Zaire, North-Eastern Bandundu Province – November, 1990
She was too tired to even be tired any longer, her body far thinner than it had been only few weeks--or was that a few decades--before, her eyes nearly as dull and dead as her patients'. Janet Fraiser tipped her head back on her shoulders, eyes lifting to stare up through the thick, arboreal rainforest, hunting for some sign of sunlight through the thickening afternoon haze. Every breath was a strain as her lungs fought to drag oxygen from air so humid it was only a point or two from standing in the middle of a lake and her body ached viciously, the pain focusing at the center of her back in ways that made her wonder if the cycle of disease had already begun.
That was where it started; back ache, body aches, headache, fever--was she feverish even now? The heat and humidity were so oppressive that it was hard to tell. She started to lift a gloved hand to rub bloodshot eyes, but caught the gesture and stopped herself. That could be a disastrous slip. The virus was known for infiltrating through the eyes.
And from there it would wend its way through the body, the infinitely small virus particles tearing through tissue with merry abandon. Massive hemorrhaging would follow, with blood draining internally from the organs and externally from the ears, eyes, nose, mouth, genitals; the virus so virulent it could even punch pin-sized holes in the skin. By then, it wouldn't matter what medical treatment was offered--death was simply the logical conclusion--a final solution for a body whose mind and personality had long since succumbed to the damage done by massive intra-cranial hemorrhaging.
Welcome to the wonderful world of Ebola--where the body melts from the inside out, the disease that can turn anyone into the Wicked Witch of the West. 'Help me, I'm melting--'
She shook the thought off sharply, forcing her mind back on the present. As awful as reality was, it was better than her imagination.
"Doctor," the soft voice that broke in on her musings sounded nearly as tired as she felt and Janet came around, meeting Andrea Phillips' bloodshot gaze. The nurse was twenty-five, only a year younger than she was, but she looked more like an unhealthy forty, her body too thin, complexion sallow, her pale eyes vaguely unfocused. Janet suspected she looked no better. She supposed she should be glad there were no mirrors around to check.
Andrea nodded toward the shack behind her. "He's in a bad way," she said, her tone thick with the knowledge that there was little if anything either of them could do, but totally overwhelmed by the situation and young and idealistic enough to feel that doctors were supposed to solve these problems.
Janet bit back on the threat of hysterical laughter at that thought. Right, she was supposed to solve something...against a disease that killed 75% of the people who got it and was barely understood by the medical community that fought it when she was almost completely out of supplies. "I'll take a look," she mumbled, stepping past the other woman. "Don't forget to disinfect," she added, as she crouched down to douse her gloved hands in the five gallon bucket of water and bleach that was all they had left to wash down with in hopes of chasing the viral demon back into hell. She glanced down, noting random white spots on the front of her jeans where the mixture had splashed and blew overlong bangs, also faded from splashed bleach, out of her eyes. A surgical mask hung from her neck and she stripped it off, soaking the fabric in the mixture then squeezing out as much liquid as possible before tying it back in place. Breathing through it stung and made her eyes water, but the mixture didn't have a high enough bleach concentration to be dangerous and she had some small hope that it would keep the virus out of her nose and lungs.
A moment later, she was entering the dark confines of the shack, the stench of blood and death reaching her even through the mask and making her stomach roll violently, while the tortured sound of his breathing, wet and raspy from the blood filling his lungs, made her cringe like nails on a blackboard. The boy was on a pallet in the corner of the front room, his eyes barely open and unfocused, body rattling with every agonized breath. He was probably NDA, the local Communist militia/terrorist cell--they were the only ones who wore camos and there was an AK 47--Chinese-made judging by the figures etched on the stock--leaning against the wall. He was also no more than seventeen, his dark skin deeply flushed by the blood vessels breaking just under the skin. He didn't have much time left. Another day, maybe two, then she expected he'd crash and bleed out. She was getting frighteningly good at gauging these things. Of course after three weeks and forty-two dead, she'd had a lot of practice.
