Stay in Touch
Sam tripped over a root and fell again. Teal'c was at her side, lifting her to her feet before she could react. But she couldn't go on. She knew that. With a sigh, she turned, weapon ready. Whatever was following would soon meet with a painful death. Except that there was nothing to fire at. She gasped. "They've stopped following us!"
The beasts hadn't hidden in the swamps only to spring back up in pursuit of them, like they had done before. They were still here, five of them, about fifty feet from Sam's position, in the bare clearing before the forest’s edge. Their heavy bodies were weaving in the air like cobras'. The sun was setting on them, darting cool rays on their pale, brownish skin. Slowly, they slid closer to each other instead of approaching the trees behind which Teal'c and Sam were hiding.
"They seem to have forgotten us, Major Carter."
"Or maybe they don't care anymore…" Sam crouched and lowered her P-90. There was no point in shooting now. That would only attract unwelcome attention.
Two of the worms detached from the group and slithered to their right, side by side. Using each other as support, they craned as high as they could, all the while producing a low, soft sound. Sam could only describe it as humming. They wove slowly from side to side, balancing on each other’s torsos. The others, worm and human alike, watched, enthralled by the hypnotic movement. The two creatures were dancing the oldest of dances. "They are mating," whispered Sam.
"Major Carter, we do not know how long their intercourse will last. It would be wise to make our way back to the Stargate."
Sam stood and turned her back to the giant animals.
Bottom. Pottm. Pttm. Pounding of a heart. Too slow, too loud.
'I'm alive.' He was not completely happy with his statement. It was cold, and it hurt, and he wanted to breathe but… 'Water.' OK, so, no breathing then. That would be stupid.
He had to get back to the surface. Preferably before his lungs decided to explode. Daniel opened his eyes and tried to straighten up, his stomach muscles straining. But he couldn't. Something was restraining him, keeping him on his back. He let out a precious burst of air.
'Get rid of your pack, stupid.' Daniel almost smacked his forehead when he understood what the problem was. He slid out of the straps of his backpack, which was stuck on the irregular ground. His sleeve got caught and drew him down. Daniel let his jacket go. Involuntarily he expelled another burst of air.
He caught a glimpse of light on his right, and the shadow of a body. "Jack!" The word came out awfully distorted, flowing on a trail of bubbles. Daniel followed the bubbles towards the dark shape of his friend. Jack was floating near the bottom. Lungs painfully empty, Daniel squeezed himself behind the other man's back and grabbed him by the armpits. One kick at the bottom of the lake sent them to the surface.
The first thing Jack was aware of was of the rush of air into his abused lungs. The second was that he had to kick his way free of whoever was holding his neck like that. With a growl, he evaded the grip, and lashed out with a fist. It contacted with something hard.
After years of training, Jack could drown a man without thinking. That was exactly what he was doing, striking blindly at his aggressor. Fingers reached for his sleeve, diverting the beam of the flashlight attached to his left wrist.
Jack spread his right hand on the other man's face, forcing him downwards. The stranger was all flailing fists and kicks, struggling to keep his head out of the water -- and not doing too bad a job of it. The man obviously had some sort of military training.
"Don't bite, you sonofa…"
Jack gasped. Even muffled by his hand, the voice was unmistakable. Daniel went under when he released his grip. Jack reacted quickly. He grabbed his teammate's hair and pulled him up. Letting Daniel cling to his pack, Jack treaded water while trying to regain his bearings, shining his flashlight around. It didn't take him long to spot a dark mass just ahead of them. It was the shore.
"I'm sorry, buddy," he said, helping Daniel onto the platform and against a wall.
Jack winced in sympathy as the man he had just tried to kill collapsed forward to retch. "You O.K.?"
"Remind me not to save your life next time," Daniel replied, teeth chattering.
Jack dumped his pack on the floor near the centre of their new resting place. The area was roughly ten feet square, framed by walls on two sides and water on the two others. The ceiling was high enough for a man to stand. Furniture was non-existent. It was freezing cold and completely dark but it didn't stink. Jack swept the area with his flashlight again, looking for a half-submerged worm tunnel or a river. He found nothing but the tunnel they had fallen from.
"No worms. That’s good. No exit. That’s bad." Jack put the flashlight on the ground. He shook his numb fingers and started unzipping his jacket. "Daniel. Strip."
"In a minute."
Jack saw him plunge his hand in the lake. Daniel was drinking before he could yell "No!".
"Spit it out! Spit it out right now!" Crap! Had he learned nothing during all these years spent in foreign countries and on other worlds? "You stupid geek! Do you have any idea what bugs could be swimming in this water?"
Daniel glared at him. "I don't know, and I don't care. It's not like it's going to change anything. I already drank half the lake saving your sorry hide."
Jack opened a side pocket of his pack. His canteen clanged when he put it on the ground. Daniel had a point, of course, but there was no need to make things worse. "We'll drink clean water from now on."
Daniel left the shore. A scowl distorted his face. Both men undressed clumsily in silence. They laid their clothes flat on the damp, rocky ground.
"What happened to your GDO?"
"Sorry. I didn't pull the straps tight enough. It got caught in my jacket."
