Part 4, The conclusion
Jack stepped into the briefing room and paused as his eyes darted to the lean, broad-shouldered man seated to Hammond's left. The stranger was wearing uniform dress blues decked out with all his medals on display. Jack took a breath and walked slowly toward the table. Whatever this was about, he knew he wasn't going to like it.
Hammond gestured to the empty seat across the briefing table from the dressed-up Colonel. "Please, have a seat, Colonel O'Neill. This is Colonel Jason Parker. He's here under authority from the NSA and the President."
Jack dutifully sank into the empty chair. "This isn't going to be good news, is it?"
Parker leaned forward. "That depends on one's perspective. For you, probably not."
Parker leaned over and brought a black briefcase to the table. Setting it flat, he popped the locks and lifted the cover. "As you know, Colonel, Doctor Jackson's laboratory and apartment were swept by the NSA upon his departure from the SGC." Parker closed the briefcase's cover to reveal a cylindrical, gray object clutched in his right hand. "As it turns out, he was an avid collector."
Jack eyed the thing in Parker's hand. It looked vaguely familiar, but he had no idea what it was. "Doctor Jackson is an archeologist." He met Parker's gaze. "He collects tons of stuff. You should see his rock collection."
Parker set the object carefully on the table. "This isn't a rock."
"I can see that. So what is it?" Jack asked.
"It's a piece of technology from PX3873. The natives reported it missing a couple of months after SG-1's visit."
Jack frowned. Now he remembered the object. He'd seen it briefly in a report on the incident. His stomach churned at the implications of the object held in Parker's hand. "If I recall, SG-6 was the follow-up team after SG-1."
Parker looked almost sorrowful. "This was found in Doctor Jackson's apartment."
"Bullshit." Jack didn't even blink.
"Colonel," Hammond warned, leaning forward.
Jack turned his full attention to Hammond. "C'mon, sir, you know this is a crock. For one thing, Daniel wouldn't be stupid enough to keep stolen technology in his own apartment, but even more importantly, this smells like a trumped up charge to get Daniel out of the way now that we're moving in on Maybourne."
"Maybourne has been in a locked VIP room under guard without access to any communication," Hammond reminded him.
Jack couldn't believe his ears. "General, you don't honestly think Daniel stole that, do you?" He flung his hand toward the cylindrical object.
Hammond lowered his head and sighed. "This goes way above my head, Colonel O'Neill."
Parker lifted the cover of the briefcase and placed the alien object inside. "I'm sorry, Colonel. I know that Doctor Jackson is one of your former teammates, and I also know you went through a lot of trouble to find him and bring him here safely. Unfortunately, Doctor Jackson is going to have to be tried for treason for this matter as well as for his unauthorized departure from the SGC."
"No way." Jack's voice went cold.
Parker closed the briefcase lid. "The decision is out of your hands, Colonel."
"There's absolutely no way Daniel stole that."
"His fingerprints were all over the object."
Jack kicked the floor. "I don't care what evidence there is, it's manufactured."
Parker leaned back. "You're suggesting a massive conspiracy?"
"It doesn't have to be massive, just composed of a few individuals with the right clearances and connections."
Parker shook his head in disbelief. "I suppose you're going to suggest that Maybourne himself planted this evidence?"
"Wouldn't surprise me."
"Well, that's why Jackson will have a trial. Do your best to prove his innocence, Colonel." Parker rose, grabbing his briefcase. "In the meantime, Doctor Jackson is to be placed immediately in a cell under guard."
"Teal'c, you don't have to baby-sit me."
Teal'c merely raised his eyebrow. "You are not a baby, and I am not sitting on you."
Daniel gave a small smile. After years on Earth, Teal'c knew enough of the common slang to at least realize when a phrase wasn't meant to be taken literally, so Daniel was fairly certain Teal'c often feigned confusion to produce his own brand of understated humor.
Daniel leaned his head back against the pillow. "You can take a break, you know. I'm not going anywhere."
Teal'c nodded. "I shall take a break when O'Neill returns."
"Maybourne's locked up."
"That does not mean the danger has passed."
Daniel sighed. "Okay, have it your--"
His head snapped up at the sound of loud voices coming from an adjoining room of the infirmary. Fraiser sounded highly agitated, and a deep, male voice boomed over hers. Amidst the chaos, Daniel heard Jack's voice, strained and angry.
"Uh-oh." Daniel glanced at Teal'c. "That doesn't sound good."
Teal'c rose from his chair just as Fraiser hurried into the room, followed by Jack, Hammond, three guards, and a man dressed in a blue, well-pressed uniform.
"This is ridiculous!" Jack hurried to Daniel's bed. "Don't worry, Daniel, we're gonna fix this."
Daniel's stomach sank. "Uh, fix what?"
"Doctor Jackson," the well-dressed man stepped forward, "you are being placed under arrest for treason...."
Daniel's mouth went dry. Ah. So the red tape had finally run out, and he was going to have to face the music. Maybourne had gotten his way, after all.
"...for the theft of alien technology and unauthorized departure from the SGC and use of the Stargate."
"What?" Daniel's jaw went slack, and he looked at Jack. "Theft? What's he talking about? The zat I took with me?"
Jack shook his head curtly, a cue for Daniel to shut up.
"You are to be placed in immediate custody in the detention area," the man continued.
Teal'c moved forward, stopping inches from the stranger. He eyed the man, but shifted his head toward Hammond. "General, what is the meaning of this?"
Hammond sighed. "I'm afraid Doctor Jackson is going to have to be moved to a cell."
Teal'c straightened. "If that is to be the case, then I must insist on accompanying Daniel Jackson."
"What?" The stranger eyed Teal'c warily. "The only way you'll be allowed to go with Doctor Jackson is if I place you under arrest, and then you'll get separate cells, so I suggest you take a few steps back, sir."
Teal'c held his ground. His silence accentuated his decision.
"Okay." The well-dressed man turned to the guards. "Arrest Doctor Jackson, and call more guards to take..."
"Now what a minute!" Jack raised his hands in the air. "This is getting out of control. Teal'c, you're gonna have to back off on this one."
"I will not."
Two of the guards moved toward Daniel. Teal'c slid in front of them, and they stopped and looked to Hammond for guidance.
"Teal'c," Hammond stepped forward, "move aside."
"I cannot. Daniel Jackson's life is in danger."
"I have personally hand-picked the guards that will be escorting him and the guards that will be keeping watch." Hammond's face softened. "I assure you, Teal'c, Doctor Jackson will be safe."
"Teal'c," Daniel's tired voice interrupted, "I appreciate what you're doing, but please, just step aside."
"I will not allow these men to take you."
The stranger raised his eyebrows. "You have no choice." He turned. "Guards, go on."
One of the guards reached for the zat hanging at his side. Teal'c moved quickly. His arm whipped out and, before the guard could react, Teal'c had the man's zat weapon in his hand. He fired it at the guard, who screamed and dropped to the floor, twitching. Teal'c swung the zat toward one of the remaining guards when a lattice of ice-blue electricity enveloped him, and he fell to the floor, landing inches away from the man he'd disabled. .
Daniel lunged forward. "Teal'c!" No. No. No.
His motion came to an abrupt halt when hands clamped around his arms, yanking him back. His wrists were pulled behind him, then bound with cuffs. He could only watch as Teal'c twitched on the floor. Fraiser knelt next to the Jaffa, but there wasn't much she could do for a zat blast. It would wear off in a few seconds.
"You son of a bitch!" Jack flew forward, but he stopped when one of the guards raised a zat. "Damnit, you--"
"Enough!" Hammond's voice boomed through the small room. His angry eyes flashed to Daniel, then softened and slid to the guards holding him. "Get him out of here, but if I find out he's got so much as a bruise, your careers are going to go downhill very quickly."
The guards nodded and one acknowledged the order with a curt, "Yes, sir."
"General, please!" Daniel's protest came to a halt when the guards jerked him carefully but insistently toward the infirmary exit.
Jack's voice called after him. "Daniel, don't give them any trouble. Just hang in there!"
Jack's stomach tied itself into knots as he watched Daniel being taken away. Damn. Damn. Damn. How had things gotten so messed up? He should have just left Daniel out there, on his own, beyond reach of the SGC. Now, thanks to him, Daniel might spend the rest of his life behind bars...if he was lucky enough to live out the rest of his life.
Crouching next to Fraiser, Jack eyed the guard Teal'c had shot. The man was lying on the floor, an orderly tending to him. The soldier groaned and squirmed sluggishly, but he seemed to be recovering.
Teal'c sat up abruptly, and Jack flinched back in surprise.
"Teal'c?" Fraiser studied the Jaffa critically. "Are you okay?"
"I am recovered." His dark eyes scanned the infirmary. "Daniel Jackson?"
Jack rose. "They took him to his cell."
Teal'c shot to his feet and looked to Hammond. "Where is Daniel Jackson being held?"
Hammond's eyes seemed clouded with fatigue. "Teal'c, you need to stay away from Doctor Jackson, or Colonel Parker here will have just cause to consider you a security threat and lock you up."
"What are the charges against Daniel Jackson?" Teal'c asked. "Of what is he accused of stealing?"
Colonel Parker answered. "Alien technology reported missing by the rightful government was found in Doctor Jackson's apartment."
Teal'c raised an eyebrow. "Daniel Jackson would not steal, and if he did, he would not be foolish enough to keep evidence that could incriminate him in his apartment."
"I know, Teal'c, believe me. We've been over this." Jack ran a hand over his face. "We've gotta deal with this." He eyed Parker, then turned his attention back to Teal'c. "For right now, you've gotta cool it, big guy."
Teal'c bowed his head once, and Jack sighed, glad that the Jaffa had picked up on his subtle message.
Daniel's bare feet slapped against the cold, hard floor as two guards escorted him toward the holding area. He glanced down at his toes and wondered when, or if, someone would realize he needed shoes.
That time came sooner than he expected when one of the guards followed his gaze, then said, "Oh, uh, sorry, Doctor Jackson. Things got a little hot in there, otherwise we would've taken the time to get you some shoes. As soon as we get you settled, I'll run and get something for your feet."
Daniel shrugged as well as he could with his hands cuffed behind him. He looked at the guard, reading the man's nametag. Lieutenant Simon. "It's okay. Can one of you check on Teal'c for me?"
Simon nodded. "I'll be happy to, but I'm sure he's okay. Jaffa can shake off a zat blast pretty quickly."
"I know, but just in case..."
"Will do, Doctor Jackson."
The guards brought him to a halt in front of a door. Simon slid his card through the reader, then opened the door.
"In you go," the other guard instructed. His nametag proclaimed him to be Lieutenant Benson.
Daniel stepped in, and Simon uncuffed him. Daniel brought his hands in front of him and rubbed his wrists as he looked around the room. It was bare and sterile, with a cabinet against the far wall, a table and chairs in the center, and another door on the far side.
"You'll need to strip." Simon locked the door behind Daniel and moved to the cabinet. "We've got a jumpsuit for you to wear."
Daniel nodded. "Right." He slid quickly out of his infirmary pajamas and crossed his arms over his bare chest, feeling a slight chill.
Simon kept his gaze low. "Uh, boxers, too."
"What?" Daniel's eyebrows rose.
"It's SOP to make sure you don't take anything in the cell with you."
Daniel took a breath and nodded. Right. Standard Operating Procedure for prisoners. He lowered his head as he grabbed the waistband of his boxers and pushed them down. Stepping out of them, he looked back up and crossed his arms again, his cheeks growing hot as he stood there, exposed. He glanced up, his eyes searching, and found the security camera bolted high on the wall.
Great. The more people he could give a good show to, the merrier.
"Here." Simon held out a blue jumpsuit. "Normally, we, uh, have to check your body cavities, but uh.... the general said to go easy on you."
Daniel's stomach churned as he accepted the clothes from the guard. "I, uh, appreciate that." He really didn't relish the thought of finding out first hand what a body cavity search SGC-style would be like.
"You can put your boxers back on."
"Thanks." Daniel bowed his head and dutifully dressed.
He took his time, even though it didn't require a lot of work to get oneself into boxers and a jumpsuit. He tried to remember what the possible penalties for treason were. Life in prison? The death penalty. He was pretty sure treason was a capital offense.
His hands trembled as yanked the zipper up on the jumpsuit. What was the preferred method of execution these days? Lethal injection? The gas chamber? Would he be given a choice?
"This way, Doctor Jackson." Simon opened the door set in the far wall, and Daniel saw bars on the other side of a small room.
So that was his cell. He allowed himself to be led into the room. Simon unlocked the door of the cell and gestured inside. Silently, Daniel obeyed. There was a solitary bunk on the far wall inside the cell, and he immediately went to it. Sliding on the mattress, he moved back to lean against the wall.