She drew closer, feeling as young as he looked, wondering what the hell she was supposed to do. She had no drugs to give him -- not that there were any that would help anyway -- and his brain was so damaged by the disease that there was no comfort to offer that he could understand. "I'm sorry," she whispered, feeling perversely guilty for not being able to help. So much for the miracles of western medicine. She was every bit as helpless as the people she was supposed to treat. Finally, she leaned down, checking him as best she could and trying to make him as comfortable as possible before turning and stepping back into the alien world of the rainforest. She instantly thrust her hands into the bleach mixture, splashing it up her arms and stripping off the surgical mask to dip in the barrel, using the damp cloth to wipe the pungent mixture over her face and neck, wondering if she could just crawl in. Maybe that would keep her safe.
She could still hear the dying boy's breathing, a sound of slow motion drowning that reminded her of all of the others who'd already passed; patients, friends, colleagues....
"Please, God," she whispered, fighting tears for the millionth time as she begged quietly. "Just make it stop. I can't do this anymore...."
She was still crouched down like that, trying desperately not to think, when she heard the first distant rumble.
Frowning, Janet rose slowly and turned toward the road. God, she could only pray it wasn't an NDA truck. They tended to recruit--often by force--from the local villages, and the last thing she needed to try and deal with was a group of thugs who might well leave the village and take the disease with them.
She was still standing there in a daze when she saw the first truck; a big army job, the back hidden by a canvas cover. She blinked rapidly, wondering if she'd finally lost it as she saw the yellow driver. No, not yellow, just dressed in yellow -- a decon suit.
She couldn't move; couldn't make her feet work as the truck pulled to a halt and yellow clad men and women began swarming out of the back. She blinked, realizing there were more trucks on the road--four or five of them at least--and more yellow clad figures, wearing oxygen on their backs and carrying equipment as they climbed down to the moist earth.
And then there was someone standing in front of her, a woman with kind eyes behind the distorting layer of the clear plastic face mask.
Her knees suddenly weak, Janet wavered on her feet and the newcomer reached out, curving a supportive hand to her elbow. It was a miracle, an absolute fucking miracle and she didn't know whether or not to actually believe in it. She'd had the fantasy so many times, she was terrified she might just wake up back in her tent if she let herself believe it was true for even a moment.
Janet nodded jerkily, suddenly feeling detached from her body, like a puppeteer working frayed strings.
"Thought I recognized you from the picture we got from your supervisor."
Janet let out a tiny, hysterical laugh as she thought of the picture they could have gotten their hands on at the Medicine Beyond Borders headquarters in DC. Probably a couple of old shots taken by friends or colleagues in college. "Somehow, I don't think I look like that anymore."
"A little worse for the wear," the decontamination suited newcomer admitted. "I'm Doctor Harris ... I'm with the US Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Disease... we're here with reps from the CDC and WHO. We were asked to join the team of local doctors by the Ministry for Health." She was speaking slowly and carefully. "Where's Doctor Halliwell?"
Janet shook her head, vaguely distracted by people moving everywhere; yellow clad outsiders and villagers in assorted modes of dress. "Kate? She's dead," she exhaled distantly, not wanting to think about how the senior physician on the team had died. "Three...no...four days ago...."
"And Bill McCullough?"
Janet shook her head. "Two days ago."
"Ah God." Harris looked away, gesturing to someone and Janet turned, noting that someone was talking to Andrea the way this woman was talking to her.
"I think Shelly's asleep in our tents," Janet murmured. The older nurse had passed out, exhausted some hours earlier.
"We'll take care of her...right now, I need to know what you can tell me about what's happened here."
"We arrived twenty ... " Was it twenty-two or twenty three days? She wasn't entirely certain anymore, so she just picked one. "...three days ago...there were already twelve breaking with the disease...forty two dead now..." Janet closed her eyes against the memory. "And another twelve showing symptoms."
"Where are the bodies, Doctor?" the voice was low, the question implacable.
Janet nodded toward the edge of the forest. "About twenty yards that way. We carried them out in their blankets, then poured a water and bleach solution over the corpses to try and contain the spread of the virus...and packed dirt over the top." She shook her head slowly. "It was all we had ... I had to talk hard just to keep their families from dressing and cleaning the bodies... it would have been better to burn them...." She shook her head dazedly. "But we didn't have enough gasoline...and I knew they wouldn't burn easily...it's too wet here."
The hand on her arm was gentle, the voice soothing. "It's okay ... You did the right thing."
"Not possible." Janet shook her head in denial. "There is no such thing out here."
