Stay in Touch
He had already figured out that the writing was grouped into big blocks of text separated by sinuous friezes. As accustomed as he was to touching every artefact he could put his hands on, he couldn't quite make out the individual signs yet. They were too small for his calloused fingers.
"Can you read those bumps, then?"
"Um… I can’t recognize the letters, but… at least they’re not cursive. I’ll need some time, Jack."
Daniel lifted his left foot, leaving only his toes in contact with the ground. He couldn't let the pain in his ankle hinder his concentration, so he shoved it back in a corner of his mind. It was not completely effective.
Hours passed, marked by his frequent trips to the lake when he needed to quench his thirst. Jack went with him every single time and drank as much as he did. Daniel felt the comfort in his friend's support more acutely since the creatures had come back.
He was painfully aware of their presence. Their hissing, breathing, sneaking presence. He wondered whether Jack had noticed it as well when a hand grabbed his right ankle. "Hey!"
"Shh, it's only me. I just… I don't want you to stray away while you're focused on that stuff."
"I won't." An over-protective Jack was a sure sign that he was bored, or worried. Probably both. Right now, Daniel couldn't bring himself to be angry with him. It was too dark, and he was afraid. Just a little.
"I'm just making sure."
"Thanks, Mom. Just move a bit, I'm going to sit." The first few signs of each block were identical, and Daniel was now convinced that they were a formal introduction to stand-alone texts, not paragraphs as he had first thought. He might as well study a text he wouldn't need to stand up for.
"Daniel, do me a favour."
"Think out loud."
Daniel chuckled. That was unusual. For a while he tried his best to express his thoughts in words, sometimes in English, sometimes lapsing into other languages. But his fingers were brushing the unknown symbols, sending information that his brain couldn't process as words, and he had to stop talking to keep on working.
Smiling, he assured Jack that he would talk more later, and became silent. He would soon know what language he was dealing with.
On seeing what was left of the clearing where SG-1 had spent their night one week before, they had decided to camp in the forest. There was a striking contrast between the bare areas, where the passage of the worms was most obvious, and the woods, which were almost entirely unaffected. Something in the vegetation kept the creatures at bay.
They had left the site early in the morning and were back on the road with Major Coburn in the lead. Teal'c had walked on automatic for the whole trip, distancing himself from the recent events. Hours passed, unnoticed. He was taken aback when he caught sight of the spiral stairs.
It wasn't easy for Teal'c to leave the planet with so few results. He had taken more samples from the trees, as well as chunks of flesh from the dead worm, but he had been unsuccessful in finding any clue to O'Neill and Daniel Jackson's whereabouts. Not that he hadn't tried. He'd been about to dive in the flooded cave when he had spotted a disturbance in the dark water. It took no genius to understand what was lurking there. He had witnessed the exact same thing on the planet of the Unas. The only notable difference between the primitive Goau'ld and the variety here was their size.
Admittedly, he had no proof that the worms were Goau'ld. He just had this nagging feeling that his symbiote appreciated the company.
"Teal'c, you go first."
Teal'c nodded and climbed up the stairs. His feet weighed a ton, and suddenly he understood what his master Bra'tac meant when he told him he was feeling old.
It had nothing to do with the diminishing performance of his body. His age was not very advanced yet, anyway. It had to do with his inability to bring back his teammates -- his family -- home. Dead or alive.
He stepped onto the plateau. Pierce was following closely. He held his hand out to help him up. Griff and Lloyd were halfway up. Only SG2's team leader remained below. It was at this moment that Teal'c felt the familiar tremor under his feet. He tightened his hold on his staff weapon, perusing the plain below for a sign of where the beast would appear.
"Coburn!" he called.
That was enough to propel Griff and Lloyd up the last steps. Coburn rushed up too. Then the ground suddenly exploded on his right. Teal'c shot a preventative blast down the crater, missing the worm's head by an inch. The rattle of submachine guns covered Teal'c's yell of rage as the huge creature hurled itself on the stairs, seemingly oblivious to the bullets tearing through its skin.