"I still have mine. It will do." Naked finally, he grabbed his flashlight again. He fumbled with the clips of his backpack, and managed to get it open. "Crap!"
"Waterproof bag my ass! Everything is soaked."
"Where's yours? Where's all your stuff?"
Daniel gestured lazily in the general direction of the water.
"Swell!" Jack scowled.
"Hey, cut me some slack. It got caught on rocks and…"
"I know! You did O.K., all right?"
"Well, stop yelling then!"
Daniel's odd behaviour set off Jack's warning bells. The kid was in shock, and it was partly by his fault. Jack couldn't count on him to be rational for now. He had to act alone, while he was still high on adrenaline -- before the cold hit him so hard he wouldn't be able to move anymore.
Grinding his teeth, Jack perused the contents of his pack. It actually was waterproof, no matter what he had said before. He kicked himself for not closing it properly up in the tunnel. He could only hope that something could be salvaged.
Daniel curled up into a ball. What did Teal'c say about coping with the cold? 'Open to the cold. Let it in. Accept it as part of yourself and you will cease to feel it.' Well, Daniel didn't care to open to anything right now.
He was vaguely aware of Jack drying him with his travel towel. It could still dry when wet, but the fabric was cold. It wasn't pleasant. When Jack abandoned the towel on the floor, they huddled together for a long time, shivering miserably in an attempt to regain a semblance of warmth.
"Mylar blanket?" Daniel asked.
"We're wrapped in it already."
"Hadn't noticed." He could feel it now. It was doing its job. Daniel relaxed, and managed to look Jack in the eye. "You're a jerk," he said.
"Why? Because I punched you? I acted on reflex. You know, you're getting good at the hand-to-hand stuff. I didn't manage to drown you."
"No, that's fine. I knew what to expect. You just came to at the wrong moment. I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t yell for no reason, though." Daniel dismissed the incident with a wave of his hand. It was weird that Jack trying to kill him hadn't upset him as much as him being angry for no reason. When he had felt Jack's hand clamp over his face, he had been on the verge of panicking, but he knew where his leader's reaction came from. The anger was unfair, and harder to deal with.
Daniel stretched and moved out of the shelter afforded by Jack and the blanket. He limped to the lantern Jack had set up to have a closer look at the equipment displayed on the ground. Most of it was useless in the current situation. The radios were both toast. All their clothes were soaked. They still had a sleeping bag, fortunately. Jack's Beretta needed to be dried out. Daniel had lost his. Out of all his equipment, he only retained his knife. There also was a first aid kit, complete but for the bandage Jack had applied to his ankle.
What really caught Daniel's interest, though, was the cooker with its food containers. "Fancy a coffee?"
"It was in your bag."
All right. That was bad. "We won't survive without coffee."
"Two days, three at most, Danny. Then you can go to Starbucks."
"That's way too long. I say we should try to get out by ourselves."
"Ah, because you see a way out?"
"Up there. Way up."
Daniel looked up in the direction Jack was pointing. He could barely make out the darker shape of the hole from which they had fallen, near the ceiling of the natural cave. "Oh."
"Yeah, 'oh'. We can't climb that. Now bring back the gun. And don't forget the sleeping bag. The jerk is cold."
Jack was on first watch. Dropping his hand to the ground, he found his Beretta. Satisfied that he would get it easily in case of need, he relaxed again and listened to his surroundings. Daniel was lying on his side, and though he didn't move, Jack could tell from his breathing that he wasn't asleep.
"Fine. Painkillers rock." The slurred words were a sure sign that Daniel was exhausted.
Jack flicked his flashlight on to check on their little installation. They had erected the tent as far from the shore as possible. Cold air kept coming in through the open flaps. The sleeping bag served as a mattress and kept their butts and feet from freezing. With the Mylar blanket wrapped around them, the two men were staying as close as possible to share some precious body heat. It wasn't completely efficient, though. Jack rubbed his hand against his friend's back. "So what's wrong? You cold?"
"A bit. I'm wondering about the others," Daniel replied.
Jack swallowed. "They’re both fast runners. It's been a few hours now. They’re probably trying to coax Fraiser to let them out of the infirmary."
Satisfied with the smile he could see on his friend's face, Jack turned the flashlight off. "You need to catch some Z's."
"Jack, the beasts… What do you think they are?"
Jack wondered about that, too. The colour, the shape, the teeth, the beady eyes… The creatures looked a lot like Junior. They had seen animals of all sorts on the planets they had visited, some similar to Earth's, some very different. The creatures could just be a local, natural life form. But for all he knew, they could also be giant, mutated Goa'uld. Larval ones. He dismissed the idea with a shrug. "Look, they ain't no snakeheads. Sure, they are oversized, but they are just your standard run-of-the-mill worm. We could use them as bait for fishing!"
"I’d hate to see the hook."
"No pants, remember?" He paused. "You know, I'm still wondering about the city up there. From what I saw, the worms did a lot of damage in a short time. If they were here all the time, how come that there are still ruins to start with? I'd imagine that there would be nothing left. It's…"
"… time to go to sleep," finished Jack. "Now shut up."