The door clanked shut loudly. With an almost apologetic look, Simon turned the lock and left, leaving Daniel alone.
"Unscheduled gate activation!"
Jack glanced at Hammond. "It's either them or him.'
Hammond nodded. "I hope so."
"It's the Tokra's signal," the technician announced.
Jack punched a fist in the air. "Yes!"
"Open the iris," Hammond ordered.
Jack bolted for the stairs, Hammond behind him. They reached the base of the ramp just as the iris opened and a familiar figure stepped out.
Hammond stepped forward. "Jacob, we're really glad to see you."
Jacob smiled and walked down the ramp. He stopped in front of the general and smiled, his eyes darting around the room. "Where's Sam?" His smile faded. "Is something--"
"No. No. Major Carter is fine," Hammond reassured Jacob.
"It's Daniel," Jack offered. "He's in a mess, and we think you might be able to help."
Jacob tilted his head. "What kind of mess?"
"Come with me." Hammond turned toward the door. "This is gonna be one hell of a long story."
By the time they reached the briefing room, Hammond had given Jacob the condensed version of recent events.
"You're right." Jacob took a seat at the long conference table. "This is a mess."
Jack dropped into a chair across from the Tok'ra. "Ya think?"
Hammond took a breath. "And, uh, there's some more bad news." His eyes darted to Jack. "Major Freser, it seems, is hard to find."
"What?" Jack blinked.
"I've gone through all the channels, Colonel." Hammond leaned back, his shoulders uncharacteristically slumped. "He's disappeared. We can't get him for a DNA test."
"Damnit." Jack closed his eyes briefly. "Maybourne..."
"I don't see how, Colonel. He's still under lock and key, though I'll have to lift that restriction soon if we can't find Freser."
"The NID is full of crafty SOB's," Jacob interjected. "If they want something kept secret, they do their damnedest to keep it that way, and they don't pull their punches."
"Daniel's not going down for treason." Jack leaned forward. "That's why you're here."
"What can the Tok'ra do, Jack? This is an internal SGC affair."
"A few things," Hammond answered. "We've contacted the Tollans, and they're willing to make a statement on Doctor Jackson's behalf that they disapprove of his incarceration. Part of the leverage Maybourne has against Doctor Jackson is his interference in the capture of the Tollans. The Tollans recognize that and have generously agreed to go to bat for him, to an extent. We're actually expecting their arrival soon."
"Okay, that's good news for Daniel, but what does this have to do with the Tok'ra?" Jacob asked.
Jack took a breath. "Well, we were hoping you guys would go to bat for Daniel, too."
"And say what, exactly?"
"Just that you recognize the contributions Daniel has made to the Earth-Tok'ra alliance, and the Tok'ra wouldn't want to be buddy-buddy with a government that would condone slavery and then incarcerate the man who prevented that slavery. Yadda. Yadda. Be creative."
Jacob looked skeptical. "I don't know, Jack. The Earth-Tok'ra alliance is a little more important than Daniel Jackson."
Jack leaned forward, his shoulders rigid. "Daniel is the guy who got that gate running. He's the only one on this base other than Teal'c who speaks fluent Goa'uld, among other languages. And we're not actually jeopardizing the Tok'ra-Earth alliance. We just want you to, you know, throw some good old fashioned B.S. around. It's the right thing to do, okay?"
Jacob sighed. "I'll have to talk it over with the high council, of course, but frankly, I'm not very optimistic. I tell you what I can do, though."
Jack perked up.
Jacob smiled. "I'll be more than happy to write my own letter in support of Doctor Jackson and make my disapproval known. It may not be much, but with the Tollans, it'll be something."
"Okay," Jack nodded. "We figured that's the answer we'd get, but there's one other thing we need from you."
"Those little memory probes that Hathor used on us. The Tok'ra have that, right?"
Jacob nodded. "Yes."
"It can tap into a person's memory and project those memories holographically?"
"Can a person deceive it? You know, imagine something in their mind and have that presented as a memory?"
Jacob shrugged. "An extremely disciplined and skilled person could. However, the technology directly taps into the cerebral cortex. In order for a person to deceive it, they'd have to have enough discipline to not think about the target incident at all. That's harder to do than it sounds. To manufacture a lie, one has to think of the truth and differentiate the lie from the truth."
"I was hoping you'd say that." A sly smile brightened Jack's face. "Can we borrow a couple of those probes and holothingies?"
Daniel lay on the bunk, staring at the ceiling. Incarceration, as it turned out, was boring. No one had come to visit him. Not Jack. Not Sam. Not even Teal'c or Doctor Fraiser. He hoped that meant they were all busy trying to get him out.
How long had he been locked up, anyway? He didn't have a watch on, and there wasn't a wall clock anywhere. Hell, with the artificial lightning, he wouldn't even be able to tell the passing of days.
Since he had to guess, he figured he'd been a jailbird for roughly eight hours. Maybe nine. Granted, that wasn't a lot of time for him to expect visitors, but....
Well, he was bored. And he wanted to know what was happening.
As if in answer to his thoughts, the door opened. Daniel sat up and swung his legs over the mattress to face his visitor. Surprise fluttered in his chest when he saw Jack, Fraiser, and a man whose presence confused him -- Jacob.
"Hey." Daniel rose to his feet and approached the bars. "What's up?"
Jack looked uncertain, a thoughtful frown on his face. Fraiser looked even less happy. Jacob, on the other hand, seemed his usual matter-of-fact self.
"We've got an idea." Jack glanced at Fraiser, then placed a hand on one of the bars, standing inches from Daniel. "It's a bit risky, though."
Daniel pursed his lips and swept an arm out to indicate his accommodations. "Riskier than my being tried for treason?"
Jack grimaced. "Uh, probably not."
"Probably?" Daniel's eyes narrowed. "What is it?"
"We want to hook you up to that Tok'ra probe thingie that Hathor used on us to project your memories of the attack in your apartment."
Daniel took a step back. "Why?"
"We'll be able to see the faces of the men who attacked you, and we can record the whole thing and have proof of Maybourne's involvement."
Daniel cocked his head. "Would that really be proof? Couldn't I just, you know, think it all up that way."
Jacob shook his head. "As I told Colonel O'Neill, you'll inevitably have to imagine the truth in your head to manufacture a lie. This machine can pick up on that. "
"It's not exactly going to be admissible, is it?" Daniel countered.
Jack shrugged. "This is the military, Daniel. We don't require the same level of proof you'd find in the civil justice system. Besides, it should be enough to convince the President that you're the victim here and cast substantial doubt on Maybourne and, I hope, the evidence against you regarding the stolen technology."
"Okay." Daniel nodded. He didn't exactly relish the thought of having that thing in his head again, but it was better than his current alternatives. "Let's do it."
"I have some reservations." Janet moved forward.
Aha. Daniel had wondered why she was present.
"This device," she continued, "affects human memory. You're still suffering from the effects of Nem's memory machine. There's no way to predict how these two technologies, used so close together, will affect you."
Daniel considered her words. Was she talking about brain damage? "Could it kill me?"
"I have no idea, Daniel."
Jacob spoke up. "The Tok'ra technology has been extensively tested. I believe it's safe."
Janet turned toward Jacob. "But it's never been tested in relation to Nem's machine. The Tok'ra aren't even aware of that technology."
"That's true." Jacob nodded. "There aren't any guarantees, but," he turned to Daniel, "it's up to you."
"I'll do it. It's not like I have much of a choice."
"Okay then." Jack turned toward the door. "I'll get the guard, and we'll take you to the infirmary. Janet wants to supervise the entire process and have help on-hand, if necessary."
Hammond nodded at the guard and walked into the room. He found Maybourne sitting on the bed, propped against the headboard, reading a book.
"Colonel." Hammond stopped at the end of the mattress.
Maybourne set the book on the table and rose to his feet. "General, can I go now? Did you find Freser?"
"I think you probably know that we haven't."
Maybourne frowned. "General, I haven't been in contact with anyone since you ordered me here. You know that."
"You don't seem surprised by the news, however."
Maybourne shrugged. "Few things surprise me these days."
Hammond almost smiled. He'd bet a month's salary that his next words would be one of those few things. "Jacob Carter of the Tok'ra is here. We've asked him for his help in proving Doctor Jackson's story about the attack."
"Oh?" Maybourne's eyebrows rose.
"Yes." Hammond studied the colonel carefully. He thought the man looked almost nervous. "He's brought a memory probe. It projects a person's memories accurately on a viewer and allows us to record those memories."
"Yes, I read about that technology in SG-1's reports."
"We'd like you to submit to the probe."
Maybourne stiffened and shook his head. "I don't think so, General. I prefer not having alien devices implanted into my brain. With all due respect, no, sir."
Hammond nodded. He'd expected such an answer. He gave a sigh. "All right. Doctor Jackson's versions of events will be the only one on record, and if they implicate you, without any contradiction, I'm sure the President will be most interested. Not to mention that the device itself will lead us to the identities of both men who Doctor Jackson claims assisted you. Furthermore, your refusal to submit to the probe will go on record."
Maybourne looked almost pale. "I don't care what the probe of Doctor Jackson reveals. The device is hardly trustworthy."
Hammond raised his eyebrows. "The Tok'ra say otherwise. We'll let the President decide."
Daniel sat on a bed in the infirmary, the head of the mattress positioned at a 45-degree angle. He swallowed as Jacob approached with the small, round probe in his hand.
Jacob smiled softly. "This'll only hurt for a second."
"Yeah. I remember." It might have only hurt for a second when he first experienced the invasion, but it had hurt like hell for that one second.
Daniel took a breath and glanced at Jack and Fraiser, both of whom stood behind Jacob, watching silently. General Hammond, Teal'c, and Carter were looking down from the observation window overhead.
"Ready?" Jacob raised the probe to Daniel's temple.
"Ye--" He didn't even finish the word when the pain hit, feeling like an ice pick being jammed through his skull. He let out a strangled grunt and flinched away, but the probe was already implanted.
"See?" Jacob grinned. "Not so bad."
"Easy for you to say." Daniel took another breath. "Okay, so now what? I just think of the attack?"
Jacob nodded. "That's right."
"Okay." Daniel cocked his head. "Here goes."
He closed his eyes, even though he didn't need to, just to focus on the memories without the distraction of seeing the numerous pairs of eyes staring at him. His mind went back to that day. He was sitting in his apartment, drinking....
Jack took a seat in one of the stray infirmary chairs as the holographic projector flared to life with the image of a glass of orange juice, which from the alcohol found in Daniel's bloodstream after the attack, Jack figured also contained a substantial amount of vodka.
The glass came to rest on Daniel's knee. There was silence for a few moments, then a choked sob. Jack closed his eyes briefly at the sound. He felt like a voyeur. Daniel rarely let anyone see him cry. As time passed since Sha're's abduction, Daniel had become more and more stoic. He presented a good front, a stronger one than most marines, but inside, Jack knew Daniel lived with a deep, almost constant pain. It was one reason why, he figured, Daniel also rarely smiled.
Jack opened his eyes at the sound of a doorknob jiggling. He saw the door to Daniel's apartment swing inward. Maybourne, Freser, and another large man with dark hair entered. All three were dressed in black and wearing gloves.
"Colonel Maybourne." Daniel leaned forward, his eyes darting around the room.
"Doctor Jackson." Maybourne smiled pleasantly. "So sorry about your loss."
The two goons on either side of the colonel towered over Daniel, and Daniel pushed himself to his feet.
"What do you want?" Daniel's tone was belligerent.
"I want to offer my condolences. I know you must be devastated by the loss of your wife." Maybourne moved closer to Daniel, shadowed by the goons, and eyed the glass held in Daniel's hand. He leaned closer, offering a sniff. "Is that alcohol? Vodka?" His smile brightened. "Looks like you've made my job easier."
Jack's jaw snapped tight so fast that he almost bit his tongue. Son of a bitch!
"What the hell are you talking about?" Daniel edged away from the sofa, eyeing the closed front door.
"I told you, Doctor Jackson, after your treasonous act with the Tollans, that I'd have you permanently removed from the program, and this is the securest and most permanent method of removal available. You're a security risk, as Colonel O'Neill was so kind to point out."
"Son of a bitch!" This time Jack said it aloud, and the image faltered as Daniel opened his eyes to look at him.
"Sorry." Jack took a breath. "I'll keep quiet."
Daniel looked a little pale, but he nodded and closed his eyes. The holographic screen flickered to life again.
