Fire And Ice
Dedicated as a 'Winner's Choice' story to Tia, with thanks for her donation to Moonridge
Note: This is a sequel to Distant Thunder, and is an AU in which Simon, Jim, Blair and Megan are the newest Stargate team, SG-22.
The hunter, a young warrior, two hundred and three cycles old, short and stocky but strong, tracked the kia buck across the wide meadow that bordered the emerald lagoon. A light salt-scented breeze riffled through the long yellow grass as he moved with silent caution, downwind of his quarry. Crouched on one knee, his arrow already notched, he peered with narrowed, intelligent black eyes as he watched the huge horned animal, beautiful and dangerous, drink at the gurgling stream. Flicking a glance toward the distant, snow-capped Sacred Mountain, he gave automatic thanks to Pele for granting him the life of this wild creature to feed his family. Then he drew the bowstring taut as he sighted along the shaft of his feathered missile, aiming for the soft spot on the creature's skull, just beneath the massive rack of horns, between and above the soft, brown eyes. A man with lesser skill could not have hoped to make this kill alone, but Tzchen was no ordinary hunter. Eldest son of the Chieftain, Ktari, he was renowned amongst his people for his unerring eye.
The loud, metallic rumble was as shocking and intrusive as a monstrous explosion would have been in the tranquility of the meadow. The kia jumped high in fear and wheeled into the lush purple forest, swiftly disappearing from sight. Shocked, Tzchen froze in consternation for a long moment, scarcely able to believe his eyes and ears as the Goddess's Sacred Wheel began to spin, so long had it been since Her last visitation. Then he straightened urgently, the hot sun glinting on the burnished brown skin of his broad, muscled shoulders as he reached for the conch horn hanging from a bone hook on the leather belt that crossed his bare, smooth chest. He blew long, twice, paused, and then blew an even longer third call to alert his people.
The low, mellow notes rose high on the wind that blew in from the sea, lifting across the nearly mile-wide deep green lagoon that was scalloped with oaming surf and edged with pink sand. The stretch of water separated the Goddess's Glade and the site of the ancient village in the meadow from the new site upon the cliff, high above the sometimes turbulent and occasionally deadly waves. By land, the new village was two miles away, but the mellow tones reverberated clearly over the water, rising to alert his people, and he heard the answering call, three short, sharp bursts of sound.
The summons had not echoed across his world since long before the time his grandfather's grandfather had recounted the stories of their coming to this place - legends that had already become worn from the telling over countless generations. Yet his people had held true to Pele throughout the millennium, though none had ever seen her despite nearly a thousand of years of sacrifice and prayer. She had granted them the bounty of this treasured land of warmth and sun, of plentiful food from the forests, meadows and emerald sea; She was owed their loyalty and love. And now, the Great Goddess of Fire and Thunder, of Life and Death, was again coming to grace them with Her presence, and it was his duty and joy to make Her most welcome.
Tzchen's face, elaborately tattooed on the left cheek and around his brow, was impassive though his heart hammered in his chest. Dutifully, he reverently laid his weapons on the ground at his feet; his mother had taught him, as all were taught, from his early childhood that one did not bear arms in the presence of the Goddess. Then, he squared his shoulders and lifted his chin, standing proud in the sun as befitted one of Her warriors as the Wheel spun for the last time and the circle was filled, as was foretold, by a magical, glistening pool of water that rippled but never spilled. He couldn't hear the excited cries of his people, but he knew they would be shouting to one another in speculation and even joy as they gathered and raced toward him from the village on the opposite shore. But he also knew there wasn't time for any others to arrive before She would step through the Wheel. Taking a deep breath, he could only hope that the Goddess would find him a worthy emissary until the Chieftain and High Priestess arrived.
But, the Goddess did not appear.
His jaw dropped as he gaped in consternation at the cubical, metal contraption that trundled through the magic portal and down the sloping walkway. Coming to a stop off to the side but close to the bottom of the Wheel, standing not quite as high as his shoulder, it sank its feet into the earth, and then clicked and whirred as one piece of it extended like a thin snake with a bulbous head that revolved in a circle. He blinked in astonishment when two other pieces of its body broke away entirely, leaping into the air to fly away like birds. The legends had made no mention of such a thing and he wasn't sure what to do. Should he bow and kneel, or attempt to shoot the metal birds from the sky?