Coburn tried scaling the stairs, his hands gripping the steps above him. The worm reared up behind him, mouth wide as it prepared to strike. Pierce dropped onto his stomach and stretched his arms downward, his weapon held out like a pole. Teal'c kept firing his staff weapon. With each impact the stench of burned flesh became stronger. The creature didn't even flinch.
The fragile-looking stairs shook violently under the weight of the worm, whose lower body rested on the first step. Its head raised up above Coburn, covering him with its shadow. Teal'c aimed at the creature's mouth, and fired again. The beast shrieked in pain, its screams reverberating against the cliff. Dead at last, it still hovered above the stairs, its ugly head level with Teal'c's face.
"Grab the gun! Quick!" screamed Pierce.
Coburn stretched his arms to the handle of the P-90. As Pierce pulled him upwards, the beast fell. The steps, still resounding from the wormquake, cracked under the weight of the dead animal. Teal'c could only watch in dismay as the spiralling structure disappeared with a crash.
Jack sighed. He couldn't count the days anymore. After an alien had grabbed his wrist to give him a fish, his watch had died, and with it, their only source of light. What were those slugs made of? From then on, he had pushed the aliens away whenever they came. They seemed to have gotten the hint.
Every now and then he prodded Daniel, who had retreated in a world too far from reality to remember to talk. Jack had noticed, though, that his friend didn't work as much as before. He sat still for hours, doing… what? Dozing? Thinking? Night dreaming? It was in times like that that Jack decided to reach for him and bring him back to the dark cave, as nasty a place as it was.
Daniel had been working steadily since their last fish, though. Jack could hear the soft sound of fingers tapping on stone. He could also feel the random gusts of air caused by the latter’s sweeping arm movements. He promised himself to stop the linguist when he became too agitated. Then they would talk, about the sun and about the trees. About Carter and Teal'c. No, no, better not go there.
Jack closed his eyes and pressed his back against the wall. He was bored.
"Will you shut up already?"
"Didn't say a thing," he mumbled.
"Oh. I thought…"
"You're hearing voices?"
"No, of course not."
A body shuffled in the dark. Soon Jack felt the pressure of Daniel's shoulder against his. It was good. Comforting. At the same time, he was ashamed to feel like a kid who was afraid of the bogeyman. "What have you come up with?"
"Are you tired?"
A baffled Jack stared at the black space where Daniel was. "A bit. Why do you ask?"
"I'd like to tell you a story. Then we can go to sleep."
There was a tremor in Daniel's voice. Jack couldn't decide if it was due to fear, or fatigue, or something else entirely. It didn't bode well in either case. "Sure. Go for it."
"Once upon a time, in the land of the first people, the queen became ill. She was suffering very much, and her subjects were sad, for they loved her deeply. They sent for the best doctors from every corner of the world. They came, the wisest and the oldest ones, only to shake their heads. Therefore when a stranger came with the promise of a remedy, they acclaimed him and invited him to the queen's castle."
"A fairy tale? Don't you think I'm a bit old for that?" But he hoped Daniel wouldn't stop here.
"The stranger, whose name was Erebus, locked himself up with an older woman and the queen in the royal bedroom for three nights. Every night, a night bird flew to the window to watch. The bird's song was sad, for he was telling tales of betrayal and death, but nobody would listen to him. They hated him because of his odd looks and mannerisms. On the dawn of the fourth day, the bedroom door opened and Erebus and the queen emerged. The older woman had died, but the young queen looked well, and everybody rejoiced. There was a big banquet with music and dancing."
"I like that part."
"But soon the people found a new reason to mourn and cry, for while their queen's beauty hadn't faltered, her spirit had. Where she was once the most loving and caring woman in the world, her heart was now filled with cruelty and selfishness. Where she had once ruled free, happy people, she was now gathered slaves around her. One morning she took a new name. Forever after she was known as Hemera."