After a couple of overdone sighs, Daniel kept still long enough for his breathing to slow. Jack shivered. The soup they had eaten earlier was a wispy memory. Biting the inside of his cheeks so that his teeth wouldn't chatter, Jack focused on the lantern in front of him. It was the only spot of light in the place, and a feeble one at that. Jack had turned it down to its minimal power setting so it would last as long as possible. The dim light was their only shield from the blackness that threatened to swallow them.
Thankfully the worm quakes had stopped a couple of hours earlier. The cave was silent but for the constant dripping of water and the soft gurgle of the lake. Every now and then, when the lantern looked like little more than a hallucination, Jack would turn the flashlight on to scan the area. Mud, and rocks, and water were the only things that met his scrutiny. The place was devoid of life. P8J-453 was charming, just charming.
Armed soldiers rushed to the 'Gate room as the sirens wailed.
"Offworld activation! I repeat, offworld activation!"
Hammond rushed to the Sergeant's side.
"Incoming travellers! We have a code… It's SG1, Sir."
"Open the iris. And send a medical team!" SG1 wasn't due back for another thirty six hours. That couldn't be good. Hammond rushed down the stairs to the 'Gate room, arriving in time to see Carter crash onto the ramp. Teal'c came close behind, soaked and puffing.
"Clear the ramp! Major Carter, Teal'c, what happened?"
His question went unheard in the midst of the excitement. Medics were pulling Teal'c away from the Stargate. The big man seemed barely able to walk. Fraiser was busy at Carter's side, helping her down the ramp and onto a stretcher. Hammond glared at the blue shimmering surface, waiting for the two other men that had to come through. Any minute now. Dirty and tired and maybe hurt, but coming home…
The wormhole shut down.
The general's heart sank. "Major Carter! Where are Colonel O'Neill and Doctor Jackson?" This time he spoke loudly enough for the whole room to hear him.
"Sir! We were separated, Sir." The major looked up at him, eyes blurry with exhaustion. She wiped her face with her left hand. Hammond noticed that her other arm lay limp on her stomach. "We were attacked by local life forms, Sir. The colonel and Daniel are still there."
"I concur, General Hammond. We had no choice other than to flee." Teal'c's voice dropped. "We left them behind."
"Are they alive?"
"They were last time we checked, Sir," said Carter. "It was almost four hours ago, I think."
Hammond clapped his hands together. "Doctor, take them to the infirmary. I'll be there for a debriefing in fifteen minutes."
Hammond turned and left the room before Janet could acknowledge his order.
Jack crashed forward under the weight of whatever had hit him in the back. "What the…?"
He wriggled from under the collapsed tent, dislodging his heavy opponent for a short moment. A hand grabbed his wrist so hard that he heard a distinct crack. He paused, bracing himself for the burning pain of a broken bone. He was surprised to feel nothing. His aggressor had only smashed his GDO. Jack started striking in all directions, trying to turn the flashlight on, his thumb frantically searching for the switch. "Get off!"
Grunts and sounds of fists impacting flesh came from Daniel's direction. That meant there were at least two assailants, if not more. Yes, there were more. Or else they had too many hands. Strong, slimy arms wrapped around his torso and dragged Jack backwards. He let himself fall on his knees, breaking his adversary's hold, and struck behind him with all the strength he could muster. A satisfying yelp followed. Another kick to something soft -- a female breast? -- and he was free of the hand that had been clinging to his calf. Jack crawled forward, guided by his memory. He had to find his gun.
A detonation shattered the night. It seemed that Daniel had found the Beretta first, but the struggle didn't stop. The shot wasn't followed by any cry of pain.
"Try ag…" Hard rock slammed into Jack’s jaw, stealing his breath. The stronger of his two opponents had caught up with him, and was lying on top him with an arm around his throat in a very secure grip. Pinned to the ground, Jack twisted his legs and pelvis to destabilize his attacker. He managed to lift himself using his arms, ignoring the pain in his muscles. He was about to roll over on his captor when the female jumped on both combatants, knocking Jack flat again. He let out a yell of pain as his cheekbone collided with the flashlight.
The guy was wearing brass knuckles, and he was using them with way too much enthusiasm. Daniel slid aside to avoid yet another blow. Firing in the air hadn't got him the kind of attention he wanted. If they had been surprised or afraid, they hadn't shown it.
Daniel straightened up. "Cha'hai! We come in peace. Tek ma'tek." He doubted his plea would be heard. He braced himself as he felt the draft that would bring a new punch or kick. Struck hard, he lost his balance and fell. He was still holding the gun but he almost lost his grip.
Reflexively, he pulled the trigger for the second time, aiming low. He growled, furious with the aliens, furious with himself, furious with the gun. As the bullet left the barrel, he knew it would hit a target.
There was a scream, high-pitched, inhuman, almost a howl. Everything froze. The scream filled the cave, reverberating against the walls, vibrating inside Daniel's body. Accusing him. As Daniel dropped his weapon to cover his ears with his hands, he forgot his pain, the cold, and the sticky substance that the aliens had left on his skin. He forgot Jack, the ruins outside, and the cave. The scream grew inside him, annihilating his thoughts, annihilating him.
The sound died as abruptly as it had started. "I'm sorry," pleaded Daniel, loathing the shakiness of his voice. "Please…"
He repelled a hand that tried to grab his wrist, but could not avert being seized the next time. Fingers clutched his limbs, arms coiled around his chest. Daniel closed his eyes as he was dragged to the water.
