Bits and Pieces
"I am the family face;
P8X-987 -- Hanka
Cassandra peered through the narrow crack in the wooden shutters that covered the common house windows, well aware that if she got caught sneaking around the building, she'd be in a lot of trouble. But she was too fascinated by the strangers that had come to the village to ignore an opportunity to get a closer look at one of them.
"If they catch us, we're gonna be in soooo much trouble," her best friend, Rachel, hissed as she twisted to peer out of the bushes they were hiding in, checking to make certain no adults were coming.
"The others are out in the fields with my father and the rest of the men," Cassandra whispered to her friend and leaned forward, trying to arrange herself into a position where she could see something.
"I don't see why you care so much about the strangers," Rachel muttered unhappily.
Cassandra ignored her -- as she often did. Rachel always did exactly what was expected of her ... a boring way of doing things in Cassandra's opinion. Of course Rachel never got in trouble or yelled at. Cass, meanwhile, had learned that if she just focused on a distant point, imagined the last tale by the storyteller, and nodded her head at all the right times, getting yelled at was remarkably survivable. In fact, if she took the right approach, it was almost enjoyable, since the storyteller's tales were usually great stories of daring and adventure, and she'd always had a vivid imagination. "They're from another world," she reminded her friend, gasping softly as she smelled the faint odor of Kubliezi burning, signaling the start of a ceremony, then caught a faint glimpse of the female otherworlder moving amid the gathered crowd.
She heard her mother's voice then, and her familiar figure stepped into view, momentarily blocking her angle on things, but she recognized the words and rhythmic cadences of the ancient chants.
"It's a binding," Rachel whispered urgently as she too recognized the incantations they were learning in their religious classes. She tugged on Cassie's sleeve. "We have to get out of here."
Cassandra waved her friend off. "Go if you want to," she snapped and yanked her arm back. She continued to watch eagerly as her mother stepped aside, her movements graceful, the long, dark blond hair that fell down her back sweeping back and forth gently. "I'm gonna stay."
"You can't stay for a binding," Rachel chided angrily. "You're too young. You know it's forbidden."
Cassandra waved the idea off. "Dad says it's all just superstition--"
The blond stranger stepped into view; taller than most of the Hankan women, her body lean and graceful, her hair cropped shorter than any of the women Cassandra had ever known, her clothes -- identical to the men she traveled with -- dyed in muted colors and layered in fascinating pockets and devices. "I'm not going," she whispered. "But you go on." She heard Rachel mutter disapprovingly.
"Fine," her friend said at last. "If you want to get eaten by Devourers, it's not my problem."
Cassandra ignored the other girl, peering eagerly through the crack and watching the ceremony she was still too young to formally attend, fascinated not by the ritual, but by the exotic stranger who'd come to her world. She knew there were more of the outsiders due to arrive in the coming weeks to build some kind of device for studying the skies -- her parents had been among those who'd argued at council to work with the strangers, and she'd overheard them discussing their intentions -- but she couldn't imagine them being anywhere near as fascinating as this woman. That was what she wanted to be -- someone who traveled the universe, had adventures and saw new places -- not simply some farmer's wife.
For the first time in her life, she even believed it might be possible. If the otherworlders continued trading with her people, who knew what could happen? Her parents were simply hoping for technology they might offer help with the crops during dry years and bug infestations, but Cassandra was hoping that somewhere in the future, she might be able to travel as they did.
She heard her mother's voice rising above the soft murmurs of the crowd, her recitation of the ritual incantation warm and melodic, making her feel safe and protected as it always had. A smile touched her lips as she listened to the words, for the first time appreciating their meaning.
Because once the ceremony was done, no matter where the outsider went, what strange places she visited, it meant she would always be one of them. As she watched the woman was bound to her own chégal ... bound to their history and future ... and she couldn't help but smile as she realized they were family now.
The stranger's name was Samantha Carter, and by her own mother's declarations, they were, and always would be, family.
* * * * * *
"A blind man in a dark room -- looking for
a black hat -- which isn't there."
3 Months Later
Her elbows braced on Janet Fraiser's kitchen table, head in her hands, hair askew, Sam Carter moaned very softly.
"Here," Janet said as she set a steaming mug in front of Sam.
Carter lifted her head just enough to peer at it with a raised eyebrow. She picked up the mug, and gave an experimental sniff. "This is scary," she exhaled after a beat.
"It'll either wake you up or kill you," the doctor agreed with utter practicality. The fluorescent light overhead flickered gently, drawing her attention upward. Looked like the starter was going. Sam really was out of it. Normally, she leapt on things like that instantly. Force of habit from overseeing so many things on the base, Janet supposed. The light flickered again, pulsing softly at the edge of Janet's vision. The blonde never noticed, too involved in her own misery to care. Meanwhile, the motor on the central air had been rattling and screeching off and on for several nights, and the front porch fixture apparently needed rewiring since it had blown three bulbs in the last week. A wry smile twisted Janet's mouth. If this kept up, she might actually need to find an electrician.