Cautiously, Tzchen edged closer to the strange, wondrous creature, dipping his head from time to time and keeping his hands lifted, palms out, to show he was unarmed and no threat. The head and its single deep, dark eye, as glassy as the sea when there was no wind, seemed to watch him intently. For long minutes, he puzzled over the mystery of it, calling to Pele in reverent tones to signal his obeisance to her. But the thing didn't speak, nor did it move from where it had rolled to a stop. He was no closer to understanding its meaning or presence nearly half an hour later, when he heard the excited voices of his people drawing close, than he'd been when it had first appeared.
Ktari, still robust despite his advanced age of five hundred and thirty-three cycles of the moons, burst from the forest, his spear clutched in one fist; Mwilda, the equally ancient priestess and his mate for two hundred and sixty-two cycles, more than half their lives, was by his side, and their people crowded behind in curious, hopeful, awe. Tzchen held up a hand to warn temperance and his father waved to the others to wait near and under the trees as he and Mwilda came closer. Both elders' faces were liberally etched with elaborate blue tattoos, and the Chieftain's left arm and shoulder were also similarly decorated.
"What is that?" Ktari exclaimed warily, keeping his tone carefully respectful in deference to the Goddess.
Mwilda shrugged in her wry way. "If that's the Goddess, She has certainly changed," the old Priestess replied with a short shake of her head, equally perplexed.
For long moments, they stood and contemplated the strangeness of the situation. For decades, since Ktari's father's time, they had been desperately imploring the Goddess to pay heed to their prayers, for the world was changing around them in ways that were very frightening. The Sacred Mountain had been blowing smoke for a generation, and the ground had been trembling, ever more violently. A nearby lake had begun to boil, killing all the fish within it in the blink of an eye; though the bubbling, searing heat had long given way to a gentle warmth, no fish lived in its acrid, foul-smelling waters. The seas had grown rough, and once a single monstrous wave had knocked down their whole village, carrying away too many of their people, old and young alike, all before their time. In desperation to be heard after that terrible disaster, the young warrior knew his people had resorted to human sacrifices, ceremonially killing in the old ritualized manner and then throwing the bodies into the mouth of the Sacred Mountain to appease it.
But the Goddess had not responded and the mountain still rumbled with hunger. His father, when he'd become Chief, had long ago stopped the apparently useless sacrifices and Ktari, having grown up in fear of another such assault from the sea, had moved his people away from the Great Wheel to the safer heights of the cliff when Tzchen was still a small boy. For most of the young man's life, people had sorely doubted the Goddess would ever hear them or respond to their entreaties; in despair and then anger, they'd nearly turned away completely from the Goddess, but the priestesses in their turns, as the cycles passed, urged patience. What is a generation to a Goddess, after all, they'd scold and then laugh with the supreme confidence of believers. She would hear them and, eventually, She would reply; doubtless Pele would appear in the fullness of time when She determined her appearance was truly necessary. The divergent beliefs of the Chieftain and his mate, the High Priestess, had made for an interesting life in their lodge, and their children had grown up respectful but skeptical, honouring the Goddess but also wary of Her apparent disinterest in them as Her people.
When the conch call summoned them, they all dared hope that, at long, long last, their entreaties had been heard and that Pele would appear. But instead, She had sent this odd metal thing that busily clicked and whirred, or sat silently, its snakehead peering at them. Behind the village leaders, the people grew restive and murmuring broke out, questioning and then, as time passed with nothing happening, disparaging tones rose on the light breeze that stirred the long grass. Hundreds of people pressed closer, filling the meadow, curious, disdainful, hope dying in the face of the oddity and the insufficiency of the Goddess's reply. Collectively, emboldened by the quietude of the metallic cube, they moved closer still, crowding around the strange emissary, those at the back of the multitude jostling for a better view. The bulbous head turned to take them all in and then seemed to return its attention to Ktari. Briefly, a light flashed from the snake's eye, striking the head of the Chieftain's tall spear, causing them all to jump back in reflexive fear and awe. Perhaps this was Pele, and She was angry that he'd dared come armed before Her.
But nothing more happened. Mwilda bowed, knelt and implored the Goddess to come forth, assuring the Great One that Her people longed to greet Her and worship in Her presence. The acolytes, nubile young women wearing only the grass shirts of dried and dyed reeds that was the custom of their people, and long necklaces of fragrant blooms that swung gently as they moved around the Wheel, dancing and singing a lilting, haunting song of worship.
