, help me, I think dully, hopelessly; God, help me be strong. But as I watch one of the Atarothians reach toward the row of wicked knives lying on a cloth in the middle of the floor, I feel the force of my prayer trickle weakly away from me, like water sliding down a drain.


XIII.
My breath came gaspingly and thick,
And my crush'd heart fell blind and sick.

JACK

They think I'm dead; hell, maybe I am. I can't remember much, just flashes of terrible pain and feelings of suffocation and doom...God, am I in hell now? If so, what are Daniel and Carter doing here with me? Surely they don't deserve to be here. Something is really messed up here, if I could just think clearly...

I don't hear it anymore, that breathing--godawful sound, like a cat with its tail caught in a vacuum cleaner. I think it was me; God, I remember it now, there was just no air, no frigging air at all--! So why can't I hear myself now; why doesn't it hurt to breathe? Am I even breathing at all, or am I truly dead? Geez, I HATE this, hate feeling so numb and frozen and totally dissociated from reality...

Maybe I'm just imagining the sound of my team's voices; maybe I'm in the last, hopeless stages of my dying brain's final shutdown, and vague snatches of my friends' words are replaying in my head as though they were brand new...But if I'm dying, how is it that I can still think, still ponder, still sense myself and my own being in some indefinable way?

"Sam...No, Sam..."

Daniel's voice sounds clearly to me now, his tone intense and pleading; I can tell from the slight, telltale quaver underneath the words that there is something really, really BAD going down, and suddenly I feel enraged. Dammit, what IS this, what the hell is happening?!! My team is in danger, with God knows what kind of evil shit happening to them now, and all I can do is float around like some airy-fairy blob of ectoplasm, asking myself if I'm even freaking alive. God, if this is being dead, then to hell with it; I have better things to do.

"Whatever they have planned...Hang on..."

Daniel's voice again, heavy with supplication, and I want desperately to open my eyes, to see just who the hell he's talking to and what's going on. Sam, it has to be Sam, I think fuzzily; but why can't I hear her answer Daniel back, why can't I open my goddamned eyes and SEE what's happening?!

Suddenly, or maybe not so suddenly--dammit, in this hazy limbo, I just can't be sure of accurately judging the passage of time--I hear a sound that fills my addled brain with foreboding. I hear a metallic, clanging, shivery-swoosh sound, as of a steel blade being drawn and then slicing the air; and hot on the heels of that I hear a terrible, meaty thunk and feel I've died a thousand times over again as Carter's voice moans out helplessly, agonized.

Dammit...DAMMIT!! I have to fight this, have to escape this darkness, this disembodied nothingness. This is no death hallucination, no random short-circuiting of dying neurons; this is real. Carter is in trouble, deep trouble, and I am somewhere close, so damned close, to both my team mates. Close enough to hear them, to sense the life essence and the terror in both of them...but my limbs, my eyes, refuse to get with the program.

I try to struggle, try so hard to pull myself out of this; but there's no up or down here, no left or right, no way to FEEL what's around me or under me or above me. God, God, HELP me, here! I know they gave me something--that ugly one with the seriously dirty fingers stuck his nasty digits right in my dying mouth, shoved something vile under my tongue and made me breathe again, however briefly...So I believe I CAN live, I CAN come back from this...I have to do something, have to help Carter, they're torturing her somehow...

I hear it again, the hellish, slightly wet sound of something hard and sharp lodging itself into something softer; and again I hear Sam moan aloud in helpless anguish. What are they doing to her, those bastards?!! Daniel, Daniel, why aren't you DOING something, why don't you help her?!

Oh, God, I AM in Hell, trapped in a Hell of listening to my friends suffer untold torments while I hover in this cocoon of unrelieved blackness. No, dammit, NO!! It will NOT go like this, do you hear me? I've lost enough, seen too many good people go down with no one left to help them, to stand for them; it isn't freaking RIGHT that Carter and Daniel should suffer like this. There has to be something I can do, some way out of this place that's no place at all...

Sweet Jesus, don't let this be how it ends, don't let me lie here like kindling while my best friends die...If I'm dead, God, then grant me one last wish before You send me to my judgment; give me back my body, my strength, just long enough for me to help my team. I'm responsible for them, God, You know that; let me do my job one more time, just let me finish my job...

Something's happening now, something...I can feel it, I can FEEL it, fucking-A!...Sorry, God, that just slipped out...What is this, what's happening to me, and please God, why isn't it happening FASTER?! I hear Carter, she sounds in really bad shape, and now Daniel is screaming, screaming something wild and demented and desperate...They need me, need me, need me NOW...Crushed, my chest crushed, flat, trying once more to breathe, eyes trying to open, to focus, what is it like to feel fingers, toes, hands feet legs...Do this, Jack, come on, do this NOW for Sam, for Daniel...Live again, be alive...

And now, you bastards, you're all gonna pay.


XIV.
And then the very rock hath rock'd,
And I have felt it shake, unshock'd,
Because I could have smiled to see
The death that would have set me free.

DANIEL

I can't remember the last time I've felt so helpless...or so confused. From the moment they dragged me away from Jack's side in that cell, only to inexplicably scoop his limp body up and haul him along with us, to the moment--just now--when they showed me what they've done with Sam, I have felt overwhelmed by my own impotence, frozen by my lack of comprehension. I can't talk to these people, can't seem to say or do anything that will break throught their casual cruelty and help them to connect with us, to see us as worthy of some level of compassion.

When they brought Jack and me to this room minutes ago, they pushed me down to the floor and carelessly tossed Jack's body into a corner; as I struggled to my knees, my gaze was torn between grieved, outraged glances at the Colonel's body and a cursory, apprehensive glimpse of Sam's battered form chained to the back wall. And now...now some of the Atarothians are bringing out knives, lining them up in the floor on top of some kind of cloth and casting looks of anticipation Sam's way...

God, how can this be happening; what can I do to stop this? Even though I know it's useless--even knowing that they'll do whatever it is they've planned, regardless of my words or actions--I still find myself trying to reason with them, still hear my voice rising in frustrated anger as I argue before the indifferent audience mocking me with cool silence.

"Sam..." I hear myself murmur. "Sam." Words of meager comfort slide from my lips, followed by adjurations for her to hang in there, to stay strong; easy for me to say, when I'M not the one facing an array of sharp instruments.

"Let her go," I murmur to one of the Atarothians, raising my manacled hands beseechingly in his direction. "God, please...! Just let her go. Take me, instead; let ME be on that wall." As Sam voices a vehement protest, urging me to just be quiet, to let them get it over with, I look her in the eye and am crushed by the mixture of love and mute acceptance I see in her frightened blue gaze. Let it go, her eyes tell me, both of us sharing the unvoiced thought that it really won't matter much in the long run, that my turn is probably next. Let it go, Daniel.