Teal'c sat on the edge of an empty bed. He watched as a nurse once again took the patient's vitals. Sam had passed out on the way to the infirmary. Even though Janet didn't look too worried about her condition, Teal'c felt guilty for having allowed her to push herself beyond her limits. He knew that she would have run longer, and then walked faster, had he not been here to slow her down a little. Yet here she was, pale, lying unconscious in a hospital bed. He had failed her. He had failed all of them.
"Teal'c, can you make a quick report of what happened on P8J-453?"
"General Hammond." Teal'c hadn't noticed the general. He stood up.
"Remain seated, son. You look exhausted."
"Thank you, General." Teal'c closed his eyes for a second. "We were exploring ruins, north of the Stargate. Major Carter and I were near the edge of the city, while O'Neill and Daniel Jackson went further in. Suddenly O'Neill ordered us to leave the place. Just after that the ground started to shake."
"No. It was not an earthquake." He paused, aware that he wouldn't be able to relate exactly what he had seen. "Worms… sprang up from the ground through tunnels and crevices. Their appearance is similar to that of my symbiote, but they are larger."
"How big exactly?"
"The smaller ones were ten feet long."
"Ten feet long…" Hammond looked away from Teal'c. "Do you know what happened to Colonel O'Neill and Doctor Jackson?"
"They fell in a tunnel and were unable to get out on their own. O'Neill informed me that a dead worm was blocking their egress." Teal'c had lost sight of them when one of the beasts had attacked him. If he had been there for them, he might have found a way to bring them back to the surface. Instead, he had run away. 'No one gets left behind'. Teal'c had betrayed SG1's motto. "Major Carter and I were forced to flee."
"How long a walk is it to the ruins? Six, seven hours?"
"That is correct. The path is extremely rough."
"I see. I'm sending an UAV, and SG-2 is already getting ready to go."
Teal'c stood up again. "General Hammond, I request permission to accompany them."
"Permission denied. You need to rest."
The Jaffa nodded. He didn't like it, but the general was correct. He was so tired that he would only slow down the rescue team. "They must be careful." Teal'c paused before quoting Daniel. "It is still happening."
The water hadn't warmed up since the last time they had fallen in it. Daniel held his breath, knowing he would be unable to resist his aggressors' intention much longer. He had lost count of how many hands were pushing or pulling him down. He was sure of two things, though. The aliens were stubborn, and they didn't seem to care about the dark or the cold.
After a last glance at the lantern’s beacon, he let himself sink. Sandwiched between two aliens, he swam along, exhaling as little as possible.
It hurt more than a worm's bite. Iskur grazed the burning wound on his leg. He could feel a hard bump below his skin. Something had penetrated his body, something the stranger's weapon had hurled into him.
Iskur crawled into the water. Today he welcomed the cold, for it subdued his pain. The young man held his breath and let himself sink, guided by his sister. Fellow hunters were leading the two strangers to the pipe that linked this cave to the first dike. In spite of his curiosity, Iskur wondered if it was a good idea to bring them along. Their capture had been troublesome even though they seemed mysteriously unaware of their surroundings. They felt primitive. Extremely so.
They were dangerous.
Iskur's companions had split up the strangers to flank them. Unwilling to be left behind, he inserted himself between the two groups. He slid into the big pipe with the ease of long practice. The stranger in front of him was not struggling anymore, probably doing his best to hold his breath.
Iskur raised a hand. As soon as he felt the end of the tunnel, he swam upwards, eager to fill his lungs with fresh air. Next to him, the creatures were coughing like sick children.
Two dikes to go. They would never make it.
Solid ground, at last! The slimy creatures loosened their hold, letting Jack fall to his knees. The last leg of their journey had been the easiest, since they had been allowed to keep their heads out of the water. It was just as well. He wouldn't have been able to go through another dive.
He had no idea of where he was. Probably just in another cave, he thought. At least it was warm -- as had been the last stretch of water he had had to swim through. The change of temperature had been abrupt. Jack doubted it was a natural phenomenon, even though he couldn’t hear machinery.
A hand brushed his chest and grabbed his dog-tags. Jack grunted and pushed the hand away. Another replaced it. "OK, be like that! For all I care…"
Something hissed. A second hand touched his chest. And then a third.
Jack sighed with relief on hearing Daniel's voice. "They are playing with my dog-tags. What do you think? Do I let them or not?"
"Yes, just stay where you are."
Jack's ordeal didn't last long. The hissing stopped, and with it the hands disappeared.
"It's over," he said. "I think they're gone."
"Can you turn the flashlight on?"
"I lost it." Jack pressed random buttons on his watch, and finally found the one that lit the dial. The green light contrasted so strongly with the pitch blackness of the cave that it hurt his eyes. It wasn't strong enough to reveal anything about the place, though. "Here, can you see that?"
"Is that your watch?"
"Good. Mine doesn't seem to work anymore."
Jack heard someone approaching him. The light died just as he was able to make out Daniel's hand reaching towards him. Jack grabbed him in a bear hug. "You're sticky," he said.
"Speak for yourself."
"We need to wash that slime away."