Sam peered thoughtfully at the substance in her cup. Technically, she knew it was coffee, though by the smell of it, it was strong enough to qualify as a life form. "I wonder which one is kinder at this point," she mused out loud.
Janet sank into the chair on the opposite side of her kitchen table with a sympathetic sigh. "Rough night?" she asked worriedly, though she already knew the answer. She'd spent the night dealing with an emergency on base -- SG-3 had encountered an aggressively militaristic proto-Greek regime and taken heavy fire that resulted in injuries -- which meant she was considerably more rested than Sam. Cassandra, meanwhile, had obviously suffered through another round of horrific nightmares. By the look of it, Sam had suffered right along with her. She'd thought that more attention from Sam would solve the problem, but ... well ... no such luck. They'd calmed briefly, but were back in full force.
Carter took a cautious sip from her cup, shaking her head dazedly. "D'you think that android version of me that Harlan created would be willing to come back and take my place?" The alien had kidnapped and duplicated SG-1, then returned the android copies to the SGC, though the androids themselves had been unaware of their true nature. They had ultimately gone back to their creator when they discovered they couldn't survive without his power source. They were still out there; the perfect mental, physical, and emotional duplicates of SG-1. Normally that thought creeped Sam out. At that precise moment, she'd have paid serious money to trade places with her android double just long enough to get a full night's sleep. "I could probably rig a battery pack to deal with that little power outage problem."
Fraiser shrugged, her expression wry, and took a long draft from her own cup. "Really bad, huh?" she sighed without answering Sam's sarcastic question.
"It's getting worse," Sam breathed -- amazed such a thing was even possible and totally overwhelmed by the severity of the problem. "When she wakes up, she seems to want me to do something about it, but she won't tell me what." She shook her head helplessly. "And it's like she's angry at me for not magically knowing how to make everything better, even though she won't talk to me."
Janet ran a hand through her hair, her small sigh holding a wealth of understanding. "Welcome to the club," she commiserated with dark humor. It was either laugh or cry. At least she'd managed to overcome most of her jealousy over Sam's easy way with the child when it turned out her presence was no magic fix for whatever was bothering Cassie.
Sam shook her head, her expression apologetic. "I am so sorry I was MIA when this started," she muttered with intent sincerity. Until she'd spent a couple of nights alone with the panicked, angry child, she really hadn't appreciated how terrifying it was.
The doctor offered another small shrug. "It wasn't nearly this bad at first," she reminded Sam, purposely downplaying things, despite any temptation to the contrary. Now was not the time for cheap shots or petty vengeance. The other woman was here now. That was what mattered. Besides, she'd made a few mistakes of her own; a major one being that she'd wanted Sam to figure things out on her own and hadn't accepted that sometimes it was necessary to just grab the woman by the collar and shake until she came out of whatever scientific haze she was in at the time, and actually heard what was being said. "Her fear is feeding on itself ... and that's just making things worse."
"There has to be something else we can do," Sam whispered. They'd already tried everything they could think of and she was left wondering how much longer she could stand to see Cass so terrified. Not that she knew what to do about it. Hell, she didn't even know what to do about not knowing what to do, and it was all making her a little crazy.
Fraiser shrugged and shook her head. "Truthfully, I hoped your being here would turn things around." Despite the muting effect Sam's failure had on her jealousy, she would have cheerfully traded it to see Cassandra happy and sleeping the night through.
"Yeah ... well ... you can cross my name off the miracle worker list," Sam sighed disgustedly. After a few nights of restful sleep for all involved, the nightmares had come again, only now they were even worse. Plus, as an added bonus, she found herself faced with the child's expectations that she knew how to fix everything when she didn't have a clue.
Janet nodded sadly and took a sip from her cup, then began carefully, her tone hesitant. "I've spoken to a psychiatrist who specializes in treating children's emotional disorders with drugs ... mostly SSRI's, and tricyclics, though he's had good luck treating sleep disorders with anxiolytics...."
"Drugs?" Sam whispered doubtfully, hating the idea with a passion. She didn't want Cassie going through life in a chemical haze.
Fraiser looked uncomfortable. "I don't like the idea either," she said defensively, "especially when I don't believe there's an organic cause for her nightmares...." She ran a hand through her hair. "But I'm running out of ideas ... and I'm afraid the constant stress could damage her health.... Her heart's already fragile...." The Goa'uld bomb, and its method of creation, had done damage. Nothing that wouldn't heal with time, but the child was vulnerable and would be for some time to come.