"Because you're a civilian," Maybourne continued, "you can't be court-martialed, and we'd have a hard time prosecuting you through regular judicial channels. You know, that right to a public trial thing. Sort of puts a damper on national security."
Daniel swallowed hard. "You're going to kill me."
Daniel's eyes darted to the two goons, and he yanked his arm back and threw the glass at the goon to Maybourne's right. Orange juice flew everywhere, and Daniel bolted just as the glass bounced off the man's head.
None of the three men made a sound. Freser and the other goon rushed Daniel, using a standard maneuver to sweep Daniel's legs from under him and control his descent.
"Do it," Maybourne ordered. "No bruises. Make it look like a suicide."
"N--" Daniel started to yell, but one of the men brought a hand over his mouth.
Daniel bucked, trying to break free. The hand slid away, only to be replaced by a cloth that covered his nose and mouth. After a few seconds, his struggles weakened, and he went limp.
The image flickered in and out, presumably as Daniel faded in and out of awareness. In the next image, he was undressed, surrounded by bathroom tile. He threw up on the floor. He seemed to struggle again, but the two goons lifted him into a bathtub full of water.
A blurry showerhead came into view, then the view panned down to show water covering Daniel up to his chest.
"So sorry about your wife, Doctor." Maybourne said. "I am, and, believe it or not, I don't enjoy having to do this, but you are a security risk."
Daniel's head fell back and smacked hard against the wall. Jack winced, cursing Maybourne. That asshole was still in the VIP room, and Jack intended to pay the man a very personal visit as soon as this session was over.
The screen showed Freser's face as the man crouched almost eye-level to Daniel. His blue eyes looked almost regretful. "This'll make it easier on you."
Daniel blinked just as the cloth descended over his face. His chest went still, and he tried to turn his head away, but Freser held the cloth firm. After nearly a minute, Daniel gulped in a greedy breath, and almost immediately, the tension drained from his body and his eyelids drifted downward until only a narrow slice of vision remained.
A hand grabbed his arm, raising it just into Daniel's limited field of vision. Fingers held a razor and sliced the blade across Daniel's wrist, producing an instant blossom of redness.
"Get the bottle. Put it with him."
A low moan, almost a whimper, escaped Daniel's throat. Blood mixed with the water, bathing him in red. Then the image flickered, going to black.
"Okay," Jacob took a breath. "I guess...."
The screen brightened again, and a rush of images flew by so fast that Jack blinked, almost feeling dizzy. He tried to make sense of what he was seeing, and when he did, his stomach turned. Some images slowed, others were mere flashes.
A museum. A stone hanging. Chain snapping. A thud. Screams.
Sha're. Pulling down her dress. Daniel telling her to leave.
A celebration. Laughter. Sha're again, kissing him. Jack wondered if he was seeing Daniel's wedding ceremony.
Janet moved to Daniel's bedside, her eyes pinning Jacob. "What's happening here?"
Jacob frowned and shook his head. "Maybe this is his life flashing before his eyes?" He shrugged and looked at Daniel. "Daniel?"
He got no response. The images continued to flash on the screen.
A pair of glowing eyes. Sha'res voice. "You must find the boy.
Nem's face. A voice. "What fate Omaroca?
A machine. A beam. Daniel screaming.
Jack shot of his chair. "Okay, enough! Get that thing out of his head."
Sha'res voice again. "You must forgive Teal'c. He did the right thing.
"Give me a moment." Jacob touched the probe embedded in Daniel's head. "I don't want to remove it while it's engaged in a live connection."
Teal'c standing by an elevator. "Is there not some human ritual where I may seek your forgiveness?
Daniel's voice. "No.
Jack frowned. When had that happened?
Daniel's voice again. "Didn't General Hammond tell you? I turned in my resignation.
Jack's chin snapped up. What? Resignation? He studied the screen. He saw himself in Daniel's office, watching as Daniel packed a box. He knew for a fact that scene had never happened. Was he seeing something from Daniel's ribbon-induced dream?
"...And you'll miss Carter and Teal'c, Jack watched his holographic self say.
A pause, then. "I'll miss Sam.
Jack's eyes flickered to the observation deck, and he saw Teal'c sitting rigid, his dark eyes staring unflinchingly at the projector.
Jack took a breath and turned his attention back to the screen. He saw Sha're standing above Daniel, her palm outstretched, glowing. A gun dropped to the ground. There was a flash of fire, and Sha're fell.
The scene changed abruptly to a dim room. Nem's laboratory. Daniel's scream projected from the holograph, startling Jack, and he flinched.
Nem's voice overlaid the screaming. "Think of Kheb."
The heart monitor next to Daniel's bed began beeping frantically. Jack's eyes darted to the read-out to see the EKG line looking more like a seismograph than a heart rhythm.
On the bed, Daniel's body began twitching. Fraiser leaned over him quickly. She lifted his eyelids, but he gave no response.
She looked up at Jacob. "We've got to get that thing out of him now."
"Do it, Jacob. Now." Jack's eyes drifted again to the images on the screen.
"Okay. On it."
Again, the holographic scene changed. A woman with dark hair, dressed in servant's clothes. A flash of symbols.
Daniel crying. "Stop! Oh, God! Please, stop!"
The alarm on the heart monitor screamed.
Feet pounded into the infirmary, and two of Janet's staff rushed to the scene.
The screen died, and the holographic projector folded in upon itself.
"I got it," Jacob said.
Jack stood close to the bed, his heart in his throat, watching as Janet hovered over Daniel, but she didn't seem to be doing anything. The nurses stood behind her, poised and alert, but silent, apparently waiting for Fraiser's instructions.
"Doc!" Jack moved forward, about to rip into her, when he noticed the heart monitor settling toward a more normal rhythm.
Fraiser raised a hand. "A minute, Colonel." Her eyes stayed glued to the heart monitor, and she grabbed her stethoscope and placed the end over Daniel's chest. She listened a few seconds, and the EKG finally returned to what looked like normal. "He's stabilized." She draped the stethoscope over her neck and leaned forward. "Doctor Jackson, can you hear me?"
Daniel didn't answer her. He lay limp on the bed, his head turned to the side, and his eyes closed. His face looked almost as white as the pillowcase beneath him.
Janet turned to the nurses behind her. "Set up the MRI. Help me get him ready for transport."
"Doc?" Jack moved all the way to Daniel's bedside. "What's going on? Is he all right?"
She looked up at him, her face lined with fatigue and her eyes heavy. "He's stabilized, Colonel, but I have no idea if he's all right." Her eyes flickered briefly to Jacob, angry, then slid back to Jack. "The MRI will tell us more. Now, I need you two out of my way."
Teal'c rose slowly from his chair, watching as Fraiser and the nurses wheeled Daniel Jackson out of the infirmary below.
"Teal'c." Major Carter's voice stopped him as he turned toward the door.
He tilted his head toward her.
She stepped in front of him. "Are you okay?"
He hesitated a moment, his eyes going briefly to General Hammond, who was rising from his chair. The general nodded once, his eyes soft, and turned to hurry through the door.
Teal'c returned his attention to Major Carter and bowed his head affirmatively. Words weren't necessary. He knew the reason for her question. He felt the heat of shame mixed with the warmth of awe in his chest, and he blinked as he turned away from the observation deck and headed through the door.
He had wronged Daniel Jackson and his wife. Yet, Sha're, the woman whom Teal'c had personally delivered to Apophis and then killed had, if Daniel Jackson's vision was true, used her last moments of life to request forgiveness for Teal'c from a man who should, rightfully, seek only retribution.
But forgiveness was obviously, according to the vision, a thing Daniel Jackson was not, in his heart, inclined to give.
Jack stormed out of the infirmary, his boots clanking hard against the floor. He'd barely gone ten feet when he almost bumped into a stout, unyielding figure.
"Sir." Jack stiffened to attention.
Hammond looked tired, but he stood straight, with his shoulders back. "Colonel, are you okay?"
"Where are you going?"
Jack took a breath. He knew what response the truth would get him, but he wasn't in the habit of lying to his commanding officer. "To pay Maybourne a little visit, sir."
Hammond nodded slowly. There was a moment of silence, then the general stepped aside.
Jack blinked. "Sir?"
"Give him my regards, Colonel."
Jack nodded slowly, not sure he'd heard the general correctly. "Uh, yes, sir." He started to walk past Hammond.
"Just one thing, Colonel."
Jack paused. "Yes, sir?"
"Do not, under any circumstances, cause physical injury to Colonel Maybourne. Understood?"
Jack's shoulders slumped. He'd known it had been too good to be true, not that he really intended to beat the crap out of Maybourne. Hell, he didn't know what he actually intended to do. He just...
God, he wanted to beat the crap out of that bastard.
"Colonel?" Hammond sounded impatient.
Jack nodded. "Yes, sir. No physical injury. Understood." He turned and hurried toward the elevator.
By the time he got to the VIP room, he was half-tempted to turn around. Walking into that room and not being able to pound flesh would be more frustration than he thought he could handle.
But not going into that room wasn't an option. Turning around would feel too much like letting Maybourne get away with what he'd done.
The guard stationed in the hall nodded at him.
Jack stopped in front of the man and glanced at his rank. "Lieutenant, open the door for me."
"Yes, Colonel." The guard moved aside and slid his card through the lock.
Jack pushed the door inward. The room was dim, and Maybourne was propped on the bed, reading a book, looking like he didn't have a care in the world.
Well, he was going to have a care or two very soon.
"Colonel O'Neill." Maybourne placed his book on the table next to the bed and got to his feet. "Come to help me combat the boredom of being locked up?"
Jack flew toward Maybourne, getting a little flutter of joy in his chest when the colonel stumbled back in surprise and hit the nightstand.
"You sick son of a bitch." Jack stood an inch from Maybourne, pressing him back into the table without actually making physical contact.
Maybourne swallowed, but a faint, slightly anxious smile found his lips. "I take it the Tok'ra used their probe on Doctor Jackson?"
Jack's eyes narrowed. "Oh, yeah, and we all got a nice, Technicolor performance from you and those two thugs."
Maybourne shrugged. "Doctor Jackson is secure in his delusion, no doubt."
Jack took a breath and dropped his voice to a low, hiss. "Listen very, very closely, you son of a bitch. If you haven't already, I want you to pull every record on me that you can find. Get the sealed ones if you can, all the better. Read it all. Study it. Commit it to memory."
Maybourne's smile faded completely. "I'm familiar with your history, Colonel, though of course, I haven't seen the sealed files. Those are classified, as you know."
A tiny smile lifted Jack's lips. "Oh, I think you know what's in them."
Maybourne didn't answer.
Jack leaned forward until he could feel the heat from Maybourne's body radiating into his own. "If anything happens to Doctor Jackson, I'll find a way to take you down or out. That's a promise."
Maybourne straightened. "With Daniel Jackson's penchant for trouble, so many things could happen to him, regardless of my involvement."
Jack balled his hand into a fist. He wanted so badly to smash it into Maybourne's face. He took a breath and backed away. One more second next to the man and he'd kill him. "Tell me that's a threat, Maybourne. Oh, please."
Maybourne swallowed, and all hint of smugness drained from his face. "I don't always like my job, Colonel, and there are times when I get some rather distasteful orders. There are also times I have to make hard decisions that I'd rather avoid. I think you, of all people, should appreciate that."
"Cut the bullshit, Maybourne. I'm not in the playing mood."
Maybourne sighed. "If you really wanted Doctor Jackson safe, you'd have left him off-world."
"You're going to hell, Maybourne, if I have to escort you personally."
Maybourne gave a flicker of a smile at that comment.
Jack spun and marched out the door. He sailed straight past the guard without even a glance and didn't stop until he reached the elevators. Then his fist made contact with the wall, and the elevator doors slid open with a soft ding!
Daniel's head throbbed. A soft, steady groaning surrounded him. He felt something cool and hard beneath him. He opened his eyes to a dim world. Blinking, it took him a few seconds to realize that he was encased in something. A solid arch pressed down on him, and his arms were confined to his sides by the narrow space.
His heart leapt into panic, and he had a vision of himself in a coffin, being buried alive. He raised his arms, but they hit the sides of the tube, and the groaning suddenly grew in volume.
What the hell was happening? Was he inside a sarcophagus?
He bent his knees and realized his legs were free. Looking down, he saw light. He brought his arms back up and pushed, trying to squirm down to get out of whatever the hell he was in, when he felt hands on his legs.
He kicked, his panic skyrocketing, and pounded against the rounded sides of his prison.
Suddenly he was moving, sliding out of the thing, and the sudden brightness blinded him.
"Doctor Jackson!" Hands held his arms down. "Doctor Jackson, it's okay. You're okay."