The snakehead of the metal thing seemed to ogle the dancing maidens, but nothing more occurred.
Suddenly angry, disgusted that the Goddess was playing such incomprehensible games with them, Ktari lashed out with his spear, stabbing into the deep, dark glassy eye of the snake and was surprised to hear the tinkle of something shattering. The thing wasn't even alive! Was merely a tool of some sort, and he snorted as he shook his head. So much for prayers and sacrifices; so much for endless worship and devotion - Pele evidently couldn't even be bothered to send one of her nymphs or protectors to meet with them, just some infernal box.
Nevertheless, his people were shocked by his action and they cringed away, expecting retribution.
But still nothing happened.
Dejected and sorrowful, they were turning to leave when the earth rumbled and trembled under their feet, and the Sacred Mountain coughed and belched thick black smoke into the air until the sky was as dark as the deep of the night but without the relief of the twin moons or even of spangled starlight. The land rocked and twisted, moaning in its agony, violent with its need. Then, scarlet, orange and yellow flames lit the eerie, unnatural darkness, bursting into the sky when the Mountain blew its top in a cataclysmic explosion that shook their world to its foundations.
And filled their hearts with absolute, screaming, mindless terror.
"Move it! Move it!" Simon shouted, urging them all through the tangled undergrowth of C-237's dark forest. Deadly projectiles slashed through leaves and slammed into the bark of the trees nearby, laser beams flashed, and explosions erupted with increasing regularity, as the Jaffa behind them tried to stop their escape.
What had started out as a routine exploratory visit to an as yet unknown planet had turned into a wild scramble for their lives after Jim had picked up one too many heartbeats in the inhabitants of this out-of-the-way world. There had been nothing to suggest from the MALP preliminary survey report that the people were more than the simple medieval folk they appeared to be, but the Goa'uld had this world well and truly locked down. The God-King was most probably a minor System Lord they'd never heard of before, though Teal'c might have been familiar with the name appropriated from one of the ancient Celtic gods. And the knights, though wearing shining armour like the gallant cavaliers of old, were most definitely Jaffa with standard issue lances. While the legendary SG-1 might have squandered some of their famous good fortune in fighting back, the relatively new SG-22 would be more than happy to escape with their skins intact. They'd report that this planet was to be interdicted until such a time as there was the need or the resources to take on a large-scale army of aggressive Jaffa warriors who were apparently in the service of Aed, the purported Celtic god of the underworld, or so Blair had told them.
Bursting from the edge of the trees that rimmed that small open field around the Gate, Banks, Ellison and Conner turned to give covering fire, while Sandburg raced to the DHD to punch in their code. The young man ducked reflexively as enemy fire whistled past his head, but he remained at his post. If he didn't complete the dial-up process, none of them would make it home. The big metal circle began to move with laborious and maddening slowness, taking its own sweet time to engage.
"C'mon!" Blair yelled to his comrades as he finished and turned to lift his own weapon to cover their strategic retreat to the Gate. One part of his brain still cringed, sickened by the violence and the requirement to maim or kill as he laced automatic fire at the murderous horde of warriors charging out of the woods, but he gritted his teeth and kept his finger pressed on the trigger. He'd be damned if his scruples got his colleagues killed.
Continuing to spray a wall of bullets, the others hurriedly backed toward the DHD and all took refuge behind its flimsy shelter. Finally, the event horizon appeared, shimmering like an upright pool of water within the metal circle.
"Sandburg, Conner, GO!" Simon snapped, as he and Ellison hunkered down to hold off the Jaffa knights as long as necessary - which, hopefully, would only be a few more moments of time. Megan and Blair scrambled up the short flight of stone steps and fairly leapt through the rippling exit from this deadly world.
Only then did Simon and Jim back up the steps, shooting fiercely with deadly accuracy as they climbed, still hunched to make as small targets as possible. They had just stepped back into the event horizon and were diving away from the attack, when there was a vicious explosion, destroying the step on which they'd been standing. The violent percussive effects followed them into the void, so that they were flung helplessly in the nether place of the wormhole, violently tossed like flotsam toward Earth.