A sharp head shake was Carter's initial response. "We can't put her on drugs," she whispered raggedly.
"Believe me, Sam, it's not a choice I like," Janet said quietly, then continued, her tone surprisingly firm, "but if we can't get this under control it may be the only way ... and if it comes down to it, I need to be ready to move quickly."
Narrow shoulders dipped in a hint of a shrug. "I know," Sam allowed, though it was like pulling teeth, "but there's got to be something else we can try."
"I'm open to suggestions," the doctor said softly, peering at her friend searchingly. "Has she given you any clue what's scaring her so badly?" she asked as she went over what little she knew in her head.
All Sam could do was shake her head in frustration.
* * * * * *
"What about some kind of funeral or memorial ceremony?" Daniel asked Sam thoughtfully. She'd explained the situation while they were working together analyzing records seized from an ancient Goa'uld base. "That can be an important part of the grieving process ... especially for someone from a highly religious society ... which the Hankans certainly were. She may feel there are all sorts of cultural ramifications without it."
Carter shook her head. "The counselor she's seeing has apparently mentioned the idea ... and Janet and I have both talked to her about it ... but she totally clammed up every time ... wouldn't even discuss it." She shook her head. "I dunno, maybe she's just in such denial about what happened that she can't accept it's real. Maybe the nightmares are just her subconscious struggling against that." Even as she said it, the explanation didn't feel right.
The Egyptologist frowned ever so slightly. "Y'know, the first time we were on Hanka," left unsaid was the addenda -- before everyone was dead -- "I spoke with one of the village priests while you and Jack were talking with the farmers. They had some pretty complex ceremonies. He explained some of them, and I took quite a few notes. Even got some pictures of the pages in one of their holy books. Maybe I can find something from her own world that might help," he offered, wanting to be of any assistance possible.
Sam didn't even pause to debate. After being thrown into a totally alien culture, maybe it would give the child some comfort if they could come up with something from her home. "If you could find something," she whispered, "that would be so fantastic." She massaged her temple, fighting an exhaustion headache. "Because the way this is going, I'm getting scared for her ... and Janet is considering trying drugs because she's afraid the stress and exhaustion are damaging Cass' health--"
"And the two of you are obviously feeling it," Daniel said sympathetically. He'd noted the ever-darkening circles under both women's eyes in recent days.
"We're definitely getting a little frayed around the edges," Sam admitted.
Daniel reached out, patting her hand a little awkwardly. "I'll see what I can find," he promised.
She nodded gratefully, offering a tired smile before they went back to work.
* * * * * *
A steady knocking sound, followed by the familiar chime of her cell phone, dragged Sam out of a light sleep where she was sprawled uncomfortably on Janet's livingroom couch. Better than terrified screams, she decided as she reached for the tiny phone where it sat on the nearby end table. "Carter here," she mumbled and pushed into a sitting position, rubbing sleep filled eyes as she struggled back to consciousness.
"Hi, Sam, it's Daniel," A brisk, and entirely too cheerful, voice came back.
Sam rubbed the back of her neck. The knocking was back and she pushed to her feet, tugging her disarrayed sweats and tank top back into place as she stumbled to her feet. "Hi, Daniel. Just a minute, 'kay? There's someone at the door." She staggered toward the foyer, arriving just as Janet stepped out of her bedroom, looking only faintly more awake than Sam felt.
"Actually, that's me," the Egyptologist explained over the phone.
Sam flipped on the porch light just as a blurry figure waved at her through the smoked glass window beside the door. She shut the cell off and began throwing the locks. "It's Daniel," she answered Janet's unasked question.
The doctor frowned, glancing at her watch and noting the time. "Problem?"
Carter shrugged. "He didn't say," she admitted and pulled the door open for her colleague.
"Sam," he said quickly, then glanced over at Janet and nodded in acknowledgment, "Doctor Fraiser. Sorry it's so late," he apologized, "but I figured you'd want to hear what I found out as quickly as possible."
Frowning in confusion, Sam watched him enter with a blank look, sleepy enough that she wasn't following his explanation.
"About Cassandra," Daniel added when he realized she was clueless. He held up a briefcase, his eyes gleaming with excitement.
"Oh," Carter said instantly, then glanced over at Janet, sensing her rising tide of interest. "Daniel thought he might be able to come up with something to help Cass." She looked back at her teammate, noting his palpable eagerness. "Obviously, you found something?"
He nodded quickly. "I think I've found some clues about what has her so scared."
Fraiser stepped forward, shaking off any remaining traces of sleep. "I'll throw on a pot of coffee," she said, hurrying toward the kitchen.