He stopped struggling. "D-Doctor Fraiser?" He blinked up at the soft, familiar face peering down at him with wide eyes.
She smiled at him. "Yes. Yes. You're okay. Calm down. I was just trying to get an MRI on you."
Daniel sat bolt upright and looked at the thing behind him. Sure enough, it was an ordinary MRI tube, something he'd been in far too many times.
His closed his eyes and released a hard breath, feeling his still-pounding heart start to return to a more normal rhythm.
"Are you okay?"
He opened his eyes and nodded. "Y-Yeah. What happened?"
"What's the last thing you remember?"
He took a breath and tried to think. "Uh, I was in the infirmary, hooked up to the probe."
"There were complications. You passed out." She jerked her chin toward the tube. "I still need to get an MRI on you."
He nodded. "I, uh, I think I can do that. Just give me a minute, okay?"
"Of course." She smiled softly. "How do you feel?"
"I have a headache, and almost messed my boxers, but other than that, I think I'm fine."
Her smile grew. "I'm sorry about that, Doctor Jackson. I didn't expect you to wake up in the middle of the procedure. You'd given no signs of regaining consciousness."
"Yeah, well, I'm definitely awake now."
"Doctor!" A deep voice caused Daniel to look to the doorway.
Parker hurried inside. "Hello, Doctor Jackson."
Janet stepped in front of Daniel. "What are you doing here, Colonel?"
"I was waiting outside when I heard you talking to Doctor Jackson."
Parker straightened. "And, he looks awake and alert to me. I'm ordering you to finish this MRI as soon as you can so that I can have him returned to the holding cell."
"That's absurd." Janet planted her hands on her hips. "He's in no condition to be released...."
"I just heard him say he was fine."
Fraiser took a deep breath. "Colonel Parker, I want you out of my infirmary right now. I'll complete the MRI, and then you and I are going to have a talk with General Hammond."
"But, sir," Fraiser's voice remained remarkably calm as she stared at Hammond across the desk., "it would be medically imprudent to remove Doctor Jackson from the infirmary. I insist on another twenty-four hours of observation, minimum."
Parker stood next to the doctor, his back rigid. "General," he jerked his chin to the paper on the desk, "that's the signature of the President of the United States. If Doctor Jackson isn't in concrete, medical danger and his MRI is clear, he is to be transferred to a holding cell. Any medical treatment can be provided to him there." He looked to Fraiser. "So, doctor, is his MRI clear?"
Fraiser's shoulders slumped. "Yes."
Hammond sighed. "I'm sorry, Doctor. I have my orders."
Parker smiled. "Thank you, General. Also, Colonel Maybourne should be released."
Hammond frowned but nodded. "Not yet. Not with the new evidence against him."
"The Tok'ra device isn't evidence of Maybourne's involvement. It's only evidence of Daniel Jackson's delusions."
"Maybourne is going to remain under lock and key for now, Colonel."
With a nod, Parker spun and left the room.
Fraiser remained. "Sir, I would like my protest to go on the record."
"Noted. You can go now, Doctor."
Fraiser frowned, but she turned around and left.
Parker stopped at the VIP room. The guard on duty was in the process of hanging up the phone on the wall. He turned just as Parker approached.
"Sir," the lieutenant nodded at Parker.
"Can you open the door, Lieutenant?"
The guard nodded. "Yes, sir." The guard peered at Parker's ID badge. "You are on Maybourne's approved list of visitors, but you're limited to ten minutes." He slid his card through the lock and pushed the door inward. "Go right in."
Parker nodded and entered. Maybourne was seated at the table, playing a game of cards with himself. He looked up at Parker's approach.
"Colonel Parker." Maybourne rose. "It's good to see you. What's the situation?"
Parker walked to a wall unit, opened the cabinet, and turned on the stereo, flooding the room with classical music. He then reached into his pocket and flicked a switch on a small device.
"We can talk securely now, but keep your voice low," Parker instructed in a near-whisper. "And the camera's watching, so act casual."
Maybourne nodded. "I understand."
"The Tok'ra device was successful. You're implicated, as well as Freser and Jeromes."
Maybourne sighed. "So I figured. This complicates the matter, but it's not fatal."
"No. The device isn't concrete evidence, and we still have the treason charges and clear evidence against Jackson."
"O'Neill's not going to let this go."
"He's already involved the Tollans. This is getting much too messy. We can't back out now even if we wanted to. We have only one option."
Parker nodded. "I know that, too."
Daniel once again found himself in a holding cell. He sighed as the guard slid the bars closed. Dropping on to the single mattress, he resumed his position against the wall and closed his eyes. He wondered how long he'd have to wait this time before someone paid him a visit.
Apparently, not long at all. The door in the room opened, and Jack O'Neill stepped through.
"Jack." Daniel stood and walked to the bars. "What's going on?"
An air of frustration hung around the colonel. He sighed and shook his head. "It's getting messy, Daniel, but we'll figure a way out of this."
"Tell me Maybourne's still locked up, at least."
"He is. After your session, he'll be sitting tight for a while." Jack leaned against the bars and dropped his voice. "So, how are you feeling?"
Daniel shrugged. "Headache, but otherwise okay."
"Do you, uh, remember the entire session?"
"I'm not sure." Daniel took a breath. "I think the last bit I remember was me in the bathtub."
"Ah." Jack pursed his lips. "Well, there was more."
Daniel raised his eyebrows. "More?"
"Uh-huh. You resigning. You and Teal'c by the elevator."
"Oh." Daniel's looked away as his mind spun through the web of memories cluttering his brain. It was weird having lived two different versions of the same event. "That was part of the vision Sha're communicated to me."
"Through the hand device?"
"Do you want to resign?"
Jack gave a small smile. "Well, not considering present circumstances."
Daniel closed his eyes briefly. Did he really want to resign? "I'm not sure, Jack." He shook his head. "I'm tired, and it's hard going through that gate knowing .." His voice trailed off. "Not that that's likely to be a problem from now on."
"Hey." Jack's voice sounded unusually gentle. "Just leave this mess to us to sort out. You're not going down for treason. I promise . And this promise, I'll find a way to keep. No matter what."
Daniel studied his friend. He saw a dark determination in Jack's eyes that rarely surfaced but frequently hovered just out of sight. He didn't bother to ask what Jack meant by the comment. He knew.
"Is finding Sha're's son the only reason you stuck around after you know?" Jack asked.
"It's a big reason, but not the only one."
"Because you were right."
Daniel couldn't help the hint of a smile that broke through his stone fašade. "In my vision. I'd miss you guys." He swallowed hard. "Even Teal'c."
Daniel took a deep breath and turned to the mattress, plopping down on the edge. "If it were you, and he picked Charlie to be a host, then ended up killing him, how would you feel? Could you forgive that?"
The darkness surfaced once again in Jack's eyes. "I don't know, Daniel."
"Well, I'm trying. I can say the words. Having them be the truth is a bit harder."
"Is this what you came here for?" Daniel closed his eyes and leaned against the wall. He was tired. Very, very tired.
"I came to see how you're doing."
"I'll be back soon."
Jack sighed. After a moment, his footsteps bid a steady retreat against the hard floor.
"Here we go again." Jack eyed the monitor in the observation room above the gate.
"It's the Tollans, sir."
Hammond nodded. "Open the Iris."
"It's about time." Jack hurried to the stairs and made it to the ramp just as Omac emerged from the gate.
Hammond bowed his head slightly. "It's an honor to have you here once again."
Omac regarded the general with flat, unimpressed eyes. "I hope, this time, I will remain a guest."
"Of course." Hammond gestured to the doorway. "What happened during your last visit was implemented by a minority faction of our government. It's one reason we've asked you to come."
"I know why you've asked. Daniel Jackson is currently experiencing negative repercussions as a result of the assistance he provided us. That is the reason I am here. He was the only one among you who demonstrated potential."
Jack pursed his lips, suppressing a smile. "Yeah, he has that effect on people."
Omac nodded. "Let us not waste any more time."
Hammond nodded and walked toward the doorway. "Follow me, gentlemen. Colonel Parker is waiting in the briefing room."
Teal'c took a breath as he descended toward the meditative state required to achieve Kel Noreem. He was troubled by the events he saw in Daniel Jackson's vision. He hoped that he would soon be afforded an opportunity to truly gain Daniel Jackson's forgiveness.
As soon as he finished Kel Noreem, he would return to his duty. General Hammond had ordered that Teal'c remain away from the holding area where Daniel Jackson was incarcerated, but he had not specified the exact distance Teal'c was to maintain.
Surely, the general had not meant to bar him from accessing the file room down the hall from the holding area.
Parker regarded the Tollan coolly. If anyone had told him back when the decision to eliminate Daniel Jackson had been made that the operation would result in both Tok'ra and Tollan involvement, he would have laughed.
He definitely wasn't laughing now. However, the faction of the NID involved in the hit was nothing if not adaptable.
"Omac," Parker bowed his head, "I do understand your hostility toward Colonel Maybourne, but I assure you that he was only following orders. He did not find the task pleasant."
Omac sat across the briefing table from Parker, his face impassive. "I find such an excuse unpersuasive."
Parker shrugged. "Maybourne's involvement is irrelevant, anyway. We're here about Daniel Jackson. I'm afraid you've been slightly misled." He glanced at Hammond seated at the head of the table and saw a hint of suspicion in the older man's eyes. Turning his attention back to Omac, Parker continued. "Daniel Jackson is not facing charges for treason because of the assistance he rendered to you and your people. He is facing charges for unauthorized use of the Stargate, misappropriation of SGC property, and theft of alien technology, including Tollan technology."
"Now wait a minute," Jack leaned forward, "don't tell me you're trumping up more stuff. The thing you showed us didn't come from the Tollans."
Parker sighed. "Colonel, I assure you I'm not trumping up anything. The item I showed you was simply one of the devices found in Daniel Jackson's apartment. We also found items stolen from the Tok'ra and the Tollans."
"What items do you allege Daniel Jackson stole from us?" Omac asked.
"We found one of the devices that allowed you to walk through walls. Unfortunately, it no longer works."
Omac's eyes narrowed. "I find it more probable that, if indeed you do have one of those devices, it was taken by one of Colonel Maybourne's persuasion."
"You were alone with Doctor Jackson, weren't you?"
"I was. He took nothing from me."
"Are you sure?"
Omac's gaze never wavered. "I have never been one to give my trust freely. I was not so foolish as to allow my attention to be diverted. Daniel Jackson took nothing from me."
Parker kept a cool face. Damn. He hadn't realized it would be so difficult to make Omac doubt Daniel Jackson. In fact, the man seemed more determined to go to bat for the archeologist than Parker had anticipated.
The only thing left to do was remove the motivation for the Tollan and Tok'ra involvement. It would have to be done quickly, and it would definitely have to be squeaky clean.
Daniel woke suddenly, unsure why until he heard the soft sound of footsteps. He opened his eyes as he turned to his side on the hard mattress, then slid quickly to his feet when he saw the three men approaching the bars.
"Hello, Doctor Jackson." Parker stopped inches away from the closed cell door, a set of keys dangling in his hand. "How are you feeling?"
Daniel eyed the keys, then looked back up at Parker and the men standing silently behind him. They both wore uniforms, but all indications of rank and names were stripped from them. He didn't recognize either man, though. They were both young with dark hair and dark eyes. Nondescript features. Medium build. Medium height.
A sick feeling turned Daniel's stomach. "What do you want?"
Parker slid one of the keys into the lock and opened the door. There was a coldness in his face that sent a shiver through Daniel.
"Good news, Doctor Jackson." Parker stepped inside. "You're not standing trial for treason."
Daniel had nowhere to go except forward, so he bent over, ducked his head, and bolted straight for Parker. "Guard!" He screamed at the top of his lungs as he slammed into the colonel, sending him crashing into the metal bars. "Help! Guard!"
Rough hands yanked Daniel off Parker. A palm pressed over his mouth. He struggled, bucking against the restraint, but the arms holding him were strong. Where the hell was the guard?
"Hurry it up," Parker ordered.
One of the men grabbed Daniel's arm and extended it. Daniel pushed against the floor with his legs, trying to throw the man behind him off balance, but he found himself being forced forward instead. The two men pressed him against the bars, and his arm was once again held in a firm grip. In the corner of his vision, he caught a glimpse of a syringe.
"Make sure that goes into the IV wound. We want no traces."
"Nnnnn!" Daniel yelled against the hand over his mouth.
"Don't worry Doctor Jackson," Parker's voice whispered in his ear, "it's only a paralyzing agent. It won't put you out, and it's currently untraceable. However, it will make you easier to handle."