"Let me guess… Snakehead?"
"Erebus and Hemera locked the night bird in a cage, so that his song would fill the slaves with despair. The men who tried to revolt were tortured and hanged. The women were forced to nurse Hemera's children in their very homes. Those who refused or were too old were stoned."
The Goa'uld had been their lovely selves on this world as well. Jack grunted. He was not sure he wanted to hear the rest of the story.
"One night an old servant who had cared for Hemera as a baby, and whom Hemera still trusted, stole the key of the night bird's cage. The bird and the old servant gathered thousands of followers. There was a great battle, and many a good life was lost. When he realized that there would be no victory, the night bird led the survivors to deep caves, where they hid from the queen's wrath. Years passed. The refugees became like the night bird, and they lived ever after, finally free."
There was a long silence before Jack dared to break the spell. He whistled. "You did it. You deciphered that stuff."
"Good job. The tale is crap, though."
"It ends well."
"They fled into these caves! That's what you call a good ending?"
"Have you thought about the alternative?"
"When you put it that way… But what about the bit at the end? How does it go again? They became like the night bird? How?"
"And you really expect me to go to sleep after telling me something like that?"
Daniel snorted. "I thought you never listened to my translations."
"Well, you were wrong."
"Take first watch, then, if you can't sleep."
Jack grumbled. He felt Daniel sliding down, heard him rolling on his side. Still craving contact, he searched for him for a minute and rested his hand on his friend's arm. "What happened to the Goa'uld, Daniel?" He wasn't expecting an answer.
Sam wriggled on the hard stool. She and Janet had been working for hours. She wasn't quite sure what her motivation was. Whatever knowledge she would glean from these chunks of rotten meat, it wouldn't bring the Colonel and Daniel back home. At best she would be able to put a name on what had, probably, killed them. And this name was becoming clearer as hours passed. Goau'ld. Like she needed any extra incentive to hate them.
"Snakehead," she hissed, using the Colonel’s expression.
"Yes, Sam, I think so." Janet pushed the microscope back. "Apart from this extra chromosome there," she said, pointing with her laser pen at the kariogram displayed on the wall, "the DNA of this creature is ninety-nine percent identical to a Goau'ld's."
"There's no sign of naqquadah in their blood," she noted. "Either they are direct descendants of the primitive Goau'ld we found on P3X-888, or it’s a direct consequence of the mutation."
"I'd lean toward the second explanation. This DNA is closer to what we find in the more recent Goau'ld."
"But what changed them? I didn't record any sign of unusual radiation on P8J-453."
"I don't know."
"It's possible that they played with genetics for some reason…"
"… And messed up."
Sam took a sip of her coffee. It was cold. It they were still alive, and that was doubtful, her lost teammates had run short of coffee by now. Daniel would be insufferable, and Jack would be busy searching around for a substitute to the dark beverage, just so he could get Daniel down to a manageable level.
No. That wasn't true, and she knew it. A caffeine-free Daniel was as sweet as the regular one. Not that Jack would leave a stone unturned in his efforts to procure the delicacy for Daniel.
"You miss them."
Sam looked at Janet, surprised. She'd been turning the cold mug in her hands, staring at the black liquid, forgetting the presence of her friend. "Yes, I miss them. It's just so stupid, you know. Losing them like that. We aren't even sure of what happened to them! Did they drown, or were they devoured? Taken by a Goaul'd?"
"I just hate that! We're not even sure whether they're dead or not, I mean, Teal'c didn't find them," she exclaimed in a high-pitched voice. "He didn't find their bodies."
"It's not the first time, Sam."
"No. Of course it's not. But you know what, Janet? I'm not getting used to it! It's not getting any easier."
"I don't think it would ever be easy." Janet put her hand on Sam's arm.
