Disclaimer: The Sentinel, Blair Sandburg, Jim Ellison, Simon Banks, and all other characters are property of Paramount and Pet Fly. No copyright infringement is intended, and no money has exchanged hands.

Desert Wind

by Arianna

Dedicated to Tia,

with profound gratitude for your incredible generosity to Moonridge again this year,

and for your solid support and loyalty over the past several years!

An SG-22 Adventure

********************

Daniel squinted with intense concentration at the detailed representation of a remote part of the galaxy painted on a central wall in the ancient and long abandoned Goa'uld temple dedicated to Dahok, a legendary System Lord. Located in the heart of an enormous edifice, the formal Hall was cavernous, the walls heavily adorned with lavish frescoes and various silk tapestries, masks, shields, and carved figures formed of gold and encrusted with gems. Massive and exquisitely hewn statuary filled the floor space surrounding a central fountain lit by an eternal flame to symbolize Dahok's immortality and power. Certainly, at one time, Dahok had been the supreme ruler of that corner of the galaxy and his base had been this planet, now known at PX2102.

But that had been a very long, long time ago. Dahok and his retinue, together with his full military might, had flown off on a quest more than six millennia before and hadn't been seen or heard of since. At least, that's what had happened if Daniel was interpreting the symbolism decorating the Hall correctly. Biting his lip, Dr. Jackson ambled toward what appeared to be an altar, each long side and end decorated with hammered stone inscribed with gold. He frowned as he studied the hieroglyphs of a long dead language.

"Daniel?" Major Sam Carter called as she entered the Hall. "You ready to go?"

"Huh? Oh, yeah, almost," Jackson replied distantly, and then turned to her, energy infusing his motions. "I need detailed photos of all the walls and we need to take these altar plaques back with us."

Her brows lifted as she looked around and then approached the altar to kneel beside it and examine the mechanisms by which the heavy stone and gold tablets were affixed to the carved ceremonial rock. "Okay," she nodded. "These shouldn't be difficult to remove." Looking up at her colleague, she confirmed, "I'll have a couple of technicians come in here to do a camera sweep and to cart these out." Standing, she asked, "Anything else?"

Shaking his head, his gaze once again returning to the stylized star chart on the wall, Daniel murmured, "No, I think this'll give us plenty to work with. I want to get Blair's opinion, but I think…." His voice died away and he gave himself a shake. "I better hold off on what I think until we've studied this," he said more firmly, evidently reining in his enthusiastic speculations with no little difficulty.

"Why?" Sam asked, gazing at the chart. "What do you think it is?"

Shrugging, an almost child-like smile of gleeful anticipation flickering over his lips, his eyes sparkling with excitement, unable to resist, he leaned in and whispered dramatically, "I think it's a map - to a treasure trove we can't even begin to imagine."

Snorting, she grinned and shook her head. "Treasure?" she echoed, amused. "Like diamonds and emeralds, silver and gold?"

"Uh uh," Daniel grunted, then shrugged. "Well, maybe that kind of treasure, too, but I had in mind something more like the secrets of how the universe was formed, who was the original race, the knowledge they'd acquired over eons, maybe the plans for how to build stargates. That kind of treasure."

"You kids done in here?" Colonel Jack O'Neill called out impatiently, popping his head into the entrance way before ambling into sight. Supervising exploratory missions to long abandoned and dusty Goa'uld temples bored him to tears. "I'm hungry and it's time to go home."

"Yeah, we're done, for now," Daniel replied, drawing Sam from the Hall. "We just need to bring back photos of the wall frescoes and the plaques around the altar for more thorough examination."

"Fine, whatever," Jack allowed with a negligent wave as he turned to lead the way back to the Gate. Daniel and Sam were always bringing souvenirs home. Sometimes - maybe not as often as he'd like, and too often things that only caused trouble - but sometimes, once in a while, they found stuff that was actually useful. "Teal'c!" he called ahead, sounding aggrieved: in his humble opinion, ancient plaques from a Goa'uld altar, and wall frescoes from a dank, moldering ruin didn't sound all that promising. "Send back the MALP and a couple of tekkies, and then dial 'er up! We're outta here."

********************

Blair Sandburg gazed thoughtfully at the photos pinned to the wallboard, his eyes narrowing in concentration. Moving closer, pushing his hair back behind his ears, he peered at the details and then leafed through the printout of the symbols inscribed around the altar.

"What do you think?" Daniel asked. "Ancient Sumerian, right?"

"Uh huh," Sandburg grunted, frowning, double checking and then nodding. Looking over his shoulder, his eyes were sparking and he fairly radiated excitement as he said with a broadening smile, "I think you're right, Daniel. I think you've found it!" Turning to face Jackson fully, he exclaimed, "Man, we can track Dahok's voyage straight to the mythical Gaia, Mother of all Creation. This is brilliant work, Daniel. The way we look at the universe may never be the same again."

Pushing his glasses up onto the bridge of his nose, Jackson beamed at Sandburg, both of them nearly incandescent with scholarly exhilaration about what Daniel's discovery could mean.

Grinning at their unbridled enthusiasm, her gaze shifting from one the other, Sam asked, "So, we're ready to send out the MALP to the planet indicated on the star chart? I've done the calculations and it looks like the one we call PX nineteen-nineteen. It's sure out of the way, a single planet orbiting two suns, a dying red giant and a young white dwarf. Nothing else around for billions of billions of light years."

"Yeah, I think so," Jackson concurred. "I'll give Jack a heads-up. Blair, when we get the images back, I'll let you know, so that three of us can see if it looks like what we think it is."

********************

"What have we got, Major?" General Hammond asked as he glanced briefly at the members of SG-1 and SG-22, who were all sitting around the conference table in the briefing room.

"Well, sir," Samantha Carter responded, "we're not exactly sure." When the General lifted an enquiring brow and her immediate superior, Colonel Jack O'Neill rolled his eyes, she hastened on, "As you know, we brought back scans of wall frescoes and what looked to be very ancient stone tablets from a temple on PX twenty-on-oh-two. The inscriptions were badly eroded, and the language archaic, but…." She paused and looked to her colleague. "Daniel, it might be better if you explained this part."

Nodding, Dr. Daniel Jackson leaned forward, his hands initially clasped but quickly becoming animated as he explained what they'd found - or thought they might have found. "Using the frescoes as references points, it took Blair and I awhile to work out the hieroglyphics, and it's possible that we've extrapolated more than is really there but, based on an ancient Sumerian dialect -"

"Would you just spit it out, already," Jack growled, not really annoyed but totally unwilling to listen to a lot of academic gibberish. "Who cares if it was ancient Sumerian or pig-Latin, for crying out loud? What did the tablets say?"

"Well, actually, it could matter a great deal, Jack," Daniel replied repressively. "The language gives us clues to the age of the artifact, as well as potentially some insight into the Goa'uld System Lord who was involved at the time. Oddly enough, it was apparently someone known as Dahok, an ancient Sumerian god of the underworld and death, sometimes thought, incorrectly I might add, to be the embodiment of evil. Though I'm sure the god's namesake fulfilled that criteria -"

Alert to her superior's obvious restiveness, Sam cleared her throat meaningfully. Daniel cut her look, while Blair made a point of studying his notes as he fought the urge to grin. Jack was so predictable and, most of the time, he was just pulling Daniel's chain. Still, Jim, Simon and Megan were getting glassy-eyed, and Teal'c was doing his famous impression of being thoughtfully fascinated, which meant he was probably completely lost about the relevance of who Dahok had been in their mythology, but probably recognized the name from his own.

"The thing is, we've never heard of Dahok before, at least in the context of the System Lords," Sandburg interjected. "And that might be relevant. Teal'c?" he asked. "Are you aware of any legends or is this Dahok just someone we haven't encountered yet?"

"Indeed, BlairSandburg, I have heard of such a System Lord, but it is said that he went to another place, never to return," the Jaffa replied sonorously. "He disappeared many thousands of years ago."

Blair and Daniel exchanged glances and nodded wordlessly.

"Dr. Jackson," General Hammond prodded then, with a glance at the clock on the wall.

"Uh, yes, sir," the archeologist replied, taking the point. "The thing is, we think this Dahok and his warriors may have been wiped out on an obscure, call it lost, planet by some awesomely powerful force or weapon. The stone tablets refer to a world that was the centre of some incredibly advanced civilization that was wealthy beyond imagining and had very advanced scientific technology, and it indicates that Dahok had set out to find and subjugate the planet. We think, based on our interpretation of the inscriptions, that PX nineteen-nineteen is that world."

"According to the inscriptions, they knew the world as Gaia," Sandburg offered. "Uh, she was the original ‘mother goddess' of the ancient world on earth, and all other gods ultimately descended from her. She's still worshipped today by followers of the Wiccan faith."

"I see," the General murmured with a thoughtful frown.

"Awesomely powerful force or weapon, huh?" O'Neill murmured, sitting up straighter as he began to find the presentation much more interesting, well, maybe interesting, but then he frowned. Sandburg's elaboration about modern day witches worshipping some weird mother goddess wasn't particularly relevant. Well, maybe relevant, if the people of PX1919 were the ones who seeded earth tens of thousands of years before, which would make them candidates for the role of the original civilization and the possible architects of the stargates. Finding that kind of information really would be awesome.

"Sir," Sam continued, reclaiming their attention, "we sent a MALP through earlier today. Whatever civilization once existed there is gone and there is no evidence of life - any life, animal, vegetable, whatever - on the planet. But the aerial reconnaissance unit showed extensive ruins. There were many large cities on the world at one time; one of the largest is located not far from the Gate."

"And you think there might still be something to learn from those ruins?" Hammond observed.

"Yes, General; we do," Daniel replied firmly, with a glance that included Sam and Blair in his statement. "If whatever was there was powerful enough to wipe out a System Lord, then it might be useful to know what it was. And, uh, there're no doubt a great many of other things we could learn about, and from, this vanished culture. Sir, this may have been the original world of the Ancients - these might have been the people who created the stargates."

Jack perked up even more at that and gave himself points for having figured that out, but his expression was still wary. An encounter with the Ancients might or might not be a good thing. Personally, he wasn't big on being told how primitive earthlings were, but then, the Nox and Thor's people could do some pretty neat stuff and even they didn't know how the stargate system worked.

"What if whatever killed off the population was a disease or radiation or something?" Banks asked, hesitant to get excited about the possible link to the elusive Ancients. In his view, it was far more likely that PX1919 was simply an older, advanced and now extinct culture and not a link with the virtually mythical, original inhabitants of the galaxy. However, spores, viruses and bacteria were both ubiquitous and practically indestructible, and could hold deadly peril for unwary visitors. "There could still be toxic agents or radiation levels in the land or atmosphere. How we do know the place is safe to explore?"

Sam nodded at the question. "We wondered about that, too, but the readings from the MALP indicate that the atmosphere is breathable and there's no evidence of any known pathogens or other possible hazards," she replied. "It's like this big desert, scoured clean by the sun and the wind." To illustrate her point, she nodded to the technician who initiated an audio and visual playback of the aerial unit's film. On the screen, they saw a vast, endless rolling desert that stretched from one horizon to the other, dune after dune of sand that encroached upon the broken remains of what had once been a very large city. "The whole planet looks like this."

Studying the screen, Jim leaned forward, cocking his head and frowning at something that sounded off in the voice of the wind, but it was too ephemeral to catch, and probably wasn't anything significant anyway. "How do we know that these unknown people defeated the Goa'uld, as opposed to being wiped out themselves by this Dahok?" he asked, much to Jack's evident agreement.

"We don't, not really. But the tablets say Dahok went there to conquer the world, and he never came back," Blair replied. Shrugging, he allowed, "We know it isn't much to go on. But it's probably worth a look."

"I agree," General Hammond said then, decisively. "SG-1, the mission is yours. Remain in frequent contact. I don't want any surprises, understood? If you detect any residual hazards, you are to return immediately and we'll interdict the planet for the time being."

"Yes, sir," Jack nodded. "We'll head out in, oh, about an hour."

********************

"Sheesh! Who turned up the heat?!" Colonel Jack O'Neill exclaimed as he strode out of the Gate's event horizon into the blistering one hundred and twenty degree oven that they knew as PX1919.

"Oh, man," gasped Daniel, wincing against the glare of the desert sand. "Did we bring enough water?"

"Good question," Jack approved as he cocked a brow at Major Carter.

"Most of the weight we're carrying in our packs is water, sir," she replied briskly as she squinted in the brightness of the dual suns that traveled like old, playful friends, the white dwarf chasing the red giant across the cloudless cerulean sky. "We should have enough to last for forty-eight hours. But I'd suggest we protect our eyes against the glare and apply lots of sunblock," she added cautiously, as she lifted her sun glasses to cover her eyes.

"I feel like all the moisture is being sucked right out of my body," Jackson groused as he fitted protective lens over his glasses.

"Given the dryness of the air combined with the effects of the wind," Teal'c observed with his usual deadpan expression and tone, "you are most probably correct, Daniel Jackson."

O'Neill snorted as he dropped his heavy pack onto the sand near the DHD, and pulled off his regulation flack jacket. He rooted in one of the capacious pockets sewn onto his pants for the tube of sunblock and spread a generous glob over his face, arms and neck. When Sam gave him a measuring look, he shrugged as he observed wryly, "You can swelter in too many clothes if you like, but it'll be hard enough to retain fluids without sweating out every last drop."

The others grimaced with varying degrees of agreement and also stripped off their jackets, lashing them onto their packs. As gruesomely hot as the day was, the night would probably be as bitterly cold and they'd need the heavier garments later.

"Okay, Major," Jack asked once they had sorted out their gear, "which way?"

"The data from the MALP indicates that the ruins of the ancient city are to the east, Colonel," she replied with a wave toward the sand dunes that rolled like a line of steep hills to the left. "About two miles."

Nodding resignedly, Jack led off, Daniel behind him followed by Sam, with Teal'c covering the rear.

The incessant wind blew like a Sirocco, dry and relentless, squiffing tiny, irritating granules of dirt into their clothing and every crease of their bodies, chafing their skin miserably. The sand rippled gently like water on a still lake, in constant motion under the onslaught of the wind. Occasionally, dust devils danced around them, rising up suddenly to sting their eyes, and clog their mouths and nostrils, leaving them coughing and gasping for breath. They'd gone scarcely a hundred feet before having to stop again to tie scarves around their faces, under their sunglasses, to help keep their airways clear. Slogging up the steep incline of shifting sand was exhausting; for every step forward, they seemed to slip and slide back two paces, and they frequently had to reach out to steady a companion or accept a helping hand to regain their feet after sinking almost to their knees.

When they finally reached the top of the first mountainous dune more than half an hour later, they stood panting, hands shading eyes as they stared out over the desert planet and shook their heads. "How did anyone survive here, let alone build a civilization?" O'Neill muttered in irritation as he brushed away the sand that had coated his clothing and skin.

"It might not have been like this six thousand years ago," Daniel replied studiously, his voice already sounding strained from exertion. "Depends on the rate of desertification."

"The rate of what?" Jack countered, stalling for time to enable them all to settle their breathing. Panting would only dehydrate them further. He pulled a water bottle from his utility belt as he waited to see whether Sam or Daniel would grab the intellectual bait he'd dangled. Both of them just loved to give a scientific lecture at the drop of a hat.

"Desertification is the rate at which arable land deteriorates into, well, this," Sam obliged, waving a hand around at the dunes that stretched to every horizon, as far as the eye could see. "It's possible that this land was once forested, or was rich agricultural land, especially as we know that there are the ruins of a large city nearby."

"Right," Daniel jumped in. "From the information we have, we can surmise that a city of such a size, say of at least half a million people and probably more, would have had a fairly extensive hinterland to supply food and other necessities. But whatever happened to destroy the civilization -"

"You mean, when the Goa'uld blasted them to smithereens," Jack interjected helpfully after having swallowed the minuscule mouthful of water he'd taken.

"Yeah, maybe, probably," Daniel nodded, so sincerely that it was all O'Neill could do to keep a straight face. "The resulting fires and devastation from the bombardment could have scoured the planet of all life."

They lapsed into momentary silence as they each looked out over the dead world and tried, unsuccessfully, to imagine what it might have once been like.

"Given such a sustained attack," Teal'c ventured, "can you be certain that the advanced devices we seek were not also destroyed?"

"Just what I was wondering," Jack allowed, sounding exceptionally skeptical.

"Well," Daniel hedged with a slight shrug, "we won't know that until we search the remains of the city. But the records on PX twenty-one-oh-two were pretty clear that this planet, and particularly its capital city, held a major repository of advanced alien technology."

"We won't know until we check it out," Sam added for good measure, determinedly optimistic.

Jack sighed and waved them on, over the lip of sand and down into the deep, shadowed trough between massive dunes. They slipped and slid downward, struggling to maintain their balance on the unstable footing. Daniel was the first to over-balance and, with a startled, strangled cry, he pitched headlong, tumbling and rolling, unable to find any purchase to slow, let alone stop, his precipitous descent. His companions watched helplessly and, three steps later, Sam also lurched sideways, then slipped and skidded. When she landed backward on her large pack, she slid with increasing breakneck speed, like a bobsledder out of control, until she too began to roll with unchecked momentum, fetching up hard against Daniel, so that they lay in a tangled, breathless heap in the lee of the dune.

Teal'c reached out quickly to snag Jack's arm when he began to slide and anchored O'Neill, holding him steady until they had both regained their balance, and then they supported one another as they gingerly made their way as quickly as possible to the bottom. Sam had rolled off Daniel, who was lying prone and propped on one elbow, and they were both spitting out sand, grumbling under their breath as they checked out limbs and ribs, grateful to find they were essentially uninjured, though their dignity had taken a sound battering.

"You kids okay?" Jack asked as he squatted beside them. The wind blew around them, eddies of fine sand that scoured their skin.

"Yeah, I think so," Daniel muttered disagreeably.

"Yes, sir," Sam replied more positively as she stiffly sat up and dazedly shook her head, raking her fingers through her short hair to rid herself of accumulated sand.

Still lying propped on one elbow on the on the ground, Daniel looked up at O'Neill and suggested with as much academic aplomb as he could master in the circumstances, "I suggest we remain here in the shadows until nightfall. There should be enough light from the three moons to see in the dark, and it will be cooler traveling when the suns have set."

Plopping down to sit on the sand, Jack nodded agreeably. "You're probably right. Given how long it's taken us to get this far, the heat could kill us before we get to the ruins. Personally, I feel as if I just finished a full day's march and we haven't gone half a mile yet."

"Thank you," Daniel sighed in gratitude, not really certain he'd've been able to stand if Jack had decided they should press onward.

O'Neill tilted his head to look up at the Jaffa, the only member of his team who still looked as if he could fight a pitched battle. "Don't you ever get hot and bothered?" he complained mildly.

Teal'c cocked his head. "It is true that it is unusually warm, O'Neill," he observed. "But I do not understand - bothered?"

"You know," Jack rejoined, laconically waving a hand, "irritated by the sand, annoyed by the damned wind. Bothered."

The warrior pondered the idea and then gave a miniscule shrug. "This is not a comfortable land," he finally admitted dryly.

"You can say that again," Daniel groaned as he rolled onto his side, already so exhausted by the extreme heat and exertion that he dropped into immediate sleep.

Teal'c seemed ready to oblige by repeating his comment when Jack held up a hand, palm out and shook his head. "Teal'c, you've got the watch," he ordered, and then flopped onto his own back to catch a few Z's. "Not that there appears to be anything on this godforsaken planet to guard against," he mumbled irritably before drifting off. Grateful that the watch wasn't hers, Carter laid down on her side, her back against the wind.