"Stop it!"

I can't let it go, can't stop the raw bellow of protest and rage that erupts from my throat as one of our captors bends down with surprisingly agile grace, snatches up one of the knives, and turns to throw, all in one seamless motion; before I can catch a breath to cry out again, the knife is sailing through the air, a liquid blur. It finds its target with dreadful ease, thunking into the stone wall Sam is chained against...but not before detouring through my friend's left shoulder first.

I can't believe that she doesn't scream with the pain; her eyes deliver a message of terrible agony, but from her lips only a strangled, horrible moan slips out onto the chill air.

"Sam!" My voice holds all the pain that should be hers--that IS hers--and I lunge wildly at the Atarothian standing next to me. I have no idea what I mean to do, what I think I CAN do, chained and shackled and weakened as I am; but it will destroy me to kneel here and watch them torture Sam and do nothing, absolutely nothing, to try and stop them.

"Me, take me!" I yell fiercely, almost sobbing in enraged frustration as my attempted assault on the Atarothian beside me results in nothing more than a desultory cuffing around my head and ears. As I'm knocked over backwards by the force of the other's casual blows, I hear the ominous whistle of another knife cutting through the air; again Sam releases an agonized moan as this second blade slides home in her flesh.

"God...God!!" I hear myself call out, my voice raw with desperate supplication, with growing rage. Jack would be telling me to hold it in, would be admonishing me not to feed the Atarothians' blood lust by showing them how upset I am...but I don't care anymore. I can't help it; I can't take this. It's insupportable, heinous beyond belief, to be lying here flat on my back, useless, while a bunch of sadistic aliens throw knives at one of my best friends.

"Cowards, you're all nothing but cowards!" I pant out, struggling painfully back onto my knees. "She hasn't done anything to you, she isn't strong enough to take on even one of you, much less this whole room; and yet you have to chain her up, have to torture her with knives, to prove your manhood. Well, come on, let's up the stakes a little, why don't we? Let's see how proficient you are when one of your little...diversions...has a knife, as well. Let's go one on one, or even two or three or four on one; come on, give me a knife, have fun carving ME up for a few entertaining minutes..."

"No, Daniel...no." Sam's voice is barely a whisper, her body shaking uncontrollably within her bonds as she fights past her agony to fix me with a grim, desperate gaze. "No...quiet, be quiet..."

"I can't, Sam," I murmur, the apology in my voice belied by the stubborn resolve in my eyes. "I can't. I WON'T. They're going to kill me, anyway, sooner or later. And I'd prefer to not go down with memories of just watching while they...hurt you. God, Sam, I'm sorry I can't help you, can't take you down from there, so sorry..."

"God!"

Sam can't control the anguished outcry that escapes her as a third knife whips through the space between her body and that of the Atarothian tossing it and embeds itself in her upper thigh, its passage accompanied by a truly sickening thunk. With a snarl of homicidal fury I find myself lunging with an unexpected burst of strength into the Atarothian who struck me moments ago; and with a sound like a startled curse, he stumbles sideways, flailing into the one throwing the knives. As the two of them go down like pins in a bowling alley, another pair of Atarothians steps up to perform an impromptu fandango on my face, weilding their fists with every evidence of enjoyment.

Well, that was helpful, I find myself thinking dazedly as the pain of their individual blows blurs into one big, amorphous thrumming of dull agony. I think I can hear Sam crying out again nearby, and as I try to curl into a protective ball in avoidance of yet more blows, I find my gaze going to Jack's forlorn body in the corner. Ah, Jack, I messed up, I think regretfully, my soul suddenly pierced through with shame for not seeing Sam safely out of this. Jack would be so disappointed in me, he would have expected more...I let him down, I'm letting Sam down, too...oh God, why won't they just STOP this, already...!

And suddenly I see it; I must be hallucinating, this has to be the result of some traumatic brain injury from the current, frenetic tattoo of Atarothian fists against my flesh...but whatever the reason--whatever the pathology behind it--I AM seeing this, right here and right now, in living color...

Jack. Even with my glasses gone and my vision blurred from the blows to my head, I see him move. I watch, befuddled and barely sensible, as my dead commander returns to life, or some bizarre semblance of it. No one else notices, no one else cares; the attention of our captors is evenly divided between the vastly entertaining spectacle of Sam becoming a human pincushion and myself starring as a human punching bag. And even as dim-witted as I am at this moment, I realize that it is very important that these bastards DON'T see Jack moving. That they DON'T know he's somehow revived himself.

Oh, God, Jack, what do you think you're doing? What CAN you do, considering the shape you're in? Jesus, you're not really even alive, or only barely so...My God, how can you be alive?! I cower against the filthy floor, absent-mindedly warding off blows and hearing myself emit helpless grunts and wheezes of pain as hard knuckles do their best to fracture my jaw; but it's funny, how the physical sensation of suffering suddenly becomes disconnected in my mind, the signals from overly stimulated neurons shunted aside and diminished in favor of the overreaching sense of awe filling my mind, my soul.

Jack. I want to call out to him, want to coax him more fully back to life, to...what? To still more suffering and a chance to die again? If he's got one iota of clear thinking left in his oxygen-deprived brain, he'll flop back down and play dead, stay dead till these sickos are convinced of it and leave him to rot in peace here for awhile. It might be his only chance for escape; if Sam and I can provide enough diversion to the Atarothians, maybe they'll forget all about Jack. After all, he's dead now...right?

God, Jack, don't move, stop trying to lift your head, to support yourself on your arms...lie still, just lie still and limp as death, just an empty sack of bones...God, why is he MOVING, how can he even be conscious?! I can't stop the hot tears that flood my eyes now, tears of both joy and sorrow; I can't help it, I am so damned elated to see him move, to watch the glacially slow lift and turn of his head, to see the first, tentative slitting of his eyes this direction...and I am filled with a corresponding sorrow because they'll just hurt him again, kill him even more severely--and with definite permanence--this time.

Daniel...I swear I hear him call me now, his spirit drawing me in, and suddenly his eyes open wide, fastening directly on mine with a strength and force of will that sucks the breath from my lungs in pure astonishment. For not only is Jack O'Neill alive, he's aware. Awake and aware and more damned alert than he has any right to be. I can't understand it, can't make sense of it; and as Jack shifts his battered body the most infinitesimal amount on the cold, hard floor, I feel a surge of hopeful adrenaline that has me rolling to my back, suddenly eager to give back some of what I've been getting.