Daniel felt the sting of the needle enter his flesh. A burning sensation snaked up his arm. The burning soon turned to ice, then numbness. His head floated, and his arms and legs lost all feeling. He collapsed, and the arms guided him to the floor.
Parker's face slid into view above him. Daniel tried to blink, but he couldn't even manage that small movement. Panic made his heart flutter. He tried to move, but nothing was working. His tongue felt like a dead fish in his mouth.
"This only affects the voluntary muscles. Your lungs and heart will still keep working." Parker brought his hands up and twisted the thin, cotton bed sheet. "Your official cause of death will be strangulation. Self-inflicted."
Teal'c opened his eyes and took a slow, deep breath. The candles surrounding him had burned low, and wax spilled down their sides, collecting in a solidified puddle on the floor.
He rose to his feet. Now that he had completed his Kel Noreem, his body was replenished. Squaring his shoulders, he grabbed his Zat'N'ktel and headed to the holding area.
Arms lifted him. Someone slipped the rough cotton noose over his head, and it hung loosely around his neck. Then, suddenly, viciously, it tightened, sliding upward until it dug beneath his chin, stealing his breath. The noose grew tighter, forcing his head up, then his body. He could almost feel the pressure of the bars against his numb back. His toes left the ground. He tried to raise his arms, to kick his legs, but they refused to move.
No! He struggled, screaming at his arms to move, but they hung stubbornly at his sides.
He wasn't ready. He still had so much to do. He'd promised Sha're .
A pressure built in his head, behind his eyes, and unconsciousness swept over him so quickly, he didn't even see it coming.
The guard eyed Teal'c, a frown forming on his face. He glanced over his shoulder at the closed door, then back to Teal'c. After a moment, he approached Teal'c.
"What are you doing here?"
Teal'c raised his chin a fraction. "I require a file."
The guard's frown deepened. "Uh, the file room's right there." He jerked a thumb over his shoulder.
"I do not yet know what file will suit my needs."
The guard glanced over his shoulder at the door to the holding area, then back to Teal'c. "Sir, Colonel Parker and General Hammond gave me orders to keep you out of the vicinity of Doctor Jackson."
"I am not in the vicinity of Doctor Jackson."
"Your standing here is highly suspicious." The guard straightened. "If you do not leave this level immediately," his hand went to the zat at his side, "I will have to place you under arrest and contact Colonel Parker."
Teal'c simply raised an eyebrow.
"Okay." The guard took a breath. "Will you remain right here?"
Teal'c nodded. "I will."
The guard turned as he removed his zat, holding it low but steady. He headed toward the phone hanging on the wall. Teal'c watched the young man as he lifted the receiver and dialed. He spoke softly into the phone for a few seconds, nodded, then hung up.
A moment later, the door opened, and Colonel Parker stepped out.
He barely glanced at the guard before facing Teal'c. "What are you doing here?"
Teal'c straightened, his eyes sliding to the door as it closed behind the colonel. "I must ask you the same question."
"I was questioning Doctor Jackson." A crease formed in Parker's brow. "Leave. Now."
"I will not." Teal'c stepped forward. "I wish to see Doctor Jackson."
Parker shook his head. "Teal'c, if you don't leave, I will be forced to call Hammond and insist on your arrest."
"Do what you must." Teal'c moved toward the door. "I will see Daniel Jackson."
"Very well." Parker's shoulders slumped. He turned toward the phone, then hesitated. "I'll let you see him, then I'm calling Hammond and having you placed under arrest." He nodded at the guard, then moved toward the door.
Teal'c had barely taken another step when a blast from a zat sizzled over him, sending him staggering backward. He barely kept his balance, his ears ringing and his body flinching with tremors, as he fell toward the alarm on the wall. He aimed for it as his legs crumpled, and a flicker of satisfaction rushed through him when his hand made contact and sent the alarm claxons blaring.
He heard the Zat'N'Ktel discharge a second time, and the beam slammed him into the wall. Then he plummeted into darkness.
"Shit!" Parker ran a hand over his short hair and turned back to the holding area. "This was supposed to be nice and clean." He glanced at the guard, who looked several shades paler, then turned his attention back to the Jaffa's still figure.
Maybe he could still salvage the situation. First things first. He moved to the wall and silenced the alarm. Security would arrive any second. He needed a plausible story.
"This is what happened," he barked at the guard. No time. He had no fucking time. "We found Jackson dead. The Jaffa came, got violent, we had to use deadly force." He opened the door. The two guards were hovering outside of Jackson's cell, looking uncertain as the archeologist dangled limply from the noose tied to the bars. "Get out of --"
He cut his words short when he heard a loud curse.
"Son of a bitch!" Jack O'Neill's voice filled the hallway.
As soon as Jack heard the alarm claxons, he broke into a run down the hall and headed for the nearest phone. Yanking the receiver, he punched in the number for security.
When the line picked up, he barked, "What level?"
He cursed when he heard the answer, then slammed the receiver down, bolting toward the stairs. He was two floors above the detention level. Whatever was happening down there, he was sure it involved Daniel.
He flew through the stairwell doors and took the steps three at a time, nearly losing his balance several times as he careened down the flights. Maybourne was still locked up. Daniel was safe. There were guards, and cameras, and....
Daniel was safe. He had to be.
Jack flung himself through the door and emerged on the detention level, his eyes immediately falling to Teal'c's limp body on the floor.
"Son of a bitch!"
Jack lunged forward, kneeling next to Teal'c and feeling for a pulse as he eyed the guard standing as still as a tree a few feet away. He stiffened when he felt nothing against his fingers. Teal'c's heart wasn't beating.
The guard looked ready to pass out. Behind the young man, Jack saw Colonel Parker standing in the open doorway.
Parker turned toward the hall, his eyes wide, and Jack wasted no time. He grabbed Teal'c's weapon and came up with it aimed squarely at Parker's chest. He didn't have the luxury of performing CPR on Teal'c, and he pushed the pang of anguish that rose in his chest and prayed that security arrived fast.
"I want all your weapons on the floor!" Relief flooded Jack when he heard the pounding of feet behind him. Security had apparently made record time.
He glanced over his shoulder at the arriving team. "Call a medical team. Secure everyone in this area. Now!" He barged past Parker as two of the guards guided the silent colonel away from the door and confiscated his weapon.
As soon as Jack stepped into the holding area, he stopped, the air freezing in his lungs.
"No." He barely whispered the word.
He was pushed forward as more of the security team entered and restrained the two suspect guards standing like squirrels frozen in the path of impending death.
Jack lurched forward, stumbling into the cell. He grabbed his knife from its sheath, placed his foot on one of the horizontal bars, and stepped up. He slashed the blade through the twisted material, tearing the cotton, and Daniel crumpled like a wooden puppet, hitting the floor with a soft thud.
"Daniel." Jack dropped to his knees and slid the noose from Daniel's neck, throwing it several feet away.
The archeologist was pale, his lips blue. His eyelids lay open a crack, revealing glassy eyes. Jack placed his fingers on the side of the young man's neck. He couldn't feel a pulse.
"Shit." He leaned forward and tilted Daniel's head back.
He knew he shouldn't move a strangulation victim's neck, but if he didn't, Daniel would likely die. He covered Daniel's mouth with his own and tried to breathe air into the still lungs, but it didn't work. He encountered resistance, and the breath he released simply came back to him.
"Shit. Shit." He pulled back and looked at Daniel's throat. It was swollen, red and puffy, with contusions obviously made by the noose.
Mouth-to-mouth would be futile. Daniel's airway was swollen shut.
"Move aside, Colonel!" Janet's sharp voice yanked Jack's attention up.
He saw her crouched opposite of him. She leaned over Daniel, pressing her fingers against his neck and holding her ear to his mouth. Hands pushed Jack out of the way, and two men dressed in white lab jackets knelt next to Daniel.
"Edema. Tardieu spots. We're gonna have to intubate." She looked up at Jack as she grabbed the stethoscope from around her neck. "You tried mouth-to-mouth?"
Jack nodded, his mouth too dry for words, and rose slowly to his feet, backing into the corner, out of the way.
"Damn." Janet looked back down at Daniel and held the end of the stethoscope over his chest. She listened for a moment, then whipped the stethoscope off. "I've got a faint heartbeat."
Jack sagged against the wall.
"We need cervical in-line stabilization before intubating." Janet's words were clipped and hurried. "How long has he been out, Colonel?"
"I don't know. He was out when I got here."
She shook her head hard, as if in denial. More medics arrived, and Jack could do nothing but watch as the team immobilized Daniel's neck and forced a tube down his throat. Running a shaky hand over his face, Jack turned away and walked through the open bars to check on Teal'c. He made it to the hall on wobbly legs, but Teal'c was gone, and only a bunch of security guys and a few medics remained.
Jack staggered to the wall as Janet and her team charged the gurney toward the elevator. The elevator doors opened to reveal Hammond and Carter, who quickly jogged out into the corridor to give the medical team full access. Hammond spotted Jack, and as the doors closed, he and Carter hurried forward.
"What happened here, Colonel?" Hammond asked.
Jack shook his head. "I'm not sure. I think Parker tried to kill..." He swallowed. "He maybe...killed...I don't know." He shook his head and leaned against the wall, closing his eyes. Had he just lost two very good friends and half of SG-1? He took a breath, straightened and opened his eyes again to see Hammond looking almost ill and Carter on the verge of tears. "It looks like Parker and a team tried to kill Daniel and Teal'c," Jack continued, struggling to keep his voice steady. "I'm guessing Teal'c caught them in the act of attacking Daniel. I couldn't feel a pulse for either of them, but Fraiser said Daniel had a faint one. They, uh," he took another deep breath, anger flushing his cheeks. "They hanged Daniel. I'm not sure what happened to Teal'c. I didn't see any signs of physical injury, so I'm guessing a zat blast...a couple of them, if his heart stopped."
He closed his eyes again. This couldn't be happening. Teal'c and Daniel couldn't both be dead. Not here in the SGC. Right under his nose.
A hand came down on his shoulder, and he opened his eyes.
"Okay." Hammond's voice was gentle. "The security team has the area secure. I'll make sure Parker and his men are taken care of. You and the major head to the infirmary."
Jack nodded. "Thank you, sir." He glanced at Carter, then headed to the elevator, aware of the soft sound of her footsteps behind him.
It seemed as though they had been waiting forever. Jack sat just outside the infirmary, his head tilted back against the wall, keeping his eyes away from Carter seated across the hall from him.
Jacob and Sam Carter sat next to each other, their faces grim. Sam looked as though she'd aged ten years in just the past few hours. Her eyes were puffy and red, and shadows hung heavy beneath them.
What was taking so damn long? Jack glanced at his watch. It had been over two hours, and after Fraiser had ordered them out of the infirmary, no one had even popped their head out to give them an update. They didn't even know if Teal'c or Daniel were alive.
Jack tried to tell himself that no news was good news. If Teal'c or Daniel had died, someone would've come out to tell them.
Unless they were all too busy trying to keep the other one alive.
"This is ridiculous." He had to know. Shooting out of his chair, he ignored Carter's surprised look and stormed into the infirmary. He saw a woman in a white lab coat, her hair popping out of a messy bun, hurriedly rummaging through a counter drawer.
She straightened. "Colonel, please--"
He walked up to her in three long strides. "Just tell me. Are they both alive?"
She grabbed a small white container from the back of the drawer. "Yes, sir." She took a deep breath. "I have to go. Im sorry I can't give you more detail. Please wait outside, sir."
She hurried past him. Jack followed her, moving into the back room of the infirmary. He saw a cluster of medical personnel grouped around two beds, moving around the area like fish in an aquarium. Voices seemed to talk over one another, yet everyone seemed to know exactly what they were doing.
Jack slid a few feet to the side to get a better view past the crowd of bodies. He saw Teal'c's large, dark figure lying motionless in one bed, and his eyes went to the heart monitor next to the Jaffa.
On the screen, a thin, green dot moved up and down. Jack breathed a sigh, his shoulders slumping.
He didn't know how Teal'c had survived two zat blasts, if that was indeed what had happened, but at the moment, he didn't care. All that mattered was that little dot kept moving.
Jack flinched and saw Fraiser heading toward him. She grabbed his arm and steered him out of the room. "Not now, Colonel. Wait outside."
"Okay." He swallowed, allowing her to drag him all the way back to the hallway.
She turned to leave, but he grabbed her elbow.
"Please, doc. Just give us the condensed version." He glanced at Sam as she rose with Jacob, her eyes expectant.
Janet looked back and forth between them, then took a breath. "Okay, the basics. Teal'c's alive, but he was in cardiac arrest. We managed to revive him, and he's breathing on his own. His symbiote is weak, and I'm not sure if it'll survive. If it does, Teal'c has a good chance of surviving as well. If it doesn't, well, you know what'll happen."