In the Gate Room, deep within the mountain near Colorado Springs, Conner and Sandburg flew out of the event horizon, stumbling and tumbling down the ramp in their haste to clear the way for the men behind them. Scant seconds later, Banks and Ellison were literally flung from the glittering field and the Gate was quickly and summarily closed tight behind them, blocking most of the blast that had followed them through.
The big men crashed to the ramp and lay crumpled, battered and still.
"JIM!" Blair cried out in sharp alarm as he half-crawled, half ran back up the ramp to kneel by his Sentinel's side, while Megan raced to check on their leader. Swiftly, if carefully, they checked pulse points and searched for wounds, but there was no blood. Sandburg ran his shaking fingers over Ellison's body, from his skull, down his neck and spine, and then his partner's limbs and torso, checking for fractures, and finally heaved a sigh to find that everything seemed intact. Carefully, he pulled Jim over into his arms, as he murmured quietly to his partner, even as he wondered if his Sentinel was concussed or zoned. Given that, beside him, Megan was rendering similar care to Simon, while others in the Gate Room called for help and moved to assist them, Blair assumed both men had been knocked unconscious by the percussive effects of the explosion, but he sincerely hoped Jim's senses had been turned down before the blast hit them.
"Come on, big guy," Sandburg implored softly as he cupped his friend's cheek, feeling the chill of shock under his palm, "you're scaring me here." But, he received no response; Ellison remained deeply unconscious, his features slack and pale. Blair cast a quick look toward Megan, who had gathered Simon into her arms, and saw the same deep fear that he felt mirrored in her pallor and haunted eyes.
She looked up at him and murmured, "Surely, they're only concussed. They'll be alright." But the worry, that it could be a whole lot more serious than that resonated in her voice.
He nodded tightly but swallowed hard as his gaze returned to Jim and he pulled Ellison closer, as if he could transfer the warmth and energy of his own body into that of his partner. Biting his lip, he stroked his Sentinel's brow as he resumed his low murmuring, calling Jim back to him. Though his voice was steady, even calm, his emotions were raging. They'd all known what they were doing when they signed up with the Stargate Program, knew they would be facing an evil, very deadly menace in the universe, but he couldn't help feeling responsible. He was the one who'd inadvertently led them to Colorado when he'd left Cascade after the dissertation fiasco. If…if any of the others were killed in the course of their duties, he knew he'd blame himself, however unreasonable that might be. Seeing both Jim and Simon lying so still and unresponsive played to his worst nightmares. God, they had to be all right.
General Hammond appeared, anxious for his men, and Megan crisply reported that they'd been ambushed by Jaffa warriors, barely making it back. The General's lips tightened and he shook his head, regretting that sending teams to unknown locations could hold such dire threats, but he said nothing, as taking such risks was their job. The medical team raced into the Gate Room bearing emergency supplies and litters. In moments, Dr. Janet Frasier ordered that the two unconscious men be quickly evacuated to Sick Bay, where she could more effectively evaluate and address their injuries. Scant seconds later, Colonel Banks and the Sentinel, Jim Ellison, were being rapidly borne through the narrow corridors, Megan and Blair racing behind.
Once in the infirmary, with a flurry of contained but urgent motion, Janet tested their reflexes and reactions to light stimuli, while nurses assessed and reported their other vital signs. Her expression was thoughtful, but less grim, as she ordered a battery of X-rays.
"So, what do you think?" Sandburg asked, his voice tight and his eyes narrowed with concern, oblivious to Conner's supportive grip on his shoulder.
"So far, so good," she replied with the ghost of a smile. "We'll see if there is any internal damage, but there's no immediate indication of critical injuries." Touching his arm briefly as she moved past to examine the films as they were taken, she added, "Breathe, Blair. I think they'll be fine."
Both Sandburg and Conner relaxed a little then, the tension easing from their shoulders, as they stood out of the way, waiting for a more definitive diagnosis. Janet was a great doctor, and she was more used to seeing battered team members return from missions than they could even begin to imagine so. If she said Jim and Simon were probably okay, then they probably were. Still, they'd both feel a lot better if their friends and colleagues would just wake up and tell them personally that they were fine.