This can't last long, this precarious fumbling on the precipice of miraculous possibilities; in minutes the others will notice that Jack isn't dead, will add him once more to their sadistic little calvacade of fun. In moments Sam will be pierced through with God knows how many knives, and I will most assuredly be nothing more than a bloody sludge of blood and broken bones lying in the floor. But for now, oh, God, for now...!

Reacting with pure, visceral rapaciousness--pushing aside for now all logic and reason, all sensitivity--I lift my legs and kick out, kick for all I'm worth, and watch in dull satisfaction as one of my assailants flies backwards onto his ass. Before he can get up again, I am flinging myself at the other one, aiming for his throat and hurling myself atop him as my weak, scrabbling fingers close around his adam's apple. Using the chain between my wrists as a garrote, I try my best to strangle this one, disconnecting my conscious mind from the bestial growls and grunts I hear coming from my mouth. This is not like me, this is not how I am; and yet I exult in my savagery.

Dimly I am aware of Sam screaming out something, her words running together in a surreal mix of pain and disbelief, of jittery, astounded excitement. She sees him, too, I think as furious Atarothian hands rip me away from my quarry. It isn't just me, hallucinating; she sees Jack, too. YES! I want to cry to her, my voice hoarse with exultation; YES. Yes because it's glorious, this will to live, to struggle past the point of reason even in the face of certain doom. YES. Jack, you beautiful bastard...oh, Jack. Another fine mess, eh? But we're together again, we're all together, one last chance to say good-bye, to go out fighting...

"Unbelievable," I murmur feebly as I am thrown down on my face, my fingers clutching instinctively for purchase in the filthy straw beneath me. As a very large, very strong foot plants itself in the middle of my back, my myopic, blood-smeared gaze travels across the room and finds Jack again, sees him staggering like some disjointed scarecrow to his feet...Oh, God, his feet, something wrong with his feet...

Jack. His name becomes a koan on my tongue, a breath of reverence in this profane place as he sways and lurches on his terribly flayed and swollen feet; my friend is a fearful apparition to behold as he keeps himself upright through sheer force of will, hands clenching weakly, painfully, eyes blazing with a terrible purpose that will not give in to mere death. His mind struggles now to supercede his physiology, his indomitable, mulish will refusing to acknowledge the finite limits of the human body. He has no strength to fight these men, no hope of prevailing even long enough to take three or four faltering steps; but if intent alone could actualize his desires, every Atarothian in this place would fall dead, slain by the wrath blazing in Jack O'Neill's incredible eyes.

I want to shout out my admiration, want to bellow laughter like some crazed lunatic because this is just so US...this is how we are, this is what we do. Time and time again, this is how it goes. And even though I know we are going to die here--die well and truly and no coming back again--I feel an increasingly irrepressible euphoria rising within me. Do your worst, you bastards, I think with grim jocularity as two of the Atarothians flip me over and loom menacingly above me; have at it, enjoy yourselves. They haven't noticed Jack yet, and I feel sad for what will happen when they do; but I hold it in my heart, that last, brief look I just shared with my best friend; and it's enough. It was a chance to say good-bye, to say every damned thing and then some, all in one, brief eyeblink; and that makes all the difference. I only hope Sam will feel it, too, feel encouraged and heartened and secure in the connection between us all...

Shit, what is THAT? Whoa, now this is rich, just too rich...can it be, is that really...an EARTHQUAKE? Could the timing BE more perfect, could this cosmic farce of improbable occurrences get any MORE implausible and deliciously insane? Apparently so; as I lie here, waiting for the Atarothians to finish pounding me to dust, the world beneath and around us seems to rumble like the angry stirrings of some subterranean beast; bits of damp dirt and moldy plaster filter down from the ceiling above us, and the floor vibrates and rattles disturbingly under my back. Instead of hitting me again, my torturers lurch awkwardly to their feet, their guttural voices joining their fellows in undisguised trepidation as they argue back and forth about what this could mean. Judging from the force of their reactions as the earth moans and judders and trembles yet again, this seismic activity isn't exactly old hat around here.

These guys are frightened, truly unnerved; and as their attention is momentarily diverted from my team members and myself, I take advantage of their distraction and roll onto my side in Sam's direction. I need to to check on her, to assure myself that the wall she is chained to is in no immediate danger of collapse; as I focus my eyes on her injured figure, I find her looking in Jack's direction, her eyes as wide and disbelieving as though she's seen a ghost.

"Sam!" I call, wondering if maybe the tremors going on all around us might somehow miraculously loosen the rings keeping her chained in place. If she could just work her way free, get down off that wall...But she isn't looking at me now, her attention is all for the phantom specter that is Jack O'Neill, swaying unsteadily on his bare, ruined feet as an expression of pure, unadulterated bliss suddenly suffuses his drawn, horribly gray face. He knows something, I think suddenly, a dim light going on inside my dazed mind. He feels this quake, too, and it means something different to him, IS something different...

And now I have it, I recognize this, and I want to bellow out a war whoop of satisfaction. My gaze goes to Jack, who is barely standing, barely conscious, but who returns my stunned perusal with a faint, feral grin that makes me want to laugh out loud. I turn my head to find Sam's eyes and to catch the milk-white pallor of her face, finding beneath it the same, goofy joy that is stretching my own brutalized mouth into an insane smile.

YES! I crow silently, falling onto my back in sudden, boneless relief and waiting, waiting, for the signal. YES! It comes then, just as I expected; and I surge up from the floor, chains rattling, ready and willing, God so willing...Nine lives, nine lives, how many does this one make, I hear inside my head. And there is no more time, life is for the living, redemption immediate and welcome, so welcome.

It comes again, the world trembles and roars and all is confusion with the Atarothians; but we three are steady, we are ready, we wait and are together...Jack, Sam, myself...and then, one more.


XV.
To him, with eyes as blue as heaven--
For him my soul was sorely moved.

SAM

This is so hard on Daniel. Ironic, that as I slump here against this wall, biting back cries of pain from my injuries, my concern is more for the team's resident archaeologist than for myself. Yes, the pain I'm feeling now is intense--as each sharp blade finds ingress to my body, the frantic beating of my heart pulses fresh waves of raw, immediate pain to every bleeding wound. But it IS only pain--a fleeting, physical manifestation--and as such it can't last forever. One way or another, this too shall pass.

What WON'T pass so easily is the look of sorrow and abject misery on Daniel's face now, the rising surge of guilt and helpless rage I see in his eyes as he realizes he is helpless to save me, to take away my pain. Let it go, Daniel, I try to tell him without words; I love you, let this go. Even through the pain that wracks my body, I hold his gaze with mine and try to calm his agitated soul.