Jack swallowed and nodded, glancing at Jacob. Maybe they had a baby Goa'uld they could round up as a substitute.
"I'll see what I can do," Jacob said.
Jack nodded and turned back to Janet. "Was it a zat blast?"
She nodded. "Yes. Hammond has interrogated the guard who was standing as look-out in the hallway. He confessed to shooting Teal'c, but he said Parker delivered the fatal second shot. Colonel Parker's story is that Teal'c got violent and they had to use deadly force against him."
"Bullshit, I bet dollars to donuts the security tape will show otherwise." Jack clenched a fist at his side. "If he got hit twice, why's he alive? He told us two zat blasts kill."
Carter spoke up, her voice weary. "No, sir. I think he said two zat blasts kill most subjects."
Jacob raised an eyebrow. "I'd say Teal'c's not like most subjects."
Jack swallowed hard. "No, he's not." He looked back to Fraiser. "So, it's possible he could pull through?"
She nodded. "As I said, if his symbiote survives or we can find a healthy larva, then yes."
Jack took a breath. One down, one to go. "What about Daniel?"
She sighed heavily. "He's alive. We've intubated him. He's on life support. There doesn't seem to be any cervical damage, which is very good news. The evidence indicates he was hung slowly, not dropped. However, most strangulation victims lose consciousness as a result of having the blood flow to the brain cut off rather than from lack of oxygen. That's what concerns me the most. He was unconscious when you found him, and you don't know how long. Fifty seconds is the time frame we're looking at before irreversible brain damage sets in."
Jack's knees almost gave way. He staggered toward the wall and reached out a hand to brace himself. "Fifty seconds?"
He tried to think. How long? How long had it taken him to check on Teal'c, get the zat gun, get into the holding cell, cut Daniel down .?
And how long had Daniel been hanging there before Jack had even arrived?
"Fifty seconds?" he asked again, his throat tight. He looked at her, denial clawing at him. "God, doc, I think he was up there for at least that."
Her eyes told him more than any words could have. She rubbed the back of her neck and glanced over her shoulder into the infirmary before returning her gaze to him. "There's something else. I've already contacted General Hammond, and he's trying to find the information, but if you want to help "
He straightened and saw Sam take a step forward. "What? Anything."
"I'm getting some strange physiological readings. I need to know if he was given anything. Drugged. I've run a standard tox screen, and we rushed the preliminary results through, but nothing has shown up so far."
Jack nodded. "I'll find out for sure." He turned to Carter. "Major, you and Jacob see if you can locate a new symbiote for Teal'c."
"Yes, sir." Sam glanced at her father. "Come on, Dad. We'll need to talk with General Hammond."
Jack watched as the Carters took off at a brisk walk down the hall. He held Janet's gaze for a moment, reading the fatigue and worry in her face, then nodded slowly, turned away from her, and headed toward the elevator.
Daniel wasn't going to die. Couldn't. And he certainly wasn't going to die labeled a thief and a traitor.
No. Daniel wasn't going to die at all. Not today. Not anytime soon.
Jack had to make one stop before going to see Parker. He stepped off the elevator, turned the corner, and came to a halt in front of a closed door. He tapped twice, and at the deep bellow of permission, turned the knob and walked inside.
"General." Jack stopped in front of Hammond's desk.
"How's Doctor Jackson?"
"Holding on. That's why I'm here, sir. Fraiser thinks he may have been drugged, but she can't find anything in his system. I'm on my way to ask Parker about it, but I was hoping you could give me a brief update first. Have we gotten the security footage yet?"
Hammond nodded and leaned back in his chair. He gave a sigh. "Yes, we have. Unfortunately, all the cameras on that level went dark approximately twenty minutes before the estimated time of the assault. As for Doctor Jackson being drugged, Fraiser is correct. Security just informed me that they had confiscated an empty syringe from one of Parker's accomplices. It's on its way to Fraiser now."
"Son of a--" Jack swiped a palm across his eyes. "Just how big does this thing go? First Maybourne, now Parker and three more men. Tampering with security tapes." He shook his head. "The circumstances alone are suspicious enough to clear Daniel of all charges."
"Yes, they are, but if the guard standing look-out hadn't given us a confession, Parker might have walked away clean."
Jack nodded. "And Parker's story about Teal'c starting it?"
"Contradicted by the guard, who is being surprisingly talkative. Seems he's a recent addition to the NID's payroll...or someone's payroll, at any rate."
"Any chance of Parker weaseling out of this one? What about his other two cronies?"
"Don't worry, Colonel. Parker's going to face the music for this one. Of course, it would help if Teal'c and Doctor Jackson could also give us statements."
Jack nodded. "Fraiser says Teal'c has a good chance of pulling through if his symbiote survives or we can find another one. Daniel..." he took a breath, "well, he's alive, sir. Permission to be dismissed."
"Granted." Hammond waved a hand. "Give Colonel Parker my regards."
"Gladly," Jack answered darkly, then left the office and trotted toward the elevator.
He rode the elevator back down to the detention level, a flicker of a satisfied smile lifting his lips. At least Parker was where he belonged, behind bars, getting a taste of his own medicine, rather than soaking up the luxury of some VIP suite.
The elevator slid to a halt, and the doors languished open. Impatient, he hopped through them as they parted, then marched stiffly toward holding area two. The guard on duty turned to him, and Jack nodded at the man and sailed right past without wasting time on pleasantries. His rank and position at the SGC gave him all the clearance he needed.
Moving to the rear area, he slid his keycard through the slot and pushed the door open, stepping into the holding room. Behind the bars dividing the room in half, Jack saw Parker seated on a narrow bunk.
"Colonel." Parker rose, his expression neutral.
"Nice place ya got here." Jack stopped at the bars, his back straight. "Food good?"
"What do want?"
"What did you give Daniel?"
Parker's eyebrows rose. "Nothing, Colonel. I told General Hammond what happened."
"Teal'c's awake. He's given us a different story," he lied.
Parker's eyes narrowed. "I was there when the medics pronounced him dead."
"Ah-ah." Jack raised a finger. "He didn't have a pulse. He was not and is not dead. Seems two blasts isn't quite good enough to kill a guy like Teal'c." Anger tightened his voice. "You got sloppy."
Parker straightened but kept his distance from the bars. "How is Doctor Jackson, by the way?"
"Also still alive. So back to my question. What did you give him?"
"And my answer remains the same. Nothing."
"We found the syringe."
Parker's expression didn't waver. "What syringe?"
"Fraiser will analyze what's inside."
Parker's lips twitched upward. "Well, then you don't need me."
Jack's hand shot up, and he wrapped his fingers tightly around one of the bars. "If either one of them dies..."
"We'll all mourn the loss," Parker finished flatly. "Anything else, Colonel?"
Jack's knuckles went white as his grip tightened on the bars. He glanced over his shoulder at the security camera. This one, unfortunately, was very likely functioning perfectly.
Looking back to Parker, Jack leaned forward ever-so-slightly and dropped his voice. "You're going down, Parker. Face it. I don't care if you think you were following orders or doing our country a service. You screwed up, and whatever subversive group you're with is going to leave your ass hanging out to dry. The name Oliver North ring a bell?"
"Go to hell, O'Neill."
Jack smiled and stepped back. "I'll meet you there."
Maybourne was on his way to put on some new music when the door opened and Jack O'Neill whirled inside.
"Hello, Col--" Maybourne's greeting died when he found himself thrust against the wall, the collar of his shirt pulled taut as hands lifted him to his toes.
"Parker drugged Daniel." Jack thrust his face inches from Maybourne's. "What did he give him?"
"I wouldn't know, Colonel. I've been here the entire time."
Jack slammed Maybourne hard against the wall. "Wrong answer."
Pulling in a rough breath, Maybourne eyed the security camera hanging high in the corner of the room before returning his attention to O'Neill. "Really, Jack, what makes you think I know anything?"
"You and Parker are on the same team."
"The United States'? Yes, we're both employed by Uncle Sam."
"Remember what I promised you?"
Maybourne studied Jack O'Neill carefully. He recognized the cold, dark glint in the man's eyes. He'd seen it too many times before. "Yes, I do," he stated calmly.
"I just want to know one thing. What did Parker give Daniel?"
Maybourne relaxed beneath O'Neill's grip. He wasn't sure, but he suspected he knew what Parker had given Jackson, and it unfortunately wouldn't kill Jackson, so not telling O'Neill would serve little purpose. In fact, if he could prove himself helpful, then he might start to extricate himself from this colossal mess.
"Tell me more, and I'll see if I can help," Maybourne said.
Jack's eyes narrowed. "Tell you more about what?" He eased his grip, and Maybourne breathed a sigh as his heels touched the floor.
"What makes you think Jackson was drugged? Symptoms? Effects?"
"Fraiser says she's getting some weird physiological readings, and they found an empty syringe on one of the men who attacked Jackson."
"What happened in the attack?"
Jack's body went rigid. "They hung him. He was unconscious when I found him."
Maybourne nodded. "Okay, so whatever they used has to be virtually untraceable so that the official cause of death would be strangulation."
Maybourne shrugged. "I can't be sure, of course, but I can tell you that the NID has a few top secret chemicals acquired from, uh, various planetary excursions. Some have been synthesized using plants SGC teams have brought back. Only one of these drugs, that I know of, would prove useful in this particular situation. It's a paralyzing agent, and I can't say any more than that. You want the specifics, go through the proper channels at Area 51. All you need to know is that its effects last about four hours, it only affects voluntary muscles, and all Fraiser needs to do is give Doctor Jackson a relatively high dose of calcium."
Jack took a step back. "Calcium?"
"Yep. If I'm wrong, that shouldn't hurt him, anyway, right? Not that I'm a doctor, but even if Fraiser does nothing, the drug itself should not kill Doctor Jackson -- if I'm right about what he was given, that is."
Jack nodded, his posture relaxing. "I may be stupid, but something tells me you're not lying."
Maybourne offered the barest hint of a smile. "Maybe you've been wrong about me this entire time."
Jack's eyes hardened again. "I don't think so." He turned and walked out of the room.
"Doc!" Fraiser's head snapped up at the sound of the colonel's voice. She saw him practically fly into the room.
His gaze flickered to Daniel's still, pale figure, and he stopped at the foot of the bed. "Calcium," he blurted. "I talked to Maybourne, and he thinks Parker gave Daniel a paralyzing agent."
She nodded. "That would explain the hypotension and other physiological anomalies."
"All you gotta do is give him calcium." Jack rubbed at the back of his neck and looked at her with uncertain, desperate eyes. "That sound right?"
She offered a reassuring smile. "Yes, calcium ions are involved in muscle function."
"And the other stuff?"
Her smile faded. "The MRI and PET scan are clear, but they can't find everything. It's too soon to know whether he's suffered any brain damage."
Jack fidgeted in the chair between the two beds. Neither Teal'c nor Daniel had opened his eyes since the attacks, and the fragile thread of optimism Jack had managed to cling to regarding his friends' chances of recovery was badly frayed. He'd heard nothing from Jacob, who was supposedly trying to round up a Goa'uld larva to replace Teal'c's, and he'd heard nothing new from Fraiser about Daniel's chances of pulling through.
"Okay, big guy." Jack sighed and slouched in the chair, studying Teal'c's slack face. "Anytime now."
When he received no response, he ran a hand over his face and shifted toward Daniel. The young man would've looked like he was enjoying a deep slumber if it weren't for the tube in his mouth and the lines and wires connected to various parts of his body.
And, of course, if not for the vicious bruises and angry swelling around his neck.
Glancing at his watch, Jack grimaced, then fidgeted again. His butt was hurting, smack dab on the center of his tailbone, and the muscles in his back had gone stiff a while ago. With a groan, he pushed himself out of the chair, and paced a few steps.
He walked to Daniel's bedside and stopped, looking down at the archeologist. His throat went tight, and he swallowed hard, his mind conjuring up the image of Daniel's limp body hanging from the cell bars, a white, cotton noose wrapped around his neck.
That would be the second time he'd found Daniel in the grip of death here on good ol' planet Earth, where it was supposed to be relatively safe. Bad enough the kid had to fight Goa'uld and other alien nasties, but to have a faction of the very government he worked so hard for -- had bled for too many times to count -- turn on him....
Jack's jaw clenched, and he resumed his pacing.
The deep, weak voice stopped Jack cold, and he spun toward Teal'c's bed. The air rushed out of his lungs when he saw the Jaffa's dark eyes focused on him.