Simon, and then Jim, regained groggy consciousness as they were undergoing skull, chest and abdominal X-rays to determine if there was anything broken or crushed inside. They were badly bruised and battered, concussed and a little confused about what had happened, but no more serious injuries were found. Still, Janet told the two men in no uncertain terms that they'd be spending the next two days under the eagle eyes of her staff, to ensure they really were all right. Both warriors mumbled pro forma protests that lacked either conviction or credibility, given the pain in their voices and eyes. She smiled wryly, shaking her head at their macho predictability, and began unceremoniously to shoo Megan and Blair away, so that her patients could rest undisturbed.
When Blair balked at going, Janet leveled a firm glare at him as she said matter-of-factly, "Your Sentinel is not in a zone and is no danger - he's merely resting. We'll keep close tabs on him and, if he fails to wake easily, I'll send for you. But you look nearly dead on your feet, you both do," she continued, with a glance at Conner. "I insist that you both get some rest after you've debriefed the General."
Rolling his eyes, Blair blew out a breath and reluctantly nodded his acquiescence. "I'll be in my quarters here," he told her with quiet if completely unnecessary precision, as she knew perfectly well that he wouldn't be leaving the mountain until Jim was well on the road to recovery. Turning back to his partner before leaving, he murmured to Jim, as he reassuringly squeezed his friend's shoulder, "I'll be close by, if you need me. Just rest, okay? Don't give Janet a hard time."
Ellison snorted with weak and weary humour, then closed his eyes to let sleep claim him.
Blair caught Simon's eye and smiled ruefully, shrugging in wordless admission that he knew he worried too much. "We'll both be fine," Banks muttered with feigned irascibility as he waved his two subordinates out of the medical unit. "Go on, General Hammond is waiting for you," he added with a yawn, and then grimaced mildly against the sharp soreness of his muscles before he, too, closed his eyes, more than willing to succumb to sleep.
As they made their way along the dreary, utilitarian corridor outside the infirmary, Megan pulled her hair free of the tight band she used to constrain it during missions and then ran fingers through the long curls, an unconsciously weary, slightly anxious gesture. "Since we've got nearly a week before our next mission, I think I'll head straight off after the debrief," she said with a glance down at her colleague. "It'll be good to have a few quiet days at home." Knowing that Blair typically traveled up the mountain with Jim from the townhouse they shared in Colorado Springs, not sure he should be driving himself when he was so distracted by concern for Ellison, and not having heard his murmured exchange with Janet, she asked, "Can I give you a lift, Sandy?"
"No, thanks," he replied with a wan smile. "I think I'll crash here, you know, to be close until Jim's better."
Unsurprised, she nodded agreeably. Ellison and Sandburg were never more than seconds from one another's side when one was hurt, even if not badly. Once Jim had had some rest, and was more himself, probably tomorrow, Sandy would feel better about leaving the mountain and he might go home then. Or, she smiled a little to herself as they continued to Hammond's office for the cursory but essential mission debrief to ensure the planet was interdicted for the time being, Sandy might remain in the mountain if he had no more pressing business outside, until the partners could drive down together in two days' time. Given his protective streak when it came to Ellison, Conner would have bet money on the latter possibility, not that she would have found many takers in the mountain. The Sentinel and his Guide were well known to be virtually inseparable.
Dr. Daniel Jackson squinted at the small monitor as he reviewed the recorded transmission from the MALP sent out to X-551. Thoughtfully, he chewed on his inner lip and then scratched his cheek as he studied the garments and distinguishing tattoos of the planet's inhabitants, and listened to the musical, lilting sound of their language. He didn't understand a word of it, but he thought he recognized the linguistic and cultural roots. When the replay ended, he sat staring sightlessly at the blank screen, his brow furrowed, and then nodded to himself. Rising, he strode to the office next door, to consult briefly with his colleague, Major Samantha Carter.
Leaning on the doorframe, he rapped lightly on the wall to get her attention and then, when she looked up from her computer monitor, he asked, "Have you finished the analysis of the data sent back from X-551?"
"Almost," Sam replied, glancing at the wall clock. Their pre-mission brief with General Hammond was scheduled to begin in twenty minutes. "I've seen enough to know there's naquada on the planet."
"Guess we'll be going, then," Jackson replied; those findings clinched it. Much as he might enjoy exploring unknown worlds for the intellectual joy of discovering different cultures, or at least ones that had evolved in isolation from their parent societies on earth, there were increasingly urgent military priorities that had to be accommodated if they were to hold their own against the incursions of the Goa'uld. Finding naquada, and then negotiating mining rights, were high on the list of 'must dos'.