I don't want this for him; I hate that he is being forced to witness this, is being coerced into sharing in this bizarrely intimate ritual of seeing my pain, of vicariously experiencing my suffering and degradation. If we survive this mission, I know he will have nightmares for months to come, will travel in restless dreams to this room, this moment, over and over...And it fills me with sorrow that his soul, already so overburdened with cares, should have one more added to the load.

It's okay, I want to tell him; don't concentrate on the knives, on the pain, on the leering faces of the Atarothians. Just BE with me here, Daniel, share with me all we've been and done and seen together that's good and true. Help me not to feel alone here; help me forget, even if just for a moment, that the Colonel's body is lying right over there and that we can't even pay him proper respect, can't even tend to him and clean him up a little...

Daniel sends me another look of silent desperation, his features tightening in impotent rage as the Atarothian tossing the knives draws back his arm for another go. I can only watch in dismay as Daniel tries to stop him, lunging forward and knocking both the knife wielder and another of our captors to their knees. His punishment for this attack is swift and severe, and I want to cry out in wild frustration as the blows fall thick and fast on my friend's already-battered body.

Why, Daniel, why did you have to go and do that? I sigh inwardly with resigned exasperation; you've only delayed the inevitable by moments at the most, and now look what you've brought on yourself. But this is Daniel, and I know he could have done no less, could have reacted no differently. This is how he shows his love, his loyalty, his supreme humanity and compassion; he will fight even in the most hopeless of conditions to save his friends, to stop another's suffering. As would I, given half a chance. As Jack would have, and Teal'c, if he had been here...

"Stop this, stop it!" I cry out now, unable to bear the sight and sound of Daniel being beaten so savagely. "God, it's enough, already! Just get on with it, I'M the entertainment right now..." My attempts at diverting the attention of the two monsters beating Daniel is less than successful, and I want to shriek out my rage and frustration to the heavens; uselessly, ineffectually, I struggle against the chains holding me in place and almost faint at the sudden rush of burning pain that flames up from the knife wounds on my body.

Perhaps it is the shock of this pain--or maybe it's merely physiological fallout from the agony shooting through my left shoulder and throbbing from my thigh--that makes me see what I THINK I'm seeing now. As the room around me wavers in a blood-red mist of chaos and pain, I find myself squinting past the nightmarish sight of Daniel curled in the floor beneath the cruelly efficient fists of his attackers, my disbelieving gaze captured instead by the impossible sight of Jack O'Neill rising from the dead.

Feverishly I close my eyes and open them again, blinking away both sweat and tears in a desperate effort to see clearly, to convince myself that I merely imagined what I THOUGHT I saw. But it isn't my imagination; unless I've gone completely insane under the stress of torture, what I am seeing is all too real. Colonel O'Neill is raising his head, struggling mightily to open swollen eyes, scrabbling with painfully bent fingers for some type of purchase on the rough stone beneath him. At that same moment Daniel goes very stiff and still beneath the fists of his assailants, and my gaze is briefly drawn back to him, fears for his condition overriding my stunned stupefaction at the resurrection scene playing out beyond Daniel's huddled form.

Daniel is still conscious, body braced against the blows being methodically delivered to his brutalized flesh; his head is turned in Jack's direction now, and as I watch, his slender archaeologist's hands reach out beseechingly toward our commander, as if he is begging Jack to rise and walk, to rise and be healed...! Briefly, so briefly, I struggle against the truth of what my eyes are telling me, showing me; I find it impossible to believe that this could be true. Jack alive, struggling, using every last bit of grit and determination left in his depleted, brutalized body to pull himself to hands and knees, swaying dangerously for long seconds, gagging and gasping in surreal silence for the air that was so long denied him...

Suddenly Daniel transforms himself into a raging spitfire; without warning he's come back to vivid, surging life and is struggling mightily against the Atarothians who are holding him down and beating him. His burst of strength is so abrupt and unexpected that one of his two tormentors is knocked on his ass before he even realizes what has happened; with a roar of triumphant rage, Daniel rears up and flings himself atop the other one, digging the length of chain between his wrists as deeply into the throat of his attacker-turned-victim as he can force it. As he does his best to choke the life out of the astounded Atarothian, Daniel's eyes rise briefly to mine and the secret knowledge we both share passes like a lightning bolt between us.

Distract them, I think excitedly as Daniel's eyes send me the same message; oh, God, distract them, don't let them see that Jack really isn't dead...I know there is no hope, that in seconds Jack's less-than-corpselike state will attract the notice of our captors. And once that happens, God knows what they'll do to him for a follow-up, how they'll create more fun for themselves at the Colonel's expense.

But even as a voice whispers in my mind of the hopelessness of our situation, I find myself shivering with a sudden, perverse frisson of euphoria, my soul possessed by an almost giddy exultation. Maybe we're all going to die here today, some of us more than once; but for this brief instant in time--for this one shining moment--the three of us are a team again. Colonel O'Neill is actually on his feet, barely with us but WITH us, nonetheless; his eyes glitter fiercely into mine for one brief second, and in that look my spirit finds new hope. A burst of rejuvenating vitality floods my system with enough endorphins to make me feel I could break apart these chains holding me, and I want to climb down off this wall and leap to Daniel's defense as he continues grappling with his adversary in a steadily weakening battle for life.

Is this real; can this be happening? I find myself chanting over and over in my mind. I flinch as yet another knife whistles in my direction, letting out a relieved breath when the blade narrowly misses my head. The reason for its failure to impale me becomes clear in the next second as an ominous rumbling and shaking fills the room, showering bits of dust and small chips of stone down onto the heads of everyone in the room. Is it an earthquake, I think dimly, dully surprised that a natural disaster would pick such a monumentally chaotic time to erupt. But maybe it's the perfect time, I think hopefully; maybe an earthquake IS coming and will selectively kill all the Atarothians in the room while leaving the human quotient relatively unscathed...

I'm losing it, just completely losing it, I think dazedly; here I am, hanging on a freaking wall with knives quivering in my flesh, watching Daniel try to choke the life out of some behemoth three times his size while our recently-deceased commander lurches about in the background in sync with the increasingly loud detonations of some bizarre tectonic tremblor...

Detonations...detonations...Oh my God. I know what this is; I know WHO this is! The knowledge stuns me, hold me in frozen suspense as another violent tremor has the Atarothians putting their fun aside in exchange for growing fears for their own safety. The Atarothian grappling with Daniel flings him aside as if Daniel weighs less than nothing, and as another jarring vibration from some nearby location has our captors struggling to keep their feet, Daniel scrabbles weakly to his knees and shoots me a look of dazed triumph.