* * * * * *
Daniel dug a stack of documents and photos out of his portfolio, spreading them across the kitchen table as the women watched curiously. "I found the pertinent reference in one of the photos I took of pages from one of their major holy books -- it refers to one of their prophets using the protection of the Sherxan to ward off demons...." His expectant look was met with looks of confusion from both women.
"And?" Sam prompted after a brief moment.
Daniel blinked, his expression falling as though he'd done some incredible magic trick only to realize they'd been looking the other way during the best part. Muttering under his breath, he rifled through his papers and yanked out a photocopied page of handwritten notes, pointing at something amid the lines of cluttered scrawl. "It's right here ... the Hankans believed that demons they called the Devourers would get them if they were ever without the protection of something called the Sherxan...." He paused, giving the information time to sink in. "They believed they could glimpse these demons in dreams ... out of the corner of their eyes ... or in the dark ... anyplace you couldn't really see or where the subconscious was involved."
"That makes sense," Fraiser tentatively admitted. "With what she saw on Hanka, nightmares are almost guaranteed ... add in the belief that they mean something is pursuing her, and it would make sense that it would just trigger more nightmares ... makes for a nasty cycle...."
"Precisely," Daniel said, sounding even more excited. He looked expectantly at the women.
"The problem is," Sam said after a beat, "if she really believes that, how do we convince her she's safe?"
"We need a Sherxan," Daniel explained as though the answer was obvious.
The women shared a somewhat nonplused look.
"Oka-ay," Janet exhaled after a moment, then continued doubtfully, "But do we know what a Sherxan is ... or where one might be found?" Somehow it didn't sound like something she was going to find at the local Quickie Mart. In fact, she had a feeling even Ace Hardware was going to have a hard time with that one.
Daniel turned a look on Sam, finally sighing softly when she didn't take the hint. "The ceremony you were invited to attend the first time we were on Hanka ... the one that was for the women only," he added with more than a touch of lingering annoyance at being locked out of something he clearly would have found far more enlightening than Carter had, "...while the men were showing us the problems with their crops," he added to remind her. "They called it a Binding of the Sherxan."
Sam looked blank. She only vaguely remembered the ceremony. She'd been invited as a gesture of welcome and to cement the ties between their people, and it hadn't made much sense, especially since her mind had been on what they might see if the Hankans agreed to the observatory. "I ... uh ... oh..." she exhaled, looking very uncertain, then nodded more decisively. "Yeah, that's right. Now that I think about it, that sounds right."
He rolled his eyes, muttering under his breath before continuing. "Were you even listening?" he groaned in disbelief.
Which wasn't fair in Sam's opinion. The ceremony had lasted several hours, some of it in a local dialect she didn't speak, all of it in poetic language and espousing concepts she didn't understand ... and ... well ... contemplating the black hole had been far more interesting. "I was listening," she insisted defensively. "...at least at first. I mean, I sort of tuned out at some point, but, truthfully, it didn't make much sense to me ... and the ceremony was a long one...." She frowned, knowing it was important to pull up any details possible. Daniel started to speak, but she held up a hand, silencing him as she closed her eyes and sat massaging her temples. "There was a ... uh ... a lot of talk," she murmured.
Daniel rolled his eyes, but didn't make the sarcastic comment on the tip of his tongue. Janet took a long swallow of hot coffee, content to wait while Sam sifted through her memories, knowing the blond had a way of digging some of the most obscure facts out of whatever strange filing system she used to organize her thoughts. A beat passed, and then another.
Finally, Sam murmured, "They burned some kind of herb in the fireplace ... smelled like sage." Her brow knit in a frown, and Janet had a sense that she was reconstructing the scene in her head. "There must have been at least two dozen women ... mostly about my own age." Another long pause, then she continued, "When it started, one of the women gave a speech ... welcoming me to their village...." She paused, her frown deepening for a moment as she struggled with the memory. "And to ... she used a term I didn't know...."
"Sherxan?" Daniel asked pointedly.
A thoughtful frown creased the captain's brow, then she shook her head. "I don't think so. It was more like sega ... or ... seegar ... or something...." She shook her head, struggling with the faint memory, while Daniel scrambled wildly through his papers.
"Could it have been chégal?" he asked when he finally found what he was looking for.
Sam considered the question for a moment, then nodded. "Maybe." She offered a small shrug, then her head canted to one side as another memory flickered in her mind's eye. "But later," she said softly, struggling to bring the faint image into focus, "one of the women congratulated me on being accepted into ... something ... and on being bound to the Sherx--"
"NO!" The furious, terrified scream broke through the room, drawing the attention of all three adults around just as a small face disappeared back through the swinging kitchen door.