Harris didn't argue and still seemed to be struggling to formulate an answer when another doctor came up, studying Janet carefully. "Is she breaking?"
"I don't know," Harris responded, searching the young woman in front of her. She looked like hell, but that could easily have been exhaustion and stress. "Doctor, do you know if you have it?"
Janet shrugged helplessly. She'd wondered if she was coming down with it so many times in the last three weeks, haunted by every ache and pain that might signal the start of the disease. "I don't...I just don't know...."
"Okay." The hand on Janet's elbow slid up to her shoulder. "We're going to take you home now."
Janet frowned in confusion. "I don't understand."
"We've got a C-130 standing by to transport you back to the USAMRIID facility in the states for level four quarantine until we know if you're clear of the disease."
"We're going home?" Janet felt tears start to come and would have reached up to wipe them away but the woman in front of her caught her wrists in a firm grip, not letting her touch her eyes.
"That's right...you're going home...."
* * * * * *
Lt. Colonel Bert Samuels had a hint of a triumphant grin on his face as he watched the woman in front of him slowly pick up the folder he tossed out of his briefcase. She and Hammond were the only others in the meeting room, and Samuels knew for a certainty that Hammond was too busy choking on his own tongue to say anything and would be for another minute or two. "I think you'll find, General, that there's enough here for an investigation...and ultimately charges to be filed."
Hammond glared at the younger man, wishing he'd succeeded in getting rid of him during the entire affair with Samuels' aid Blanchard stealing SGC secrets. Unfortunately, it had all come out as a Mexican standoff, with both sides ultimately backing off when the only other choice was mutually assured political destruction. "Colonel," the older man spoke at last, clearly controlling his temper by only the slimmest thread, "I suggest you be very careful because right now, you are dangerously close to making a very nasty enemy."
"Sir," Janet Fraiser spoke softly, the look in her dark eyes silencing him. Her gaze swung back to Samuels, taking in the look on his face. She knew instantly that she had little or nothing to do with this. Oh, Samuels was taking some personal pleasure in using her as his sword after her involvement in his recent humiliation, but she wasn't the real target. She was just ammunition the bastard thought he might be able to use in his proxy war on the SGC and General Hammond for Senator Kinsey. The senator wanted the project shut down, and Samuels...she was certain he had something more going on, though whether it was just extreme ambition, hatred of anyone smarter and more successful than he was, or something more personal, she couldn't even begin to guess. In truth, she didn't care to get deeply enough inside the man's psyche to find out. She flipped the manilla folder open, glancing at the papers inside with a frown, stomach muscles clenching as she realized what he was using to attack her. A muscle pulsed in her jaw as she ground her teeth against the harsh memories, not even bothering to flip through the rest of the contents of the folder. She knew what it would show, couldn't risk that there would be pictures. It wouldn't do to react to those with the colonel watching, not when he was looking for any sign of weakness.
"I believe the appropriate charge here," Samuels began as if Hammond hadn't spoken, "is providing aid and comfort to the enemy...specifically, Communist rebels attempting to overthrow a government friendly to the United States--"
Janet couldn't hold back a tiny bark of bitter laughter. "And unfriendly to its own people." She shook her head. "So what if the security forces had the tacit right to rape, murder, pillage and do whatever they liked to the locals--"
"Doctor," Hammond interrupted, watching her with the sharp eyes of a commander who knows his people well enough to sense when one of them is about to do something against their own interests. "Perhaps, you should--"
"Please, General," Samuels broke in, his tone superficially caring, "if Doctor Fraiser would like to make a statement about the situation, I think we should allow her to."
Dark eyes narrowed as Fraiser pinned a venomous gaze on the visiting officer. She snapped the folder shut, passing it over to Hammond, though she continued to glare at Samuels until he started to look uneasy. "I'll answer any questions you have, sir," she informed her C.O. with as much dignity as she could muster. "You, however," she nodded toward Samuels, "with all due respect, can go to hell." She looked at Hammond then, and for a brief second, he caught a glimpse of hell in her eyes before it disappeared behind a mask of professional detachment. "Whatever you feel is best is fine by me." She pushed smoothly to her feet, every movement perfectly calculated and controlled, though he sensed the turmoil roiling just below the surface. "I'll go along with it." She had to get out of there.
"Doctor," Hammond spoke again, feeling like he was losing all control over the situation. "Just sit tight. We'll deal with this."