The blonde woman lowered her head. "And what if they are still alive? What if they survived? I know it's not logical, but maybe they're out there. Waiting for us."
"If that is the case, trust them, Sam. They'll find a way back."
Sam shook her head. She grabbed her mug and left the lab for a refill.
The language and the culture of the cave dwellers, as Daniel had come to call them, was a curious mixture of Greek and Ancient Egyptian. The wall was covered with myths told in the style of fairy tales. Myths of Osiris, Ernutet, Hephaistos or Demeter, almost unrecognisable under the disguise of "once upon a time". Hemera, the Greek Goddess of Day, daughter of Erebus, God of Night, had been the Goa'uld in charge of this world. Whenever she was referred to it was as a queen, though, not as a deity. The cave dwellers didn't believe in fake gods and for that, Daniel was grateful.
Daniel was studying the texts with renewed ardour. His headache was gone, and even though he was still struggling to decipher the small symbols etched in stone, his brain was working at full speed again. It was a shame, however, that he had to limit himself to the texts that he could read while sitting. His ankle was hurting so much that he couldn't stand any more. The wounds had become infected. It wasn’t so bad that he couldn't forget the pain when necessary, though. If he was honest with himself, he really didn't want to dwell on it.
Janet would fix it. Tomorrow, or the day after. For now he had work to do.
Sticky fingers joined Daniel’s on the wall. The man froze. He had grown used to the soft breathing, the discreet footsteps, the few hisses. The aliens were always around, coming closer by the hour. Sometimes so close that he could feel their breath on his neck. He had never been touched while reading before.
His hand was slowly pulled to the right, onto a word he had already encountered.
"That’s… that’s touch!"
"What’s happening? Daniel!"
"One of them has shown me a word!"
He was pulled again, not as gently this time. Jack’s grip on his ankle tightened. "Let me go. I think he is trying to communicate. He is not threatening. He isn't hurting me. Jack, I really think we should…"
He knew Jack well enough to interpret the internal struggle he was going through. His answer was a mark of trust that didn't go unnoticed. "Don’t allow more than one near you. And don’t let him lead you too far."
"I'll be careful, Jack."
The linguist was drawn to another part of the room, out of Jack’s reach. His hand had been taken off the wall, and Daniel could hear his guide brushing up the inscriptions with his free hand, looking for something. Finally the sticky fingers led him downwards, so much that he had to kneel down, until once again his hand was in contact with a word. "… me… touch me. Jack, he wants me to touch him!"
"I don’t like that, Danny. You know what Mister Jelly’s skin did to our watches. And to us."
Both men had gotten rid of their useless watches and of Jack's crumbling GDO, throwing them off as far as possible in the lake. The alien substance seemed to destroy electronic systems, and had probably caused the nausea and the fever Daniel and Jack had experienced. There was no proof of that, however. "We only think that it’s because of their skin. It might be the water, the fish. It could be anything!"
"Jack, that might be our only chance to get out of here."
"Dammit! Okay, make your peaceful explorer speech and let’s be done with it!"
Daniel nodded, oblivious to the fact that Jack couldn’t see him. The cave dweller was becoming agitated, pressing the man’s hand harder. He was hissing, too, and his companions were definitely gathering around them.
"Let’s go," whispered Daniel to himself.
He started by squeezing the cave dweller’s fingers, praying that it wouldn’t be taken as a sign of aggression. The hissing stopped. Relieved, Daniel closed his eyes. Tracing up the other’s arm, which he noted was just slightly slimmer than his, he stopped at the shoulder. Beneath the thin layer of jelly, the skin didn’t feel all that different than a human’s.
"They have strong muscles," he noticed.
"I could have told you that," grumbled Jack. "What’s he doing now?"
"You still OK?"
"Uh huh." Daniel went on, inspecting the alien’s chest. He would keep the head for later. That would probably be the tricky part. Again, he realized that it felt very much like a human’s chest – definitely not one of the couch potato variety, though. "There are no breasts. I think it’s a male."