For the next three hours, with the seemingly tireless energy granted to him by his symbiote, Teal'c stood watch over them, frequently brushing away the sand that quickly built up around their bodies to ensure they were not suffocated while they slept. Silently, he studied what he could see of the lifeless land and listened to the empty silence, broken only by keening cadences of the desert wind.

********************

Jack shivered with cold and jerked into sudden wakefulness, floundering a little as he shoved himself upright away from the sand that had drifted around his body. He grimaced as he gazed up at Teal'c and noted that the silent, watchful Jaffa looked gray in the moonlight, his dark skin liberally coated with a fine sheen of sand. Reaching to shake Sam awake, he called to her and Daniel, "Up and at ‘em. Time we moved on." And then he shook the sand out of his jacket before pulling it on.

The others snuffled and sneezed at the grit that had inevitably found its way into their nostrils and mouths while they'd slept. Shivering in the biting cold, they also dug out their coats and hauled them on, lips tightening against the rasp of gritty sand that blanketed the skin of their arms. Then they each swallowed a mouthful of precious water before grimly standing to resume their grueling journey.

It took more than four more hours to traverse what would have been a brief thirty minute journey on level ground, and they were stumbling with exhaustion when they staggered into the remains of what had once been a great city. Their muscles ached from the cold and the shuffling, sliding ascents and descents over what had felt like endless rows of steep dunes, and they were so covered with sand that they resembled bedraggled creatures of dust more than human beings. The broken walls of the city provided some meager protection from the wind that whipped around them, sometimes blinding them so that they had to raise their arms to protect their faces from the whirling, abrasive clouds of sand. Even Teal'c's incredible strength had been leeched away by the shocking cold, merciless gritty wind and plodding journey.

The persistent moan of the wind frayed their nerves and the dryness of the air sucked away the sweat raised by their exertion before it could bead on their skin. Their mouths, nostrils and throats were parched and their eyes felt scratchy, but they had been rigorously disciplined in rationing their supplies of water, taking only small sips at a time and holding it in their mouths before letting the delicious drops trickle down their throats. They had all experienced desert conditions in the past, but this world was beyond anything any of them had ever known before; its vast emptiness was eerie and the keening of the wind sounded like lost souls crying in the night.

His voice raspy, Jack radioed in on the prescribed schedule, to say they'd made it to the ruins and then sank to the ground, to rest his back against a crumbling half wall of stone. Too wasted to speak, the others dropped to the ground to lie panting in the scant shelter of the broken wall and stared up at the velvet blackness of the night sky, wearily mesmerized by alien stars and the haunting whispers of the desert wind before slipping into sleep. Only Teal'c was able to resist the lure of the sandman, and he once again kept silent watch over his comrades.

********************

Hours later, stifling heat woke them to the glare of the twin suns and the weight of hot sand that blanketed their bodies. The wind was still blowing, harder than the previous day, its cadences sinister and vaguely threatening. Stiffly, they pushed themselves up and reached for the precious water bottles in their packs, slowing savoring each rich cool drop of moisture on fuzzy tongues and along parched throats. Their lips had begun to crack from the relentless dehydration caused by the furnace of baking sand and rock and dusty wind.

"C'mon, let's get this over with," Jack directed as he lifted his pack onto his shoulder and settled his weapon in his hands. "The sooner we find the artifacts, the sooner we can go home."

Wordlessly, saving their strength for the effort it took to simply stand and walk into the wind, the others rose and followed him deeper into the ruin of the ancient walled city. The wind, which had whirled around them the day before, was now blowing directly into their faces, growing ever stronger as they passed by the remains of a fountain and what had once been beautifully crafted stone buildings along a broad avenue.

They bowed forward, chins tucked into their chests and heads down against the onslaught of fine grains of sand that clogged eyes, noses and throats, and slogged determinedly forward. The heat leeched away their sweat scarcely before it could rise on their bodies, enervating and eroding their stamina. The wind blew harder, and sand gritted on and under their clothing. Despite the liberal use of sunblock, exposed skin reddened and grew tender.

Pausing for breath, turning his back against the wind, Jack squinted against the blinding light and grimaced in discomfort. "You know, compared to this place, Hell would seem positively refreshing," he complained. "How much farther to the Treasury Building, or whatever it was?"

"Hall of Science and Knowledge," Daniel supplied helpfully, and then sneezed violently against the gritty dust in the air.

"Vault of Learning," Sam interjected with a glance at her palm pilot.

"Armory," Teal'c drawled succinctly.

"Whatever," O'Neill griped impatiently. "How much farther?"

Daniel shaded his eyes, protecting them from the glare and the wind as he gazed at their surroundings. Straightening, he pointed to the left, past the remains of another ancient fountain, now dry and clogged with sand. "I think that's it," he offered, albeit tentatively.

"Let's hope you're right," Jack groused as he waved them forward against the wind that now flung up a fine haze of sharp, if minuscule, bits of masonry and marble that flayed their skin. Disgusted, O'Neill dabbed away a thin dribble of blood from a shallow wound on his cheek. "I stand corrected," he muttered to himself as he followed his team toward the still magnificent façade and broken heaps of rock that had once been a grand palace. "Compared to this, Hell would be paradise."

Teal'c cut him a quick, commiserating glance and then lifted his head to look around, as if sensing danger. "Do you not feel it, O'Neill?" he asked, his voice low and cautious.

"Feel what?" Jack demanded irritably. "Hot, parched, gritty, hot, miserable… did I mention hot?"

"You did indeed," the Jaffa allowed with an austere nod, and then continued, his gaze once again searching the ruins, "but I was referring to the tangible sense of animosity that pervades this place."

Jack stopped dead in his tracks and turned to stare up at the taller man. "Tangible sense of animosity?" he echoed disbelievingly. Reaching up, he touched Teal'c's brow with the back of his hand. "I think you've been in the sun too long," he opined with evident concern. "You're starting to sound like Daniel."

Teal'c blinked and seemed puzzled. "I assure you, O'Neill, I am quite well."

"Sure you are," Jack mumbled as he turned away. "Junior keeps you in fine fettle." Shaking his head, he snorted to himself, "Tangible sense of animosity. You're getting fanciful, Teal'c. We'll have to watch that or you'll end up a poet or something."

Continuing on ahead, Daniel and Sam had staggered up the cracked and broken steps and into the modest shelter of the ruin, sighing in relief to be out of the constant wind. Swiftly, they conferred on the clues provided in the manuscripts found in the archives of PX2102, and moved toward a staircase in the far corner that led below ground. They had to shift debris out of the way before they could descend into the blessedly cool darkness, flashlights illuminating the way. Teal'c seemed visibly reluctant to venture underground, but Jack waved him onward and then followed, his boots clattering on the ancient stone.

The two intrepid scientists ventured quickly ahead, leaving the first large chamber to move down a long, curving tunnel and into an even larger cavern deep under the city. The carvings on the wall, tantalizingly illuminated by the beams of the lights they carried, immediately captured their attention so that other dark tunnel entrances were left ignored for the moment.

By the time Jack caught up with them, he found the Major and the archeologist studying the hieroglyphics that had been carved into the walls, and they seemed oblivious to the fact that they were wading through ankle-deep sand that had accumulated in places into drifts up to their knees. Teal'c stood nearby, his posture wary as he watched the shadows. "You finding anything?" O'Neill asked, hoping they'd soon conclude the search so that they could return to the Gate and dial home.

"Yeah, I think so," Daniel muttered, only half listening as he ran his fingertips over the stone symbols. "I think it's just over -"

But before he could finish speaking, the wind suddenly howled with hurricane strength through all the tunnels into the chamber, and dust billowed around them, choking them, while sharp shards of marble, as deadly as flying knives, whipped around them, lashing through their clothing like butter and scoring their skin painfully.

"Down! Get down!" Jack yelled, as he lurched and staggered forward to shelter Sam and Daniel from the deadly projectiles. But the wind roared and whipped around them, until Carter and Jackson appeared to be swallowed by miniature tornadoes. O'Neill could hear them gasping and coughing, trying to drag in air; he lunged out to ground them and haul them from the whirling cloud, Teal'c at his side and also trying to aid their beleaguered colleagues. But the wind smashed them back, hard, against the walls of rock, battering them mercilessly, and larger and larger deadly projectiles of sharp stone filled the air.

Jack tried to struggle forward, alarmed at the violence of the attack, for attack he was now certain it was, however ephemeral the enemy might be. But he was again slammed brutally into stone and he felt ripping agony in his chest. Suddenly unaccountably weak, he slumped to his knees and then sagged to the ground, only vaguely aware of Teal'c urgently calling his name and leaning over him to shelter him from the whirling maelstrom surrounding them both, before unconsciousness claimed him.

********************

In response to the urgent summons he had received just moments before, Colonel Simon Banks, smartly clad in the pale blue uniform of the Air Force Reserve, tapped on the door to General George Hammond's office.

"You wanted to see me, sir?" he asked with a frown at the worried expression on his superior's face.

"Yes, Simon, come in," Hammond replied as he waved to the chair in front of his desk. As soon as Banks was settled, the General leaned forward, his hands clasped on the blotter, and said soberly, "I need SG-22 to head out immediately to PX nineteen-nineteen. SG-1 is overdue and is not responding to MALP communications signals."

"PX nineteen-nineteen? The dead planet of the Ancients?" Simon wondered what threat or problem could have arisen on the derelict world that hadn't shown up in the MALP report; what could be significant enough to have compromised the mission of the most experienced and capable team of Stargate Command, and rendered the whole team incommunicado? "Perhaps the MALP is simply malfunctioning," he hazarded, thinking aloud.

"That's the planet, yes - and maybe it is just the MALP, but I'd like to know for sure," Hammond confirmed. "As you know, their mission was simply to explore the ruins of the city near the Gate, with the hope of finding artifacts that might hold significant potential for us."

"Uh huh," Banks grunted. "But so far as we know, there is no life remaining on the planet, and the Goa'uld are long gone, right?"

"So far as we know," Hammond agreed heavily. "But something has delayed SG-1 and they've been incommunicado since advising us they reached the ruin of the city. They missed their last check-in time three hours ago, but the city is some distance from the Gate. For all we know, they may be on their way back, but again, I don't like to take that for granted. Simon, I know SG-22 is shorthanded since Ms. Conner has just left on leave to visit her family over the next month, but I want you and the rest of your team to check out this situation. I want to know what's going on out there."

"Yes, sir," Banks acknowledged briskly as he stood. "We'll head out within thirty minutes."

********************

Groaning softly, Daniel fought his way back to consciousness. Every muscle in his body ached, and his throat felt raw, as if he'd swallowed ground glass. Swallowing gingerly, he massaged his neck, blinking up at a rocky ceiling while he tried to figure out where he was and if anything was broken. Shadows danced across the stone, cast by flickering torches anchored in niches carved into the walls. Frowning, he wondered where the burning wood had come from - so far as they knew, there was nothing but sand and stone on the surface of the dead planet. For that matter, he squinted in thought, rubbing his forehead, who had brought them here and lit the torches if there was nothing and no one alive on the planet. Sighing, having no immediate answers to either puzzle, he turned his head and saw Sam sprawled on her back nearby. She was still out of the count, but he could see the soft rise and fall of her breasts, so he knew she was still alive. Grimacing, he rolled his head to check in the other direction and then hastily, if stiffly, pushed himself painfully to his feet. Smothering a moan at the protests from his back, ribs and legs, he stumbled toward Teal'c, who was kneeling beside Jack.

"Oh, my God," Jackson gasped, gaping at the long sliver of stone protruding from O'Neill's chest. "How bad?" he demanded, glancing at the Jaffa and wincing at the still bleeding cuts and gashes that left the big man's face and body streaked with blood.

"It is not good, Daniel Jackson," Teal'c stated grimly as he finished opening Jack's blood-stained shirt and examined the wound more closely. "I dare not remove the projectile. For now, it is perhaps all that is keeping him from bleeding to death, or his lung from collapsing. However, I fear he may be bleeding internally."

Irritably scratching sand out of his hair, the archeologist looked around the low-ceiled but deep cave, the far end disappearing into the shadows, the closer end curving around a bend of sorts, so he couldn't see far in either direction. "Where are we?" he muttered, scowling.

"I do not know," Teal'c replied, his hands gently exploring the Colonel's head, shoulders, limbs and body for other significant injury. Like him, Jack's face and body had been slashed by sharp, flying shards of stone, but the rest of Jack's wounds appeared superficial. "I awoke only moments ago and saw that O'Neill needed immediate aid."

Leaving the Jaffa to continue his inventory of the Colonel's injuries, Daniel quickly checked Sam. She had a nasty bruise around a good-sized lump on her forehead, but her pupils seemed equal and reactive, her pulse strong, so he dared hope she wasn't badly injured. Certainly, like him and unlike their comrades, she hadn't been nearly cut to pieces by flying stones. Scrambling to their packs, which were lying helter-skelter in a corner, as if flung there by an invisible hand, he rummaged in one, pulling out water bottles and the med-kit, as well as a fistful of thin packets of sterile dressings. Handing several to Teal'c, he said soberly, "Here, you can clean off Jack's wounds and I'll see what I can do about yours." They worked silently for a few minutes, washing off streaks of blood, carefully cleaning sand fragments from the wounds, and Daniel wrapped a bandage around the big man's tricep, over a particularly nasty gash.

"What the hell happened?" he grated as he tied off the bandage, with an anxious glance at the ugly, blood-stained shard buried in Jack's chest.

"The wind assaulted us," Teal'c rumbled matter-of-factly. "It appeared to choke the two of you into unconsciousness as it lifted you from the floor inside the vortex of a circling wind."

"Whirlwind," Daniel corrected automatically, frowning as he tried to remember the events leading up to the attack. For attack it had surely been.

Nodding as he registered the new word, the warrior continued, "And then it slammed O'Neill and I against the wall, repeatedly, while many large and small stone projectiles flew at us." Grimly, he studied Jack's wound and listened to his breathing, his eyes narrowing when he saw tiny pink bubbles on his friend's lips. "I am surprised that we are still alive," he admitted, wondering why the wind had not killed them, but had simply subdued them, if brutally, before bringing them to this cave. Carefully, he lifted the Colonel's head and shoulders to support Jack against his broad chest, in a mute but compassionate effort to ease O'Neill's breathing.

Shivering slightly in the dankness, Daniel studied Jack, deeply worried about his gray pallor, the blue tinge around his lips and the clear evidence that he was bleeding into a lung. He pulled a blanket from the backpack and draped it over O'Neill and then pulled a second blanket from another pack to drop around Teal'c's broad shoulders. Pulling out yet a third, he crossed the uneven stone floor to cover Sam. He was grateful they still had their supplies, such as they were; the water, especially, was essential, and the food rations would keep them going for a while. Their weapons and radios, though probably not surprisingly, were gone.

Standing, restless, anxious about Sam's continuing unresponsiveness and deeply worried about Jack, knowing they needed to get back to the Gate and to help quickly, he pulled a torch from its bracket and prowled toward the curving tunnel, his shoulders hunched and his head ducking in unconscious reaction to the low, rough ceiling. He'd not gone more than a few yards along the narrow corridor cut from stone when he felt a quickening of the air around him, a frisson of wind, and realized he was approaching an opening to the outside world - light filtered in through a broad, roughly rectangular entrance bordered on the outside by lush greenery. The vegetation was a surprise. The probes that had overflown the planet before their arrival hadn't sent back any footage of anything but unremitting desert. Curious, hoping escape might be easier than he'd feared, he increased his pace. But, with every step he took closer to the portal, the breeze in his face strengthened, until a powerful wind gusted hard, sending him stumbling backward.

Whoever, whatever had brought them here didn't intend to allow them to simply walk away. Frustrated, Jackson bit his lip, his gaze narrowing in thought as he struggled to understand what, specifically, had attacked them and why. Returning to the main body of the cave, he reported, "There's an entrance just a few yards around that corner - but the wind won't let me get close to it."

"Indeed," Teal'c rumbled, staring at him impassively before nodding slowly. "It is a prison, then."

"So it would seem," Daniel agreed with tight, grim, sarcasm as he passed by on his way toward the shadows in the back.

As he got closer, he could hear the trickle of water, and the dampness of the air grew heavier. Lifting the torch high, he ventured further into the gloom and blinked to see the light reflected on a large, wide, nearly perfectly round pool fed by a slow seeping of water down the far wall. The paltry spring seemed inadequate to keep such a large, if shallow, containment fed. The water was crystal clear and looked safe, but he was wary, wondering if the water was potable. Looking around the stone rim of the pool, at first he only noted several waist-high, lumpish rocks and boulders that seemed to have dropped out of the ceiling in some earlier epoch. But then his eyesight adjusted to the flickering shadows and, his lips twisting in distaste, he recognized the skeletal remains of a long dead former prisoner lying near the edge of the pool. Had he or she drunk the water out of desperate thirst, only to find it was poison? Or had the victim deliberately drunk the water out of despair to avoid the slow pain of starvation? Or had he simply starved to death?

Grimacing, he stepped forward to determine if the remains would give him any clue about who the victim had been. There was little to see, clothing and flesh having rotted to nothing at some time in the past, but one brow quirked when he recognized the distinctive fine bones of a mature Goa'uld mixed with the vertebrae of the apparently human host. His gaze narrowing thoughtfully, he lifted his eyes and searched the walls and ceiling, but didn't find any cleft or fissure, no opening, no way out. Given the presence of the skeleton, that really wasn't a surprise, but was still discouraging; the reality that they were helplessly trapped was inescapable. Meticulously, he felt his way around the cavern's walls, hoping for some hidden egress, but there was nothing. A soft, inexplicable rippling of the pool caught his attention. It was as if stones had been tossed into the centre of it, but he could detect no reason for the disturbance and the anomaly troubled him briefly, but the distraction was only momentary. The brutal truth of their complete imprisonment, the terrible reality of knowing there was no way out, overtook him, leaving him trembling with helpless rage.

********************

The bitter cold of the desert night chilled them as soon as they stepped out of the Gate on PX1919, and the three members of SG-22 stood a moment to get their bearings. Wearing environmental protection gear and large, heavy packs bearing medical equipment in case it was needed, their facemasks reflecting the ephemeral light of the planet's night, they resembled strange aliens or awkward robots more than living men. The silver glow of the three moons lit the rolling dunes that spread out in all directions, giving the impression of a silent, motionless sea, frozen for all time. Frowning in concentration, Jim turned his face away from the distraction of the grains of sand carried on the light wind that pinged incessantly against his suit and mask, and cocked his head, listening intently.

"Well?" Banks asked, as he checked out the MALP and determined it was working perfectly before turning to gaze at Ellison and Sandburg, who was standing beside the sentinel, hunched against the cold, with one hand placed on the older man's back.

"Jim?" Simon called again quietly before he shifted his attention to study the dunes around them.

Ellison shook his head. "I'm not getting anything," he muttered, irritated by the gear that blocked his sense of smell. "Just the wind. It's… it sounds different than the wind on Earth," he went on with an air of frustrated distraction.

"Different how?" Blair encouraged, his voice low, though his teeth chattered a little.

Shrugging, Jim gave up and looked around, seeing as far as he could across the barren, empty land. "I don't know," he grunted. "Just… different, like … like there are distant voices under or within the sound, sometimes there - sometimes not there. The place sure looks dead but something doesn't feel right."

"Feel right?" Sandburg probed again, frowning as he looked around.

Grimacing, Ellison blinked a couple times to ensure his vision was clear and focused as precisely as he could manage. "The edges of the horizon seem, I don't know, wavy, off."

"Could be a desert mirage," Simon speculated but Jim shrugged uncertainly.

"Mirages usually occur in the daylight, as a result of the heat," he muttered, his eyes narrowing, frustrated by the ambiguity of the hazy edges of the world.