"Damn," Janet hissed. Closest to the door, she vaulted to her feet almost instantly and raced after the child.
Sam froze for no more than a second, then shook off the brief bout of paralysis, cursing under her breath as she leapt after her friend. She found the doctor on one knee in the living room, one arm looped around Cassie's shoulders to prevent her from fleeing. Janet glanced back and a slender hand came up in a halting motion. Sam skidded to a stop and stood watching helplessly as Cass trembled in the circle of the doctor's arms, shaking her head back and forth.
"You can't," the child whispered over and over.
"Cass," Janet whispered, adopting a low, mesmerizing tone, "talk to us--"
"NO!" the child insisted, then twisted to peer up at the doctor. "I can't. Nobody can!" Her head swung around, frightened blue eyes meeting Sam's gaze. "You can't talk about it!" Then her voice dropped to a tiny, terrified whisper, her gaze rising as if she expected the ceiling to fall on their heads. "They'll hear ... and we're not safe! I've seen them watching us!"
The two women traded worried looks even as Daniel arrived. He would have stepped forward, but Sam held out a hand, blocking him back, sensing that, for once, Janet was actually closer to getting answers than anyone else.
"Not safe?" the doctor exhaled. "How do you mean?"
The girl just shook her head stiffly, her eyes huge.
Fraiser glanced back at Sam and Daniel, but they both shook their heads. Sam started to step forward, but saw Cassie tense as if to pull away and froze where she was. By starting to say the word, "Sherxan," she'd clearly frightened Cassie, maybe even damaged some kind of trust, and it wasn't the time to try and push that.
"Okay," the doctor said as she looked at the child again, her heart breaking in response to the pain and terror she saw in the sweet face. She went over what both Daniel and Sam had been saying. "Is it because we don't have...." She trailed to a halt as she felt Cassandra tense and saw her eyes widen with horror. "...the ... what you didn't let Sam finish saying?" she asked at last, the words coming out haltingly as she struggled to put together a sentence that might not panic the child. She felt a tiny wave of relief slide through the girl.
Cassie nodded quickly.
Janet didn't know whether to be relieved or frustrated. Apparently they weren't facing the latest madman coming in through the windows, and the child was willing to supply some answers, but they were going to be pretty general if she could only ask questions in such a roundabout way. "Okay," she exhaled, considering that piece of information carefully before clarifying, "But we can't talk about it?"
A solemn head shake was the only reply.
The doctor resisted the urge to curse. "Could you describe what it looks like ... or draw it?" she asked hopefully, thinking maybe it was only the specific words that were prohibited, but Cass was already shaking her head when the words left Janet's mouth.
"They'll know," the girl whispered in a very tiny voice, flashing an edgy look around the room, paying particular attention to any shadowed corners. "They're getting stronger ... and bringing more of them." A fresh shudder slid through her. "They'll attack soon ... if something isn't done to stop them." She stared at Janet with a heart-meltingly frightened look.
"Is it on Hanka?" the doctor asked, her voice little more than a whisper.
Cassie seemed torn about how to respond, clearly frightened of saying anything, but also frustrated with their inability to understand. "Sam saw ... she was there. I...." She paused for a long moment, and they could almost see the gears turning in her head. "I saw her go into the common house, and I know they had a ... a ceremony," she said at last, then stumbled to a halt, her look bordering on accusing. Clearly, she was supposed to know what was going on. "You have to know," she breathed as she stared at Sam, her expression reflecting her desperation for the woman to understand the situation.
Sam could only shake her head helplessly. She had no idea what the child thought she should know. "I'm sorry, Cass ... I ... I don't...."
"But that's why I knew I could trust you," Cassandra whispered. She flashed a terrified look around the room, clearly frightened by what she was about to say. "My mother made you a part of our chégal--"
Both women glanced at Daniel, who offered the brief explanation, "It's like a clan ... an extended family unit."
Cassie nodded. "Family," she breathed. "They made her part of our family ... family ... for all time ... forever...."
"So, in this ceremony ... Sam saw ... what we ... what we need to find?" Janet asked after taking a moment to gather her thoughts.
The child took a moment to consider the question as though deciding whether or not it fell within acceptable parameters. Finally, she nodded.
"And that'll ... protect you?" the doctor pressed gently. It was the first time the girl had given them any clue about what was going on in her head, and Janet was desperate to learn anything she could while she had a chance.
Another brief pause followed by a hesitant nod. "It'll protect all of us from ... them."
The doctor ran a tender hand over honey colored hair, smoothing it gently back from the child's brow. "Okay," she exhaled. "Then we'll find a way to get it...." She didn't know what else to say. She suddenly felt a hand land lightly on her shoulder, the weight a welcome support, as Sam knelt down.