Daniel chuckled. His fingers were playing around the neck of the other man. There was a thin chain there that he hadn’t detected at first because of the jelly. And… yes… that was a pendant. The flat, metallic object was of a familiar design. A circle bordered by small curved triangles. It was way out of place in this cave. "Oh, that’s why they were fascinated by your dog tags," he exclaimed.
"You’re being a bit cryptic there."
"Don't you remember? You were saying they couldn't keep their hands off your tags, when we arrived. He wears a pendant. It represents a sun, I think. Or something."
"A sun? Couldn’t they wear flashing earrings instead?"
Daniel sighed. "Hemera. She's the goddess of the day."
The alien had just put a hand on his chest. His fingers were moving quickly, insistently searching Daniel's torso for his dog tags. On finding them, he started hissing, alternating between touching Daniel's face and pulling softly on the tags.
The others were coming, too. Half-a-dozen tentative hands found their way to the human’s back and shoulders, leaving stinging jelly on their path. Daniel gulped, and started exploring the face of the cave dweller, aware that he would receive the same treatment in return.
Jack asked a few questions, but his friend was not answering anymore, except for the odd "hmm" or "uh-huh". After what seemed to Jack like an eternity, he heard lots of rustling and hushing. Creatures were moving around him, not daring to touch him. A heavy object entered the water. "Daniel?"
"I’m fine. Getting rid of the slime."
Leaning against the wall, Jack waited for his teammate to come back to him.
"I’m here. Sit near me. Yes, that’s it." Shoulders touched. They were in contact again. "So?"
"Well, they are definitely humanoid. Most of them seem to be about our size. I also met Teal’c’s bigger brother, I think."
"Oh, and the females have breasts."
"You filthy bastard! And you didn’t call me?"
"Well, Jack, it doesn’t feel that nice, if it’s any consolation. And I was just checking on the necklaces."
"Right. The necklaces."
"I’m serious. They all wear one. They are made of metal. Some are quite large, and they come in all sorts of shapes. It might be a sign of social wealth, or…"
Jack sighed. Daniel was lapsing into lecture mode, which would lower Jack's role to one of listener. He needed more than that, here in the dark. So he cut him off, and asked: "Just how many of them did you touch, exactly?"
Jack turned towards the younger man, noticing for the first time that he was shaking a bit. "Are you feeling OK?"
"Yes, I’m fine. Well, as I said, they probably look a lot like us. They may even have been human, once upon a time. The only notable difference is…"
"… their lovely skin."
"That as well. I wasn’t thinking of that, actually. They don’t seem to have eyes."
"No eyes, not even sockets. The first guy was completely fascinated by mine."
"He didn’t put his slimy fingers in your eyes, did he?"
"Of course not! What do you think eyelids are for, Jack?"
He imagined what a face would look like without eyes, and without sockets. It was gross. He imagined what Daniel's face would be like if… He muttered a curse under his breath. "That’s why they don’t have flashlights, then. Anything else?"
"They are completely naked, but for the necklaces."
"We fit in nicely."
"Yeah, that we do. Then again, maybe not, ‘cause we have hair and as far as I can tell they seem to be completely bald. They have "shown" me, for lack of a better word, a good number of artefacts. Bowls, mostly. And also what I think are dolls. I don’t know if they made them themselves or if they are remainders of their former civilization, before they decided to bury themselves down here."
"Did you keep the bowls? I'm fed up with lapping water."
At Jack's great satisfaction, Daniel shoved one into his hands. "Atta boy! Any weapons?"
"Not that I know of. Maybe they just didn’t let me touch any." He added: "I bumped one or two guys there. They may think I’m a bit clumsy."
Daniel was the most careful person ever. He had to be, what with all his very breakable artefacts. But Jack couldn't let this opportunity pass. He burst out laughing.