Blair squinted into the night as he, too, studied the desert. "It couldn't have always been like this," he murmured, his voice sounding sorrowful as he thought about the people who must have inhabited the planet millennia before. "Once, it must have been fertile land. Had to have been, to support such a large city nearby. Man, I wonder what happened? Something like a nuclear winter maybe?"

Consulting a small instrument in his hand Banks reported, "There's no evidence of unusual levels of residual radiation in the ground or air." Shrugging, he growled, "Well, we won't find out much standing around here. Let's go." He shifted to adjust the pack more comfortably on his back and led off toward the ruins of the city. "Stay alert," he cautioned sharply. "The place may appear dead, but something has delayed SG-1."

"Maybe they got caught in a freak sandstorm," Sandburg postulated as he slogged through the heavy sand behind Ellison.

The others shrugged and concentrated on keeping their footing on the sand that shifted under their feet.

********************

"Damn it," Daniel growled, turning away from the pool and slamming his palm against the rock wall beside him. A ripple of breeze, like an exhalation from the stone itself, caressed his cheek and he swallowed hard, certain there was some presence around them, watching them - maybe testing them. Panting in his effort to control his surge of anger and sick, sinking fear for Jack's life, his worry for Sam - and the wash of guilt for having been the one who had thought it would be such a great idea to explore this world - he growled, "Who are you? What do you want from us? We … we didn't come here to hurt or harm. We just want to learn. You hear me?" he demanded, his gaze raking the walls and ceiling. "Do you understand? We just want to learn!"

There was no answer and even the slight breath of air on his face dissipated as if it had never been.

Closing his eyes, he rested his forehead against the cool stone and tried to calm down. Hammond would send someone to find them; there was no doubt of that. They just had to hold out until reinforcements arrived. But, with no idea of where they were, if they were even on the same planet, he wondered whether they could be found, or found in time to save Jack's life. And he had a lot of concerns about whether their rescuers would find a way to retrieve them - or would themselves be taken prisoner.

Gritting his teeth, pushing away from the wall, he returned to their 'cell'. Teal'c looked up and caught his eyes and he shook his head, mutely conveying that he'd found nothing that could help them, nothing that could give them a clue even as to what was going on.

Well, maybe not precisely 'nothing'. "I think I found Dahok," he grated, with a wave back at the shadows behind him. "Not much more than bones, now. Beside a clear pool of fresh water that I think might be hazardous to our health."

The Jaffa frowned, his gaze falling away. "If the wind, or whomever wields it, can sense a symbiote, perhaps it is I who am responsible for the attack," he murmured. "The rest of you entombed here only because you are with me."

Sighing, Daniel shook his head and moved to stand beside his friend. Lightly gripping his shoulder, he said firmly, "This isn't your fault, Teal'c. Whatever is going on here, whatever happens, this isn't your responsibility."

After a moment, the big man nodded once in gratitude. Returning his dark gaze to O'Neill, he asked somberly, "Then what is going on, Daniel Jackson? Who controls the wind? Who imprisoned us here?"

"I wish I knew," Jackson muttered, fighting the despair growing in his gut. "How's he doing?"

Teal'c shook his head. "If we cannot get him back to Stargate Command soon, it will be too late."

Daniel's lips thinned. God, how he hated to feel so helpless. When Jack moaned softly, he shifted to kneel down beside his best friend and lifted a hand to clasp O'Neill's shoulder. The older man blinked, coughed and winced against the agony that had to be searing through his chest with every breath. "Easy, Jack," he murmured.

Struggling back to consciousness, his face creased with pain, the Colonel looked dazedly around, finding Teal'c, half-understanding that he was being held in the Jaffa's arms, and then he slowly focused on Jackson. "Hey," he rasped weakly. Licking his lips, tasting blood, he grimaced and fought the darkness on the edge of his vision. "You guys … okay? Carter?"

"Sam's still unconscious, but I think she's okay," Daniel told him. "Teal'c and I are banged up but basically fine."

Nodding slightly, blinking heavily, Jack whispered, "Good. But … uh, I'm not doing … so hot."

"No, you're not," Jackson agreed thickly. "You've got a slice of stone piercing your chest." Gazing around their prison and then looking again at O'Neill, he went on, "Jack, we're in a cave. No way out. You're going to have to hang on until Hammond sends the cavalry to rescue us."

O'Neill's brow quirked sardonically and he again nodded weakly. His lips crooked in a painful half-smile and he winked slowly. "Piece o' cake," he breathed, and then stiffened, fighting the groan that escaped as a guttural moan through his clenched teeth. Panting shallowly, he shivered and swallowed hard, grimacing. Once again, he looked up at Teal'c and then at Daniel, his gaze dark with pain but focused, determined. "You … you get yourselves and … and Sam outta here. Has t-t'be a way. Come back … if you can. But go."

"Jack -" Daniel protested but O'Neill cut him off.

"Tha's ‘n order," the Colonel mumbled, his eyes drooping closed as he lost his grip on consciousness.

Bowing his head, Jackson pinched the bridge of his nose. Sniffing, he looked up to find Teal'c's steady gaze upon him. "You heard the man," Daniel said, forcing a note of indulgent humour into his voice. "Got any ideas?"

"If we are to obey the Colonel's order, we need to communicate with the beings who captured us," the Jaffa intoned soberly, though the corner of his mouth quirked in sympathetic amusement. "That is your job, Daniel Jackson."

Snorting, the archeologist shook his head. "Yeah, right. So, when we're court-martialed for failing to obey a direct order, that's going to be your defence?"

The Jaffa nodded, a glint in his eyes, before he sobered. "I am not worried," he observed wryly. "You will find a way."

Before Daniel could answer, Carter's low moan drew their attention. Scrambling to her side, Daniel lifted her shoulders gently, resting her head against his shoulder.

"Daniel?" she muttered, frowning against the headache pounding in her skull. "W'a's goin' on?"

Sighing, glancing over his shoulder at Teal'c and Jack, and then gazing around the low cave, he replied thinly, "Well, I guess you could say we're in trouble."

********************

Hours later, the sky to the north began to glow a deep, fiery rose as the planet's revolution drew them into the light of the red giant. Wearily, very close to exhaustion, they struggled to the top of a steep dune and paused to both catch their breath and get their bearings, each of them fighting the need to sink to their knees, curl up and just sleep. The endless dunes were washed by a crimson tide as the red sun edged above the horizon; the sudden heat was immediately intense and they all knew it would only worsen when the white-hot dwarf came into view. For as far as they could see in any direction except east were dunes rising like massive waves or sandy mountains. To the east, the view was only enlivened by the ruins of a once rich and beautiful city, reduced now to the rubble of broken walls and tumbled rock stained pink by the dawn.

Still panting a little, perspiration sticky on his skin, the stench of his own sweat filling his nostrils and making him grimace, Jim turned slowly, stretching out his vision as far as it would go. When a sharp gust of wind buffeted them strongly, he instinctively reached out to ground Sandburg and keep him from being blown off his feet. Simon leaned into the wind, biting back a curse about the irredeemably inhospitable environment, and winced as the heat increased, disliking the sensation of being slowly baked inside his protective gear.

"What is it, Jim?" Sandburg asked when he felt the sentinel stiffen beside him.

"Something's very weird here, Chief," Ellison grunted, again looking across the barren landscape, his head now cocked to listen to the nuances of the keening wind.

"Weird?" Banks echoed with disgruntled sarcasm. "What? The fact that the place appears to be completely dead? Or the fact that it seems to have swallowed up SG-1?" Impatiently, Simon again toggled his radio, as he'd done every fifteen minutes since their arrival in an attempt to use the MALP to transmit their hail to their missing colleagues. So far, all he'd gotten back was empty static.

"It also seems to have swallowed up the Gate," Jim told them flatly. "I can still see the MALP, but not the Gate behind it."

"What????" Banks exclaimed, swiveling to peer back over the long dunes behind them, knowing even as he did so that even if the portal was still there, he wouldn't be able to see it after the miles they'd walked.

Biting his lip, Ellison said slowly, thoughtfully, "The horizons all around us are still shimmering, unsettled. Not enough to be detected with average vision, but …."

When his voice trailed off, Sandburg suggested hesitantly, "You mean like a mirage? A kind of holographic imagery?"

"Yeah, exactly, Chief," Jim agreed, lightly slapping Blair's shoulder approvingly. "I'm not sure anything that we're seeing is real." Gesturing toward the ruins, he added, "Even the city. I get the occasional glint of light on jeweled roofs that aren't there, and in the big square just past the gates? There's a glitter of water in the fountain."

His brows lifting behind his face visor, Banks groused, "You mean these sand dunes we've been struggling over aren't really here? I find that hard to believe." Looking down at the dead, bone dry ruin below, he shook his head, trying to imagine something intact with running water.

"Oh, there's something here, solid earth beneath us," Ellison allowed. "But whether it's sand or something else, I'm not sure. I need to be able to touch it. Smell it."

"Nuh uh," Simon disallowed, unconsciously lifting his hand in negation. "Not until we find out what happened to SG-1. We can't risk being overtaken by fumes or something we can't detect with our equipment."

Sighing, Jim nodded, and again tilted his head. "The wind - it's like there are voices that I just barely hear," he muttered. "Sometimes sad or scared. Sometimes angry and threatening." Shaking his head, he straightened and focused on the ruin below them and still nearly a mile away. "I don't see any trace of SG-1 down there."

"Well, they probably took shelter in the main temple or hall of learning or whatever it is," Blair mused absently, thinking about what Jim told them. "Given a choice, I'd sure get out of this wind and heat as soon as I could."

"Amen to that, Sandburg," Banks agreed dryly. Glancing at his watch and noting that it was time for their half-hourly check-in with Hammond, he again touched the radio anchored to his suit, this time using the MALP frequency to link back through the Gate to the control room inside the mountain. The expression in his eyes was grim when he was unable to get a signal. "You think the Gate has really disappeared?" he asked Ellison hollowly, a sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach. No Gate meant no way home.

Shrugging, Jim lifted his hands in uncertainty. "I don't know, sir," he grated. "I suspect it's still there, that it only appears to have disappeared as part of the overall illusion - I'd be more worried if I couldn't see the MALP. From the other side, it might appear as if we've disappeared. But, uh, I think whatever is doing this can manipulate the appearance of the natural environment around us, but not foreign materials or objects."

"Like us?" Blair queried, looking around nervously, wondering about the voices Jim thought he could hear in the wind; speculating uncomfortably about what was really surrounding them and if they were being watched.

"Let's hope so," Simon huffed sardonically as he led the way down the side of the dune toward the ruin. "But the fact that it can deceive our vision doesn't reassure me much."

********************

Once Carter had grasped that they were in the midst of a crisis, she had forced away the residual fogginess of her mind, wincing against the pounding in her head as she sat up and delicately massaged her temple. "Trouble?" she'd mumbled, looking around and taking in the barrenness of the cave that surrounded them. Blocking her view of Teal'c and Jack for the moment, Daniel found some oral analgesic tablets in the med-kit and handed a couple to her with a bottle of water.

Once she'd swallowed them, and her pallor had receded marginally, Jackson told her soberly, "Jack's hurt pretty badly." He shifted to the side, and her eyes widened when she saw the Jaffa almost tenderly clasping the blanket-shrouded O'Neill to his chest.

Lurching to her feet, she walked unsteadily across the floor. "What happened to him? What's wrong?" she demanded, her voice taut.

"There's a thin shard of stone embedded in his chest," Daniel replied quietly, coming to stand beside her and laying a steadying hand on her shoulder. "He's got a punctured lung."

"Oh, my God," she breathed, swallowing hard. Blinking, she looked around their prison. "Where are we?"

"We don't really know," he replied. Waving toward the tunnel that curved out of view, he explained, "There's an exit to the outside world that's surrounded by vegetation, but the wind won't let us near it. And back there," he gestured toward the shadows, "is a large pool of what I speculate is possibly poisonous water, and a long dead Goa'uld. Maybe Dahok. Neither the plant-life or the water make any sense on a world we know is a dead desert."

"The wind?" she frowned, focusing on the way out. Turning, she strode more steadily into the tunnel, Jackson following close behind.

"We think the wind is some kind of weapon. It assaulted us in the temple and seems to have transported us here."

Still pacing resolutely toward the exit, which they could now see ahead of them, she frowned, and then nodded, as the fragments of her memory coalesced. But, once again, as they drew near to the portal, the wind picked up, growing ever stronger until it pushed them backward, resisting their determined attempts to continue forward until, puffing from exertion, they gave up and leaned against the cold stone wall.

"This is ridiculous," she growled, frustrated, and then stomped back into the cavern. Biting her lip, she studied Teal'c and Jack. "You were both more seriously injured that either Daniel or I," she observed thoughtfully.

"Perhaps because we were perceived as the warriors, while you and Daniel Jackson seemed more concerned with the markings on the walls of the armory," the Jaffa suggested, having also been thinking about the vast discrepancies in their respective wounds.

"Temple," Sam corrected absently.

"Hall of learning," Jackson muttered, shaking his head, remembering that he and Carter had both slung their weapons over their shoulders, while O'Neill had carried his automatic weapon ready for use and Teal'c had, of course, been carrying his lance.

Going to their packs, Carter had drawn out their flashlights and set them up to illuminate their cave, and then gathered the torches from the walls, using them to build a small fire, over which she heated water. Mixing in analgesics and antibiotics, she poured a mugful and then carried it to kneel by O'Neill. "We need to get some fluids into him," she murmured, "to make up for whatever blood he's losing internally."

Nodding in understanding, the Jaffa gently shifted the Colonel into a slightly more upright position, and she carefully, slowly fed water into his mouth, massaging his throat to encourage him to swallow. She'd gotten almost half a cupful into him before he gagged and coughed, moaning through gritted teeth.

"Easy, Colonel," she soothed, cupping his chilled cheek with her palm.

Blinking, he looked around blearily, confused, but then he scowled and his gaze focused, becoming marginally more alert. "Wha'er you kids still doin' here?" he grumbled. "Tol' Teal'c and Danny t'go."

"There's a slight problem, sir," she replied with grim humour.

"Prob-lem?" he echoed, squinting against the pain that gripped his chest in a vise.

"Yes, sir," she explained, dryly. "There's no apparent way out."

"Oh," he grunted, pressing his eyes closed. "Shit."

"Uh huh," she agreed. "Colonel, you need to try to drink this, sir. It'll help with the pain."

"Kay," he whispered, grimacing as he swallowed the blood and bile in his throat. But he couldn't manage more than a few more mouthfuls before he turned his head away. Panting shallowly, he rasped, "You'll have to … have to find a way … out. Dig or … or somethin'."

Nodding, she swallowed hard and caressed his brow. "We'll do our best, sir," she promised.

"Good," he sighed, his consciousness fading. "Tha's good."

That had been several hours before. Like Daniel, she'd prowled around the back of the cavern, feeling the walls around the pool, squinting up at the area of stone from where the trickle of water seeped through, examining the ceiling, and then did the same in the main cavern, and then the tunnel. They were completely encased in rock, but for the alluring portal they couldn't get close to. They'd tried again, and then again with Teal'c's help, but all their combined strength was not enough to resist, let alone penetrate, the invisible wall created by the wind.

Now, they sat despondently in the glare of the beams of light from their artificial torches, the modest fire long burned to ashes, Teal'c once again supporting O'Neill, Sam and Daniel sitting facing him, Jack between them. The only sounds were the distant trickle of water and the Colonel's increasingly labored, rasping respirations as he fought for enough air to stay alive. Jackson looped an arm around her shoulder. At first, she resisted the comfort, but then she leaned into him, her face buried against his shoulder to hide the tears leaking down her cheeks.

********************

The oppressive heat of the twin suns swiftly turned their survival suits into ovens, the internal cooling mechanisms unequal to the onslaught of the broiling temperature. Staggering with exhaustion, they forced themselves forward one step after another, toward the massive ruin of what had once been the central edifice in the ancient city. Stumbling up the broken steps, leaning into the ever harsher wind, they lurched through the portal into the cool darkness inside. The relief of being out of the blistering heat was enormous and they collapsed to their knees, panting for breath.

"Oh, man," Sandburg gasped, sliding down a wall to lie half-sprawled on the floor just inside the entrance. "I never thought I'd miss the cold and wet world of Cascade."

Simon snorted and dazedly looked around the massive interior. "Where to now?" he asked.

Pointing toward an opening in the floor near the side wall, Jim panted, "I see some scuffed marks on the floor over there, and the debris looks like it's been shifted. I think they headed underground."

"Probably looking for the vault," Blair agreed wearily, using the support of the wall to push himself back up onto his feet, and then digging into his pack for a flashlight.

Cautiously, Jim in the lead, Simon bringing up the rear, they descended into the darkness. Mutely, Ellison waved them forward, to follow him along a winding tunnel, and into another, very large cavern. The beams of their lights played around the walls and floor.

"Their weapons," Simon grunted when his beam swept across the rifles, radios and Teal'c's lance.

"And Daniel's glasses," Blair said, picking up the glint of glass and metal. Moving forward, he dropped to one knee to retrieve them and place them carefully in a pocket, then he swept his light over the nearby wall. "Man, these inscriptions and frescoes are amazing," he murmured.

"There's dried blood here," Jim reported grimly, examining the opposite wall. "They didn't get taken without a fight." Straightening, he turned to look around the cavern and froze. "What the hell!" he exclaimed.

"What?" Sandburg demanded, whirling to face him and then searching the open space.

"Don't you see her?" Ellison demanded, gaping at the astonishingly beautiful woman he could see standing in the middle of the room.

"See who?" Banks growled, lifting his weapon defensively.

Blair began easing around the edge of the room toward Jim, his hands held up peacefully in front of his body. "We can't see her," he said, nervously. "Is there only one person here? What does she look like?"

"Yeah, only her," his partner replied, sounding captivated. "She's, uh - well, she's beautiful. Tall, dressed in shimmering silks. Long red hair."

"Oh, man," Sandburg muttered. "Red hair, huh? Figures." Studying Ellison, he said more loudly, firmly, "Jim. Jim! Don't stare at her, man." When his partner didn't respond, he felt a surge of anxiety and picked up his pace. "Don't zone on her," he called compellingly. "Listen to me, Jim. Hear my voice."

Ellison shook his head and blinked, huffed a breath. "S'okay, Chief," he muttered. Speaking to the apparition, he called out, "Where are our friends? The others who came here?"

He saw her turn her head to look at him sharply, perhaps realizing for the first time that he, at least, could see her. She took a step toward him, then another, frowning irritably when Blair kept speaking and then watching his progress around the massive chamber as he drew closer to Ellison. Jim saw her lift a hand toward Sandburg, and he called out, "Chief, stop moving. It seems to bother her."

Blair froze in place, looking wildly from Jim to the emptiness of the cavern. "What's she doing?" he asked, half scared, half fascinated. His gaze was caught by a fresco illuminated by the beam of his flashlight: worshippers paying homage to a beautiful woman with long, red hair. "Gaia?" he breathed, his eyes narrowing as he thought furiously, trying to make sense of what was happening.

Seeing anger suffuse her features as she looked from Blair to Simon, Jim swallowed and then, lifting his hands cautiously, stepping slowly toward her, he said quietly, calmly, "It's okay. We don't want to hurt you. Don't want to hurt anyone. We just want to find our friends."

Watching, not at all happy about anything on the planet, from the missing stargate, to deserts and ruins that weren't real, and a strange woman he couldn't see, Simon shifted warily, drawing her attention. Jim saw her lip curl with revulsion and she suddenly whipped up her arms, hands clenched into fists.

"Get down!" Jim yelled as gale-force winds filled the chamber, flinging dust, rocks and shale at Banks and Sandburg, but mysteriously leaving him in an island of still air. Blair yelped as he was blown off his feet, the winds circling around him, lifting him higher, sucking the air from his lungs and he struggled to break free, arms and legs pinwheeling. Simon was flung like a doll to slam against the stone wall, sharp stones pummeling him, lacerating his suit, cracking the face mask.