"Unfortunately, you won't be dealing with it here," Samuels broke in. He was really enjoying putting the screws to one of Hammond's golden children. He reached into his briefcase and tossed a sheet of paper on the table. "I think you'll find this is all in the proper form. Under the circumstances, we really can't allow Doctor Fraiser the run of one of the most secret military installations in the United States."
Fraiser picked up the paper, scanning the brief order, then tossed it down again. "I repeat, 'With all due respect, go to hell.'"
Samuels pushed to his feet, glaring at her. "I overlooked the first insult, but--"
"Doctor, go to your office, now!" Hammond barked sharply.
Samuels rapped his fingers against the sheet of paper lying on the table. "I don't think you appreciate the meaning of this order, General," he snarled. In the beginning, this woman had been nothing more than a useful pawn whose humiliation had a certain added pleasure because of her recent accusations against him, but her clear defiance infuriated him. "Doctor Fraiser is not to be allowed anywhere in this installation without a security guard."
"If you want me frog-marched out of here, why don't you--" Fraiser began hotly, but Hammond overroad her.
"I'll take responsibility," he growled, then fastened a hard gaze on the doctor. "I said, 'Go to your office,'" he repeated impatiently. For a moment, he thought she was going to defy him and hurl a few more insults at Samuels, but then she got herself under control, spine straightening as she pulled back.
"Go," Hammond repeated the order, waiting until she had slammed the door to the briefing room shut in her wake before fastening a hard glare on Samuels. "Colonel, I might have the smallest degree of respect for you if you actually had the guts to come after me openly...but this...." He shook his head, disgust written clearly on his face.
"I don't know what you're talking about--" Samuels started to insist, but Hammond interrupted before he could get any farther.
"Go after another of my people like this, and I'll personally knock your teeth down your throat," the general growled, his tone rocking Samuels back in his seat. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have matters to attend to." He didn't wait for a response before leaving.
* * * * * *
General Hammond was on the phone when SG-1 arrived in the briefing room for the standard post-mission debriefing.
"Dammit, she was supposed to stay in her office...no...no...I'll get someone over there as fast as possible. Thanks for calling, Mike, I appreciate it."
The members of SG-1 traded meaningful glances. There was only one person the general referred to simply as Mike in their experience. Mike Halloran owned Halloran's Bar and Grill, a dive a few miles down the road from the base where SGC members often went to unwind--sometimes a bit more than was entirely advisable. Halloran was retired Air Force and when there was trouble, he'd formed the habit of calling Hammond personally to make certain the SGC personnel were picked up and seen to by personnel with the appropriate security clearances. Accepting it as a much needed safety valve, Hammond generally just made sure the men and women in question were neither a danger to themselves nor breaking security and let it slide.
"So, who's getting tanked this time?" O'Neill questioned as the general hung up. "Some jarhead who saw a Goa'uld for the first time?" He smirked at his own joke.
"Not exactly," Hammond sighed, sounding tired.
Only half listening, Sam Carter glanced at her watch, hoping they could get the debriefing over with quickly. There wasn't much to report, and Janet was due off duty within the hour. She knew her lover would wait for her if she was running late--they were due to pick Cassandra up from the afterschool drama program she'd recently joined, then do dinner and a movie on the town--but she wanted enough time to stop by her place for some clean clothes before they went out. Her head snapped up a short beat later as Hammond continued.
"It's Doctor Fraiser," he dropped the bombshell with a grim look.
"What?" Sam heard her own voice, sounding shocked as she was yanked out of her thoughts.
"You're kiddin' me, right?" O'Neill muttered. Fraiser drunk? That didn't compute.
Hammond shook his head. "I'm afraid there was an incident earlier today...."
Sam stood perfectly still, every muscle tense as if braced to protect the woman she loved. She'd never seen Janet have more than a glass of wine. If she was at Halloran's getting drunk, then something was very, very wrong. "What happened?" she demanded, her voice taut with worry.
Hammond tossed the file under his hand forward. "Colonel Samuels is trying to spark an investigation--"
"Oh, this is just about that whole thing with Blanchard," O'Neill exploded. "He's trying to draw attention from his own problems by making trouble for someone else."