Jack still had a rough idea of where the lake was, and led Daniel to it. The two men helped each other rinse off in silence, a silence Jack didn't break even when he noticed that Daniel's dressing had been removed. His ankle was swollen. The wounds didn't bleed anymore. They exuded pus instead. A rapid inspection of Daniel's body revealed more bruises and scratches, appearing like misplaced shadows in the feeble green light of Jack's watch. "They beat the crap out of you."
"What about you?"
Bad question. Very bad. So far Jack had managed to ignore all the signals his abused body was sending to his brain. The feeble control he had on his perceptions didn't hold up when confronted with Daniel's worried tone. The first injury to rear its ugly head was a bruise on his shoulder. Jack winced. It was almost painless. Almost.
Encouraged by the knowledge that Jack wouldn't be able to suppress them anymore, the other pains reasserted themselves one after the other. The weaker ones registered first. Bruises and scratches and bumps, a whole collection of them. On his limbs, on his torso, on his back. Oh yeah, on his back. That hurt like a bitch. Even that was nothing compared to his right cheekbone, courtesy the lost flashlight. The throbbing burned through his skull, leaving him feeling weak and dizzy.
"Daniel. Next time, don't ask, OK?"
He blacked out.
The cot warmed under Daniel's touch. It wasn't made of wood like he had thought at first. The texture felt too soft for that. Leather, maybe. Daniel outlined the contour of the thick board, wiping out the slimy residue on its corners. It was big enough to accommodate two people.
Daniel groped for Jack. He was relieved to find him in the same spot. Jack was still unconscious on the shore of the lake. He tried to rouse him, but the other man didn't stir. Daniel pondered whether he should leave him there or carry him to the cot. His battered body didn’t feel capable of coping with Jack’s limp weight. He desperately wanted a nap. On the other hand, it would be rude to fall asleep on a cot while his friend was lying on rock.
Daniel took a deep breath. 'Come on, Space monkey. Put all that gym practice to use.' He sat before Jack, lifted him onto his back… and fell flat on his stomach, his arms giving out. So much for the heroic mental picture of him carrying his friend slung over his shoulder like a cinematic Hercules. 'Why do I care?' he comforted himself. 'No one could see it anyway.' 'Unless you're blind, and they can see you.' 'No, not blind. I've seen Jack's watch…' 'Have you, really?' 'Shut up.' 'You thought you saw it. Are you always so delusional?' 'Shut up!'
Talking to himself wouldn’t help, especially when his inner voice sounded like Jack on a bad day. God, his headache was getting worse… Grunting, Daniel lifted himself on all fours, Jack's limp form spread across his back. He took time to engage his muscles. His arms were screaming abuse at him, but he thought he could make it without losing his balance. Slowly, he felt his way to the cot.
With a twist of his shoulder Daniel dropped Jack on the cot and fell back, landing on his butt. "Don't hit me! It's just me."
"Just you? Daniel. OK, I get that. Wow, I feel…"
"Thirsty. Headache. Nauseous," interrupted Daniel. 'Blind as a bat, too.'
"… like crap." Jack coughed. "Did I pass out?"
"Yeah, same here. The aliens woke me up. They've brought a cot for us."
"Yes. The alien version of a double bed, minus the pillows."
"There's also a bucket. I think they want us to use it as a chamber pot." Or else the alien who had grabbed his groin when he had been presented with the utensil hadn't done this to overcome their slight communication problem.
"What can you tell me about the jelly-guys?"
Daniel sat on the cot beside Jack. "Not much. I haven't managed to talk with them yet. The bucket is definitely hand-made, so I'd say they are an intelligent life form."
"How intelligent? Are we talking Asguard or cavemen?"
"Well, that's hard to tell as long as I can't communicate with them. But I don't know if you've noticed how warm it is here. It could just be that we are near a heat source, but I doubt it."
"Hmm. Noticed that."
"I have no idea why we're here, though, or what they intend to do with us." Daniel shook his head, trying to get rid of the voice hovering at the back of his mind. 'Well, Genius, you killed one of them. What do you think they want to do? Have tea?' 'Didn't kill it. Didn't.'
"We don't know where the hell we are either."
Daniel rubbed his eyes. "Jack… could you light your watch for a second, please?"
"What for? It's not bright enough, ya know. We won't be able to see the place."
'I want to check I can still see. I want to prove the Voice wrong.' That was the only answer he could come up with. Better not talk about the Voice, though. Daniel clearly remembered a certain padded cell. He remembered all too vividly how quickly his team had decided to send him there. He swallowed hard. 'You'll see who's wrong, Danny.' "Please."
The green light flared. He could see it, without a doubt. The Voice had lied. Leaning closer, Daniel peered at the dial. It was blurry. He couldn't make out the numbers without his glasses. That didn't surprise him. However, he didn't expect the burning sensation in his eyes. He blinked, letting a few tears wash away the pain. When he opened his eyes again, the darkness had returned. "Thank you."
The Voice sniggered and faded away.
The UAV didn't make it past the spiral stairs. A gust of wind from the cliff flipped it over on its back and it landed on the platform, camera aimed at the distant Stargate. Seconds later, the downpour and the mud conjointly fried the circuits which had survived the crash.