"Stop!" Ellison shouted at her, lunging toward her, but she turned on him then, her eyes flashing like emeralds and the force of her blazing regard froze him into unwilling immobility. He fought to move, grunted, but was stuck in place. Frantically, his gaze sought Sandburg, but he couldn't find him in the blur of sand and stone, could only hear his friend's increasingly frantic struggle to breathe. "Chief!" he cried out, furious with his helplessness, terror building in his gut.

The winds grew ever more fierce, battering Simon, choking Blair, and still Jim couldn't move. The swirl of dust and stone grew so thick he couldn't see anything, not his comrades nor the woman, and he yelled out their names. Listening fiercely, he sought to hold onto the sounds of their heartbeats, quickening, frenzied thumps below the howl of the wind - and then they were gone. Just gone.

"NOOOO!" he screamed in desperate denial, straining to listen harder, to see through the maelstrom, unable to accept the hateful meaning of the empty silence. "SANDBURG!"

Darkness crowded in, obscuring all hope of getting some kind of visual link. Oblivious to the roar of the wind, he fell into silence where there should have been sound.

********************

Furious wind suddenly swooped through the cavern, a flurry of stone and grit howling through the curving tunnel. Teal'c, Sam and Daniel all lurched forward to shield Jack from the onslaught, and held onto one another to keep from being blown like so much flotsam against the walls or further back, into the shadowed pool. Their packs flew against them, hard and bruising and they crouched lower, huddling even closer together.

The chaos ended as abruptly and inexplicably as it had arrived, leaving them feeling numb and battered. Sam quickly checked O'Neill, to ensure he'd not been further injured, while Daniel looked up and around - and gaped at what he saw.

"Oh, no," he ground out, stumbling to his feet to check on the silent, still, battered bodies that the wind had left behind. Once she was assured the Colonel was no worse, Carter hastened to help him gently ease the newcomers onto their backs. The environmental suits were little more than rags, blood staining the one but not the other.

"It's Simon," she grated, carefully easing off the destroyed head gear, and then checking the big man's injuries.

"And Blair," Daniel rasped, hastily unclipping the fasteners. "I'm not sure he's breathing."

Still supporting O'Neill, Teal'c watched them and then, a puzzled expression in his eyes, he rapidly looked around the cavern and peered into the shadows at the back. "Where is the Sentinel?" he rumbled.

Startled, realizing he was right, that Ellison should be with the others, they too hazarded fast glances around while they tended their colleagues. "Good question," Daniel muttered, ripping open the ragged remains of Sandburg's suit and reaching to feel for a pulse at his throat then, laying a light hand on the younger man's chest, his posture relaxed when he realized that Blair was, in fact, breathing, if shallowly, and that his heartbeat was strong and steady. "I think Blair's okay," he reported, looking over at Carter. "How's Simon?"

"Lots of contusions and gashes, but most of the damage appears to be superficial," she replied tautly, checking his ribs and then feeling around his skull. Daniel nodded in reply, and then went to check the tunnel. Finding it empty, he jogged back to the pool, only to return, shaking his head. "Jim's not here."

The Jaffa's gaze dropped away, and he frowned heavily in thought. Sam's lips thinned and she shook her head, not wanting to speculate but fearing his absence meant he might be dead. She and Daniel cleaned Banks' wounds, bandaging the worst. When they were finished, Carter detached Simon's radio from the shredded suit and punched it on. "Ellison? Report." But there was only static. Sighing, she switched channels and tried to raise Stargate Command, but the channel was dead. "Damn it," she growled in frustration.

Blair coughed and moaned softly, one hand lifting to feebly paw at the air. Jackson swiveled around to take the floundering hand in a firm grasp and, leaning over his friend, he cupped Sandburg's cheek. "Easy, you're okay," he assured quietly. "The wind's gone."

Blinking, Blair looked around, confused and then anxiety flared in his eyes as he struggled to sit up and fought off another hacking cough. "J-Jim?" he gasped, his gaze darting around the room, startled to see Sam kneeling by Simon and Teal'c holding Jack. "Where's -"

"He's not here," Daniel cut in, and Sandburg gave him a wide-eyed look of surprise and alarm.

"Shit," Blair cursed vehemently. "She must have kept him."

"She?" Jackson echoed, squinting in consternation, while Sam and Teal'c gaped at Sandburg in surprise. "What - who are you talking about?"

"Some gorgeous redhead only Jim could see in the vault under the Hall of Learning, or whatever it is," the younger man replied, raking his hair back from his face. "In the place where you guys were attacked. We found your weapons and radios. Oh, by the way," he remembered, distracted, as he reached into his pocket, "here're your glasses."

Daniel took the glasses but didn't seem to register the action, still evidently grappling with the information Blair had blurted out about some mysterious woman that apparently only Ellison could see. "Why would she keep Jim?" he asked, confused, trying to sort it all out.

Shrugging, Blair shook his head. "Maybe because he could see her." Looking around, he pushed himself to his feet and took a few steps toward O'Neill as he asked Teal'c. "How badly is he hurt?"

"He is very seriously wounded, BlairSandburg," the Jaffa warrior replied somberly. "If we cannot find a way to escape this cavern and return to Command Headquarters, we will not be able to save his life."

"Oh, man," Sandburg sighed, wincing, sorrow deep in his eyes. Turning to Carter, he asked, "And Simon?"

"I think he'll be all right. His wounds seem to be only superficial."

"This woman …?" Daniel probed.

"Oh, yeah, well, I'm not sure, but I think she has something to do with the illusions we're all experiencing, well, all of us except Jim, sort of," Sandburg replied, moving to a wall and touching it, frowning in thought.

"Illusions?" Jackson echoed again, growing irritated. "Blair, would you just tell us what the hell you're talking about?"

Turning to face his old friend, Blair looked surprised at the tone and then, forcing himself to think about something other than the fact that his partner was missing, he nodded. "Sorry," he apologized, gazing at each of the SG-1 members in turn before focusing on Daniel. "Jim was able to determine that the desert we see, the ruin of the city, everything, probably this cave, is all a kind of projection, holographic imagery on a planet-wide scale. What we think we see isn't real - it's some kind of camouflage, I guess. But the city isn't in ruins. Jim could see the glitter of gem-studded roofs and water sparkling in the fountain. Not clearly, but enough to know that what we thought we were looking at is an elaborate illusion. Even the Gate seemed to disappear, but it had to be there, just masked, you know?"

"O-kay," Daniel replied, absentmindedly putting on his spectacles. "And this woman - she has something to do with all this?"

"Yeah, well, probably," Sandburg shrugged, uncertainly. "She's the only 'being' that any of us saw after we came through the Gate. And the fact that she showed up just before the wind attacked Simon and me, and that Jim isn't here - well, I figure she's pulling some major strings on this planet. Actually, from the little I saw of the frescoes, I think she might be Gaia."

"Like the Nox," Sam interjected, still thinking about the illusions. "Remember, Daniel? They could mask whatever they didn't want anyone to see. They had to power to manipulate reality."

"Yeah, I remember. The Ancients can do the same sort of things," the archeologist muttered, scowling as he unconsciously chewed on a thumbnail. "This Gaia, if that's who she is, might be an immortal. Not sure how any of that helps us right now, though," he observed, his tone discouraged as he glanced at Jack and away. "For all we know, we might still be back in the vault and just don't know it."

"No, I don't think so," Blair countered, appearing worried. "If that was the case, I think Jim would be able to sense us and get some message to us, some signal."

Daniel shrugged and shook his head. "We could be anywhere on the planet - in fact, we might not even still be on the planet. Maybe on a moon, or something."

Peeling off the useless ruin of his environmental suit, Sandburg thought about what they knew and what they didn't know. Not much and a whole lot, respectively, and he grimaced in frustration. "I guess you guys have been stuck in here for quite a while," he observed quietly.

Carter nodded. "At least six hours that we know of - but we don't know how long we were all unconscious."

"There is an opening to the outside around the tunnel, BlairSandburg," Teal'c informed him solemnly, "but the wind will not allow us to approach the exit. And in the back of the cave, there is a large pool, but Daniel Jackson thinks the water may be poisoned."

"Really? What makes you think that?" Blair asked, puzzled. "Does it look dirty or smell or something?"

"No, but there's a dead Goa'uld back there," Jackson informed him. "Or at least the bones of it and the host are lying next to the pool. Could be Dahok."

"Man, this just gets weirder and weirder," Sandburg muttered. Moving across the stone floor, he knelt by Teal'c to gaze at O'Neill. "How long do you think he has?" he asked, very softly.

"Without help? No more than another hour, BlairSandburg," the Jaffa replied grimly, profound sorrow and the frustration of helplessness in his dark gaze.

"Blair, remember?" Sandburg murmured. "Just 'Blair'." Sighing, he gripped Teal'c's shoulder briefly, and then pushed himself to his feet.

Simon moaned then and stirred, groping his way back to consciousness. They waited, watching him, and when his eyes opened and he winced, Sam reassured him, "You're okay. But I'll bet you've got a hell of a headache."

Frowning, he affirmed, "You got that right." She gave him an analgesic from the med-kit and helped him sit up, to drink some water to wash it down. Briefly, they brought him up to date, and his expression tightened as he listened.

Sandburg, having heard it before, grabbed a flashlight and wandered back into the shadows, to check out the pool and the remains beside it. "It's all illusion," he muttered to himself as he dropped to one knee by the bones. "Well, maybe except for you." Standing, he swept the wide beam around the chamber, noting the thick, waist-high boulders littering the floor, and then he studied the pool. "Illusion," he murmured again. "A test maybe?"

"Daniel!" he called tensely. "Come here for a minute."

"Yeah?" Jackson queried as he joined Sandburg by the edge of the pool.

"Does the shape remind you of anything?" Blair asked, his light playing around the rounded edges.

"Shape?" Daniel repeated, frowning. And then he blinked. "The Gate," he said flatly. "It's the same shape and size as the Gate." His gaze narrowed in thought and he recalled, "I saw the surface ripple for no reason about, what? Six or so hours ago?"

"Uh huh," Sandburg grunted. "Could have been us coming through, only you couldn't see us." He turned to study the boulders, finally moving to one that was on a direct line from the slightly flattened base of the pool. "And, maybe, a DHD?"

"So, if we could figure it all out, then we could go home, and if we couldn't, too bad?" Jackson speculated with a glance at the skeletal remains.

"Could be - kind of a passive-aggressive strategy to not kill outright, but to leave survival in the hands of the invaders," Blair nodded thoughtfully. Looking back toward the main cavern he muttered, "Don't know why some of us were hurt more than others, though."

"We thought it might be that the obvious warriors were perceived as more of a threat, and there was more anger directed at them," Daniel supplied with a shrug as he walked around the boulder and studied it closely. "It's all just speculation."

"As a theory, it works," Blair sighed, still wondering why he and Simon had been separated from Jim but feeling intuitively that it had to have something to do with Ellison's senses. "How well do you remember the placement of the symbols on the DHD? Could you dial home by placing your hand on the right places on that stone?"

"Can't go home without letting them know it's us," he replied, thinking about it. "The iris would be closed."

Blair curled his lip at the image his friend's words evoked. "Alpha Base, then?"

Daniel nodded, and then closed his eyes, calling up the image of the face of the DHD device and the exact placement of the symbols he needed to touch. Taking a breath, he tightened his jaw and reached out, pressing one part of the wide stone and then another. The loud metallic clanking of a spinning Gate immediately rumbled through the cavern, though they couldn't see any change in the rock shelving around the pool.

"What the hell is that?" Simon shouted from the main cave, and he and Sam loped in a moment later.

"We think we found the Gate," Blair informed them, his voice tight, as he waved at the pool, his gaze fixed on Daniel, memorizing as best he could the exact placement of Jackson's hands on the rock.

"You're kidding?" Sam gusted, then turned wide eyes toward Jackson. "And that's the DHD?" she exclaimed, moving closer, gaping and then blinking. "Where are you dialing?"

"Alpha Base," Daniel said thinly. "At least, that's where I hope I'm dialing," he muttered, his mouth dry as he concentrated on remembering the exact placement of symbols, and hoping that if he was screwing up the dialing process that they'd at least land in a place with breathable air and a moment's peace to use the DHD at the other end. He pressed another section of stone - and the rumbling roar of the turning Gate echoed and reechoed off the stone walls. "Help Teal'c get Jack in here."

"What about Jim?" Sandburg asked Simon, his voice low and tense.

"We can't do him any good stuck in here, and this looks like the only way out," Banks grated. "C'mon. I'll help Teal'c with Jack, and you and Sam get the packs and radios." Simon hurried back into the cave, but Blair lingered to watch the final two positions of the Alpha Base address before whirling to follow him.

Behind him, the familiar surging wave signaling the connection of the wormhole whooshed high into the cavern before receding to the surface of the pond.

Sam and Daniel went through first, in case he'd dialed wrongly and they needed to undertake defensive action. Close behind them, Simon and Teal'c, their arms forming a chair of sorts to carry the deeply unconscious O'Neill protectively between them, stepped carefully down into the pool.

One pack over his shoulder and another clenched in his fist, Blair stepped into the event horizon in his turn. But his gut revolted. He couldn't, just couldn't, leave Jim behind. The shift of perspective inside the wormhole was dislocating but he fought the extreme pull to the far end and twisted around, pushing back, hoping he wouldn't just end up in the illusion of the cavern - hoping against hope he'd at least find himself in the desert.

********************

"Incoming wormhole," Sergeant Davis called out, and then looked over his shoulder, his face lit with excitement, "Sir, it's SG-1!"

"About time," Hammond sighed with profound relief as he quickly approached the window high above the Gate to observe their long-delayed return. But his relief was short-lived. As soon as he saw Banks and Teal'c step through, Jack obviously severely injured and carried between them, he hit the internal communication intercom and ordered a medical team to the Gateroom, and then he hastened down the steps as Carter and Jackson emerged from the event horizon.

"How badly is he hurt?" the General called out.

"He's got a stone projectile lodged in his chest," Banks rumbled as he and the Jaffa carefully laid the Colonel on the ramp, Teal'c once again supporting his friend. Straightening, Simon turned to Hammond and reported, "Ellison and Sandburg are still on the planet."

"What? Why didn't they return with you?" Hammond demanded as he and Banks stepped back, out of the way of Janet Fraiser and her technicians.

The muscles of Simon's jaw flexed as he looked toward the Gate. "There was an entity on the planet, sir," he replied, "that separated us from Jim. Sandburg … Blair was supposed to follow us through the Gate, but when we got to Alpha Base, he wasn't with us. He must have gone back for Jim." Returning his gaze to the General, he went on firmly, "Sir, permission requested to return to the planet and retrieve my men."

With Teal'c's assistance, Jack was loaded onto a gurney and swiftly wheeled out of the chamber. Sam and Daniel wanted to follow but lingered, listening to the discussion between Banks and the General.

"No, Simon, I'm sorry," Hammond replied, his face suffused with concern. "Not until I get a complete report and know what happened out there. My briefing room in ten minutes."

"But sir!" Banks protested as the General strode away.

"I didn't say, 'no', Colonel," Hammond called back over his shoulder as he left, following the gurney to the infirmary. "I just said, 'not yet'."

"Right," Simon muttered, massaging the tense muscles in the back of his neck.

"We'll go back with you," Carter avowed and Jackson nodded his affirmation.

"As will I," the Jaffa intoned soberly.

Blowing a breath, Banks nodded to acknowledge their support. "We'll see what the General says," he replied, grateful but uneasy. "But … we don't know if Jim's even still alive. Nor do we know where Sandburg might be. This entity, that none of us can even see, could stash either of them anywhere on that damned planet, and given how it can manipulate our perceptions, we could walk right by them and never know they're there."

Shaking his head, he gazed at the Gate and tried to rein in his despair, but he was profoundly afraid that he might have lost the best two friends he'd ever had. Sick at heart, his chest tight with a grief he didn't want to acknowledge, he bowed his head and turned away, tormented by livid helplessness. Part of him wanted to be angry with Sandburg for having turned back without permission, and part of him was furious with himself for not anticipating Blair's all too predictable action. He should have known the kid wouldn't willingly leave Jim behind, should have kept hold of him to prevent such precipitous behaviour. Bad enough to lose Ellison, but to lose them both was very nearly overwhelming. But he couldn't really imagine either man being able to accept the loss of the other so, if they were both trapped on that planet, he had to hope they were at least trapped together.

"Colonel," Carter insisted, reading the despondency in his posture, "we don't leave our people behind."

"I don't doubt your good will, Major," he replied thinly, with a glance to encompass all of them. "I'm just not sure we can get them back or if, in trying, we might not lose even more lives … and I suspect General Hammond will come to the same difficult conclusion." Turning away, he strode down the gangway and out of the Gateroom. He had less than ten minutes to come up with his arguments to at least gain his superior's permission to go back himself even if no other lives could be risked. They were his men; had been his men long before any of them had come to work for the Stargate program. Even if it was futile, even if he couldn't find a way back home himself, he had to go back to that planet. He had to at least try to bring them home.

"Well, the hell with that," Daniel exclaimed. "They went there to bring us home, and we'd still be there if not for them. There's no damned way that we'll just abandon them out there!"

"It would seem we are in agreement, Daniel Jackson," Teal'c rumbled.

"Yeah," Sam sighed and raked back her hair. "Now all we have to do is convince the General."

********************

Blair knelt in the sand not far from the Gate, hunched against the wind that pummeled him and the whipping sand that scoured his skin. The scorching heat was hideous, the suns directly overhead and beating down relentlessly. "Damn it," he muttered through tight lips. Spitting out the sand that whirled into his mouth, blinking against the tears that tried to wash the grit from his eyes, he rummaged in one of the packs for what he needed. "Whoever you are," he grated, sure the entity could hear him, though less certain he'd be understood, "this is getting real old, you know? None of this is real. Not the heat, not the sand. I know it and you know it, so stop it already. I just want to get my friend and we'll be out of your hair. And then you can bury the damned Gate under all this make-believe sand so nobody ever bothers you again."

He pulled out goggle-like sunglasses and slipped them on to protect his eyes, and then he opened a package from the med-kit that contained a large bandage, which he wrapped around his nose and mouth like a bandana. A baseball cap was next, to protect his head from the glare of the suns. Toggling the radio, he called Jim but didn't get any response. Into the silence, he said firmly, "I'm at the Gate, but I'm coming back for you. It'll take me a few hours, so just hold on, you got that? I'm coming, Jim." Closing up the pack and hauling it over his shoulder, he stood with the second pack in his hand, leaning into the wind, and then decided it would be easier to crab sideways, his face turned away from the worst of the assault. One sliding step at a time, sometimes crawling on his hands and knees, fighting the wind, cursing it, grim with determination, he kept going, telling himself that with every hard won foot, he was that much closer to his partner.

********************

Hammond grimaced at the end of the briefing and drummed his fingertips on the table.

"General," Banks began, intent upon making his request to return to the planet immediately, but the older man raised his hand, forestalling his words.

"Just give me a minute to think about this, Colonel," he drawled, his expression distant. After a moment, he looked back at his subordinates. "I know you're all anxious to go back through the Gate, and I understand that. But I think we need to take some precautions, several precautions, in fact. You say you can't see this woman, this entity; then how would we know if she returned through the Gate with you? And if she or some other power on that planet can manipulate reality and shift people at will across considerable distances, then how can you hope to either track the sentinel and his guide, or even help one another if one or more of you are again taken prisoner? In fact, it seems to me that Mr. Ellison is in the best position to deal with this invisible woman, and that he and Mr. Sandburg have a better than even chance of finding their own way back without the complication of others perhaps getting in trouble on their behalf."