"What’s so funny?"
"Nothing. They know you well already, that's all."
"Come on, be serious for a moment!"
"Serious. Yes. So, uh, I suppose all their hissing and yawning is a language? They did that a lot while you were doing… stuff with them."
"No. Maybe a little. I think they mainly use tactile codes to exchange information. They were brushing me and pinching me a lot. The noises might just be secondary signs of communication. Like when you’re grabbing my wrist a bit too hard because you’re worried."
Jack released his grip. "I was not doing that."
"Anyway… I still don’t know how to talk with them."
"You could use the wall? Guide them to the words you need?"
"It would take too long. I suppose this guy knew this wall much better than I do, and it felt hard enough for him to find just two words!"
Jack heard the hint of nervous exhaustion in Daniel's voice. He couldn't start to imagine how hard it had been for the archaeologist to touch, and undoubtedly be touched by, the slimy figures. How hard had it been to let them invade his personal space, on the basis that this was his only way to communicate with them?
Jack grabbed Daniel by the shoulders to lay him down. "Don't worry. I'm sure you'll find a way."
"I don't know."
"I do. Now if you go to sleep I'll wake you up next time they slap a fish in my face."
Jack waited for Daniel's soft laughter to die. He grabbed the bowls and went to fetch some water. Daniel would be thirsty when he woke.
Daniel flicked his chest with the back of his hand. The bugs were eating him alive, and when he removed one from his arm, two found their way to his leg. It burned, it itched. Creepy crawlies everywhere, on the cot, in his hair, on his belly. One of the centipede-like creatures had just found the worm bites and had entered his ankle. Daniel could feel it wriggling under his skin. Inside him. This was an interesting new development.
He couldn't remember when it had started. He had fallen asleep soon after his meeting with the cave dwellers, and had only vague memories of what had happened afterwards. Jack's soft snores, a foreign hand on his mouth, cold liquid poured on his wounds. It felt like a dream.
The bugs felt real.
"What are you doing, Daniel?"
Finally! Daniel had believed Jack would never wake up. "Bugs."
"Bugs? On you?" Someone moved fast on the cot, knees rasping against the leathery texture. "Where are they?"
"Don't touch me! They might get onto you." Daniel was scratching. He needed to tear his skin open, to force the centipedes out. So many of them had found access into his body now. He could feel the lumps moving under his muscles, on his bones.
It took him a while to register the touch of fingers on his torso. They were moving around, looking for the bugs, who dodged them so easily that it would have been laughable, if his body wasn’t serving as a playground.
"There's nothing there. Nothing at all."
Daniel guffawed. "They are smart. Much smarter than you."
"You've got a fever."
"Eency weency spider climbed the water spout," he recited in a sing-song voice.
Jack lifted him to a sitting position. "Have some water."
"Down came the rain and washed the spider out." He was thirsty. When Jack pressed the bowl against his lips, he stopped singing to swallow the tepid water.
"Daniel, stop that!"
"Out came the sun and dried up all the rain." He wished his nails were longer and stronger to tear through his skin. He wished Jack could take the spiders -- no, they were centipedes -- out.
"There's nothing, ya hear me? Nothing! For cryin' out loud, Danny, snap out of it!"
"Now eency weency spider went up the spout again."
"Let's wash them away, okay? Stand up!"
Daniel laughed. The solution was so easy. He should have found it without Jack's help. The eency weency centipedes would swim away, out of his entrails to the bowels of this earth. He let Jack drag him to the lake, and immersed himself in the water.
Jack walked Daniel back to the cot. The good news was that he wasn't limping anymore. The bad news… Well, there was a lot of that. It started with the darkness, and ended with Daniel going nuts.
They sat on the border of the leathery board, Jack keeping his arm wrapped around Daniel's back. He didn't dare to let him go yet. "No more bugs?" he asked. He cringed at the sound of his own voice. It was shaky and weak.