The MALP however, was still transmitting images of rain and cobblestones. After a short, rough ride, the robot had gotten stuck in the mud. No one could tell how long it would last before it would be tipped over by the tempest. The weather had been no worse than unpleasant when SG-1 had been sent through. During the last hour it had turned the place into a no-man's-land, and it was getting worse by the minute. Hammond had quickly concluded he couldn't chance sending a rescue team to that merciless planet. They would only become stranded themselves.
Backing away from the video screen, he turned to face Coburn. "Major, your team is staying here."
"Sir, with all due respect…"
"We have discussed this already. Dismissed, Major."
He had lost so many men already, in so short a time. Starting with Kawalsky, back at the beginning, then so many more. And it was hard, each new loss hurting more than the one before. Hammond wouldn't give up on O'Neill and Jackson until he was sure there was no hope. As much as he valued them, he wouldn't send another team to a certain death on their behalf.
Hammond closed his eyes as Coburn left. There was no point in maintaining the wormhole to P8J-453 for the moment. The General ordered it shut down with a gesture. "We will try again every four hours," he stated as firmly as he could.
Jack stretched one arm towards the wall which they had pushed the cot against. He was amazed at his ability to feel the tiny irregularities on the hard surface. Even though he couldn't make out their shape, he found his new pastime quite fascinating. It was almost addicting.
He turned on his side, careful not to contract his stomach muscles. Daniel was back from his little trip to the bucket and resumed his seat between the wall and Jack. Neither men had been able to keep down any of the food provided by the aliens. This was hardly surprising considering it was very smelly raw fish. The water from the lake at least seemed drinkable. It had to be.
Jack placed his hand on Daniel's nape. The heat coming from his skin was worrying. "How do you feel?"
OK, so Daniel was not in a communicative mood. When it came to personal matters, he rarely was in any case. Jack got the message and removed his hand. Carefully, he stood up. He didn't know how high the ceiling was. He searched for it with his arms outstretched above him, and only when he was sure that he couldn't find anything and wouldn't bump his head in the immediate vicinity did he allow himself to relax his stance.
"What are you doing?"
"I'm exploring our home-away-from-home."
"I'll follow the wall."
"OK, just wait a second, I'm coming."
"No, you don't. You stay where you are!"
"I need you to speak at regular intervals so I can come back to you."
"That sounds like a good idea, actually."
"And why does that surprise you?" Jack leant against the wall and stretched his left arm forward before taking a few tentative steps.
"I'm not surprised!"
"You sounded like it."
"Did too! You just did your best "baffled genius" impersonation ever, if you ask me."
The rock -- or, at least, Jack assumed it was rock -- felt a bit cooler than the room. The wall was reasonably straight, though the numerous recesses and uneven surface showed it was a natural formation. Jack had trouble judging distance in the dark. He didn't know how far he was from the cot when the wall abruptly turned to the left.
"I'm not moving. What did you find?"
"It's turning." He went on in silence for a few steps. "Wait… turning again. I'm walking back to you, but I'm on the other side."
"It's a closed room, then?"
"I haven't found a doorway yet."
"The aliens didn't come by the lake when they brought us the fish. We would have heard them."
"We would? Hmm. Yes, I think you're right."
Jack almost fell when his right hand, which was trailing the wall, suddenly met nothing but thin air. "Bingo."
Regaining his balance, he turned to face the newfound corridor. His right hand brushed the edge of the wall. He stepped aside and spread his arms to find the other end of the doorway. "There's a passage here. It's wide enough for two people to walk side by side."
"Can you describe its shape?"
Using his fingers, Jack examined the inside of the doorway. "It's straight on the sides, and the top is arched."
"Is it symmetrical?"
"And that's exciting because?"
"It’s architecture. Well, maybe that's stretching it a bit far. Anyway, they can dig tunnels, obviously. It means that they don't satisfy themselves with adapting to their environment. They modify it. First the bucket and the cot, now this. How smooth is it?"
That was a long speech for someone who sounded almost asleep. "It's rough," answered Jack. "It’s uneven, like near the cot."
"I'll have a look at that. See if I can find a pattern."
"Keep talking. I'm going in." Jack took a deep breath. No sound came from the tunnel apart from the echo of his own steps. The first ones lacked confidence, but as he went deeper into the narrowing corridor, he grew bolder and started walking at a near normal pace.
"How is it going now?"
"All clear for now," he shouted back. "OK, now tell me how these guys are doing in the dark. They wear infrared goggles, or what?"
"I have no idea. Maybe they don't need to see."
A low hiss stopped Jack dead in his tracks. "We've got company," he murmured.
For one minute nothing happened. Jack was almost tempted to go on, to see what the creature's reaction would be. Then the hissing intensified. The warning was clear enough. Slowly, Jack backed out, using the wall as a guide. The creature made no effort to conceal that it followed him to the doorway, where Jack was forced to turn his back on the danger. Daniel called out to him repeatedly. Jack inwardly thanked him when he finally sat beside him. Without the unfaltering beacon of his friend's worried voice, Jack didn't think he would have had the guts to cross the empty space from the tunnel to the cot.
"Something happened, Jack, didn't it? You OK?"
"Yes, and yes. It's just that they don't like casual strollers."