The blond reached out, resting her other hand on Cass' shoulder. "Janet's right," she assured the child, regret showing in her gaze. "Things are different here ... and I didn't understand ... but now that we know we'll get the...." She saw Cass tense and quickly inserted, "...it. I promise." She slid her arm on around the child's shoulders, pulling her into what turned into a three-way hug the way they were positioned. Cass turned into her shoulder, snuggling against her chest, going almost limp as the raw tension drained out of her. Every bit as exhausted as the adults, and with fewer reserves to call on, she was close to passing out.
"Think maybe you can get some sleep?" the doctor whispered and received a half conscious mumble in return.
"I'll take her," Sam mouthed, easing the arm wrapped around Janet's back free, and lifting the child's small frame against the support of her shoulder as she stood. Cassandra draped an arm around her neck, leaning heavily against her.
Daniel watched his teammate carry the child back toward the converted study that had become her bedroom as the doctor rose to her feet. "General Hammond isn't going to like this idea," he said knowingly.
Fraiser shrugged, running a hand through her hair as she heaved a tired sigh. Oddly enough, there was something intensely relieving about the news. At least now, she had something to focus on, an aim to fulfill. "Then we'll just have to convince him," she said at last.
* * * * * *
They agreed that the first person to convince was Jack O'Neill, on the theory that the more people who were for the idea and willing to volunteer to go back to the plague decimated world, the better. Teal'c was also in on the discussion, his expression unreadable throughout their explanation.
After listening to the complete story, the colonel stared at the three people seated across the briefing room table from him with a faintly disbelieving look. His gaze touched on each of them. "Can't we just explain to her that ghosts and demons aren't real?" he asked at last. "I mean, it seems a little simpler."
"No," Janet said without even pausing to think. "Whatever the truth is, she believes in these things ... and the fear is killing her. That's not going to change because we politely explain it's not real."
"She's right," Sam said softly. "We have to find a way to do this."
"Superstitions like this can be extremely intense," Daniel confirmed, "very deeply felt and believed. The fear that it could kill her isn't unrealistic ... it does happen in primitive cultures."
Jack looked from person to person, then shook his head slowly. "Hammond isn't going to be easy to convince," he pointed out practically. He noted the shift in their expressions. "Which is why you're talking to me first," he said on a sudden note of understanding.
"We figured your support wouldn't hurt," Sam admitted.
O'Neill fixed a look on Fraiser, his voice hard as he pressed for an honest answer. "You really think the kid is in danger if we don't do this?"
"Yes, sir," she answered, her tone firm. "Mentally ... it's already tearing her apart. Physically ... I'm scared for her ... enough so that I'm discussing possible drug therapies with a doctor who specializes in mental illnesses in children. But I don't want to go that route." She glanced down at her tightly intertwined hands, fear and pain painfully visible in her expression. "But she's still got physical symptoms caused by what was done to her ... and I'm afraid this will exacerbate them if it's allowed to continue." She offered a small, helpless shrug and heaved an exhausted sigh. "This can't go on, sir." She swallowed hard, fighting the tightness in her throat, her eyes suspiciously glossy. "Something has to give ... and if we aren't careful, it could be Cass."
Jack sighed softly, gaze swinging over to touch on Carter, who silently nodded, her fear plainly visible in her eyes. "Okay," he said after a brief moment. "We'll figure out a way to make it happen." He glanced at Teal'c, his expression questioning.
The Jaffa nodded. "We are all responsible for her life," he said flatly, though to those who knew him well there was a flicker of worry audible in his tone. "We must do whatever is necessary to see that she is safe."
"We're both in then," the colonel assured the others. "Hammond's due in later this afternoon. We'll talk to him then."
The small group talked a little longer, discussing the particulars, then the men slipped out, leaving the women alone.
Sam rose, moving to stare out the observation windows at the gate room far below. An outbound team was readying to leave -- their preparations barely holding her attention as she ran over everything going on in her head, hunting for any clues that she might have missed. After a moment, she glanced back at Janet where the doctor was leaning forward, elbows braced on the table, silently massaging her temples. She looked like hell. "It's going to be okay," Sam said, as much to soothe her own fears as the other woman's. They'd both been swinging back and forth between despair and determination and, by the look of it, the other woman was caught firmly in the despair section of the pendulum's path.
Fraiser looked up, heaving a sigh that blew unusually disarrayed bangs out of her eyes. "What if General Hammond refuses?" she asked quietly, her expression pensive.
Sam shrugged. "We'll talk him into it."
"And what if it doesn't work?" Janet whispered, the fear threatening to flower forth and overwhelm her. "What do we do then?"