"General, with all due respect, you can't be suggesting that we just sit here and do nothing to help them," Daniel protested, appalled.

"I'm doing more than suggesting, Dr. Jackson," Hammond replied repressively, if reluctantly. He didn't like leaving his people in hazardous situations any more than did anyone else sitting at the table. "I'm saying that no one goes back there until we are better equipped to deal with the dangers." Turning to Sam, he went on, "Major Carter, if Mr. Ellison could see this woman, and could ascertain that the environment there is some sort of holographic mirage, then there should be a way of calibrating equipment that would register at the frequency necessary to detect reality. Similarly, we'll need locator devices to enable the tracking of anyone moved by this entity."

"Uh, yes, sir," Carter replied slowly, looking at Simon and then Daniel before returning her gaze to the General, "but it will take a while to develop those tools."

"Then you'd better get to work," Hammond directed, standing. "The sooner you've got the equipment you need, the sooner you can all go back."

"General Hammond," Teal'c observed, an edge to his voice and in his manner, "that might be too late."

"I understand that," the Commander replied starkly. "And, believe me, I regret that profoundly. But I will not risk more lives indiscriminately. When you've got the proper gear, you may return, and not before. Maybe," he sighed, "maybe they'll find their own way back."

Closing his eyes and bowing his head, Simon clenched his fists against his impulse to shout his frustration and his intention to return to the planet, regardless of the General's orders. But, damn it, he knew the man was right. And he knew how difficult such decisions were.

Sam stood as soon as the meeting ended. Before hurrying to her lab, she paused to rest a hand on Simon's shoulder. "We won't give up," she vowed. "I'll get what we need prepared as quickly as I can."

Not sure he could trust his voice, Banks nodded heavily. Then he, too, stood. "I'm going down to the infirmary," he muttered tautly, his tone low and tightly controlled. "See how Jack's doing. Hopefully, we got him back in time."

Too conscious of the fact that SG-1 were all now safe because others had risked their lives and were still in danger, Daniel looked away. Sighing, he pushed himself to his feet. "I'll go with you," he murmured, subdued, caught between guilt and frustration, consumed with anxiety about his friends.

Hearing the tone, Simon gazed at him searchingly. "This isn't your fault, Daniel," Banks said firmly. "Not anyone's fault. Nobody could have anticipated the dangers on that planet. We're all just doing our best, okay?"

Avoiding eye contact, Jackson nodded but found the words, as true as they might be, didn't make him feel any better.

Wordlessly, Teal'c trailed after them. When they arrived in the infirmary, they learned that O'Neill was still in surgery.

"What are his chances?" Daniel asked, his eyes wide and dark with worry.

"You know as well as I do that he wasn't in good shape. We inserted a chest tube, to relieve the pressure on his lung from the internal bleeding, and started blood transfusion as soon as we got him down here," Janet told them, her expression strained. Shrugging, looking up at the wall clock, her lips thinned. "It'll be several hours yet before we'll know whether he's going to make it or not." Sighing, her expression softened as she gazed at Banks. "But whatever chance he has is owed to you and your team, Colonel. He wouldn't have lasted another hour without proper care."

Simon nodded soberly. He sincerely hoped Jack would make it, would be fine. But he also hoped to God that they hadn't bought O'Neill's life with Ellison's and Sandburg's.

"Okay, now that you've briefed the General, and Colonel O'Neill is being looked after, we've got time to examine all of your injuries," she said briskly, calling to an assistant to also find Major Carter.

After Janet had cleaned up their respective cuts and abrasions, and had checked Carter and Banks for head injuries, given their prolonged periods of unconsciousness, she pronounced them reasonably fit but in dire need of rest - and, in light of their filthy condition, long, hot, showers.

"You won't do Colonel O'Neill any good by sitting around here, getting in the way of my staff and wearing yourselves out further," she observed dryly, with a slight edge. "So, I'm prescribing rest in your assigned quarters here on base."

Teal'c crossed his arms and looked away, his impassive expression and stolid stance conveying as clearly as any words could that he had no intention of leaving the infirmary until O'Neill was out of surgery.

Carter's eyes narrowed. Janet outranked her, so she didn't want to engage in direct confrontation, but nor did she intend to rest. Simply nodding, she turned away, fully intending to return to her lab, where she'd been busy responding to the General's orders when she'd been summarily called to the infirmary to be checked out.

"Sam," Janet's voice stopped her. "If you intend to go back to work, I have to say that I don't think it's a good idea. If you get some rest first, you'll be a lot more effective."

Hesitating, the Major glanced at Banks, who was avoiding her gaze. "Janet, I hear you," she finally replied. "I really do. But Jim and Blair are stuck out there until I can satisfy the General that we're prepared for another round with the indigenous entity. Please don't give me an order I'd only have to defy."

Sighing, the doctor nodded reluctantly. "Fine. But if your headache gets any worse, or if you begin to experience dizziness, I want you back here on the double. Agreed?"

"Agreed," Sam affirmed and then slipped away, knowing she didn't have to ask to be kept informed of Jack's condition - either Janet or Daniel or both would let her know as soon as there was any news.

"Colonel," Fraiser said wearily to Banks, "I know you're worried about Jim and Blair. But if you plan to head back out there as soon as Sam has the necessary equipment calibrated, you really do need to get some rest."

Sighing, Simon rubbed the back of his neck and then acquiesced with a nod. "Call me as soon as you know how Jack is," he directed. "I'll be in my quarters."

When she gave Teal'c a dark look, he said austerely, "As you know, I have no need of rest prior to returning to the planet. My symbiote will ensure my wounds heal and that I remain functional."

She snorted. "Tell that to someone who doesn't know as well as I do that that symbiote does not make you invulnerable. If you will not rest, then at least go to your quarters and meditate. Some time in kelnoreem will ensure your readiness for whatever comes. As soon as there is any word on Colonel O'Neill, I will inform you personally."

He thought about her suggestion and then bowed his head in acquiescence.

Daniel felt torn. Janet was right about their need for rest before returning to the planet. But he couldn't bring himself to leave before he knew for certain that Jack would be all right. He lifted his woeful gaze to hers and found her eying him with thin lips and assessing eyes. Shrugging, she shook her head and waved to one of the empty beds. He smiled slightly and murmured, "Thanks." In minutes, he was fast asleep.

********************

Battered by the relentless wind, wasted by the heat, Blair was stumbling with exhaustion after more than five hours of struggling across the desert, and he could barely crawl up the chipped and broken steps of the massive ruin. Panting for breath, so very grateful to be out of the blinding sunlight, he pulled off the goggles and limped to the stairs leading underground. Wearily drawing a flashlight out of the pack he carried, he slogged across the floor of the first cavern and into the second. "Jim!" he called out anxiously, to alert his partner that he'd arrived, hoping that Ellison was still there and hadn't been spirited away to some other location. Hoping … hoping so hard that Jim was still alive and hadn't been killed when he and Simon had been taken.

The wide beam cut the darkness like a knife. "Oh, God," he gasped, when he saw his partner lying awkwardly on his back, half-shrouded in sand, knees bent, one more sharply than the other, and both feet seemingly held flat by rubble, the headpiece of his suit discarded beside him. Blair jogged stiffly across the floor and dropped to his knees beside Ellison. Gently, he reached out to lightly cup his partner's face. "Jim?" he whispered hoarsely. "Jim?"

His whole body was rigid with agony, and Jim's brow was beaded with sweat. His eyes were pressed shut and his jaw was tightly clenched; stark tracks of tears caked the dust shrouding his pallid face. At Sandburg's light touch, Ellison moaned low in his throat and turned his head slightly into Sandburg's hand; one of his hands flailed weakly and Blair caught it, holding on.

"You're really hurting, aren't you, man?" Blair observed rhetorically, his throat tight as he wondered anxiously what manner of injuries would leave his partner so wracked by pain that he had evidently lost all ability to control his senses himself, leaving him even unable to speak. "Alright, okay, let's turn your dials down. Touch first, okay? Easy, Jim. Just … just try to breathe slowly, deeply, and listen to my voice, man. You can do this, Jim. Picture the dial and turn it one notch at a time. Another notch, and another."

Very slowly, the tension in Ellison's body eased somewhat, but Sandburg could see the pain was still very bad. Quickly, he unzipped the torn suit to examine Jim's body for wounds - and found gashes similar to what Simon and Teal'c had suffered, but nothing as bad as O'Neill's injury. Carefully, very gently touching his friend's body, he found no obviously broken ribs, and though Jim's breathing seemed shallow it basically seemed all right. Continuing his examination, Sandburg touched one of Ellison's legs, and his partner yelped in reaction. Jerking his hands away, frowning, Blair shifted to carefully straighten out Jim's feet - and froze in horror, nearly retching at what he saw.

Jim's feet weren't simply buried in sand and rubble - they were locked within stone that appeared to have flowed over his boots up to his ankles, and then congealed around them. Swallowing hard, Blair pressed his eyes closed and tried to regain some measure of calm; tried to convince himself that this was just one more illusion, not real. But the reality was that his partner had been held fast, unable to move his legs for seven or more hours. His limbs and back had to be cramping badly, caught in endless spasm. God, no wonder Jim was in such agony.

"Okay, man," he said tremulously, his voice hoarse with appalled horror, "I, uh, I see the problem." Biting his lip, he wondered how to help and then blew a shaky breath. "We need to keep the blood flowing through your legs, Jim, until we can get you free. I know this is going to probably hurt like hell, but I need to massage your legs, work out the cramps. I'll be gentle, I promise. But we need to do this. Before we do that, though, let's make sure you're as comfortable as you can be otherwise."

Pulling a bottle of water from one of the packs, Sandburg tilted Ellison's head a little, and held the rim to his friend's dry, cracked lips. "Just a little at a time," he murmured, pulling back when Jim tried to take too much, too fast, afraid Jim's stomach would revolt. Gradually, he fed his partner water until Ellison coughed and turned his face away.

Next, Blair dampened a bandage and cleaned Jim's face of dirt and dried tears. "I need to know if your other senses are online or out of control, Jim," he said softly, wondering if Ellison was even fully conscious, almost hoping he wasn't.

Swallowing hard, panting with his effort to contain the agony that burned like fire through his body, to not whimper, Jim blinked and opened pain-filled eyes, staring up at Blair. "Wondered wh-where you w-went," he rasped haltingly, barely able to speak. "Thought you and Simon m-might be d-dead."

"Ah, man, I'm sorry," Blair consoled, lightly stroking Jim's brow. "God, I can't imagine how hard that must have been. Trapped here, not knowing if anyone … if help would ever … I tried to reach you by radio as soon as I could."

Blinking heavily, Ellison gave a slight, stiff nod. "H-heard you. But thought it might be … be wishful thinking …." His voice caught, betraying the torturous anxieties he'd been grappling with for interminable hours - not least of which was his profound, sickening fear that Simon and Blair had been killed.

"The wind took the rest of us to a cave near the Gate," Blair told him then. "More illusions, this time of solid rock and a pool that camouflaged the Gate. Jack … Jack was hurt pretty bad, but I'm hoping they got him back to Headquarters in time to help him. The others are all okay."

"Should have gone with them," Jim grated, his voice thin with his effort at control.

"Yeah, right, like that would ever happen," Sandburg snorted. Flicking a look toward Jim's feet, he asked, "She do this to you? The red-haired woman?"

"Uh huh. When I tried to get to her, to stop her - happened so fast. Couldn't move."

"She here now?" Blair asked, looking around uneasily. But Jim shook his head. "Let me know if she shows up again. I've got a few things to say to her," Sandburg growled, having considerable difficulty controlling his fury for the entity's cruelty toward strangers.

The ghost of a smile played around Jim's lips at the protective tone in Blair's voice. "Don't rile her, Chief," he cautioned hoarsely. "She hasn't killed anyone yet."

"Not for lack of trying," Sandburg sighed. "And there was a long-dead host and Goa'uld in the cave. She's … she's got a vicious streak, man. But … but she might just be trying to protect what's hers, you know?"

"Yeah, I thought of that, too," Jim agreed, grimacing as he stifled the urge to moan with the torment racking his body.

Blair gripped his hand, his gut clenching with the misery of seeing Jim in such terrible, relentless pain, and with the knowledge that he was probably only going to make it much worse before he could make anything better. But such prolonged immobility was dangerous, could cause blood clots, embolisms. In truth, he was more than a little afraid of massaging those rigid muscles, afraid of making things worse. But he had to improve circulation through Jim's legs, had to relieve the cramping that was causing such unremitting agony.

"Okay, I'm going to work on your legs," Blair told him then, trying to keep his voice light, matter of fact. "Feel free to scream - there's nobody here that's gonna hear you."

Jim snorted. "You're here."

"Yeah, but I already know what a wuss you are," Sandburg teased gently, his voice low and soothing as he caressed Jim's cheek. "Seriously, buddy, I know how hard it is to control the dials when the input is just too damned much, and you're already exhausted. You don't have to prove anything to me, so yell if you need to."

Ellison pressed his eyes closed and his lips thinned against the emotion that surged through him. "There's … there's no way to free my feet, Chief," he husked, revealing the fear that had been tormenting him for hours.

When he'd been caught, his feet trapped, he'd been too far away to reach his pack and had had nothing but a fist-sized rock to hammer at the stone that held him captive. Still, he'd pounded away for more than an hour without making a dent, before the cramps in his legs from the awkward, off-balance squat had forced him to lie down, to try to gain some relief. But the cramps had only grown worse, fueled by his fear that the others were all dead, and his tense belief that he was going to die in that vault unless both his feet were amputated. Given the lack of medical facilities, the distance back to the Gate and the harrowing journey that would be, he figured he'd never make it. If he was going to die anyway, he would as soon put a bullet in his head than have his feet cut off. There had been harrowing moments in the past hours when he might have done just that if his weapon hadn't been blown out of his hands and out of reach by the damned wind. Moments of such dark despair that he'd wept.

"We don't know that," Blair contested firmly, sharply. "It's your boots that are stuck, not your feet or legs. Once I ease the cramps, I'm going to chip away at the stone over the front of each boot, to loosen the laces. I think I can probably slip your feet out then. You'll need a new pair of boots but, hey - that won't break the bank."

When Jim just swallowed hard and then looked up into his eyes, Blair could see doubt and desperation warring with hope and a desire to believe escape might be possible. "I won't leave you here to die, Jim," he vowed. "That's just not an option. We'll figure out how to get you out of this."

Finally, Jim nodded and squeezed Blair's hand before letting go and clenching his fists. "Okay," he rasped and tried to smile, though he didn't quite make it, "do your worst, Chief. I'm … I'm ready."

Nodding, Blair shifted slightly down along Jim's body, so he could easily work on his partner's legs. Reaching back, he lifted one of his friend's hands and loosened the fist before laying the hand on his ankle. "Hold on, Jim. Squeeze as hard as you need to, man," he murmured. When the long fingers clasped his leg, he turned his attention to the task at hand; he firmly gripped Ellison's upper right thigh and began to massage the cold, rock hard muscles.

Jim hissed and arched his back, his fist gripping Blair's leg hard, as he fought the need to cry out against the agony of Sandburg's ministrations. Pounding his left fist against the stone floor, his face flushed as he struggled with his dials but couldn't, just couldn't, get a lock on them. Jim lost his battle with the low, keening, guttural moan that ripped up from his throat and past his gritted teeth.

Blair's jaw tightened, hating the fact that he was causing his friend such intense pain, however much he knew it was necessary. "Let it go, man," Blair urged as calmly as he could, his eyes stinging and his throat thick. "Don't fight it, Jim. Just let go."

"Oh, God, Chief," Ellison grated, tears trickling down the sides of his face.

"I know, Jim," Sandburg murmured soothingly as he doggedly continued to work his fingers deep into the muscles. "I know it's really bad. Let go. There's only me here. Please, man, just let go."

But Ellison continued to fight the urge to scream until Blair began kneading around his knee, and then he couldn't contain the agony any longer. He howled, a wretched, low, animal sound of extreme anguish, and when he twisted in an unconscious spasm to try to get away, both legs and his back erupted with new torment, and his scream tore through the cavernous vault - until his body stiffened and then went completely slack when he passed out.

"Ah, God, Jim, I'm sorry," Blair whispered brokenly, hot tears now smearing the dirt on his face. "I'm so sorry." But he kept up the massage, working his way down Jim's long leg, grateful that at least his friend couldn't feel what he was doing anymore.

It took half an hour to loosen the muscles in Ellison's right leg, and then he began to work on the left. Once the muscles of both legs were again warmed by improved blood flow, loose and relaxed, he scrambled away to the far corner, giving way to dry heaves in reaction to what he'd put Jim through. And then he went back, drew another bottle of water from the pack and rinsed his mouth before drinking slowly, hoping he could keep it down. Taking a breath, he set the still half-full bottle aside and rummaged for a small axe that was part of the routine survival gear they'd brought with them. After loosening the fastenings on both boots as much as he could, he crouched and began carefully hammering and chipping away at the stone over the arch of Jim's right foot.

********************

Though it had been touch and go, Jack survived the surgery to remove the stone projectile from his chest, and to repair the damage done to his lung. When he was transferred onto one of the beds in the infirmary, he was pale with shock and still deeply unconscious. A chest tube drained bloody discharge into a plastic bag hung under the bed, and he was hooked up to machines to monitor his heart and blood pressure. Blood and saline solution flowed through intravenous needles into his body, and an oxygen mask was placed over his nose and mouth. As a precaution, Janet injected antibiotics into the IV line, pleased that, so far at least, he didn't seem to be suffering any infection. In his weakened state, a bout of pneumonia or severe infection in the wound could kill him.

Awakened by the bustle of activity around the nearby bed, Daniel yawned and sat up, and then put on his glasses. Oblivious to the way his hair was standing on end, he slipped off his bed to stand at the end of Jack's. "How is he?" he asked quietly.

"Alive," Janet replied starkly, but relented when she turned and saw the deep worry etched on his face and darkening his eyes. "Stable. Barring infection, I think he'll be okay."

Daniel blew a long breath of relief and visibly relaxed. Moving along the side of the bed, he pulled up a chair and sat down, reaching out almost diffidently to grasp his friend's wrist.

A slight smile played over her lips. "Well, since you seem to be intent upon keeping watch over him, I'll go inform the General, Teal'c, Sam, and Colonel Banks that he's come out of surgery and the prognosis is much more positive than it was a few hours ago."

"Okay," he agreed, stifling another yawn. And smiled in return.

It was another hour before Jack shifted and winced before blinking his eyes open to look around the infirmary, squinting in confusion.

"Hey," Daniel murmured, standing. "So you finally decided to wake up." He reached for the cup of ice chips a nurse had placed on the side table, and eased two shards of frozen liquid under the oxygen mask and into his friend's mouth.

After swallowing gratefully, Jack rasped, "We got back, huh? How?"

"Long story," Jackson replied.

"Make it a short story," O'Neill grunted, one hand drifting over his body to press lightly on the bandage over his chest.

"Blair figured out that the pool in the back of the cave was an illusion masking the Gate," Daniel told him, keeping it simple. "And one of the boulders strewn artfully around the chamber was the DHD. So, we dialed Alpha Base and then back here."

"So, everyone's safe and sound?"

When Daniel hesitated and looked away, Jack pressed, "Tell me."

"Jim and Blair are still on the planet."

"Then what in blazes are you doing here?" O'Neill demanded heatedly, if weakly, and then winced at the pain in his chest.

"General Hammond won't let us return until we have the proper equipment to see past the holographic imagery and to detect the entity."

"Holo - entity?" Jack squeaked, not having heard any of this.

"Told you it was a long story."

"Spill, Daniel. What the hell is going on?"