"No more. I'm sorry. They were never there, were they?"
"No. It was just a bad dream."
"It felt real. It felt so real! What if it was some of Machello's bugs? You wouldn't be able to…"
"Calm down, Daniel."
"No! I don't want to! I'm running a fever, all right? Jack, you've got to believe me, I don't want to go back there!"
"Go back where?" Jack drew Daniel closer, hoping he wouldn't pull away from the comfort they both needed. Daniel twitched but didn't try to escape. Jack felt reassured by the solidity of his friend's body, in default of his sanity. "It was just a dream," he repeated.
"…The white cell. I'm not crazy. Tell them I'm not crazy, please, Jack!"
"I know, Danny. It's fine. You're not going anywhere." Jack moved his hand to his friend's nape and started rubbing it slowly. Encouraged by Daniel's lack of reaction, he settled himself behind him to massage his shoulders.
"I remember something, I think. It's not the first time you've done that," Daniel whispered.
"Don't remind me." It had happened only once, when Daniel was fighting his addiction to the sarcophagus. His muscles had been tense to the verge of tearing, like now, but his skin hadn't felt half as hot. No wonder he was shivering. "You're cold?"
"That's because of your fever. And you're wet."
Jack urged Daniel to lie on his stomach. He sat at his side and continued the massage. Daniel tensed more, beyond what Jack had thought possible. "Relax. I'm not going to hurt you."
Jack felt him nodding. Laying both hands flat on his spine, he moved them in long strokes from the base of his neck to the small of his back, and up again.
"Where did you learn that?"
"Sara. She suffered from back pain while she was pregnant." Later he had used those techniques on Charlie, mostly when he was sick. After he'd grown too old to admit he needed cuddles, he sometimes came to his father to demand a massage, claiming that he had hurt his shoulders while playing football. Jack wasn't taken in by it, but he never denied his son the moments of intimacy.
Hands on Daniel's waist, Jack grasped and squeezed the overheated skin, moving up to the shoulders. His movements were firmer than at the beginning. He hadn't lost his touch. Daniel was loosening up.
"If I ever hear a word about that at the SGC, I'll rip your head off."
Daniel chuckled. "Why?"
"As if it's not obvious? I have a reputation to protect."
"No. Why are you doing it?"
'Well, that's the million dollar question,' he thought, squeezing a bit too hard. Jack felt helpless, and he hated it. He often relied on his team for solving particular problems -- problems that only Carter or Daniel had the skills to tackle, and that was fine. This time, however, he was relying on a sick man. A sick, naked, effectively blind man with a chewed foot.
Jack couldn't forget the crap food, or the smell of vomit and excrement growing stronger by the hour… Add a few broken bones and it would be just like Iraq. Lovely place, that.
"Call it moral support," he answered. For Daniel or for himself? He didn't know. He couldn't see his companion, and that hurt more than the rest. Touching was the next best thing, even if it brought back memories he would better not deal with at the moment.
Jack moved his right hand to the trapezius muscle, under the shoulder blade. He pressed deeply in the taut flesh, drawing circular patterns with his thumb. That felt relaxing, even to him. Daniel's breathing was regular and slow. He would soon fall asleep.
"If there's word that I let you to do that to me, I'll rip your head off. Then I'll eat it."
"Sounds like a plan." Jack pressed his thumbs down along the spine. Daniel's muscles contracted. "Daniel?"
Daniel rolled on his back. "I think I've just found a way to communicate with the cave dwellers." His voice was quiet, bearing none of his usual excitement when he was about to discover a new culture.
"Why do I feel I'm not going to like it?"
He had been practicing with Jack for what seemed like hours. They had tried almost every body part. Daniel's chest was not sensitive enough. His bloated stomach was a no go. Grazing it was painful. When Jack, using his index finger, had etched "space monkey" in his palm, it had tickled so much that he'd lost himself in laughter. The bridge of the nose was the best place of all. He just hoped the cave dweller would be careful enough not to poke his eyes.