Sam stepped away from the observation window, drawing closer to the other woman and sinking into a half crouch next to her chair. She rested one hand on the arm of the chair as she peered up at Janet, taking in her exhaustion and seeing all the signs of a mind that had been running around in circles for too many hours. "We come up with something else," she said softly, then patted the doctor's forearm lightly before trailing her fingers down to gently stroke the rise of her knuckles. "And we keep trying till something works."
Janet turned her hand under Sam's, clinging tightly. She hadn't realized how much she'd needed the other woman's support -- hadn't allowed herself to consider it too closely when she hadn't had it -- but now that Sam was back and paying attention, she could admit to herself how much it meant to her to know the other woman was there for her. There were still things to worry about -- serious, intense things -- but she didn't have to focus on them for the moment. If she thought about things too much, she might have to pull back, and she needed Sam's support too much to do that. "Thank you," she whispered, her voice ragged. Sam smiled very tenderly, the look soothing and protective in a way that made Janet's heart seize up and pound faster at the same time. She fought the urge to reach out and run her fingers through the glossy hair that fell across the captain's forehead. Talk about your dangerous impulses. Then again, she'd done so before -- the gesture innocent if only due to her own still-functional denial -- and there was so much temptation to do so again. It would never occur to Sam that it was anything but a friendly gesture, and she could--
With a sharp shake, Janet threw the alluring idea off, reminding herself that her overactive hormones were not the issue; Cassandra's health and sanity were.
"It's gonna be okay," Sam's warm voice interrupted the doctor's silent musings. She squeezed the hand wrapped around her own, the gesture a reminder of the very real bond that tied them together in the form of a single, frightened child. "We'll make sure of it."
Nodding, Janet found herself lost in the gentle expression in Carter's eyes. "Yes, we will," she agreed after a beat, amazed to find herself believing it once again.
* * * * * *
George Hammond stared at the assembled group of officers seated around the briefing room table with a doubtful look. That they had prepared in advance and coordinated their arguments was obvious. "You're asking me to risk exposing this base to a plague world to soothe the nightmares of one child?" he said at last, his tone vacillating between questioning -- as though he wasn't certain he was hearing right -- and chiding. He had no doubt their hearts were in the right places, but looking at the problem from a slightly more objective position, he couldn't see how it justified the risk. He covered a sympathetic personal response as he told them as much. Sympathy wasn't an emotion he could afford when the safety of the base was at stake.
"Sir," Fraiser spoke with a kind of intensity that, as a parent, he well understood, "I can make it safe ... use full decon suits and level 4 procedures."
"We're talking about a child's nightmares," Hammond reminded her as gently as he dared, identifying with her plight more that he cared to admit, well aware that he'd fight tooth and claw on behalf of any of his own children were their positions reversed.
"They're killing her, sir," the woman laid it out in a surprisingly flat tone, the words all the more chilling for the lack of emotion.
Had she used tears and pleas to try and convince him, he could have chalked it up to exhaustion driven over-emotionalism. Nonetheless, it was still too risky in his opinion. "I'm sorry, Doctor," he said softly, not quite containing his pity for her position.
"General Hammond," Carter broke in, her voice thick with some of the emotions Fraiser had managed to control.
"I'm sorry, Captain Carter," he said before she could continue. "Considering what we've already encountered on Hanka, it's a risk I don't feel we can afford." The naked pain in both women's faces hurt more than the older man cared to consider. Not for the first time, he found himself tempted to curse the responsibilities of command. Things had been easier when he hadn't had to consider so many lives.
A beat passed, and then Jack O'Neill cleared his throat. He'd largely been quiet to that point, but they'd brought him into this to offer some support. Seemed like the time for some of that. "I think maybe you should rethink that position," he said, his look calculating.
One eyebrow arching high, Hammond eyed the colonel, his expression borderline suspicious. "Really?" he questioned dryly.
Jack nodded, his tone practical. "We took responsibility for that kid." He nodded toward Fraiser, his tone more pointed. "She took responsibility ... just like we all pushed her to...." His look sharpened as it clashed with Hammond's, well aware that the general had added his own share of pressure to get the woman to take the child when Carter couldn't and none of them had wanted her to wind up in DOD custody. "...and she's fighting something that's killing Cass an inch at a time ... and, in case you haven't noticed, it's doing a pretty good job on the Doc and Carter too. They're both scared to death and fighting to protect a kid they love. If something isn't done, sooner or later, they're gonna do something stupid ... and if we don't support 'em, they won't have the benefit of all this technology we're knee deep in--"
"I sincerely doubt either officer would behave in such an unprofessional capacity," Hammond growled, angry at O'Neill's obvious insinuations.