"Guess so," she agreed mildly, her gaze straying back to the computer screen. "Looks like a fairly benign culture."
"Yeah," Daniel grunted. "The problem is, I don't understand their language." Straightening, he went on, "Did I hear that SG-22 came back early?"
Sam cast an indulgent look at her colleague and shook her head. Daniel got so wrapped up in his work that a bomb could go off down the hall and he'd scarcely notice. "Yeah, with a bang," she said wryly. "Simon and Jim are in the infirmary, recovering from concussions suffered when a blast followed them through the Gate."
Jackson's expression clouded with immediate concern. "They're okay, aren't they?"
"Janet says they'll be fine," Carter assured him with a smile. Daniel had recruited Blair originally, and that initiative had led to first Jim and then the others joining the Program. SG-1 had undertaken SG-22's training, and considered the junior team an extension of their own. "They should be able to go home tomorrow."
"Oh, good," Daniel sighed in relief. Briefly, his gaze went out of focus as his eyes narrowed in thought. "So, I guess Blair won't be too worried about Jim, then." Once again nodding to himself, he absentmindedly thanked Sam for the information she'd given him as he turned away to head off down the corridor.
Jim and Simon were dozing in the quiet infirmary, and Blair was sitting on a chair between the beds, immersed in a text about the ancient Egyptians that Daniel had loaned him. Though he had basic knowledge of the long dead - on earth anyway - culture and language, he was studying to improve his grasp of both, given that a large number of System Lords based their own societies on the Egyptian roots.
Jackson sauntered into Sick Bay, waved at Janet and then ambled across the open area toward Sandburg, who looked up and smiled at his approach.
"How're they doing?" Daniel asked softly, not wanting to disturb the sleeping men.
Glancing at his teammates, Blair replied lightly, "Oh, they'll be fine - just catching up on some sleep. Neither of them got much during our short, but stimulating, mission."
Nodding, smiling wryly, Daniel observed dryly, "Sounds like *situation normal'."
Blair snickered and shook his head. From what he'd heard in the last few months about SG-1's escapades, he wondered when any of that team ever got any sleep.
"Uh," Jackson continued with a slightly wary glance at Ellison, "You got a few minutes? I'd like you to sit in on our pre-mission briefing when we look at the tape from the MALP."
Blair had caught the uncertain glance at his partner and regretted it. Daniel had been uncomfortable around Jim from the beginning, as if he thought Ellison held him personally responsible for having lured Blair away from Cascade and nearly getting him killed on some faraway planet. In fact, Ellison didn't blame Jackson as much as he held himself responsible for the fact that Blair had had to leave Cascade and had almost lost his life in his search for new meaning and purpose after giving up all that he was to protect Jim's secret. But, so far as Sandburg was concerned, that was all water under the bridge. The outcome was what mattered, and they'd found exciting, necessary work that held implications for the safety and wellbeing of the whole planet - in a place where Jim didn't have to hide what he was, didn't have to feel like some kind of freak. From his perspective, Blair would always be grateful to Jackson for having believed in him and given him, and through him them all, this incredible opportunity to see the universe, to really be a part of it in ways he'd never dreamed could ever be possible.
Amiably setting aside the journal, he stood. "Sure, I'd be glad to sit in. What have you got?" he asked as they turned to head to the General's conference room.
Shrugging, Daniel hedged, "I don't want to influence your reactions. But I think you'll understand when you see the video clip."
"Hey, Professor, I hear you guys saw some action," O'Neill drawled with a wide grin when Sandburg walked in behind Jackson. "But everybody's okay, right?"
"They're fine, or will be," Blair replied easily, as he nodded to the General and the other SG-1 team members, Major Sam Carter and Teal'c. "Daniel asked me to sit in. Hope nobody minds."
"Not at all," General Hammond assured him with a warm smile, waving to the seats at the end of the table. "Always glad to have your perspectives, Mr. Sandburg," he added with fond, if routine, formality. "Make yourself comfortable."