Hold on, his pain-dulled eyes tell me; the cavalry's coming. Just hold on. Suddenly there is the sound of at least a dozen determined,booted feet coming our way down the outside passage, moving rapidly and in disciplined cadence, and something tells me it isn't just another posse of pissed-off Atarothians. As a blessedly familiar figure materializes in the doorway behind Colonel O'Neill's barely-standing form, I can't control the cry of satisfaction that erupts from my throat. Thank you God thank you thank you, I find myself repeating fervently, almost mindlessly; and then Teal'c and the members of SG-2 are pouring into the room, weapons drawn, and all bets as to the previously planned ending to this day are off.


XVI.
Eternal Spirit of the chainless Mind!
Brightest in dungeons, Liberty! thou art,
For there thy habitation is the heart--
The heart which love of thee alone can bind;
And when thy sons to fetters are consign'd--
To fetters, and the damp vault's dayless gloom,
Their country conquers with their martyrdom,
And Freedom's fame finds wings on every wind.

TEAL'C

I should have known that my friends would not give up so easily; I should have expected that our rescue party would break into this dungeon keep to find the three missing members of SG-1 in dire physical condition yet spiritually undaunted by the mistreatment they have suffered here.

There is no mistaking the relief in the eyes of Daniel Jackson as I charge in through the door just ahead of SG-2, my staff weapon up and at the ready. Though I've had little time to study the layout of this room or to note the exact positions of the disorganized group of natives milling about inside, I know I must take advantage of the confusion created by our careful placement of C-4 charges several passages over; now, before the last tremors of the explosions have died away, SG-2 and I must effect the rescue of the rest of my team.

As I enter this space, confident that the members of SG-2 are covering my back, my mind processes and categorizes a multitude of input in a very short period of time. Instinctively I find myself scouting out the location and condition of each of my team mates, the placement and weapons status of each of the natives present, the location of any other exits or concealed areas in the room. And as I scan each quadrant of the space around me, I find myself having to deal as well with the steady rise of fury which the deplorable condition of my friends stirs in my soul.

As I move into the room, my staff weapon sweeping the space around me in full readiness to fire, my gaze takes in the disturbing sight of Major Carter chained to the back wall, her body impaled by at least three knives. One has punctured her left shoulder and has her pinned to the wall behind her, while a second knife quivers from the muscular portion of her left thigh. The third blade appears to have sliced through her upper right arm and has ripped a nasty gash in her flesh. Blood streaks darkly from her wounds, and I calmly put aside the black rage that rises up within me at the sight of her suffering. I must remain calm; I must make very certain that no more harm comes to my friends in the course of this rescue. Once my team mates are safely out of harm's way, however...I feel no guilt when I assure myself that retribution for all that my friends have suffered here will be swift and severe.

The natives are beset by confusion, the majority of them frightened and disoriented by the trembling vibrations of our explosives detonation; in its aftermath they have massed together near one side of the room and are slow to respond to the incursion of myself and SG-2. Taking advantage of their disorganized state, I lift my staff weapon and fire several blasts, taking down a satisfying number of those responsible for my team mates' torture.

As they fall beneath my assault, the others of their group scramble to retrieve crude weapons from various folds of their clothing and begin a combined rush toward the members of SG-2 sliding into the room behind me. I dare not shoot my weapon again now for fear of hitting a member of the rescue party, and I am mindful that Daniel Jackson is in a most precarious situation at present; he is too near the fighting, too readily at risk of being injured again or snatched up by one of the natives as a hostage.

Leaving the others of my group to engage the enemy, I grip my weapon and surge across the space separating Daniel Jackson and myself, intent on securing his safety. Daniel's eyes track my progress,his expression dazed, and as I approach him his attention moves from me to something or someone over my shoulder. I tense momentarily, poised to defend myself, and from the corner of my eye I catch a startling and very troubling glimpse of Colonel O'Neill's battered form off to my left side.

I am surprised that he has been able to move this far; I took note of his location and general physical state when first I entered this room, and it was obvious that his condition was poor. Now, as he laboriously makes his way towards me, his body sways alarmingly with his struggle to remain upright on his bare, bloody feet, and his eyes are mere slits in the swollen mass of contusions and cuts that have disfigured his face. But an almost feral light of battle glows in the battered depths of his gaze, and I recognize with a flash of relieved admiration the signature of my friend's indomitable spirit struggling to the surface, fighting its way clear of the heavy coils of pain that would drag him down into darkness.

Briefly our glances meet, mine offering my commander all the respect and reassurance I can transmit in the midst of such confusion, while O'Neill's sends the unmistakable message that he would like nothing better at this moment than to wreak as much damage upon his captors as they have done to Major Carter, Daniel Jackson, and himself. It is obvious that the Colonel has been severely mistreated and is barely able to stand; it is equally obvious, however, that he will not rest until he has attained at least some small level of satisfaction regarding the events that have transpired in this place.

Silently I reach for the zat gun concealed inside my shirt, pulling it free and extending it toward O'Neill as sounds of both gunfire and hand-to-hand combat fill the air around us. More of the large, unpleasantly fragrant natives have rushed into this room from a barely visible aperture in one corner of the back wall; but though their number surpasses that of SGs-1 and 2 combined, I am confident we will prevail against them.

As the Colonel reaches shakily but stubbornly to take the zat from my hand, I give him a brief nod and turn my attention to rescuing both Daniel Jackson and Major Carter. I would not presume to impinge on O'Neill's need to save himself, to take back the sense of control his captors have ripped from him so savagely. I will not allow any of them to harm him further, but O'Neill does not need to know this. He has won the right to fight his own battle here and now, to seek his own form of retribution; and as he summons some hidden reserve of inner strength and raises the zat gun toward an encroaching native, I turn and make my way to Daniel's side, subtly signalling one of the members of SG-2 to watch O'Neill's back as I do so.

"Teal'c!" Daniel's voice is weak but his manacled grasp is insistent, his fingers plucking fitfully at my sleeve as I bend down to shield his body from further attack. "Teal'c...no, no, help Sam first, go to Sam...those bastards, they threw KNIVES at her, she's hurt..."

"Calm yourself, my friend," I murmur as I wrap careful arms around his torso, just below his armpits, and carefully lift him halfway off the filthy floor. "Major Carter's release is being effected as we speak." With Daniel Jackson muttering weak protests all the while, I move as quickly and as gently as possible to shift him from the thick of battle to the safer periphery of the room. "Stay where you are," I order him once I have deposited him in a more secure spot. "Clean up should be completed shortly."