********************

Hammering at the stone was grim, tedious work, hard and tiring, especially for a man already hovering on the edge of exhaustion. His back, arm and hand began to ache after an hour and, frustrated, he felt he was scarcely making any progress. Sandburg had to focus on each blow of the sharp, steel blade, to ensure that the axe didn't slip and skid along the stone and cut Jim's ankle, or accidentally break through the stone unexpectedly and cut through the boot and into his friend's foot. So intent was he on just getting it done as quickly and safely as he could that it was a few minutes before he noticed the breeze that had begun playing around his face and skipping up small puffs of dust and sand.

But when he did notice, he stilled in dread. Looking around uneasily, he wished he had Jim's sight, to know if she was there or not - but he was willing to bet she'd reappeared and was watching them. The hackles rose on the back on his neck and he drew a shaky breath before going on with his efforts to free Jim from the stone shackles that bound him in place. "You're here, aren't you?" he murmured, trying to keep his rage for what had been done to Jim, and to Jack, too, for that matter, from his voice, not wanting to anger her or precipitate another attack. "I wonder if you understand anything that we say or if it's all just a jumble of noise for you. We didn't come here to hurt anyone, you know? Honestly, we didn't mean to do any harm or be any kind of threat."

The slight wind picked up, blowing more noticeably and continually through his hair, so that it got into his eyes, until he finally stopped to tie it back. Once again, he looked around, feeling spooked, wondering if she was some kind of ghost or just another life form with incredible powers. Licking his lips nervously, he started talking again when he went back to work, his voice low, non-threatening. "I've been wondering a lot about who you are, you know? And if there are others like you on the planet, or if you're all alone. I hope you're not alone. That would be incredibly lonely - enough to drive any being crazy after awhile. God, I really hope you're not, like, completely insane. Because, if you are, then your actions can't be predicted at all - there'd be no hope of finding a way to understand one another. Man, I really wonder what matters to you. I know you could have killed us all, but you didn't - you left most of us in a situation that could allow us to leave, if we figured out where the real exit was. And you didn't stop the others from going, so I have to think that you're not purely destructive. But how could you do this to Jim? It's … it's barbaric. Hideous. Why …."

He stopped, thinking about it. She'd let everyone else go. Everyone but Jim. Was it because he was the only one amongst them that could see her?

Finally, he chipped away enough of the stone to be able to loosen the laces of Jim's right boot all the way down along the tongue. However, he hesitated to make it abundantly clear that he'd maybe made it possible to get his partner's right foot free. How would she react, if she was watching? And it wasn't as if he could free the foot without Jim's help - the angle of his bent leg was wrong and would really wrench the ankle to force it out of the boot. It would be better once Jim was conscious again, and could stand to help wiggle his foot free.

So he only loosened the laces before leaving the right foot alone. Then he spent a few minutes massaging both legs, relieving the stiffening that had already begun to cramp the muscles again, before focusing his attention on the left boot and began chipping away at the hard stone encasing that foot. As he worked, he found himself wondering why she hadn't attacked him again. Was it because he'd ignored all the weapons lying scattered around the vault's floor? Or was she simply curious, wondering what he was doing? And why? Did she understand the concept of friendship? Did she know what it meant to love another so much that you didn't care if you saved your own life or not, if the other died? That it was worth risking any danger and even death to try to save that other person's life?

He'd made a lot of progress toward freeing Jim's left foot, but not quite enough to be finished, when Jim moaned softly and began to stir. The wind picked up some more, and Blair felt a frisson of palpable tension permeating the vault. Biting his lip, he kept working, even faster than before, feeling as if they were running out of time.

********************

Unable to sleep, Simon gave up even pretending to try after Janet left. He was deeply glad to know that it looked like Jack was going to be fine, and the good news lifted some of the sense of doom he'd been feeling for hours. Hell, no one knew better than he did how often Ellison and Sandburg pulled a win out of the ashes and he reprimanded himself sharply for having been caught up in foreboding, anticipating the worst rather than hoping for the best. Resolutely, very much wanting to return to the planet sooner rather than later, he strode to the lab, confident that he'd find Carter there. If she'd found an answer, he would have been told; and he had no doubt that she would eschew sleep until she had created what they needed.

"How's it going?" he asked hopefully as he entered.

Looking up from the computer screen, her lips thinned and she shook her head with frustration. "Not as fast as I'd like," she replied, and pushed an errant curl off her forehead.

His lips twisted but, in the face of her pallor and evident exhaustion, he refrained from any further expression of disappointment as he hitched up a chair beside her. "What've you got so far?"

"I've gone through Blair's records of the results of all the vision tests he conducted with Jim," she replied, "and I've reevaluated what I think we'll need on the planet. Initially, I'd thought we were dealing with an ability to see at a different speed - uh, that Jim could process the speed of light differently, allowing him to perceive things beyond normal range." When Simon still seemed uncertain of what she meant, she clarified, "That he could see images like the roofline of the city because he could see reality before the illusory effect took hold and shifted perception to the contrived imagery."

"O-kay," Banks rumbled. "But you don't think that's the case now?"

"No, I don't," she returned. "Based on Blair's results, I think it's simpler than that. Much simpler. It's not just that Jim can see further, it's that he can see more … more fine detail. For example, not only can he see what we'd only be able to see with binoculars, he can also see what we could only perceive with a microscope. Since the imagery seems to be projected to impact on normal vision ability, I think he's seeing through it, like through a gauze veil, to the finer detail of the true image behind the projection - not in full detail, in that he only seems to get a sense, a hint of reality, but enough to know the projection isn't real."

"That makes sense," Simon agreed, nodding. "So we really just need something along the line of a microscope lens?"

"Something like that," she agreed, "only more like a scanner, like an infrared videocamera with instant playback, so that we can monitor the environment. We need to both be able to determine what's real and what isn't if we get trapped again, and be able to pick up the entity when she appears."

"So, you've got that part done," Banks surmised.

She shook her head. "It's one thing to understand the dynamics, and I'm just finishing off the specs, but I still need to build the actual scanner in small enough dimensions to be easily portable."

"I see," he muttered. "What about the tracking devices?"

"Well, I've made more progress on them," she replied, glad to have some good news. "It was only a matter of expanding the transmission frequencies to operate on a broader bandwidth, to make them harder to block, and adding in a magnetic component so that even if all frequencies are jammed - like our radios were jammed when we were in the cave - we could still pick up the magnetic frequency of the device. They're ready to go."

"How much longer do you think it'll be before we're ready to go?" Simon asked then, looking away, reluctant to put more pressure on her, but anxious to leave.

"Two or three hours at least," she replied with a sigh. "I'm sorry. I know the waiting is hard."

Nodding, he stood and patted her on the shoulder. "You're doing this as quickly as you can. No one can ask for more, and nobody could do it better. I'll get out of your hair and let you get back to work."

After leaving Sam, Simon headed down to the infirmary to check on Jack and wasn't surprised when he got there to find Daniel filling his colleague in on the details of what O'Neill had missed. Nor was he surprised to note that Janet was fuming over the fact that Jack wasn't resting as she thought he should be. Quirking a brow at the meaningful look she shot him, he nodded with mute agreement to the task she'd just assigned him. Moving over to the bed, he noted dryly, "Well, it's good to see that you're looking a lot better."

O'Neill grimaced. "From what I've been hearing, that wouldn't be hard," he rasped, his eyes glazed with his effort to remain conscious.

Giving Jack a small smile, Simon said warmly, "I'm really glad you're okay, but …" shifting his gaze to Daniel, he went on, "I think we need to let you get some rest before Janet claps Daniel in irons and has him hauled away."

Jackson rolled his eyes but took the point. Standing, he gripped his friend's arm briefly. "I'll check in on you later."

"Let me know before you head off-world," Jack muttered, his eyes already drifting closed. But then he roused himself briefly, to look up at Banks. "Appreciate you coming after us and, well, I'm sorry that -"

"Nothing to apologize for," Simon interjected firmly. "It could just as easily been the other way around, with SG-1 coming to get our butts out of the fire. We'll get them back, Jack. Don't worry about it."

One corner of O'Neill's mouth quirked in appreciation of the positive attitude of assumed success and he nodded slightly. "They're resilient and damned good at what they do," he mumbled, losing his battle against sleep.

"Yes, they are," Banks agreed quietly, and then gestured for Daniel to follow him out. "Let's get a coffee and something to eat," he suggested, turning out of the infirmary toward the Canteen. Once there and settled at a table, Simon asked, "So, any thoughts about how we should deal with this entity?"

Daniel sighed and sat back. Swiping his hair back from his brow, he nodded. "I've been thinking about it, and when I recounted everything that had happened to Jack, I realized something that, well, I'm not sure either you or the General will much like."

"Oh? And what would that be?" Banks asked over the brim of his coffee mug, just before he took a sip.

"The wind was most aggressive and damaging toward the most obvious warriors on our two teams," Jackson replied slowly, and then looked up to meet Simon's eyes. "If we hope to avoid a repeat of our last disastrous adventure, I think we should go unarmed."

Banks blinked and set his mug down, fighting the urge to demand that Jackson have his head examined. Chewing on his lip, thinking about it, his gaze roamed sightlessly around the nearly empty cafeteria. "Your point is that weapons aren't particularly useful against the wind and an invisible enemy, and to take them and risk offending her further is counterproductive."

"Exactly," Daniel agreed, relieved that Banks had understood so quickly. He wasn't at all sure that Jack would have been so calm about the suggestion.

Simon sighed unhappily. The idea of going anywhere off-planet unarmed wasn't comfortable, not by a long shot. Setting that aside, he asked, "You got any ideas on how we can communicate with this … this thing? Or for that matter, any clue about what she is, exactly?"

Pushing his tray away, not really hungry, the archeologist leaned his elbows on the table and propped his chin on his fist. Studying the table, he mused, "That's harder to say. But, well, all of the ancient, advanced beings we've encountered so far have had the ability to understand us. If we're right in our speculations that this is the original planet, the original race, then I'd postulate that she either understood our speech immediately or picked it up quickly - and I wouldn't be surprised if she could also read our minds, or at least our emotional intentions."

"If that's the case, then why did she attack your team and ours?" Banks asked, frowning.

Shrugging, Daniel picked up his mug of tea. "The last visitors we know about probably attempted to enslave the planet's population and then maybe ended up decimating all of the inhabitants. Maybe she's just literally gun-shy and expects the worst of uninvited interlopers."

"And if we return unarmed, we're signaling that we have no interest in or urge to conquer," Banks murmured thoughtfully.

Nodding, Jackson continued, "As for ‘what' she is?" He shook his head and shrugged. "We've met a number of advanced beings who are not corporeal, or only so at their whim. I suspect that most of the time, she exists more as energy or pure thought and may have only materialized in the first place to determine if any of us could perceive her in that form. From the glimpse I got of the frescoes in the vault and the general description of what Blair said Jim saw, I think the original people on that planet could see her. I think that's probably why Jim wasn't sent to the cave with the rest of us. She's probably intrigued by him."

"So you figure he's still alive?"

"Oh, yeah, definitely," Daniel asserted confidently. "She didn't outright kill any of us, or even the Goa'uld we found. Plus, she allowed us to escape, once we'd figured out how to get away. She didn't want us to be on her planet - she just wanted us to leave."

Simon blew a long breath, his expression grateful. Much as he'd been holding onto hope, it was good to have an expert tell him there was real cause to believe his men were still alive and maybe even in one piece. But his relief faded when he noted that Jackson was avoiding his gaze by studiously staring into his cooling tea as if he could read the secrets of the universe there.

"What?" Banks grunted, stiffening.

Swallowing, Daniel cast a quick glance at him and then looked away. Sighing, he scratched his cheek and then said soberly, "Well, it's just that we don't know if there is one entity there or many. If many, that's probably a good thing. If she's alone … well, most sentient beings don't do well in periods of prolonged isolation, and she might have been alone for several millennia. She could, uh, be unbalanced - insane. Or, alternatively, she might not have a lot of respect for other lifeforms and so, either way, while I believe, I really do, that Jim and Blair are both still alive, they might not be in, um, very good shape. If the Goa'uld did a lot of damage, wiped out most or virtually all life on the planet, well, she may have been waiting thousands of years to wreak revenge on someone."

Simon's expression flattened and his jaw tightened. Pushing up his glasses, he rubbed his eyes. "Oh, that's just great," he groaned. His gut clenched at all the things he didn't want to imagine and, sickened now by the smell of fried eggs and bacon on his tray, he pushed it almost violently away. "You know what this means, right? We have to inform the General of … of your analysis of the potential threat. If she is insane and out for vengeance, and we don't have weapons to defend ourselves or get them out of there …." He paused and looked away, shaking his head. "Hammond isn't going to want to risk any more lives, even with whatever gadgets Sam comes up with. And I can't say as I blame him but … but I can't just leave them out there." Standing, he gazed bleakly down at Daniel, who looked miserable. "I'll go see him now. If we're not going back, then Sam is wasting her time."

"I'll go with you," Jackson replied firmly, also standing. As they left the cafeteria, he said with quiet determination, "If the General says 'no', well, it wouldn't be the first time we've, uh, gone anyway."

Banks looked down at the younger man, deeply appreciating the show of support, but he shook his head. "No, Daniel," he said soberly, solemnly. "If he refuses permission, you and the rest of SG-1 won't be going anywhere. I won't agree to any of you violating his orders, nor will I be party to risking more lives in such a precarious situation."

Jackson looked up at him and knew with absolute certainty that Simon, however, wouldn't personally abide by any such order. "Simon," he asserted, "we might as well go with you, you know. Because that entity couldn't possibly do anything worse to us than Megan would do, if she came back only to discover that SG-1 had lost all of you." Shivering, he added woefully, "Now that - that - really doesn't bear thinking about."

Surprised into a bark of laughter, Banks rubbed a hand over his mouth. And then he gripped Daniel's shoulder companionably. "Let's just see what the General has to say before we get too far along planning a mutiny, okay?"

********************

Jim winced and sucked in a hard breath, steeling himself against moaning. "Oh, God, Chief," he grunted weakly, panting shallowly, his fists again clenched, his muscles rigid as he fought the pain radiating throughout his body from such prolonged, forced immobility.

"I'm here, man," Blair responded immediately, dropping the axe and shifting to take one of Ellison's hands in his own, and to cup his partner's cheek. "You need to drink something, Jim," he murmured. "You're too dehydrated."

Grimacing, Jim nodded, and he took several grateful sips when Blair supported his head and held the bottle to his lips. Sighing, he tried to relax cramping muscles and blearily looked up at his friend. "You okay?" he asked, his voice rasping. "She hasn't come back?"

"Oh, I think she's here," Sandburg replied, trying to keep his tone light. "But other than a pretty steady breeze, she's left us alone."

Closing his eyes, Jim swallowed heavily. "You should go," he grated.

"Just as soon as you can go with me, I'm outta here, man," Blair answered warmly. "Look, I think there's enough play in your right boot to wiggle your foot out, and I'm nearly there on the left boot, too. If you can just hang in for a few more minutes, I'll help you stand and we'll see if we can't get you loose, okay?"

"Stand?" Ellison echoed hollowly, as if uncertain that his legs would support him, but then he nodded gamely. "Just tell me when."

Blair went back to work on cracking and breaking the stone covering the arch of Jim's left boot, working quickly. The wind blew more strongly, whipping dust into his eyes, but he simply clenched his jaw, blinking furiously, and carried on. Nearly there. Nearly there.

"Chief," Jim's voice warned sharply. "She's standing right behind you, about twice the size she was last time."

"Oh, yeah?" Sandburg grunted, unwilling to be distracted when he was so close to getting Jim free. Furiously, he yanked at the leather tongue, loosening it as much as possible - just as the stone seemed to melt and slowly start to flow back over both boots.

"Shit!" he cursed, whirling to grab Jim's arm and yank hard as he yelled, "Up! NOW!" Hauling his partner upright and bending to grab Jim's right leg just above the boot, he directed sharply, "Lean on me and pull your foot out. Hurry, Jim. For God's sake, hurry! And don't put that foot back down on the ground!"

As soon as that foot pulled free, Blair shifted his grip to the left, his gut clenching at the sight of the stone rushing like water, pooling higher, faster until it would soon be leaking inside the boot. Taking more of Ellison's weight as his partner leaned over his back, he shouted, "PULL!" Jim wriggled and yanked, wriggled his foot some more. Blair yanked and pulled and, finally, the foot slipped free just as liquid stone began to overflow the open tongue of the boot. Sandburg caught Jim's hips and balanced his weight quickly before straightening his back, bearing his partner over his shoulder in a fireman's lift.

Jim exclaimed wordlessly in surprise, not understanding why he needed to be carried. But looking down, he could see the stone once again solidifying over his boots, and he realized with a sinking feeling that she was once again trying to entrap him and was intent about not letting him go.

Grunting under Ellison's weight, Blair turned slightly. "I'm gonna let you slide down to stand on the pack behind me, Jim," he grated. "Do not let your feet touch the floor. Keep holding onto me for balance, okay?"

"Yeah," his partner rasped and found footing on the bulky canvas pack. Easing off Sandburg's shoulder, he maintained a solid grip on Blair's arm as he stood shakily.

"Where the fuck is she?" Blair raged.

"Still behind you, standing about twelve feet tall," Jim told him, watching her warily. "She doesn't look happy."

"No? Well, tough shit," Sandburg growled, carefully turning around slowly, so as not to dislodge Jim's precarious balance. "Am I facing her?" he demanded, his eyes flashing with fury.

"Yeah, but take it easy, Chief. We don't have the weapons to fight our way out of this," Ellison cautioned.

Tilting his head up to glare at the invisible entity, Sandburg shouted, "What is wrong with you???? What? You get your jollies out of torturing lesser beings? Are you just naturally vicious or did you have to learn to be such a sadist?"

Jim gripped his shoulder. "She's listening, but I can't tell if she understands -"

"Oh, she understands, don't you, Gaia!" Blair spat out. "She's playing a game, a cat and mouse game, amusing herself at your expense. Bitch!"

Jim's jaw clenched and he tightened his grip on Sandburg's shoulder warningly. "She doesn't look impressed with your attitude, Junior. Calm down before she really gets riled."

"Nah, this isn't about anger, this is about power; about her showing us we're helpless before her might," Blair retorted, standing four-square between his Sentinel and the giant being he couldn't see. He wasn't all that much afraid - this entity could be cruel but she didn't seem to like killing - and he was too furious to care. "Well, I'm sick of it and I don't want to play anymore. I want to know what she wants." Feeling Jim shift behind him, he glanced back and up over his shoulder at his partner to order summarily, "And you stay put, you hear me? If you come in contact with anything that's hers, the floor, the walls, she's going to entrap you again. So don't be thinking about trying to get between me and her."

Once again facing front, Sandburg demanded, "Tell us, dammit. Tell us what you want."

The wind whirled around them billowing grit into their faces, and Blair lifted a hand to protect his eyes, but didn't turn away. He heard Jim's hacking cough behind him, following by a bitten-off groan, and he felt the tremor in the hand gripping his shoulder. Biting his lip, he again looked back at his partner, and could see that Jim was ghostly pale, his eyes tightly closed and one hand pressed hard against his ear. The lines of pain etched in his face made it plain that his sorely abused and cramping muscles weren't up to bearing his weight much longer, and that she was now attacking his sense of hearing as well, though Blair didn't know how. Glancing around hastily, Sandburg said urgently, keeping his voice low and steady, "I'm going to bend forward, Jim, to pull the other pack closer. Don't loose your balance, okay? Once I've got it aligned with the one you're on, I want you to lie down across them."