Hammond shrugged. "Be that as it may," he said in a hard voice. "He's managed to make some headway and he clearly he thinks he might be able to get charges filed--"
"What?!" Sam exploded. "That's ludicrous!"
"What is this about," O'Neill broke in, "the fact that she treated Apophis or something? Because--"
Sam interrupted angrily. "She did that on orders, sir--"
Hammond held up a hand. "It has nothing to do with any of Doctor Fraiser's work while with the Air Force." He tapped the file again. "According to this, she volunteered with a charity organization called Medicine Beyond Borders after finishing her residency--"
"I've heard of them," Daniel spoke up. "They send teams of doctors and medical supplies into problem spots, war zones, areas where there's constant low level fighting, that sort of thing."
Hammond nodded. "In this instance, an outlying area of the Democratic Republic of Congo--then Zaire. It was before the worst of the killing and warfare that came later on the Rwandan border, but there was already considerable tribal and political conflict. There was a lot of killing in the back country, though whether it was due to terrorists trying to overthrow the government or long standing tribal conflict, it's impossible to say." He shrugged his shoulders. "Obviously, Samuels has some evidence to support his viewpoint that it was Communists...myself, I consider it rather thin."
Sam swallowed hard, not liking where this was going at all. She knew Janet had joined the Air Force after finishing her medical degree, but she'd never mentioned working in Africa. Her hands clenched at her sides. As much as they'd talked and not even a passing word. She felt locked out of a part of her lover and it hurt....
"Sounds like a hell of a place for a holiday," O'Neill muttered.
"Fraiser wasn't much more than a kid...not long out of med school. She went in with several others to work at an established clinic in a small town in western Zaire," Hammond said softly. "The area was apparently fairly stable at the time--mostly agricultural villages and mining communities that needed basic medical care, vaccinations, that sort of thing." He flipped the folder open. "They'd been there about three months when five of them--Fraiser included--left the town where they were headquartered and went into rebel held territory. They were removed roughly three weeks later and sent home." He shrugged. "The report doesn't include much more hard information...mostly just accusations from several ranking politicians who never wanted MBB in their country in the first place. That's where the accusations of offering aid and comfort to the enemy come from."
"Why did they go into rebel territory?" Sam questioned, her voice tight, quietly enraged that anyone would make such ugly accusations against Fraiser.
Hammond shook his head. "There's no statement from the doctors. Samuels inference – and the accusation of the Zairean government at the time-- was that they went in for political reasons...to help the rebels...and to work against the interests of the government. They all but accuse the medical team of being Communists insurgents themselves."
"That's ridiculous," Sam snorted. She knew her lover well enough to be comfortably certain where her political loyalties lay. Whatever Janet had done, she'd done because of people, not politics. She also knew enough to realize how dangerous the situation could have been. She could only be thankful they'd packed Janet and the others up and sent them home on the first flight out. God knew what could have happened if they hadn't.
"Carter's right," O'Neill muttered. "Besides, if there'd really been a security problem, anything that major should have shown up during her background check when she got her clearance."
Hammond nodded. "Yes, it should have... which is why I need which is why I need a couple of you to take what information we do have and find out what the hell is going on...while someone retrieves Doctor Fraiser and makes certain she's all right. I don't think I have to tell any of you that having her running around severely inebriated is not a good thing."
"I'll go, sir," Sam said instantly.
Hammond shook his head. "Sorry, Major, but I need you and Doctor Jackson here. You two have the best chance of digging through the computer files and finding what we need. Colonel O'Neill, I trust you can handle picking up the doctor and sobering her up."
"Sir?" O'Neill tried not to yelp, he really did, though he suspected he didn't quite make the grade judging by the look on Daniel's face. "I really think Major Carter would be a better choice--"
Hammond raised an eyebrow. "I was under the impression, Colonel, that you recognized an order when you heard one."
Jack pulled up short. "Yes, sir, but--"
Hammond overroad the colonel, his voice firm. "I don't think I need to tell any of you how important Doctor Fraiser is to this project--"
"No, sir," Sam insisted. "Of course not, it's just--"
"Well, we need to move quickly. The faster we have the information, the faster this situation can be dealt with. And I do not want this to stretch out. If that happens, no matter how innocent she is, there will always be suspicions...ones that could cost Fraiser her security clearance."
That cast a pall over the room. That would mean the end of her career at the SGC or any other project that required a clearance. That would doom future work on any classified project.