"You have such a way with words, Teal'c," Daniel sighs wryly, his words garbled by the impressive swelling and splitting of his upper lip. "Okay, I'll be good; but just...hurry. Please, help them both, get us ALL out of here..."

"It will be done," I assure him gravely; and as he slumps in battered exhaustion against the wall, I return my attention to assisting SG-2 in overpowering the tattered remnants of those natives still standing. One quick glance assures me that my companions have sustained nothing more than minor injuries thus far in our rescue mission, and I move swiftly to the back wall to assist Lt. Prentiss in freeing Major Carter from her chains.

"Teal'c!" she pants weakly, her blue eyes struggling to focus on my face; she is faint from blood loss and all the abuses she has suffered in this place, but her blood-stained fingers clutch at mine with surprising strength and determination. "Colonel O'Neill...dead, they killed him, but he came...he came back...help him, help him and Daniel, too..."

"Do not trouble yourself, Major," I murmur soothingly to her, supporting her limp body as gently as I am able as Prentiss carefully begins to extract her wrists and ankles from the shackles. My friend cries out in helpless pain as Prentiss works on her left ankle, and his chagrined voice drifts up to the both of us:

"Sorry, Major; it looks like your ankle might be broken. At the very least, it's severely sprained. I'll try to be more careful."

"Just...get me down," Samantha Carter grits out, and her fingers tighten convulsively on my shoulders as Prentiss finally succeeds in freeing her completely from the wall. I believe the Major loses consciousness very briefly then, her body going utterly limp against mine as I hoist her carefully and carry her in a low, crouching run over to Daniel's side. Prentiss runs interference along the way, his P-90 dispatching two more of the infuriated natives; I can feel Samantha's blood sticking to the front of my uniform, and as I lay her gently on the floor beside Daniel Jackson, I am already fumbling in one pocket of my BDU's for the handkerchief I know is folded there.

"Easy...rest easy," I hear myself comforting her as I tear the piece of material into strips and press one to the wound on her shoulder, another over the hole in her thigh. Her eyes flutter open, glazed with pain and confusion, and she tries feebly to push my hand away from her shoulder.

"Ow...! Stop it, hurts..." she slurs, and from beside her Daniel Jackson reaches a shaky hand and touches her uninjured arm.

"It's okay, Sam," he murmurs quietly, rubbing her skin with gentle motions. "Let Teal'c help you; you're losing blood, he has to put pressure on the wound."

"Daniel?" Samantha's eyes slide wearily to the left, settling on Daniel Jackson's face; a wan smile transforms her features momentarily, and she settles resignedly against him as I continue to hold pressure against her wounds. The slash to her right arm bleeds freely still, and the wound will likely require several stitches; but experience has taught me that the injury is not severe and will begin to coagulate on its own soon.

"I'll go for the medikit," Prentiss murmurs just above us, and I nod as he makes his way across the body-strewn floor. The situation is almost completely under our control now, but there is no way to tell how many others of this race lurk in this underground prison, and whether those remaining will retreat or amass resources and numbers for another attack against us. We must get my fellow team members out of this dungeon and back to the stargate as swiftly as possible.

"Jack!" Daniel Jackson grits out suddenly, and I lift my eyes to see one of the few aliens who is still upright charging across the floor directly toward Colonel O'Neill. There is little time for me to free my hands and reach for my staff weapon, which Prentiss has set within easy reach of my grasp; and none of those in SG-2 is near enough now to assist the Colonel. I can only watch as O'Neill braces himself with grim determination, his arms shaking slightly but amazingly steady for all that as he aims the zat at the onrushing native. Somewhat shakily he fires--once, twice--and as the native falls dead at his feet, O'Neill tilts the zat down and squeezes off one, final burst of energy. The native's body disappears, and O'Neill lets the gun drop from suddenly nerveless fingers, his whole body folding in on itself.

"Jack!" Daniel Jackson cries out again, his voice dismayed as the Colonel crumples to the ground and begins to choke and wheeze, his shoulders heaving in abject agony as he struggles to breathe. Daniel's eyes fly to mine, and with desperate fingers digging into the back of my hand, he hisses at me:

"There's a pouch, one of them has a cloth pouch...Inside, there's leaves, some kind of antidote to whatever it was they did to him...! Hurry, Teal'c, find that pouch! You have to put the leaves in his mouth, under his tongue..." His words of advice follow me as I rise to my feet, silently replacing my hands with his on Samantha's injuries and instructing him with gestures only to keep pressure on her wounds. Though he is weak he complies without demur, holding his pale hands over the blood-soaked strips of cloth at Samantha's shoulder and thigh.

Satisfied that he will look after her now, I turn to the bodies littering the floor and begin a hurried search for this pouch of which Daniel Jackson spoke. The rest of the rescue party is making sure that the threat from these natives has been eliminated, at least for the moment; Prentiss hurries by me with the medikit to tend to Major Carter's injuries while Elliot moves to O'Neill's side, helping the gagging man up onto hands and knees and murmuring low words of concern as she attempts to assist him in his struggle to breathe.

"Look for a cloth pouch!" I yell brusquely to my comrades, and as the remainder of SG-2 roots among the bodies of the fallen natives, I join them in a frantic search for the antidote that will stop O'Neill from choking to death. It seems to take forever, with the agonized gasping, whistling rasps of the Colonel's breathing echoing in the space around us; but at length I spy the telltale outline of a small cloth pouch around the neck of one of the dead natives.

Grimly I bend down and rip loose the leather cord holding the pouch around that one's neck; lifting it in my hand, I hurry over to the Colonel's side and force him onto his back. He has gone a most disturbing shade of gray, his face drawn and soaked with perspiration as he struggles with all that is in him to draw in even one breath of air. He is almost unconscious, past the point of comprehending anything I say; as I open the pouch and reach inside to capture a quantity of the dried material between my thumb and forefinger, O'Neill flails weakly at me with his arms and tries to push me away.

"Colonel O'Neill! Let me help you," I speak to him now, but he is too far gone, too lost in his desperate struggle to live, to breathe; I must rely on Elliot to capture his hands and force his arms down so that I may take his jaw in one hand and force his mouth open. Savagely he tries to bite down on my fingers as I insert them into his mouth, but I merely press a bit harder along his jaw to keep his teeth from closing together and hold him still. Quickly I press the small bits of dried leaves under his tongue and finally allow him to close his mouth, murmuring words of mindless reassurance to him as he struggles for one brief moment more and then goes still.

"Teal'c?" Daniel Jackson's voice comes to me from over by the wall, his tone laced with worry; but my attention is all for the man whose body I now cradle against my chest. The horrid, agonal wheeze of his breathing slowly begins to settle into easier respirations, and after another long moment his eyes flicker open, gazing dully up at me.