The video footage transmitted by the new UAV was heart breaking. The ruins had been desolate before. Now words failed to describe the war zone that the ancient city had become to resemble in the last few days. Amazingly, the tower Daniel had visited was still standing.
Sam walked to the back of Sergeant Davis' chair. Her left arm was secured in a sling. She pointed at the upper left corner of the monitor. "Can you close in on this area?"
"Yes, Ma'am. One moment. There."
That was where she had last seen the Colonel and Daniel. The drone flew slowly a few feet above the wrecked surface. Sam would have appreciated a blurry view. Fate denied her this small mercy. The onboard camera recorded every fold of the worm's skin and every purple patch of decomposition with cruel clarity. Small furry animals were fighting over the decaying remains of the beast, unaware that their shrieks were traversing galaxies.
The UAV performed a U-turn before scanning the same area again, dipping closer to the ground. Sam stepped back. She already knew they wouldn't find any trace of the two men. The head of the worm was still buried in the ground.
Daniel plunged his left ankle into the lake. Going for a full dip was extremely tempting, even after having been dragged underwater by the aliens, but Jack had expressly forbidden him to do so. Leaning in a position that allowed him to keep his sore leg in the tepid water, Daniel cupped his hand and tried to quench his thirst. His mouth felt dry, awfully so, even though he was sure he had had plenty to drink.
"Hey, ya trying to dry out the lake or what?"
Ignoring Jack's sarcasm, Daniel swallowed another mouthful of water. It didn't make him feel any better. He was too hot for comfort. After having almost frozen to death, he had initially welcomed the warmth of the cave. But this heat was moist and oppressive, very different in its nature from the desert heat he was familiar with. It stuck to his skin, penetrated his very bones, clogged his tired brain. It was unbearable, even more so than the throbbing pain in his leg.
He needed more than a drink. Maybe if he was silent enough, he could slip into the water. He wouldn't go far, he'd stay near the shore. Of course he would have to explain to an angry colonel why he was wet later. Later. Yes. He could cope with Jack after he had coped with the heat. Now.
He poured some water on his neck and shoulders, welcoming the relative coolness on his skin, and felt refreshed. It felt like he had expected, and he wanted more of that. He glanced behind himself in Jack's direction. Surprise surprise, it was still pitch black, and he still couldn't see a thing. Jack hadn't grown a neon sign on his head while he was looking away.
Daniel pivoted to lie on his belly. He slipped surreptitiously into the lake, supporting himself with his arms until his uninjured foot found the pebbled bottom. The water was waist deep. Daniel closed his eyes, giving himself up to the coolness. 'Oh that feels good.'
Soft waves were brushing his lower body, washing away the pain, the blood, the heat. He tensed when something small and scaly touched his knee before swimming away. He had felt the same thing before, when the aliens had led them from their initial cave to here. It was just a fish, Daniel had no doubt about that. Jack would probably say it was a piranha. Daniel toyed with the thought, wondering if he should worry, before deciding that he would be fine. He could always jump back out if the local wildlife decided to take another bite at him.
His eyes snapped opened. The mood was broken. Daniel tensed. He recognized the tickling sensation on the bridge of his nose for what it was. His military-honed sixth sense was informing him that he was being observed. Someone was here -- not in the water, but on the platform, just in front of him. "Jack?"
"Yes? You need help coming back?"
The voice was too far away to belong to whoever was watching him. The creature crept even closer, until he could hear it breathing in his ear. This was definitely not Jack.
"No. I'm fine. Don't move. I'm… not alone." He paused. "But please, don't move."
"Ya gotta kidding me, right? I'm coming."
"Don't! It's not threatening me."
"How would you now?"
Daniel shrugged. To be honest, he was afraid, but Jack coming to his rescue was a potential disaster. The alien wouldn't like that, Daniel could bet on it. "Stay were you are," he said in a tone that brooked no argument.
He hoisted himself up out of the water noiselessly to avoid alarming Jack any further. He would learn about his forbidden little bath soon enough. When he sat on the ground in the awkward position he had adopted to protect his foot, he heard the Not-Jack shift, probably to face him. He held out his open hands, trusting this would be understood as a sign of peace and humility like with every culture he had met so far. He was confident that the alien could see him, one way or another. Was it imitating his gesture? Daniel didn't have a clue.
The linguist had reached the particular stage where his only desire was to communicate. He wanted, no, he needed to understand. His brilliant mind craved contact, whatever the cost. He would build a bridge between the Tau'ri and the creatures of the dark, even though they hadn't spoken so far. He just didn't know how. For lack of a better idea, he fell back on his usual method.
"Hi, my name is…", he started.
What happened next occurred so quickly it left him dazed. The Not-Jack grabbed his wrist, forcing him to turn his palm upward. A small object was placed in his hand, which was then closed into a fist. The alien pressed his fingers against Daniel's knuckles, and then he was gone.
The half-worm looked even bigger than Teal'c had expected from watching the video footage. Its color had changed from yellow to dark purple. The thick leathery skin had been torn in places by the small mammals who had scattered under SG-2's approach.
Teal'c walked around the beast. They would have to drag it out of the hole somehow.
"O'Neill, Coburn speaking. Do you copy? Doctor Jackson?"