Finding his interlocutor again had been the easiest part.
'You', Daniel wrote, slowly, on the alien’s forehead.
Nothing happened for a minute or two and then Daniel felt a slimy finger on his own forehead, tracing signs. It took all his attention to keep track of what the alien was doing, but the words, albeit reversed, were simple, and oddly familiar.
'You unlike us'
"Jack, it works! He answered! My god, this is fantastic!"
"Well, what did he say?"
"Huh… That we were different."
"Indeed," said Jack in his best Teal’c impersonation.
'Read me?' the alien asked.
'Is Hedlir me.'
"Hedlir… That’s his name. He is Hedlir! It's a name. The one from the cave? It just means cave dweller, I think."
"No shit? Geez, keep it simple and stupid! I like this guy."
'Is Hedlir you', wrote Daniel, poking his tongue out at Jack. Darkness had its good points.
"Is you… Jack, he is asking my name. What can I say?"
"Oh, I don’t know. Lemme think. Try Daniel Jackson. Might be a good start."
"I can’t spell that."
"Come on, I’m sure you can come up with something. Space Monkey?"
Daniel shrugged, while the alien repeated his question. "Jack…"
"Ok, no Space Monkey then. Plant Boy? Grasshopper?"
"No, I don’t know that. Give me a word I can write!"
"Nightbird. What with you working until the wee hours and all."
"That’s kinda sweet."
Jack snorted. "I’m getting sappy in my old age."
"This will be repeated, inflated and distorted." Daniel thought about the name. The night bird's tale was the first one he had deciphered. It fitted, in a way. He hoped he wasn't going to pick up the name of a religious figure. As far as he could tell, the narration was childish, so there was a good chance he'd end up being a Hansel look-alike. "All right. Nightbird sounds good."
So night bird he wrote, and Nightbird he became.
'Is Nightbird you', wrote Hedlir. 'Is other?'
Jack. That wasn’t hard. Daniel knew a name that would fit perfectly, though he would never, ever admit it to his friend. 'Is Leader other.'
More aliens had come. Their touch was so light that he hadn’t noticed until now, focused on trying to understand Hedlir. He shivered as a trail of slime ran down his shoulder. It stung. He bit his lip and continued. 'Leader and Nightbird. Peace.'
'Peace,' was the answer.
"Skoukla… Jack, we are safe here! It’s Skoukla!"
"Skoukla exists on Earth. It's a cave that was already inhabited in prehistoric times! Kardamylians consider Skoukla as a sacred asylum, even more so since the Massacre of Chios. When was that again? Early in the nineteenth century, if my memory serves me right. That's too late for gate travel. They must've been taken away earlier than that."
"Wait, wait, wait. Cardamonians? Massacre of Kiosk?"
"Chios is a Greek island. Kardamyla is a maritime town north of it. Pirates attacked it on a regular basis, and when that happened, people sought refuge in Skoukla. Look, our cave dwellers might be the descendants of the first Kardamylians!"
"Fascinating. Really. Now, about the way out?"
"Um… OK." Daniel carefully pressed his finger onto Hedlir's forehead. He choose the shortest words he knew, ruling out proper grammar for the sake of rapidity, and spelled them out in the layer of jelly that covered the alien's skin.
He had experienced lots of weird things since he had gone through the 'gate for the first time. He had met cultures that were so different that it boggled the mind. It was all too easy to scare people away. Show most Tau'ri expatriates a Jaffa, even as nice a Jaffa as Teal'c was, and you were sure to get a reaction. They could be afraid of anything, ranging from weapons to MREs. Which, now that Daniel thought about it, proved that aliens had a good share of common sense.
But usually what Daniel said was not the object of the aliens' fear.
"Bad choice of words," muttered Daniel, as all the cave dwellers fled into the bowels of Skoukla.
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