"As it is," Hammond growled, "there's a temporary hold on her clearance. She's not even supposed to be on base without a guard accompanying her."
Sam's hands fisted at her sides, raw fury showing in her expression.
The general pinned a hard gaze on his people. "Which is why I need the best to get right on it."
Jack waved to Sam and Daniel. "You two do that magic you do with the computer," he sighed. "I'll look after Fraiser." He glanced at Teal'c where he had stood off to the side, silently watching the byplay between the humans. "Teal'c, you give 'em a hand." Sometimes, the Jaffa, with his unique view of human society, saw things that others tended to miss.
Sam was uneasy with that, feeling like she was fobbing Janet off on someone else when she needed her. And she couldn't even explain it to the others. "But, sir, I'm Janet's friend."
It was a little like pulling teeth as O'Neill muttered, "Yeah, well, so'm I. Not as close, I'll admit," which was as close as he ever planned on coming to admitting he knew they were more than friends. He couldn't help but wonder if Sam had guessed that he knew too, when she canted her head, peering at him with an odd look for the briefest second. "But let's face facts, when it comes to sobering people up after they've done something stupid, I've had a lot more experience than you have." He nodded toward a computer terminal, his voice dropping low with sympathy, "And right now, you can do her more good here."
Daniel caught Carter by the sleeve. "Come on, Sam. Let's go on and get started."
Sam looked to Hammond. "Sir, we were supposed to pick up Cass this afternoon."
He nodded. Due to the girl's rather unique status in relation to the SGC, there were standing provisions for her care when Fraiser was delayed by work issues. "I'll have Lieutenant Carstairs pick her up and make sure she's cared for."
"Thank you, sir," Sam said softly before allowing Daniel to pull her out.
"I'll walk out with you," Hammond said to O'Neill, falling in beside him as he headed for the surface.
When they were out the door, and out of earshot of the others, O'Neill glanced over at his superior. "I get the feeling you wanted to say something more, sir," he said by way of question.
Hammond nodded. "As you said, you've had a lot of experience dealing with people getting drunk to escape their problems." He turned a wise look on O'Neill. "She was having a hard time, Jack...the moment she saw that folder, she was on edge...almost out of control--which I think we'd both agree is out of character. I wanted you to know that."
"Sir, Fraiser and I aren't what you'd call close--" The last thing he wanted to do was spend an evening probing her thoughts and feelings.
"She's a member of this team, Jack...one who's pulled your fat and mine out of the fire more times than I care to count."
"Right," O'Neill muttered, taking the hint. "I'll do what I can," he assured his superior, wondering distantly how he got himself into these things. It wasn't that he didn't like Fraiser, or was angry at her. He wasn't even exactly jealous. It was just a sort of creeping uneasiness. With Carter, he could maintain a firm grip on his denial, just pretend he didn't feel anything but friendship for her and treat her like one of the guys--just like he'd been doing from the beginning--just another buddy, like Daniel or Teal'c. It was different with Fraiser. She wasn't a buddy, wasn't one of the guys, and that somehow made it harder to play any mental games with himself.
The ironic truth was that, though it was Carter he was attracted to, it was Fraiser he could never forget was female. A female who had doubtless made love to Carter more times than he cared to count. Which really didn't do any good for his ego when he thought about it. So much for the male fantasy of two women together. As far as he could tell, it just meant they had no use for him. He was still mulling the situation over in his head as he said his goodbyes to Hammond, then ascended to ground level and found his car in the parking lot. Maybe if he just thought of her as his best friend's girlfriend, it would be easier to deal with. God knew, he wouldn't have had a problem if it had been Teal'c or Daniel that was involved with her. He liked Fraiser, respected her, trusted her almost as much as he trusted the members of his team. Of course, he had less than no desire to sleep with Teal'c or Daniel, so he supposed it didn't really compare.
It was all starting to make his head hurt, which was why he really preferred to avoid the subject altogether.
He sighed softly as he pulled his car into a parking space in front of Halloran's. No easy answers anywhere in the thoughts running through his brain.
Which meant it was denial time. Denial was good. He could do denial. Just shove it away, don't deal with it. If he didn't think about it, it had never happened, so it didn't matter. He took a deep breath, straightened his shoulders and stepped inside.