"Teal'c!" Jack hurried to his friend's bed. "How're you feeling, big guy?"
"Not well." Teal'c took a breath. "I believe, however, that I will recover if allowed to remain in Kel Noreem uninterrupted."
"What? Oh!" Jack lowered his voice instantly. "The
pacing. Sorry. You were in Kel Noreem?"
"I was." Teal'c's eyelids drifted closed, then sprung open again. "Daniel Jackson...."
"Is in the bed next to you. Alive."
Teal'c's gaze slid past Jack and locked on Daniel. His eyes seemed to drift over the archeologist's still figure, and a deep sadness touched his face. Finally, he closed his eyes and sighed, turning his head away.
Jack cleared his throat. "He's hanging on, Teal'c. He's a fighter. You know that."
"We know. The bastard's behind bars." He sat on the edge of the mattress and dropped his voice further. "You up to telling me exactly what happened?"
Teal'c swallowed, and his eyes remained closed. His voice was hushed, weak. "I arrived on the detention level. The guard inquired..." He swallowed again. "Instructed me to leave. I refused. Colonel Parker emerged from the holding room. He agreed to allow me to see Daniel Jackson. As I moved forward, the guard fired his Zat'N'ktel. I attempted to sound the alarm when I was struck by a second blast." His voice faded on that last word.
Jack waited a moment longer, but when Teal'c remained silent, he slid off the bed. "You doing the Kel Noreem thing?"
Teal'c gave a single nod.
"Okay. I'm gonna get Doc Fraiser."
"Unscheduled gate activation!"
The alarm claxons blared, and Hammond sighed. He was getting tired of those damn things. Rising from his chair, he marched briskly out of his office and headed for the control room. The technician looked back at his arrival.
"It's the Tok'ra ID, sir."
Hammond nodded. "Open the iris. Let's hope Jacob brings good news."
Turning his attention to the gate, he saw the iris slide open. A moment later, Jacob Carter emerged from the event horizon and trotted down the ramp.
Hammond spoke into the microphone. "Stand down. Jacob, meet me in the infirmary."
Jack looked up from his seated position between the two beds as the sound of footsteps banged against the hard floor somewhere in the hallway outside. Fraiser had checked Teal'c out and, for the first time in nearly a day, showed a hint of a smile as she proclaimed that, in her opinion, the larva was recovering and Teal'c stood a good chance of pulling through.
That was the best news Jack had had in a while, but his eyes darted to Daniel's motionless figure.
One down, one to go.
Hammond and Jacob walked hurriedly into the infirmary, Fraiser trotting behind them, a clipboard held in her arm.
"Hello, Jack." Jacob stopped by Teal'c's bed, his face grim. "How is he?"
"Doing good. He woke up a little while ago."
"I think he'll make it," Fraiser interjected. "The Goa'uld larva seems to be getting stronger, and Teal'c's vital signs are stable. He's engaged in Kel Noreem, and that should help his recovery."
Hammond took a breath. "That's good news, Doctor."
"Okay." Jack rose from the chair and ushered the group into the other room. "Teal'c's asked for quiet." He turned to Jacob. "So, what's the news?"
"We couldn't find a viable larva," Jacob offered a smile that contrasted starkly with his words. "That's not a problem now, it seems. But I did bring this." He raised his hand and turned his palm over to reveal a healing device. "It's worth a try. I think I can help both of them."
Janet nodded. "I agree, and since Doctor Jackson is currently more critical, you should start with him." She gestured back toward the room they'd just exited.
"All right." Jacob walked past her, moving into the other room and going to Daniel's bedside. He stopped at the edge of the mattress and turned his palm toward the bed. "Now?" He looked back at Fraiser for confirmation.
"Yes, now's as good a time as any."
Jacob turned his attention back to Daniel and raised the palm device over the archeologist's chest. Immediately, the device glowed, and Jacob moved the beam slowly over Daniel's neck and head, then back down toward his heart.
Warmth banished the nothingness surrounding him. It spread through him, filling his chest and lungs and flowing to his arms and legs. It tugged at him, pulled him from the darkness, bringing with it other sensations.
Pain. A deep ache in his neck and chest. Pangs of hunger in his gut. A throbbing headache.
Noises. Beeping. Voices.
Voices. Parker. The guards. Fighting. His face pressed against the bars. A sting in his hand. A noose.
He couldn't move. The cotton tightened around his neck, he struggled. Tried to reach up, but nothing worked.
And suddenly, it did. He felt his arms moving, and every part of him came alive with a screaming jolt of adrenaline, and he reached up, clawed at the thing around his neck, but his fingers contacted only hot skin that erupted into fiery agony at the contact.
He tried to scream, to swallow, to do anything, but realized it was inside him, in his throat, and he grabbed it, feeling the hardness in his palm, and tugged, gagging as it moved in his throat, scraping against the tender flesh and leaving a path of fire.
Suddenly, there were hands on him, pulling at his wrists and pushing on his chest, holding him down. Voices shouted, and he added his own to the mix, pushing the cry past his tortured throat, hoping the guard -- someone, anyone -- would hear.
Then there was only one voice, close to his right ear. Soothing. Familiar.
"Daniel, damnit. Easy. Easy. You're okay."
"You're in the infirmary. The tube's out. You got it. Okay?"
Okay? He tried to find the voice, blinking, and a face slid into focus.
"That's it." Jack gave a tiny smile.
Daniel felt a hand behind his head, cradling, supporting, and he realized he was alive, and breathing, and God! He'd never been so happy to see anyone in his life.
His vision blurred again, and the tears took him by surprise, and suddenly his face was pressed against Jack's shoulder, and he was trembling and crying and gasping for breath.
He felt hands again, this time gentle and soothing, rubbing circles on his back. The strength drained from him suddenly, and he folded against Jack, resting his forehead on a shoulder.
"I got ya," Jack whispered in his ear.
Then, slowly, arms lowered him to the mattress. A hand cradled his head and eased it to the pillow, and warmth spread up his arm, dulling his senses and pulling him back toward darkness.
Jack lunged forward as Daniel arched off the bed, his hands whipping upward to claw at his neck.
"Help me with him!" Fraiser ordered, moving forward.
Jacob staggered a few steps back, out of the way. Daniel's hands found the tube, his fingers wrapping around it, and he pulled, gagging, a low, pathetic mewling rising from his abused throat.
Janet grabbed the tube as it came out and tossed it on the floor, then held Daniel's wrists. The young man struggled against her, a hoarse cry that sounded vaguely like "help!" tearing from his throat.
Jack helped her, wrapping his hands around Daniel's wrists and pulling them down as Janet pushed on Daniel's chest, trying to keep him in the bed. One of the wrists escaped, and Jack ducked just as a fist flew past his cheek.
"Daniel, Damnit." Jack quickly recaptured the escaped limb. "Easy. Easy. You're okay."
Daniel's struggles eased, and he turned his head toward Jack, his eyes roaming.
Jack relaxed his grip slightly, relieved to be getting a response. "You're in the infirmary." Jack moved his head into Daniel's wandering field of vision, trying to capture the young man's gaze. "The tube's out. You got it. Okay?"
Daniel stilled further, his eyes locking with Jack's. He blinked, squinting, and slowly, the edges of his eyes creased, and the tension drained further from his body.
"That's it." Jack managed a smile. He felt the quivers of exhaustion in Daniel's arms, and he released one of them to slide a hand behind Daniel's head, prepared to ease the young man back to the mattress.
The quivers turned more violent, and sudden tears sprang in Daniel's eyes. He blinked again at Jack, a mixture of relief and disbelief in his eyes, and his free hand closed around the arm Jack was using to hold Daniel's wrist.
Daniel lurched forward, giving a desperate croak, and Jack caught him, pulling him close. He gently guided Daniel's head toward his shoulder, then slid his hand to the archeologist's back.
"I got ya," Jack whispered in to Daniel's ear, rubbing slow circles on the young man's back.
Janet's voice, almost a whisper, pulled Jack's gaze upward, and he saw a syringe in her hand.
"He pulled out his I.V. I need to give him this."
Jack nodded, leaning forward and lowering Daniel to the bed. His hand slid up to support the young man's head, and he noticed that Daniel's eyes, still wet, were already starting to close. Carefully, he lowered Daniel's head to the pillow as Janet smoothly inserted the needle into a vein in Daniel's arm.
Taking a breath, Jack straightened, his eyes lingering on the now sleeping archeologist. "What was that about?" His words came out rough and weak, and he cleared his throat as he looked up at Fraiser for an answer.
She tossed the syringe in the red sharps bin hanging on the wall to the side of the bed, then looked at him. "Just a reaction, Colonel. Not unexpected considering what's happened to him. His body was fighting death moments before the noose cut off the blood flow to his brain. He came to still fighting."
Jack nodded, his shoulders slumping, and a tiny smile of relief lifting his lips. "Yeah, he's definitely a fighter." He turned to Jacob. The man wore a vaguely guilty-looking expression on his face. "Thank you."
Jacob smiled. "I'm just glad he's all right." His smile turned to a grin. "Though, I have to say, he scared the hell out of me coming to like that."
"Well," Fraiser moved around Daniel's bed, casting a departing glance at the archeologist, "I think he'll be okay. His throat looks much better, thanks to the healing device. All we have to do now is wait for him to wake up again so I can run some cognitive tests."
Jack really wished she'd stop being such a doomsayer. "You telling me you still think he's brain damaged?"
She looked to Jacob. "You tell me. Can your healing device repair neural damage?"
The Tok'ra nodded. "If caught early enough, depending on the type of damage. However, I'm pretty sure Danny's okay in that regard."
Fraiser's eyebrows rose. "You can tell?"
He nodded. "Somewhat. The device utilizes a connection with the user's mind, and it feels different when it detects damage and begins repairs. I can differentiate serious injuries from minor injuries, and I can tell when there's no damage at all."
Jack breathed a smile. "So he's okay?"
Jacob nodded, his eyes sparkling. "Yes, Jack, he's okay. When I moved the beam over his cranium, I felt minor damage, but that was quickly repaired. I wouldn't be surprised if that's why he woke up so suddenly."
Jack moved forward and patted Jacob on the arm. "I could kiss you, Jacob."
The Tok'ra took a step backward and raised his hands. "Not in public, Jack. I've told you that before."
Giving a grin, Jack clapped his hands and turned toward Teal'c's bed. "Okay, big guy," the Jaffa appeared asleep, but Jack moved up the bed and slid on the mattress, "your turn. Hey!" He batted Teal'c's arm. "You in there?"
Teal'c opened his eyes. "I am." He turned his head toward the other bed. "Daniel Jackson looks much improved."
"Yeah, thanks to Jacob and his magic hand thingie. Now you get the honors." Jack moved away from the bed.
Teal'c nodded and closed his eyes. "I am ready."
Jacob stepped forward, holding the device over Teal'c's abdomen. A soft glow cascaded downward, and after a moment, Jacob moved the device toward Teal'c's chest. A few seconds later, the beam faded, and Jacob stepped back.
"All done. The larva was already on the road to recovery."
"Finally." Jack rubbed a hand over his hair. "I was beginning to think things would never start looking up."
"Yes, sir." General Hammond grinned into the phone. "I understand. I'm sorry it came to that, but... Uh-huh. Absolutely, sir." A knock on his door pulled his attention upward, and when he saw O'Neill peek his head in, he waved the Colonel inside and gestured to the empty chair. "Thank you, Mr. President."
He hung up the phone just as O'Neill sank into the chair.
"So, good news?" Jack raised his eyebrows expectantly.
"Yes, and it's about time." Hammond leaned back in his chair. "With the latest evidence of Colonel Parker's misdeeds, the evidence against Doctor Jackson regarding the stolen items lacks credibility. With the pressure from the Tollans, the President has decided to wash his hands of this mess. Daniel Jackson is fully reinstated effective immediately. Parker's going to be tried for treason, and Maybourne will be put under investigation."
Jack leaned forward. "Under investigation? C'mon. What about the blood? The Tok'ra memory thingie?"
Hammond shook his head. "Not enough. None of Maybourne's blood was found in Jackson's apartment, and we know nothing about the Tok'ra memory device, certainly not enough to use it as evidence to convict a man of a high crime. Maybourne's argument is persuasive. The President isn't convinced the device isn't showing what Jackson dreamed or believed happened."
"That's just great." Jack leaned back, slouching. "He's going to get away with attempted murder."
Hammond frowned. "Maybe not. If the investigation..."
"It'll get swept under the rug."
"Look, Jack, it's not a perfect system, but the bright side is very bright. Doctor Jackson is once again a member of SG-1, if he wants to be."