Ignoring the wind and the biting sand, he leaned down to snag the other pack and pull it swiftly against its twin. Aligning them so that they created a raised pallet of sorts, nearly six feet long by four feet wide, he moved to help Ellison sag down onto his side, both ears now covered as he curled against the assault. "Focus on your dials, man," he urged softly, cupping Jim's cheek. "Don't let her get to you. She's just trying to scare us, that's all. If she wanted to kill us, we'd be dead already. Slow down your breathing, Jim, and listen only to my voice. Dial down your hearing, man - that's it, good. Now focus on dialing down the pain."

It was a full minute before Jim nodded weakly, his eyes still closed against the barrage of dirt being flung at them. "She, uh, she wants you to leave," he husked. "She says you have no use, no purpose in being here. You … you should go while you still can, Chief."

Ignoring the whole suggestion that he leave as a waste of time and breath, Blair demanded sharply, "What does she want from you? Why won't she let you leave?"

"I don't know," Ellison rasped evasively, but then grimaced. "Well … when I was trapped here, before you came back, she, uh, she was touching me. My face. My body."

Blair closed his eyes and shook his head. His partner's words confirmed some of his suspicions about her loneliness, but he'd not thought that she might want more than simple companionship. "See what you get for being so drop dead gorgeous?" he murmured, his tone teasing, doing his best to make it seem less bizarre, less invasive. "Man, I can't take you anywhere without all the ladies fawning over you."

Jim snorted, and tried to joke back, "Trust me, Chief. She ain't no lady." But, not finding much amusement in the situation, he sobered and said grimly, "She's not going to let me go, Sandburg. And you can't carry me all the way to the Gate."

"Is she still here? Behind me?" Blair asked quietly as he soothingly rubbed his partner's arm and shoulder.

Shielding his eyes against the whirling dirt and sand with one hand, Ellison squinted briefly before turning his face back into the refuge of the canvas pack. The dust and grit was getting to him, inflaming his highly sensitive skin and internal tissues, making it hard to breathe. "Yeah," he rasped thickly. "She's still there. Larger than life."

Swallowing, Sandburg swiveled around, his expression stern, even defiant. "You can't have him," he said firmly, then coughed at the dust clogging the air. "You can't just enslave someone because you're lonely. It's not right, and you know it. I'm not leaving him here - you understand? I won't let you keep him just because you're tired of being alone."

When the wind continued to billow around them, and Jim again hacked against the dust, his breathing becoming labored, Blair shouted, "Stop it! Can't you see you're hurting him! Is that what you really want? To cause him suffering? To destroy the one person who has been able to see and hear you for more than six thousand years? Stop it and just talk to us!"

The wind abruptly died, but Jim twisted and moaned, both hands again covering his ears.

"Don't shout," Sandburg implored, lifting his hands in a placating gesture. "He can hear you just fine. Quietly. Calmly. Tell us what you want, what you need."

When Jim began to relax under his hand, he reached for the bottle of water, and helped his partner drink to clear the dust clogging his throat. "Tell me what she's saying, man," Blair murmured softly.

"She, uh, she says she wants to be seen and heard," Ellison reported, his voice husky with effort.

Blair sighed. "I can understand that. Who is she? Were there others like her once?"

After listening for a long moment, Jim nodded. His face was strained when he looked at Blair, his eyes reddened and his voice raspy with exhaustion when he replied, "She says that she is the planet, the earth and wind, the water. She used to tend to her people, seeing to their needs. But the others came and tried to enslave them, to force them to reveal their knowledge and skill. When they fought back, the others killed them, every last one of them. She, uh, she says she made the others pay - she blew winds that brought their ships down, and they exploded. She sucked the air from the lungs of those already on the ground, all but one. The arrogant one who commanded the rest. Him she let die alone, though it took a long time and he suffered much - she says she watched him rail against his fate, while lying next to his means to return to his own place. She's been alone since then. Mourning her people. She thought we were just more of the same, wanting to take, plunder what was left."

Grimacing, Blair shook his head. "I'm sorry," he said, turning his face back toward her, speaking over his shoulder. "We didn't know what had happened. Didn't know you were here. We didn't mean to steal - we only wanted to study and explore. We think you were the original world, that your people were the ones who built the gates through space and time - and who seeded our world and many, many others. Your people may have been our ancestors. We just wanted to learn more about them, about what they knew."

Silence stretched for a few minutes, and then Jim muttered, sounding infinitely weary, "She still insists that she will not let me leave."

"Let it go for now, Jim," Sandburg replied softly. "You're exhausted, man." Soothingly stroking Jim's brow, clasping one of his hands, his voice low and hypnotic, he encouraged, "Rest for a while. I'll be right here. She's not going to hurt us. You can relax, Jim. We'll work it out. I promise. We'll work it out."

When Ellison's breathing evened out, his body succumbing to the irresistible need for healing sleep, Blair shifted to sit beside him. He kept one arm protectively around Jim's shoulders and held his friend's hand. His anger was spent, and all he felt was profound worry about how he'd get Jim back home safely, and the beginnings of empathetic compassion for Gaia. Very quietly, his voice deep and compelling, he tried to explain to her why he wouldn't ever leave Jim behind - and why it wasn't right for her to force them to stay. "He's my best friend and my partner, the most important person in my life," he told her. "We've worked together for years and plan to work together for the rest of our lives. He's very special. That's why he can see and hear you, when the rest of us can't. But he needs support, someone to watch over him, to help him manage his abilities to hear and see, to taste and touch and smell better than anyone else can. That's what I do. I give him that support. I'm never going to leave him, no matter what you do or threaten to do to me. I … I love him and I couldn't live with myself if I left him behind. If you hurt me - kill me to get rid of me - he'll never forgive you and he'll hate you until he draws his last breath. Don't you understand? You cannot demand love or respect or devotion. They are gifts, given freely or not at all."

Looking over his shoulder into empty space, he gazed upward, compassion in his eyes. "I know you're hurting. I know you need to not be alone," he said sorrowfully, an ache in his chest at the thought of anyone or anything being lost and abandoned for such an impossibly long period of time. "If you let us, maybe we can help you. If you need people to care for, there are communities all over this galaxy that need a safe place to be - but you would have to restore this planet to a place where life can flourish. If you need others with whom to communicate, who are more spirit than body, older, wiser than we are, we also know of such beings in the universe and we could help you make contact with them."

Sighing, he shook his head. "I'm sorry to tell you that the Goa'uld are still out there, still trying to control whole civilizations, and we fight them and try to help their victims, as best we can. But not all other living entities, mortal or immortal, in this universe are as evil and depraved as the Goa'uld who attacked and destroyed your people. Most beings are pretty decent, at least the ones we've met so far." Looking around the dark cavern, the frescoes barely visible in the beam of his flashlight, he murmured, "You're probably right, though, to keep the old secrets hidden and safe. There's a lot of knowledge on this world that we wouldn't understand how to use properly, and might even misuse. We're a young people and still have a great deal to learn about how to live in peace with one another."

Once again searching the air beside and above him, aching with his own overwhelming need for sleep, he said wearily, "You have options. You can let us go and then seal off the Gate, so no one else can ever come through it. You can try to keep us here, but we'll keep trying to go home. You can let this planet be seen as it really is - I suspect it's very beautiful. And you can let us help you, find others with whom you can communicate, others you could nurture and protect. It's up to you. Think about it."

Turning away from her, no longer afraid of her, Blair curled forward to lean down over Jim. Resting his head on his friend's shoulder, he closed his eyes and quickly succumbed to badly needed sleep.

********************

"No weapons and a possibly insane entity with unknown but impressive powers," Hammond muttered, shaking his head slowly as he looked from Banks to Jackson. "Gentlemen, you don't make this easy."

"Well, in fairness, General, she didn't kill anyone," Daniel felt compelled to point out.

"That's more attributable to good luck, Mr. Ellison's determination that the world you perceived was illusory, and Mr. Sandburg's intuitive grasp that the Gate was right in front of you," Hammond replied, his tone blunt. "If not for those fortuitous circumstances, Colonel O'Neill would most certainly be dead as a result of her attack."

"But, from her perspective, we came as armed invaders," Banks argued, struggling to maintain a deferential tone. With a glance at Daniel, he sighed and swallowed hard, reining in his temper and his near desperate need to go back to get his men. "Sir, I understand your reluctance to risk more lives, I really do. Such decisions are the hardest we ever have to make. But without Jim and Blair, there is no SG-22. They're my men and have been for a long time. They're also my best friends. Please, George, don't deny me the chance to help them if I can."

Hammond looked away but finally gave in to his own powerful impulse to send help back to the planet. "All right," he capitulated, some reluctance still in his tone. "When Major Carter has the scanner ready, you can go back."

"Sir, I want to go with Colonel Banks," Daniel insisted.

"Dr. Jackson -" Hammond began, his tone and expression flat.

But Daniel interrupted before a negative decision could be expressed. "I can help him," he insisted. "This entity seems to focus attacks on armed warriors. If we return without weapons, and we have the means of being able to perceive her at least visually, I may be able to establish some kind of communication with her. Sir, it's worth a try."

Sighing, the General rolled his eyes and his lips thinned. "All right. But that's it. You can advise Teal'c and Major Carter that I will not entertain any more requests to return to that planet. Understood?"

"Yes, sir," Banks replied smartly. But he smiled with wan relief as he added, "Thank you, sir."

"Don't make me regret giving both of you permission to go back," the General grated. "When you get there, if you determine the dangers and risks remain high, I expect you to exercise appropriate discretion - specifically, that means you return, regardless of whether you've found the others or not." When he detected resistance in their bearing and in their avoidance of eye contact, he said with more gentleness, "I'm far from indifferent to their fate. I just don't want to play a kind of Russian roulette - in a game where we don't know the rules and have no defences - with any more of my colleagues and friends. I hope you both know that."

Chagrined, they both nodded. "Sorry, sir," Jackson said quietly.

Hammond waved the apology aside. "We're all under considerable stress right now. It's never easy when colleagues are at risk, harder still to think they might be irretrievably lost. Go on - see how Major Carter is progressing. Let me know when you're ready to go."

********************

Nearly two and a half hours later, Hammond stood in the control room while Sergeant Davis input the Gate coordinates and Banks and Jackson waited below. Sam and Teal'c stood with them, not bothering to hide their disgruntlement about being left behind, or their concern. Carter looked from one to the other as the Gate clanked loudly, spinning from one symbol to the next. "The two of you better come back," she said tightly, fighting tears of exhausted frustration and worry.

"Indeed," Teal'c agreed darkly, scowling as he crossed his arms, looking very imposing, his eyes smoldering with his anger at being left behind. "With the sentinel and his guide," he added meaningfully, his gaze flickering briefly to Hammond at the window above, clearly conveying his intention to go after them if they failed in their mission.

The Gate locked; the wave whooshed toward them and receded. But they'd barely started up the ramp when Sergeant Davis called, "Wait! Receiving MALP telemetry. Colonel Banks, Dr. Jackson - you need to see this before you go."

Frowning at the delay, Banks hesitated, but when he looked up and saw the General wave him back, he sighed. "Come on, Daniel. Let's see what's going on out there now."

********************

"Sandburg, Chief! Wake up!" Jim called, shifting to give Blair's shoulder a light shake.

"Huh, what?" he mumbled, his body reluctant to wake, his mind fogged with fatigue.

"C'mon, Junior," Jim urged. "Her Planetness wants to talk some more."

Sniffing, Sandburg groaned and rubbed at his eyes as he straightened up. "Oh, man, I could sleep for a week," he complained, wincing at the stiffness of his muscles. He yawned and stretched, raked his hair back and blinked as he looked around. "Where is she?"

"Just behind you - and she's gone back to a more normal size," Ellison reported. "She says she's thought about it. Thought about what, exactly?"

"Uh, well, I told her she had a few different options on where we go from here," Blair replied vaguely. Stifling another yawn, he turned to face what appeared to him to be empty space. "Man, I sure wish I could see you," he sighed. Tilting his head, he asked, "Are you sure you can't make yourself more, uh, visible?"

"She says you don't have to see her - you just have to accept that she's there," Jim told him, laying a hand on his shoulder.

"Oh, right - the old 'have faith' argument," Sandburg snorted. Shrugging, he nodded agreeably. "Okay, I've never had trouble believing there are lots of things we can't see or touch, and that there are untold mysteries in the universe. And I certainly accept that you exist," he affirmed. "So, what have you decided?"

Jim's head tilted as he listened, and then he frowned, his lips thinning. "Oh, great," he muttered.

"What?"

"She says that we can both stay and she hopes we'll be content to live here," Ellison reported. "Just what choices did you say she had? This is a step backwards, Sandburg - at least before, she was willing to let you go."

Reaching back, Blair patted Jim's arm. "It's okay. I told her I wouldn't leave without you." Returning his attention to the invisible being, he went on, "So, I guess you didn't believe me when I said we'd help you, huh? You think we'd leave and you'd never hear from us again." Sighing, he shrugged philosophically. "Can't say as I blame you. It's not like you know us well enough to trust us." He looked around the cavern and then at the packs that Jim was lying upon. "But, I have to tell you, humans are pretty fragile. We only have enough food and water for a few days. After that, we'll die."

"She says to go outside," Jim said warily. "She also says that you don't have to carry me - that I can walk without fearing that I'll be stuck in stone again."

Blair's lips thinned. "So you want us to trust you, even if you won't trust us," he observed dryly. Looking back at Jim, he said, "It's your call, man. If she wraps your feet in stone, I don't know how we'd ever get you free again. Do you trust her? If not, stay here and I'll go take a look outside."

Jim cast a baleful look at the entity, weighing out the risks and options. "I don't like the idea of us being separated, Chief," he replied tightly and then sighed heavily. "I guess somebody has to start trusting someone around here," he continued unhappily, not being one to trust easily. Swallowing, he met Blair's steady gaze. "If she encases my feet in stone, you're right, that would be it. So, if she does that, I want you to promise that you'll give me a gun."

"Jim!" Blair protested, shocked and appalled by the idea.

But Ellison gripped his shoulder hard. "It would be the merciful thing, Chief, and you know it. I need to know that you'd do that for me."

Sandburg's gaze dropped as he dragged in one breath and then another. "So long as you know I'll shoot myself right after," he said very softly, "then, yeah. I promise." But he shook his head. "No, that's not going to work. If we try to take a weapon with us, she'll only stop us. Really, Jim - it's best if I go up alone. You've got the food and water here. If, uh, it's a trap or something, well, you can at least talk to her, negotiate, whatever."

Grimacing, Ellison shook his head. "Damn it," he rasped. "No - we go together." Sitting up, he swung his feet onto the floor. But when he started to stand, he found his legs were still unsteady. Blair hastened to lend him a shoulder, and wrapped a sturdy arm around his waist. "Okay, let's go see why she wants us outside," Jim growled.

Looking over his shoulder, Blair explained, "It's not you - he's got really serious trust issues."

Jim clipped his head, and Sandburg snickered at the predictable reaction. "You're crazy, you know that?" Ellison said reprovingly, though his lips twitched with restrained laughter.

"Me? Hey, man, I'm not the one who says he sees and hears invisible, gorgeous, redheaded planet spirits," Sandburg retorted as he supported Jim along the tunnel and across the smaller cavern to the stone steps. "It's a good thing I believe in the mysterious - otherwise, we could just assume you've lost it, big time."

Jim snorted but refrained from further comment. When they reached the top of the stairwell, they both stopped and gaped at what they saw. The vast edifice was no longer a ruin, but an astonishingly beautiful structure. The marble floor gleamed a soft, cool green, and pristine, white pillars reached to the intricately molded stone ceiling high above. Graceful statues were set in niches along the walls, and what looked like very comfortable furniture was arranged in groupings to facilitate conversation. Wide, open portals led out to covered porticoes, and when they moved to look out the one they'd entered, they saw a stunningly lovely square with a large fountain spraying droplets of water that glittered like diamonds in the sunlight. Walking outside, lifting their gaze beyond the distant gates, they could see rolling emerald green hills adorned with brilliantly coloured wildflowers, and there were blue, snow-capped mountains rising in the distance.

"She says the water is safe to drink and that there are berries and other fruits and vegetables in the fields that we can harvest for food," Jim murmured, stunned by the transformation as he examined the buildings more closely. There were signs of old damage - the Goa'uld had not left the city unmarked - but, for the most part, it was intact. There were walkways covered with stone mosaics and shaded by overhanging awnings. Flowering vines twisted around columns and grew in massive pots that hung from beams or were scattered decoratively around the square. The bejeweled roofs sparkled almost blindingly.

"It's beautiful," Blair whispered, awed. "Thank you," he said more clearly, looking around. "Thank you for showing us your true appearance."

Making their way out of the city, they climbed up through the sweet-scented meadow, pausing at the top to drink in the views. To the south, there were blossoming orchards and, beyond, a forest. To the north, they could see a wide expanse of water, but whether it was a huge lake or an ocean, they had no way of knowing. On the far side of the hill, there was a narrow river spanned by a graceful stone bridge.

"We walked over and through all this and never knew it was there," Blair marveled. "If we hadn't been wearing the protective gear, I wonder if you would have been able to smell the water and the flowers."

But, looking back at the sprawling city, his expression saddened and he felt a lump thicken in his throat. "No wonder she's so lonely," he murmured. "This is a world that nurtured and nourished life, cherished it."

Jim nodded. "It's a paradise." Sighing, he shrugged. "Guess if we are stuck here for awhile, it won't be so bad."

"I guess," Blair agreed. "Sure wish I could see and hear her, too, though. You're going to get awfully tired of being our interpreter."

Quirking a brow, Ellison suggested, "Maybe you can help her with that, Chief."

"Huh? What do you mean?"

"Well," Jim elaborated, waving an arm to encompass the world around them, "if she has the power to hide all of this and make it appear to be a dead world, and she can airlift people using the wind alone, she's got to have the inherent ability to make herself more or less visible at will. Maybe … I don't know - maybe she needs to learn to adjust her dials."

A light, warm breeze whispered past them, caressing their skin and riffling through Blair's curls. Sandburg smiled, having come to appreciate that the touch of the wind was the one way she had of communicating with him directly, at least in terms of sharing moods, and warnings. Smiling, he nodded. "You know, I think you've got a point, man." He paused, considering the idea. After a moment, he called softly, "Gaia? You want to try this? Think of yourself as a flower. When you're resting, closed up, not visible as a spirit, it's like being a closed bud. But, when you're visible to Jim, and I guess the people, your people, who once lived on this world, it's like you've started to open a little, but only a little. If you want to be more visible, want others like me to be able to hear you, concentrate on the flower and think about it opening up further, so that all the petals are … are like this flower, here." He knelt to delicately touch a deep crimson bloom reminiscent of a wild poppy. He waited, looked around and then at Jim. "Do you see her?"

Ellison shook his head. "I don't think she's here, Chief."

"Oh, yeah, she's here," Blair replied confidently, looking over the rolling land to the mountains and then to the sea. "She's all around us, Jim. She's everything that we see and touch and taste and smell. Gaia is the world itself, the meadows and flowers, the rivers and seas, the trees and stone, and mountains, not just the spirit manifestation that she conjures to put people at ease by looking like us and to communicate in our words."

The breeze caressed his cheek and he beamed, sensing she was pleased with him. "I think she just needs time to think about the idea, you know? To get used to it. To decide if she even wants to be more open." Grinning impishly at Jim, he added, "Hey, she's only known me for a day or so - it took you years to decide you wanted to trust me with some of your secrets."

Looping his arm around Sandburg's shoulder, Jim nodded. "Yeah, you're right. And the way you were yelling at her for awhile back there, I can see why she might not want to talk to you," he teased. "You know, Chief, you've got a lot to learn about women. They really don't like to be yelled at."

Snickering, Blair shook his head. "I think she understands why I was upset," he said, his voice low. "Once she stopped trying to hurt you, I stopped shouting at her."