"Normally, I'd agree with you," the colonel admitted, "but, what if it was one of your kids?" He kept his voice low and calm, but the question was a serious one. "Cos, I know what I'd do ... and frankly, I'm just dumb enough to help 'em do the same thing." It wasn't even a subtle threat.
The general's expression hardened dangerously, but he didn't explode, Jack's words making more sense than he would have liked. It didn't set especially well that he'd probably have been saying much the same thing were there positions reversed. "I don't like blackmail, Colonel."
O'Neill shook his head, carefully keeping his tone ironic as he continued. "It's not blackmail, sir," he denied the obvious, "just the harsh truth about their desperation and my comparative stupidity."
Hammond's expression remained unreadable, though his fingers beat a rough rhythm on the tabletop. Annoyed with the tactics O'Neill had used, he would have enjoyed telling the colonel to go to hell. The problem was, in looking at all of them, he knew damn well that the other man was probably right. God knew, SG-1 wasn't above breaking the rules now and then ... and Carter and Fraiser were both scared and getting desperate ... and O'Neill was more than dumb enough to help them do something boneheaded. He glanced at Teal'c, unsurprised when the Jaffa straightened his shoulders, drawing himself even straighter.
"I would be equally foolish," he said to support the colonel's position. No surprise there. The Jaffa was profoundly loyal and had his own code of honor that often had little to do with the military chain of command.
Daniel glanced back and forth between all of the players, noting the determination of his teammates with a wry smile. "Well, I'm not about to be left out."
The general sighed softly, his own emotions making it impossible to respond the way he knew he should and lock them all up until they saw common sense. He looked at the two women, seeing their exhaustion and terror, and understanding it better than they did in some ways. He'd been through a few near-misses with his own daughters; enough to understand the helplessness all too well. "You can make it safe?" he demanded of the doctor.
She nodded, realizing he was giving them a second chance to convince him. "We did before, sir. We can do it again. I'll institute rigid protocols ... full level four decon." She swallowed, her expression briefly mirroring her desperation for him to agree before she hid it behind a wall of professional detachment.
The general turned a hard look on Daniel, since the whole idea of returning to Hanka was largely his doing. "Do you really think this will help?" It didn't make a great deal of sense to a mind honed to military patterns and concepts, but he'd learned to trust the people working for him when the vagaries of the gate went against his training.
The archaeologist nodded. "I believe so, sir." He glanced at the others, knowing they were depending on his knowledge to find some kind of answer. "I think we can find what we need ... and it's fairly documented that profound belief can affect people's health. There've even been cases of individuals, who believed they'd been cursed, dying of unexplainable causes." He saw Fraiser's flinch out of the corner of his eye and realized what she must have been thinking. "She believes this thing will protect her ... and in a sense, because of the strength of that belief, she's right. It's just that what it needs to protect her from is her own subconscious fears."
Hammond was silent for a long moment, focused on his own thoughts. He shook his head in a tiny, annoyed motion. He didn't like responding to the colonel's near-threat, but....
The older man looked at the people waiting for his judgment, wondering when he'd become the one arguing for caution when once he'd been on their side of the divide. By rights, he should refuse. Nothing they'd said had changed anything. Yes, precautions could be taken, but nothing was ever 100% certain. Did he have the right to take the risk for one child? His eyes fell on the doctor, taking in her haggard exhaustion. Except he'd pressed her to take responsibility, and in so doing, taken a part of it for all of them when he could have simply turned the problem over to the cold, faceless decision-makers at DOD. No question what their choice would have been. It eased his conscience somewhat to think that part of the reason for the SGC's list of successes was that they weren't cold or faceless, and sometimes they did things simply because they were right.
Another long moment passed, then finally the general nodded. "All right ... but I want every possible precaution taken." He pinned a hard gaze on Fraiser. "Doctor, you'll be going with SG-1 to oversee things and make certain there's no chance of bringing anything back," not that he thought he could have kept her off the mission. "I want every possible precaution taken and you'll have three hours ... no more ... if you don't find what you're looking for in that time, you return." He trailed an obdurate gaze across the assembled group. "No argument, and don't plan on any more chances. And, Colonel," he turned an especially hard look on O'Neill, "if you ever try to threaten me like that again, it will be the last time."
Jack noted his superior didn't specify just how he'd make sure of that, but he was comfortably certain it wouldn't be pleasant. "Understood, sir." There were times to just suck it in and kiss up. All things considered, this was now one of them. After all, he'd skated well over the line with what he'd done, even if it had worked. The only thing saving his butt was the other man's sympathy for the situation the two women were facing.
A moment passed. "Well," the general growled, breaking the silence. He leaned back in his chair. "You've got a lot of work to do ... and, since it seems like we should do this asap if we're going to do it at all, don't you think you should get a move on?"
* * * * * *