"Son...of a...bitch," he mutter-grumbles weakly, his voice hoarse and raspy. "Teal'c?"

"Indeed," I reply, aware of the slow smile stretching my lips; gently I reach a hand to wipe some of the perspiration from his forehead, and he sighs once and gives me the palest ghost of his old, laconic grin.

"Now that's...timing," he murmurs, and one hand flops weakly on his lap, as if longing to reach up for mine but too weak to accomplish the task. "And speaking...of time...what the hell...took...so long...?" he goes on, a tone of decided irascibility entering his voice.

"My apologies, O'Neill," I reply with quiet regret, bowing my head in tacit acknowledgement of his right to be upset with our delay in rescuing the team. "There was an...emergency...back at the SGC, a base-wide shutdown and quarantine that lasted for many days. I was stranded on Chu'lak, myself, and I was not made fully aware of your situation until several days after your failure to check in. Regrettably, it has taken this long for Hammond to round up enough uninfected personnel and send them through an intermediate gate midway between this planet and earth's coordinates, where I met up with them and we proceeded here with all due haste."

"Spare me the details, Big Guy," Colonel O'Neill groans against me, and I know that he is holding on to consciousness with the last of his strength. "Just tell me...can we go...home now...can we get...hell out of here...?"

"The situation on earth has almost stabilized, and we should indeed be able to return to earth shortly," I reply. "However, we must first make a stop off at P5X2X, where medical personnel from the base will meet us and tend to your injuries there until such time as it is safe for all offworld teams to return to the mountain."

"Peachy," O'Neill growls weakly, and I see in his eyes that he would prefer to return straight home but is too weary to argue the point. He understands what must be done, I see that as well; and as his eyes try to slide closed, he forces them open once more and manages to clutch briefly at my arm.

"Daniel...Carter?" he rasps out,and I give him a slight, reassuring smile.

"They will recover, O'Neill," I comfort him, and he searches my face for one silent, suspicious heart beat before deciding I am being truthful. An exhausted sigh of relief hisses from his battered body, and he murmurs barely above a whisper:

"Thanks, Teal'c...thanks." Then his eyes close with finality, and I nod once into Elliot's sympathetic face.

"Let us hurry," I call out to the room at large, moving to scoop O'Neill's limp body into my arms. I know that a modified fireman's carry would free up my arms for self-defense on our way out; but I fear if I turn the Colonel head-down his breathing difficulties might resume. So I cradle him against my chest, keeping his head and his neck as straight as possible to facilitate his breathing; and as the members of SG-2 hasten to collect Daniel Jackson and Major Carter, I move to the doorway and check that the outside passage is clear. The sooner we are away from this place and back to the stargate, the easier I will breathe, myself; and I realize that I am as eager as O'Neill to return to the SGC and to see my friends safely esconced in the infirmary and once again under the competent care of Doctor Fraiser.


EPILOGUE

A light broke in upon my brain,--
It was the carol of a bird;
It ceased, and then it came again,
The sweetest song ear ever heard...

JACK

I wish they'd all stop hovering over me, watching me when they think I don't notice, all of them as twitchy as three cats in a room full of rocking chairs. I swear, I wouldn't put it past them to scoop me right up and race with me back to Janet Fraiser's little shop of horrors and her particular brand of TLC if I so much as sneeze.

I'm FINE now, dammit; I keep telling them--my lungs are fine, my ribs are knitting well, my feet are healing, slowly but surely...But everytime I tell them so, they just exchange these LOOKS and treat me like I'm some exasperating but beloved child who's grumpy and direly in need of a nap. I wasn't the only one hurt on that damned planet, for crying out loud; but you'd think the other two had sustained nothing more severe than paper cuts and a stubbed toe, to hear them tell it.

So, okay, maybe I AM older than they are, and maybe--when all is said and done--it HAS taken me a bit longer this go-round to snap back into my usual, superb fighting shape. But I'll be damned if some spiny plant from a backwards world is going to end up getting the best of me; after being shot by everything from arrows to staff weapons, being stranded in space, frozen, snaked, and God knows what else in my illustrious career, there is no way in HELL that I'm gonna turn belly up and die because of some stupid, stinging weed.

No; when my time finally comes, I plan to either go out fighting like some old, grizzled Roman soldier or to die in my sleep after a good decade or two of retirement and fishing. Lots of fishing. My team knows this; they understand me. They HAVE to know that this almost maniacal devotion of theirs these past few days is making me frigging NUTS...!

And yet still they come, bearing corny gifts and offering up all sorts of suggestions for entertainment and diversion. Dammit, Sam and Daniel should be off recuperating, themselves, not hovering all over me. Daniel's beatings left him with numerous exterior damage, not to mention bruised kidneys and cracked ribs, and I know Sam's shoulder still gives her pain...and though her sprained ankle has almost completely healed, she has a hard time not limping now and then.

Even Teal'c has turned on me, forcing me to watch these horrible foreign westerns with subtitles and bringing me these truly disgusting Chu'lakkian pastries, standing over me with his arms folded in disapproval when I insist I'm just not HUNGRY today...

Sigh. Well, be that as it may...Here it is, a brisk but absolutely gorgeous morning, and all should be right with the world. The sky's bluer than Carter's and Daniel's eyes put together, there's a bird of some sort singing its freaking heart out on that branch over there, and I am snugly esconced on my back deck, sipping a cup of lukewarm coffee and praying, PRAYING, that for one morning my loyal-to-a-fault team will forego dropping in to check on me. I think broodingly to myself that my day would be 100% perfect if--just this once--I could be left in blissful solitude...

"HULLO?! Colonel, are you out back?"

No, oh no...please, not Carter, not today...I have seen my 2IC in many dangerous situations, have watched her blow to smithereens several Jaffa at once and take on a chauvinistic, Genghis-Khan wannabe with nothing more than her fists and a small knife...but Samantha Carter in full, uber-female NURTURE mode is the scariest damned thing I've ever seen.

Sliding down in my chair, I hope futiley that if I just keep quiet, maybe she'll go away...But even as the thought crosses my mind, I hear the snick of the side gate and look up to see not only Carter, but Daniel and Teal'c, as well, all three of them crossing the lawn toward me with grotesquely cheery smiles on their faces. Somebody should tell Teal'c he's liable to frighten small children with a grin like that, I think dimly as I paste a fake smile of welcome on my own face and lift one hand in greeting. It's just not RIGHT for the Big Guy to show that many teeth...

"Wow, sir, you're looking really great this morn!" Sam calls out enthusiastically as they draw near, and I waggle an admonitory finger in her direction.