A tender expression softened Jim's eyes, and he ruffled Blair's curls. Drawing Sandburg forward, they ambled slowly down the hill toward the river. "Thanks for coming back for me, Chief," he said quietly. His grip around Blair's shoulders tightened briefly. "And for not being willing to leave without me, when you didn't know what that might mean, or if, well, if …."

"It's okay, Jim," Sandburg said, looking up at his partner with warm affection glowing in his eyes. "You'd've done the same for me. I know that. Hell, you have done it - many, many times. We come as a set, man. You don't get one without also taking the other. That's just the way it is."

Jim's gaze fell away as he nodded. Not having the words to express all that he felt, he drew Blair into a hug and held him tightly. But, after a moment, Ellison stiffened and turned his head. Drawing away from Sandburg, he said, "She's here. She says others have returned and are at the Gate." Looking to the west, he continued, "She says they came without weapons so we can go to welcome them."

"Others? Others like Simon, right? Not others like Dahok and his bunch of murderers?" Blair clarified.

Looking back at her, his head tilted unconsciously as he listened to her, and then he smiled. "Yep, two that were here with us. One sounds like Daniel - he's wearing glasses. And the other might be either Simon or Teal'c."

"I'm betting it's Simon," Sandburg said as they set off in a loping jog toward the Gate.

"I'm betting you're right, kid."

But they were miles from the Gate and they were still too bone-tired to sustain the pace over the steeply sloping hills. Slowing, Blair frowned thoughtfully. "You know," he mused, "I bet she could tell Teal'c has a symbiote. He must've worried her - she'd have no way of knowing he wasn't like Dahok or the Jaffa that would have been in the invasion force, or that he's a friend and that there are others like him, who resist and fight the Goa'uld."

"After six thousand years, there're a lot of things that have changed in this galaxy, Chief - there's a whole lot that she needs to know about."

********************

"Well, this is a pleasant change," Banks observed warily as they strode over the rolling meadowland toward the city.

"Jim and Blair must've persuaded her to give up her protective colouring," Daniel mused, and then smiled with sudden enthusiasm. "This is really a very good sign. You know, I think they're probably okay."

"I hope so," Simon sighed, afraid to hope for too much, too soon.

Fifteen minutes later, they saw their friends cresting the next hill, and they called out and waved excitedly, immensely relieved to see that Ellison and Sandburg were, indeed, okay. Not long after, the four of them met in the hollow.

"How's Jack?" Blair asked as soon as they were within speaking distance.

"He's going to be fine," Daniel assured them.

"Oh, that's great!" Sandburg exclaimed, relieved.

"What happened to your boots?" Simon asked, eying Jim's bare feet.

"Well, that's a long story," Jim replied with a bemused expression. Waving back toward the Gate, he said, "We'll tell you about it on the way."

Skating swiftly over the more worrying details of how ghastly it had been to be trapped in stone, Ellison and Sandburg told them what they had learned from and about Gaia as they walked. But, when Blair got to the part about how she wasn't prepared to allow the two of them to leave, Simon stopped and shook his head. "That's not acceptable," he snapped.

"We're not sure there's a lot of choice, right now," Jim replied slowly.

"She needs some time, Simon, to learn that she can trust us," Blair added. "The last strangers who came to this planet killed all the indigenous people. She has the right to be suspicious."

Daniel had been listening thoughtfully. "You're right," he interjected before Banks could argue the point. "But so is Simon. We need to find a way to convince her that we mean her no harm."

"I was thinking," Blair suggested, "that maybe you could ask the Nox to come visit, to show her that some worlds and peoples have found ways to live in tranquility. And maybe Sam's father, to explain the Tok'ra resistance against the Goa'uld. And Thor could visit, you know, to tell her about the other advanced cultures. So she can decide, you know, whether she wants to be part of the resistance or whether she'd rather remain apart from the conflict." Pausing, he looked around and then added, "Either way, given the knowledge in the city, and how tempting some of it might be to, uh, well, to misuse, I'm wondering if this world should remain a secret - only open to Thor's people, maybe, or others like the Nox."

Scratching the back of his head, Daniel nodded. "All that makes sense to me. Maybe Thor could also get word to the Ancients. This might well be their ancestral world, and if so, I'm sure they'd want to help Gaia. And, well, she's going to need help, isn't she? I mean, there's no guarantee that Thor or the Nox could see or hear her any more than most of us can. So she kinda needs you guys to stay until she's at least heard and understands the options."

Simon's lips thinned, not liking the situation at all. "C'mon, it could be months before any of those people, er, beings, would agree to come here - if they agreed at all. You can't expect Jim and Blair to just, what? Hang around here to see what happens or who comes through the Gate? What if the next time, it's a System Lord?"

"Oh, I think she's learned how to handle the Goa'uld," Daniel replied sardonically. "None of Dahok's bunch ever made it back."

"Still … I don't like it," Banks retorted. "This isn't fair to them. They have their own lives to lead."

"Hey, guys, we're right here, remember?" Blair interjected.

"You can't tell me you're happy about the idea of maybe being trapped here indefinitely," Banks exclaimed.

"Well, no, not indefinitely," Sandburg replied, glancing at Jim. "But for a while, to give her time to get a little more comfortable with humans." Waving at the world around them, he added, "It's not like the place is hard to take. She's beautiful, really, really beautiful. And she's so damned lonely, you know? What can it hurt to, uh, visit for a while?"

"Blair's right," Jim said, looking around. "I don't think she'll force us to stay forever. Essentially, once she understood a bit about who we are and that we really didn't come here to invade, she's been … kind."

Simon rolled his eyes and silence fell amongst them as they climbed the final hill between them and the Gate. When they reached the top, they stalled to a stop. All their weapons, packs and radios were stacked around the MALP.

And a beautiful, red-haired woman was waiting for them by the DHD.

"Is that her?" Daniel asked rhetorically, for it couldn't be anyone else.

"Uh huh," Jim grunted, leading the way down the hill. Blair smiled broadly and waved at her, and was extremely pleased when she waved back.

"I thought nobody but you could see her," Simon muttered, watching her closely.

"Sandburg gave her some tips on how to make herself more visible," Jim replied with a shrug, but he glanced at Blair and smiled as he clapped his partner on the back. "Guess the flower thing worked for her."

When they drew close enough, Jim introduced Simon and Daniel, explaining who they were, and that they were all from a planet called Earth.

She nodded soberly at the others, but smiled softly at Blair. "Does your Earth also manifest to her people?" she asked, curious.

"I think she does, to some, but not all can see her - in fact, not many can," Sandburg replied.

Gaia thought about that. "You said you're a young people. Mine did not see me for a very long time, either."

"You brought our weapons," Jim observed, a question in his tone.

"Yes. They are wasted here. Your people have need of them, to fight the Goa'uld." She paused, looking from Ellison to Sandburg. "I have heard your words and thought about all you have said." Sighing, she looked away. "I have been lonely," she admitted slowly. Her gaze met Blair's, and then Simon's. "But, you are correct. I have no right to compel other beings to stay, simply because I crave the company. To do so would only be to enslave you, as the Goa'uld sought to enslave my people. I do not wish to be like the Goa'uld." Sadness darkened her emerald eyes. "You are all free to go."

"Gaia," Sandburg offered with quiet sincerity, "we don't mind staying with you, at least until you've had a chance to meet others, to decide on your future. Once you've had a chance to meet the Nox, the Tok'ra, Thor, and maybe the Ancients, as well as more of us, well, then, you'll know if you want to close yourself off, or if you want to welcome others and encourage others to come live here."

Solemnly, she studied both him and Jim for a long moment, her expression unreadable. Turning to Simon and Daniel, she asked, "Why did you return?"

"We came back for our friends," Simon replied candidly. "We don't abandon our friends."

She nodded and then turned to Daniel. "Why did you return without weapons?"

"We figured out that it was the warriors who worried you most, and that you were really only acting in your own self-defence when you attacked us. You could have easily killed us all, but you didn't - instead, you put us in a place where the only way out was to go back where we came from," Daniel replied. "After what Dahok did to you and your people, you have every right to be suspicious and to not want strangers wandering around. We hoped that by coming back without weapons, we'd show you that we are different. That we really do mean no harm."

Returning her attention to Ellison and Sandburg, she looked from Blair to Jim and then back again. "Am I your friend?" she asked.

"Yes," Jim affirmed, his tone solid, committed, as he looped an arm around Sandburg's shoulders.

"Absolutely," Blair agreed with a bright smile and a vigorous nod. "We'd very much like to be your friends."

She smiled wistfully. "Then, my friends, you may return now to your home, your Earth. I trust you not to abandon me." Her smile broadened to a teasing grin, certain that Jim and Blair would understand and not take offense, and she winked at Sandburg as she said gently, "And, perhaps, one day I may even trust you enough to share some of my secrets with you."

********************

Three months later …

Tension was high in the Gateroom. SG-1 was prepped and ready to go, waiting along with a support team to help evacuate the peaceful inhabitants of a small world that was under imminent threat of annihilation by the Goa'uld. If a Tok'ra infiltrator hadn't overheard a discussion between System Lords plotting the final details of the devastation as an example to other of their worlds that were growing increasingly fractious and resistant, there would have been no hope for that distant pre-industrial civilization at all. As it was, Stargate Command had only been alerted to the threat by Jacob Carter, Sam's father, less than half an hour before - and there were less than twenty-four hours remaining before the bombardment was scheduled to begin. The window was very tight. They had barely enough time to shift nearly fifty thousand people through their world's Gate to safety; the poor souls would be able to take only what they could carry. SG-7 had already left to start organizing the evacuation of the planet.

Enough time if there was a place of immediate sanctuary to which to send the refugees.

Fifty thousand were far, far beyond Stargate Command's limited capacity to accommodate other-worlders temporarily until a more permanent new home could be found for them. Nor was there time to negotiate with the governments of other worlds to arrange the acceptance of so many effectively destitute refugees, let alone undertake the monumental task of feeding, clothing and housing them, until they could be successfully integrated into a wholly new society and culture.

There was but one possible place that so many could be sent - literally without notice or preparation, without adequate supplies to sustain life - with the hope that they might survive long enough in the new, foreign environment to rebuild. One place with a mild enough climate, abandoned cities with adequate infrastructure, with food growing wild and plenty of pure water; an empty, unpopulated paradise where these unfortunate souls could start over, secure in knowing they were safe.

One place. One world.

If Gaia would agree to accept them and make them her own.

SG-22 had gone through the Gate fifteen minutes before to attempt to gain her agreement.

Irritably, Jack glanced at his watch. "C'mon, already," he muttered, scowling at the Gate, willing it into action. "How long does it take to get a 'yes' or a 'no' answer?"

"It's not that simple, Jack," Daniel replied flatly. "We promised her time to consider whether or not she would ever again become involved in a conflict with the Goa'uld. Time to learn all that has happened in the past ten thousand years since her people were wiped out."

"Yeah, well, it's not like Thor hasn't been to visit or the Nox - and for all we know, maybe some of the Ancients dropped by to chat," O'Neill groused. "I thought you guys said she was lonely."

"Yes, the visits and briefings have gone well, but this is so fast, so unexpected - we're asking her to take on a whole people, Jack. She has the right to say she isn't ready, especially as accepting them will royally piss off the Goa'uld. You can bet they'll comb the galaxy to see where everyone disappeared to," the archeologist argued. "If she accepts, well, she's putting herself right smack on the front line with us and the Tok'ra." Sighing, Jackson rubbed the back of his neck. "She might have gotten along fine with the Nox representatives and Thor - but she wasn't impressed with the Tok'ra. I'm not sure she's all that keen to be allies with them."

The Colonel quirked a brow and his mouth twisted disparagingly. "Well, that just goes to show she's a lady with good instincts," he grated. Cutting a look at Sam, who had overhead and stiffened, he lifted a hand in a gesture of conciliation. "Oh, come on, Carter - I'm not saying Jacob isn't a good guy. And so far as Tok'ra go, his other half is … reasonable, some of the time. But the rest? Wouldn't trust ‘em as far as I could throw 'em. They've got their own agenda and they don't like to either share or play nice."

Her lips thinned but she shrugged and nodded grudgingly. Given their past experiences, she couldn't disagree.

Somberly listening to the conversation, Teal'c interjected heavily, "I believe Gaia's discomfort with the Tok'ra is because of what they are and not how they play, O'Neill. They remind her too much of the Goa'uld that destroyed her people. She distrusts the symbiotes."

"Dahok made a lasting impression, that's for sure," Daniel agreed bleakly. Raking his fingers through his hair, frowning, he went on, "All I'm saying is, she has the right to refuse sanctuary. She's a planet that has prohibited all weaponry - and SG-22 is out there asking her to maybe become part of the frontlines. And there's the whole issue of the knowledge that is stored there. Knowledge that she is safeguarding - knowledge that could be dangerous in the wrong hands. She doesn't know these people. Doesn't know if they can be trusted to have access to all that information." Shaking his head, his lips thinned. "I think that the odds are against her agreeing to this."

"Yeah, well," Jack countered, unwilling to countenance the possibility of fifty thousand innocent people being immolated the next day, "if anyone can persuade her, it'll be SG-22." Ruefully rubbing his chest, having only been recently cleared to return to duty, he added dryly, "She likes them. Ellison and Sandburg are her friends. Not sure Thor or even the Nox got to that stage with her."

"There just hasn't been enough time," Jackson sighed, shaking his head. "This came up too fast. It's too much, too soon."

"Would you quit with the negative vibes already!" Jack exclaimed, exasperated. "We're talking about fifty thousand lives here. She's the only chance they've got!"

The sudden loud clanking that echoed through the cavernous room as the Gate began to turn caused them all to stiffen in anticipation.

"It's SG-22," Sergeant Davis reported over the intercom. General Hammond appeared in the window above, his expression solemn and his posture stiff as he anxiously awaited the team's report.

The event horizon burst forth and subsided - and Megan Conner appeared almost immediately, calling urgently, "I need a star chart to show where the evacuees would be coming from!"

Above them, Hammond signaled abruptly to his aide, who was standing behind him. Bending over the microphone, the General replied, "A copy is being brought to you now. What's going on out there, Ms. Conner?"

Striding partway down the gangway, she called back, "Gaia listened to what Jim and Blair had to say. She appears reluctant, General, but she is also obviously furiously angry that the Goa'uld might destroy another whole people. She said she needed to know which planet it was and our name for it means nothing to her, so she asked to see a star chart. It would have taken longer to go into the city, to find one in the records that we could interpret than to just come back and get one."

While the Gate was dialed up again, the General's aide raced through the entrance and up to Megan. Taking the document that mapped the stellar system in which the planet was located, Megan turned and ran through the event horizon, which closed seconds later.

"I wonder why Gaia wants that information," Sam murmured with a puzzled frown. "What difference could the location of the world make to her decision?"

Daniel shrugged and shook his head. Jack once again looked at his watch and sighed. "Time's a'wastin' people," he muttered impatiently.

Ten minutes later, the Gate again rumbled into motion. Moments after the event horizon settled, Colonel Banks, followed by Conner and then Ellison and Sandburg loped through the portal.

"It's a go!" Simon called up to the General.

"Alright!" Jack exclaimed, pumping his fist. "Despite our past differences, I might actually begin to like this lady."

"Why did she want the star chart?" Hammond demanded, striding into the Gateroom, while SG-22 cleared the ramp and they all waited for the event horizon to close so that Sergeant Davis could input the coordinates to send the teams out to begin the evacuation.

Banks turned to Sandburg. "You want to share your theory?" he directed.

"Well, we don't really know for sure, General," Blair replied, glancing at Jim. "But, uh, I think she contacted the planet."

"What?" Hammond exclaimed, gaping at him.

"As soon as she identified the planet involved, she told us to wait and vanished," he explained quickly. "When she returned, she said her sister had begged her to take her people, and that she had been assured that they would treat her and her secrets with respect. So Gaia agreed that the people could be sent to her."

"Her sister?" O'Neill echoed, tilting his head. Lifting a hand, he went on, "Let me get this straight. You think planets can talk to each other?"

Nodding, Jim replied, "That's what it sounded like to us."

"Holy shit," Jack murmured. Frowning, he shook his head, trying to assimilate the information. The rumble of the turning Gate again thundered through the room. "Does this mean that … that all planets are alive? I mean - sentient?"

"We don't know," Banks said tautly. Above, his voice resonating through the loud speaker, Sergeant Davis intoned, "Chevron One, encoded."

"That would be incredible," Daniel gasped, his gaze going out of focus as he grappled with the implications.

"Incredible?" O'Neill retorted and then shivered dramatically. "You want my opinion? The idea gives me the creeps. I mean, what if good old Mother Earth decided she was tired of her tenants? And if it's true, then how come nobody ever sees her hanging around, like we can see Gaia? Huh? Tell me that."

"Chevron Two, encoded."

"All through time, all around the world, there are societies and cultures that have always believed they can see her," Blair replied earnestly. "Though, uh, they all give her different names, like Pele or -"

"And I think she gives us lots of hints that she's not overly happy with her tenants," Daniel cut in with a distracted mutter.

"Chevron Three, encoded."

Jack gave them both narrow looks and turned to Jim and Simon, "You seriously believe this theory?"

Shrugging, they shook their heads. "But it does raise interesting possibilities," Ellison mused, one warrior to another. "Imagine being able to engage the planets themselves in resistance against the Goa'uld."

Chevron Four, encoded."

Jack's chin came up and his brows arched as he tilted his head. "Now that - that could be interesting," he allowed.

"Chevron Five, encoded."

"Yeah, well," Blair cautioned sharply, looking from Jack to Jim, "I think that's exactly why she's so careful of her secrets. I don't think the planets particularly want to get embroiled in our conflicts."

Chevron Six, encoded."

"I agree," Daniel hastened to add. "The very fact that our first impulse is to use whatever powers they might have for the purposes of war is why she didn't want us getting close to the information in her vaults in the first place."

"Chevron Seven, locked!"

"People," Hammond interjected repressively as the Gate engaged and the wave gushed forth, "this is all fascinating, and we'll want to discuss the possibilities at some later time. But right now, we've got fifty thousand men, women and children who need to be moved to safety. Let's get this show on the road."

Jack sketched a salute. "Yes, sir!" he affirmed heartily, waving the support team on ahead, and then he, Teal'c, Banks, Ellison, Carter and Conner mounted the ramp, their attention already focused on the mission ahead.

Behind them, Daniel and Blair followed, still talking excitedly about the incredible possibilities planetary communication could offer. "You think Gaia ever will share any of her secrets with you?" Jackson asked, remembering her teasing comment of months before.

"I don't know," Sandburg replied soberly, gazing narrowly at the backs of the warriors striding through the Gate ahead of them. "I'm not sure I would, if I were her."

Looping an arm around his friend's shoulder, Daniel nodded in understanding. "We're a long way from being able to safely handle that kind of knowledge and power," he reflected. "We're too young, yet; got too much to learn about so, so many things."

"'Way, 'way too young to handle that lady's secrets," Blair agreed. Brightening as they drew closer to the portal, he added with a cheeky grin, "But we're learning real fast. So, maybe … someday." More thoughtfully, he suggested, "And you know, now that Gaia has decided to take a stand in the conflict, maybe the planets will decide to help us anyway - just to make the universe a safer, more peaceful place to be."

Smiling at that possibility, just before they stepped into the event horizon, Daniel nodded. "Maybe. Yeah. You know, you just might be right."

Alone now at the bottom of the ramp, Hammond watched them go. "I sure hope you're right, son," he said with quiet, utterly sincere intensity. Looking around, thinking about the mountain that surrounded him, he murmured with the uncertain hope that Earth might be listening, "It would be a truly wonderful thing, if this universe was a more peaceful place to be for all of us."

Finis

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