The Jaffa had stopped listening to the repetitive monolog long ago. It hurt to think that O'Neill and Daniel Jackson had not answered their calls. Teal'c forced himself to believe they had survived, no matter what. One week was not so long for warriors, was it? With all the rain they had probably managed to find a source of water. Teal'c had fought at their side, and he had learned to trust and admire their resilience.
"They are alive," he declared.
Griff squatted close to the worm. "You said they were under this monster?" His voice sounded strangely muffled because of the hand he was pressing against his nose.
"O'Neill mentioned that he and Daniel Jackson had fallen into a tunnel, the entrance of which was blocked by one of the creatures. It is safe to assume that this is the one he was talking about."
Major Coburn let go of his radio. "OK, guys, let's pull this stinkin' carcass out of here. Pierce, tie a rope around its body, as close as the hole as you can. Lloyd, stop barfing and get your ass into gear. We'll need all the muscles available."
Once Pierce had secured the rope with a clove hitch, the five men lined up, holding the remaining end.
"At three. One, two, three!"
They pulled, hard.
"One, two, three!"
Teal'c felt his muscles surge. Their combined effort was just enough to drag the worm, inch by inch, out of the hole. Every ten minutes, they stopped to sip some water and rest their abused arms.
"One, two, three!"
When the head of the worm finally slid out of its hole, the men collapsed, exhausted.
Teal'c was the first to stand. He made his way to the hole, fighting his anxiety. What he saw froze his blood.
"Teal'c, are they down there?"
He hoped not. His gaze locked on the dark, mirrored surface a few feet below, he swallowed. "It appears that the tunnel is empty, Major Coburn."
"Could they have fallen in a hole or something?"
"There is a indeed a cavity. It is flooded."
When his dripping teammate had finally made it back to the cot, Jack asked if he was still in one piece. Then he had grumbled and snarled. Oh, he understood pretty well why Daniel had decided to disregard his orders and play with the mermaids. This was a rainforest in a box, only without trees. Even so, Jack felt that he shouldn't have to pull his sopping hair out because the kid felt a bit too hot.
Make that burning hot.
Jack rolled the bullet Daniel had been given between his fingers. "Show-off," he said.
"Looks like the local surgeons are begging for attention. Aren't recognized by their peers, or something. The bullet. They're just showing off. You fired a bullet? Lookie here, I can remove a bullet."
"Do you think I killed the guy?"
Jack squeezed his friend's shoulder. "That shriek didn't sound dead to me."
"Jack, seriously, why did they give it to me?"
"You tell me. You're the one who's supposed to know that kind of thing."
Jack heard a grunt. He really hoped that Daniel was going to lie down and sleep soon. He'd been fidgety since going for his illicit swim. Since he couldn't pace, he had taken to sitting in the centre of the cot and waving his arms around. The draught his movements created was driving Jack crazy. It didn't help his headache, either.
Unable to take it any longer, he pushed his friend against the wall and grabbed his hands, dropping the bullet. "You. Stop moving."
The bullet stopped rolling somewhere near the edge of the cot. Daniel, however, kept on writhing and grunting. Jack tightened his grip. The effort spiked his heart rate, but he managed to pin the other man down until he quietened. Neither of them spoke for a while. Jack's pounding heart and their rapid breathing sounded too loud in the otherwise silent cave.
"Help me up."
Jack gasped. "No. You need a break. Hell, I need a break! Just lie down and sleep, will ya?"
"Come on, Jack. Don't tell me you're still pissed off because I went in the water."
"Duh. Of course I'm still pissed! What do you expect?" Jack clenched his fingers in Daniel's wrists. "But that's not the point. I want you to sleep. Now."
"Can't sleep if you hurt me." Daniel’s calm voice was belied by his shaking body. "Now help me up."
"Why?" Jack, closed his eyes in despair. He had forgotten his simple rule. If he didn't want Daniel to have his way, he couldn't let him elaborate on what he wanted. Because he always had a good reason to misbehave.
"Have you noticed the relief on the wall?"
"Well yeah, it's quite annoying! I’d bet my back looks like one of those fancy relief maps."
"No, not a map… rather like a novel. In Braille."
"Writing?" Jack paused, weighing all the implications. If Daniel was right, and if he could decipher the aliens' language, then they could communicate with them. If it had been written by the same creatures. If they also had some sort of tool to write. If… Lots of ifs, but Jack trusted that Daniel could erase these difficulties with a brush of his hand.
Without a word, he released his friend and lifted him onto his feet.
"Do you want me to use my light?" Jack fiddled with his watch, and finally found the tiny button.
"Yes… Uh, actually no. It doesn't help that much."
When he was sure that Daniel could stand upright on his own, Jack sat down. He could hear the soft brush of fingers on the wall, and would have bet that Daniel was biting his lower lip, his eyes focused on the scribbles in front of him.
Not that his eyes would be of any use right now.
"So. Did you notice the writing just now, or…?"
"Or. I was thirsty. I really couldn't care less. And then you were yelling at me."
"You poor baby."
"Shut up," ordered Daniel, before adding an afterthought. "Please."
Jack smiled. He'd been defeated, but he could deal with insubordination if it meant that Daniel was finally able to focus on something constructive again.
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