Jack smiled, lines of fatigue framing his eyes. "Yeah, but, uh, as much as I'm rarin' to get back into the field, I think after all that's happened..."
"Three days is about all I can spare right now, effective after Fraiser medically clears Doctor Jackson, of course. I'm sorry. Maybe a little later, but we're still recovering from using resources to find Jackson in the first place. There's a backlog."
Jack nodded. "I understand, sir. Thank you."
Hammond tilted his head. "Any idea what you're going do with the time off?"
A mischievous glint lit Jack's eyes. "Oh, yeah. A little team morale boosting, and I still owe Daniel an official trip to the steakhouse. Then there's a few recreational, uh, establishments in the city I thought we'd check out. You know, reintroduce Daniel to some Earth novelties and work on improving Teal'c's knowledge of Earth."
Hammond stifled a smile. "Oh, and Major Carter? Something tells me she might not share your taste in entertainment."
Jack pursed his lips. "She'll come around," he grinned, "especially if I inform her this is all for Daniel's benefit."
Hammond finally chuckled. "It's amazing the Major has put up with you for this long."
"Can't argue with that, I suppose." Jack's smile faded. "One more thing, sir."
Hammond nodded, his expression growing serious again. "Yes?"
"About Kheb. I promised Daniel...."
Hammond nodded again. "If he comes up with an address, we'll dial it up. Other than that, I can't authorize distinct missions to search for Kheb. Even if he's right, it'd be like looking for a needle in a haystack."
"He thinks he has most of the address already, but, uh, if we happen to be engaged in a mission for other purposes..."
Hammond gave a tired smile. "Yes, Colonel, SG-1 can keep an eye out for references to Kheb."
Jack gave a curt, satisfied nod. "Thank you, sir."
A steady beeping somewhere to his left pulled him toward consciousness. The darkness surrounding him lifted suddenly, and he realized his eyes were open. All he saw was white, and he blinked, but the whiteness remained.
Swallowing, he winced at the pain that flared in his throat and, slowly, turned his head toward the beeping. A small, squarish EKG monitor sat unobtrusively against a wall, its screen flickering with a green dot that bounced up and down, leaving a fading path of green in its wake.
"It is good to finally see you awake, Daniel Jackson."
Daniel turned his head the other way and frowned when he saw the Jaffa lying in a bed. His eyes quickly swept the room, and he realized he was in the SGC infirmary. His brow creased as he struggled to figure out why he was there, and a memory washed over him suddenly. He had woken once before, hadn't he? Jack had been there, a voice in his ear telling him everything was okay.
He swallowed, his throat tightening as he prepared for speech, not entirely sure he was able to make a sound. "Teal'c." The word emerged as a croak, producing a wisp of pain in his throat, but at least he could talk. "What happ'ned?"
"You were attacked in your cell by Parker and his cohorts."
Daniel closed his eyes and nodded. He remembered that much. "No. To you."
"I arrived at the detention level during the attack and did not exercise the level of attention and caution required of the situation. I allowed myself to be disabled by a Zat'N'ktel."
"Oh?" Daniel swallowed again. Slowly, he turned on his side to face the Jaffa. One blast was never enough to put Teal'c in the infirmary. "What else?" God, he really needed some water.
"Jacob Carter arrived and healed both of us."
Healed? A strange feeling churned in Daniel's gut. "Uh...Can you...elaborate?"
"I was struck twice by the weapon, and my symbiote was badly damaged. You were near death, also, when Colonel O'Neill found us. Jacob Carter used the healing device on us."
Oh. It had been that bad. It still didn't make much sense, though. If he'd been healed, why was his throat still sore? Shouldn't he be almost as good as new? He raised a hand to his throat and used his fingers to probe the tender skin. It was hot beneath his touch, but he didn't have a mirror to inspect the damage.
"Your throat still presents minor bruising and swelling. You awoke during the healing process, and your reaction was sufficiently negative that Doctor Fraiser believed it would be safer for your body to rest and heal the remaining minor injuries on its own."
"Oh." Okay, he supposed that made sense. "Why are you still here?"
"I am still somewhat weak."
Daniel frowned. "You look fine."
Teal'c's right eyebrow rose infinitesimally. "I assure you, I am not yet fully recovered. It is best that I remain here under observation."
Daniel pursed his lips, his eyes narrowing with comprehension. "Oh, I see."
He slid his hand under the pillow and curled deeper beneath the thin blanket, studying Teal'c's unwaveringly calm expression. He took a breath, his lips twitching as he saw the hint of a smile take shape on Teal'c's face.
Aha. Well, Teal'c was nothing if not loyal. He took a deeper breath, a sudden weariness pulling the smile from his lips. He was looking at a man who'd almost died for him. He knew Teal'c would give his life in a heartbeat to save him, Jack, or Sam, but....
But there was still that one thing that weighed him down. Hovered between them. There, in the other bed, was also the man who'd killed his wife.
Daniel was more adept at forgiveness than he'd ever realized, especially after he'd lost Sha're the first time and realized he'd be working side-by-side with the man who had chosen her for Apophis, but even though he'd wanted to hate Teal'c, he couldn't. The man had given up everything and risked his life to save them; and Daniel had had something to help fill the empty, gaping hole torn from him when he'd lost Sha're.
Now, that hope was gone, and all that remained was the promise he'd made to find the boy...and that gaping hole that was now filled with a terrible, unrelenting pain.
It was so much easier just to blame Teal'c, to have someone physically present that he could point to and focus his hate on.
Why'd she have to go and ask him to forgive Teal'c?
He took another breath, coming back to himself and somewhat surprised to realize that Teal'c was staring at him with somber, intense eyes.
Yep, there was the man who had almost died to save him. The man who'd killed Sh'are. The man who'd been his friend for roughly three years.
The man he so desperately wanted to hate, but couldn't. Damnit.
Maybe Sha're had known all along. It would be very much like her. She'd always had a quick mind and a strong heart. He'd only spent a year with her, and yet she'd seemed to know him better than he knew himself. A cliche, but true.
She had been looking out for him, even as she'd taken her last breath. She'd taken the burden from him by making a deathbed request she knew he couldn't refuse.
He smiled gently, and his eyes tingled. Teal'c's expression changed, his brow creased with a hint of confusion, then a glimmer of something close to hope touched his face.
Daniel swallowed. "Thank you, Teal'c, for saving my life." He hoped his meaning was clear.
It obviously was. Teal'c nodded, the faintest hint of red flaring at the corners of his eyes, and he bowed his head slightly.
Daniel took a deep breath. The air felt lighter, cleaner, and he rolled on his back, staring again at the whiteness above. He hadn't been sure before, but after Maybourne and Parker, he was slightly surprised to realize that he wasn't just carrying on. He still had something inside him that wanted to live.
Daniel slid into his heavy, leather jacket, frowning slightly as he bounced his shoulders to adjust the fit. It hung loose on him, further accentuating the fact that he'd lost a few pounds since he'd last worn it. Janet had managed to liberate it, and a few of his other clothes, from some of the boxes stored in security that hadn't managed to be processed yet.
Eyeing his glasses resting on the table next to the infirmary bed,
he picked them up and studied the frames. They were a new pair and had finally just
arrived. Not that he'd really needed them while lying flat on his back in a bed.
Slipping the glasses on his face, he breathed a sigh as the room snapped into sharp focus. Slowly, he turned in a circle, taking in the white, sterile surroundings. A tight feeling pulled in his gut, and he swallowed, then took a deep breath.
He was finally free to leave. Given the "okay" by Fraiser. Cleared of all charges. He could go anywhere on Earth that he wanted.
But he had nowhere to go. He'd given up his apartment. Cancelled his credit cards.
It was an all-too familiar feeling. Starting from scratch. How many times in his life would he have to do it?
Daniel flinched at the sudden, intrusive exclamation and looked up as Jack sauntered into the infirmary, followed by Sam and Teal'c. Teal'c had finally been forced from the infirmary yesterday, and since Maybourne had been escorted from the base, there was no longer a threat to Daniel's life.
He didn't need his baby-sitters anymore.
"So," Jack hopped on the edge of the empty bed, "you up for an early dinner?"
Daniel shrugged. "Sure." There was just one problem. "I, uh..."
"And," Sam began, "the colonel has even agreed to
let you pick the place."
"A fact for which I am most pleased," Teal'c remarked.
Daniel managed a tiny smile in response. "Thanks. I'm kind of in the mood for someplace quiet."
"Okay, so O'Malley's is out." Jack slid off the bed. "Any specific ideas?"
"Tarantino's?" Daniel offered.
Jack nodded. "Italian. Okay, I can do Italian." He slapped Daniel on the shoulder and gestured to the door. "This'll be SG-1's first official meal together since your return. I think this occasion merits dessert, so leave room."
Daniel stood in place as Jack urged him forward, and the older man turned to him, his eyes suddenly wary.
Daniel took a breath. He hadn't missed the implication in Jack's statement. No one had actually come right out and said he was welcome back as a member of SG-1. No one had asked, either.
Sam took a few steps toward him but stopped an arm's length away, her eyes wide. "You are coming back, right?"
Daniel searched the faces of his three friends. A lot had happened in the past few weeks. He'd gone from having the SGC as his home to having it become his enemy. Even now, he didn't know whether there were more men like Maybourne and Parker who wanted him dead, and frankly, he didn't understand why he'd become a target in the first place. Oh, he knew the general reasons. He could understand Maybourne being ticked off about the Tollan thing, and he knew, as a civilian, he wasn't exactly welcome by the military community, but for so many people to go to so much trouble just to see him dead....
Teal'c bowed his head ever-so-slightly. "It would be a great loss to the SGC should you decide to leave us, Daniel Jackson."
"Yeah." Jack jerked a thumb toward Teal'c. "What he said. So? Should we reissue you a locker? Give you back the key to your office? Stock up the vending machines with Fifth Avenue Bars?"
Daniel's lips twitched at that remark. Hell, yes, he wanted to stay with SG-1, not just because he'd made a promise to find Sha're's son, for which he needed the Stargate, but also because this was the only place on Earth he'd ever really begun to think of as home; and, outside of Abydos, the three people in front of him were the closest he'd come to family since his parents had died.
Jack spoke again, his voice unusually subdued. "I cleared Kheb with General Hammond. We can help you, Daniel."
Daniel squared his shoulders and met Jack's eyes. The intensity of
the gaze took his breath away, and he felt a warmth blossom in his chest. He hadn't let
himself realize just how much he'd missed his friend while he'd been on his own, out
there, hopping stargates, thinking he'd never, ever see this place or these people again.
Taking a breath, Daniel tried his best to look casual. "So, you're asking me back?"
Jack raised his eyebrows. "Well, duh."
"And the General has authorized a mission to Kheb?"
Jack nodded. "As soon as we come up with a complete address, it's a go."
Daniel gave a lopsided smile. "Can I renegotiate my salary?"
Jack breathed a sigh and slung his arm across Daniel's shoulders. "You already make more than I do, you greedy son of a bitch," he guided Daniel toward the door, "and you never spend any of it."
Daniel leaned against his friend as the four of them headed out of the infirmary. "I don't suppose my apartment's still available?"
"Probably not," Jack gave Daniel a quick squeeze, "but I've got a perfectly good spare room."
The meal had been delicious. Jack had driven Teal'c back to the base, dropped Sam home, and finally been able to call it an evening. Daniel actually knew how to pick decent food. Jack fumbled for his keys, eyeing the man next to him, and opened his front door.
He gestured inside, "After you."
With a brief smile, Daniel shuffled past him and moved into the living room. He slid out of his jacket and draped it over the arm of the chair, then sank onto the cushioned seat. With a sigh, he closed his eyes and tilted his head back.
"Thanks, Jack. That was...nice."
Jack moved in front of Daniel and dropped to the sofa, studying his friend. Daniel still looked too thin, but at least his cheeks had color and his skin no longer looked pale with exhaustion.
Leaning back, Jack rested his arm on the back of the couch.
Daniel opened his eyes and looked up at him, raising his eyebrows in inquiry.
"You okay?" Jack asked softly.
Daniel dropped his gaze, a sad smile touching his lips. "I think so." He looked back up. "Thanks."
"Everything." Daniel swept an arm out to indicate the
Jack's throat went tight. "This," he shrugged, "this is nothing."
Daniel blinked, straightening as he sucked in a breath. "Well, it's something to me." He gave a smile. "It beats sleeping in my office."
Jack swallowed and managed a fleeting smile. "Ah, well...." He pushed back the sudden heat pressing against the back of his eyes as he held Daniel's slightly-shy gaze. "Welcome back."
I won't even tell you how long this monstrosity took me to write, so I'd appreciate some feedback! Thank you!