"Ah, ah!...Can the platitudes, Carter," I retort pleasantly enough. "Just PLEASE tell me you didn't bring any more of the General's secret-recipe borsch with you. PLEEZE?" I can't control the shudder that goes through me as visions of beet soup float past my mind's eye in nauseatingly vibrant color. Geez, if Hammond wanted me dead, he could have left me back on Ataroth; I think it would have been a more humane way to go in the long run.

"No borsch today, Jack," Daniel grins at me from the bottom step of the deck. "Also, no Chu'lakkian pastries, none of Ferretti's beef stew, OR Janet's tapioca surprise." As I heave a sigh of genuine relief, Teal'c raises one curious brow in my direction and mounts the deck stairs with calm dignity.

"We have come to offer you a gift which we feel will give you great pleasure, O'Neill," the imperturbable Jaffa begins with just a trace of his previous, frightful smile. With that pronouncement he tucks his hands behind his back and merely waits, eyeing me with silent patience, as though I should already know what the gift is.

"Uh...sounds good," I begin cautiously, angling my body so I can keep Carter in sight at all times. I don't want a repeat of that sneak plumping-of-the-pillows move she's become so adept at; almost sulkily I scrunch myself down further in my chair, digging my back more firmly into the pillow tucked behind me to keep Carter from getting hold of it. "So...what's the gift?"

"Let me tell him," Daniel speaks up, and his blue eyes gleam with the sudden, bright enthusiasm of a young boy. Teal'c merely nods his head with quiet dignity, acquiescing to Daniel's excited request, and I find myself sitting up straight again, drawn into the moment despite myself.

"Well, SOMEBODY tell me, already!" I grumble, and Sam gives me a wry grin before sliding around behind my chair. Dammit! Foiled again, I think irately as I feel her hands groping about my shoulders in search of a corner of the pillow behind my back. Resignedly I sit forward just enough to give her clear access, and with a happy sigh she retrieves my pillow, pounds and fluffs and poofs it energetically, then slides it back behind me with satisfied ease.

"Well, we know you've been getting kind of...antsy...just sitting here day after day," Daniel begins, and little warning bells go off in my head. Uh-oh, what have they done?! What devious, diabolical, torturous kum-bah-ya group activity have they scheduled for us now? Part of me wants to weep, even as I hold my increasingly sickly grin in place and squint through the morning sunlight into Daniel's animated face.

"Just spit it out, Daniel," I warn with that pleasant, you-are-going-to-be-so-dead-in-about-five-seconds-if-you-don't-just-TELL-me tone in my voice; flushing a bit, Daniel clears his throat and fishes out some sort of envelope from inside his shirt pocket.

"Janet would kill us if she knew about this, so mum's the word, Jack," Daniel warns. "If we take you out of here and you end up with so much as a scratch or a sniffle--"

"What IS it?" I practically bellow the words, and Teal'c casts me a subtly disapproving scowl; Daniel merely grimaces understandingly, his earnest gaze pinning me in my chair, and a slow, happy smile suffuses his face with light.

"Two words, Jack," he says simply. "Ice...hockey." Like a magician performing a trick, he slides three tickets out of the envelope and waves them enticingly in front of my face. "Do you know how IMPOSSIBLE these are to get, this far into the season?"

"I take back every ill-tempered, bitchy, resentful thought I've harbored about you guys for these past few days," I murmur dazedly, a huge grin coming to my face, and Carter gives a quick snort of laughter and moves to stand beside my chair.

"Well, I don't think I'm up to risking the wrath of Fraiser if you three get into any trouble at the rink," she smiles at me, "so I've opted out of this particular activity. Besides, I have a date."

"Do tell," I murmur, still in shock over the miraculous appearance of those beautiful, beautiful tickets. Rather distractedly I turn to frown at her. "You have a DATE, Carter?!"

"Don't sound so surprised, Colonel," Sam retorts, a warning glitter coming to her eyes. "I have been known to set aside my BDU's and my P-90 and dress like a real girl on occasion."

"And I'm sure our paltry evening at the ice rink won't BEGIN to compare to your date," I murmur placatingly, a genuine shade of chagrin entering my voice. "We WILL miss you being with us, Carter," I add sincerely.

"I know, sir," she murmurs, and to my surprise bends down to press a very brief kiss to my cheek. I gaze up at her in mute surprise, seeing the smallest flush of pink highlight her cheeks; then my gaze turns to Daniel, whose lips have twisted in a vain attempt to squelch the smile lifting the corners of his mouth.

"Is our gift sufficient, O'Neill?" Teal'c speaks now, his dark gaze softening with tolerant affection as he awaits my reply. Somewhat clumsily I rise to my carefully wrapped feet and totter forward, reaching out to throw my arms around the huge hunk of Jaffa before me.

"Hell, yeah, it's sufficient," I crow happily against his neck as I pound his shoulders with my fists. "You people..." Suddenly I discover that my eyes have filled with treacherous moisture, and I gratefully allow Teal'c to gently set me back on my feet before accepting Daniel's guiding hand at my elbow, steering me back to my chair.

"Just remember this happy moment when Janet finds out we disobeyed her strict medical orders and took you out in public on those feet," Daniel smiles wryly; and as Sam once more declares that she is innocent--'Innocent, I tell you!--and that she will vociferously deny all knowledge of said hockey tickets, I lean back in the warm morning sun and sink comfortably into the jovial banter going on around me.

This is what it's all about, I remind myself, feeling a surge of love and loyalty rise up within me; maybe I HAVE been a bit of a grouch, a bit slow to heal, a bit depressed. Maybe I HAVE tried to push my friends away these past few days and have moped too much, feeling sulky and sorry about the condition of my less-than-youthful body. But I have the best damned team at the SGC--a team made up, incidentally, of the best and closest friends I've ever had--and I realize what a lucky man I really am.

We may never know WHY those crazy Atarothians treated us as they did, I think drily now as I gaze down at my healing feet--that's just one more unsolved mystery to add to our lexicon of adventures through the gate. But I do know the important stuff, the stuff that really matters to me, here and now; and every bit of that knowledge is enclosed in the three pairs of eyes gazing down at me with such warmth and love and spirit.

"So," Daniel murmurs teasingly, blue eyes glinting behind the frames of his glasses. "Since we didn't bring any of Teal'c's pasties this morn, what are you going to feed us for breakfast?" And as my team makes a hungry beeline for my kitchen and the sacred contents of my fridge, I slouch peacefully back against my perfectly plumped pillow, clutching the tickets to my chest and breathing in the perfection of this beautiful day.

THE END

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