Sam waited until they were all settled and then introduced the subject at hand. "We didn't get a lot from the MALP before the recorder was destroyed, but enough to know we're dealing with a fairly primitive unsophisticated culture on what appears to be an idyllic world. It might be best if we just watch the videotape and you'll see what I mean." When Hammond nodded, she signaled to the technician, who dimmed the lights and started the replay of the approximately forty minutes of tape, much of which was abbreviated when the tech fast-forwarded at Sam's direction, through essentially unremarkable segments.
The video began with aerial views sent back by the automated flight units that had deployed from the MALP. X-551 seemed a tropical paradise, lushly garbed with widespread forests, dotted with distant, snow-capped volcanoes which, from the wisps of smoke they could discern, were still active, and tranquil curved lagoons, the water softly riffled with low bands of surf that progressed lazily to shore. Only one village came into view, high on a cliff over the sea. It was a sizable habitation; hundreds, perhaps as many as a thousand people, might live in it. The structures seemed to be made of wood and grass, except for a large, peaked, single-story edifice, that faced out over the lagoon toward the Gate, and was more sturdily constructed and decorated with elaborate wood carvings on its red-stained wooden walls. But it was oddly, even eerily empty, as if the inhabitants had suddenly dropped whatever they were doing, leaving pots simmering on open fires, tools abandoned haphazardly and toys scattered on the ground. As the aerial units swung away from the view of the village, the camera caught glimpses of people under the thick canopy of trees, hundreds of them, men, women and children, rushing pell-mell down the steep incline toward the Gate. The video replay then switched to the imagery captured by the MALP at the Gate, and they saw a single warrior gaping in astonished confusion, a bow and a quiver of arrows at his feet and a conch gripped loosely in one fist.
Oblivious to the others in the room once the tape began, Blair sat forward in his chair, his eyes narrowed in concentration as he studied the architecture, clothing, weaponry, symbolic tattooing and mannerisms of the community and the people, as they came into view. His head tilted a little, unconsciously, when they spoke to one another and his gaze dropped as he focused on deciphering what they were saying. Having seen the video recording before, Daniel watched Sandburg; when it was clear to him that the younger man was familiar with the culture, and maybe even with the language of the people on the screen, he nodded to himself, well satisfied, and leaned back in his chair. Sam, too, had seen the video before, so she divided her attention between O'Neill, Teal'c and Hammond, interested in their reactions - and had to hide a smile when Jack behaved as she'd guessed he would at the sight of the nubile and scantily clothed young women, his brow quirking as he pursed his lips in a silent whistle of appreciation. But her gaze dropped quickly when O'Neill, well aware he was being watched and putting on a show for her amusement, cut her a quick knowing look full of humour and winked. Teal'c's expression remained impassive throughout, and Hammond watched his subordinates as much as he did the video, gauging their reactions.
The last of the video replay from the MALP, which had been sent through the Gate to X-551 the day previously, ended after the older warrior had broken the camera lens with the angry thrust of his spear. There was still some audio recording of a low, distant rumbling sound, but the technician switched off the projection equipment as she raised the lights in General Hammond's conference room. "The MALP's transmission ended shortly after this, and we assume the natives attacked it in anger," she told them with quiet, matter of fact calm.
"Oh, please, General, say we can go check the place out," O'Neill drawled lasciviously, his blue eyes sparkling with mischief as he deliberately mimicked the manner of a decidedly horny adolescent. Carter snorted softly, and Teal'c lifted one eyebrow in extreme amusement at their leader's antics.
Used to O'Neill's behaviour, the General threw him a mildly quelling look before directing his attention to the two scientists sitting across from one another at the far end of the table. "Dr. Jackson, Mr. Sandburg, can either of you elaborate on what we just saw? Did you recognize the culture we're dealing with here?"
"So, what do you think, Blair?" Daniel asked in his turn, his expression intent as he completely disregarded Jack's facetious comment. "You see why I asked that you come to the briefing?"
Nodding, pushing his hair back behind his ears, Sandburg replied thoughtfully, "Yeah, I think so." Then he smiled brightly, glad to be of help in sharing his knowledge as he continued enthusiastically, "The layout and structures of the village, the garments made from woven and dyed grasses and reeds, the design of the spears and, most particularly, the distinctive blue facial and body tattooing are all very reminiscent of pre-civilized South Pacific Polynesian cultures of five to eight hundred years ago. And though their dialect and accent is different from what I'm used to, I caught several distinct references to Pele. She'd be their principal goddess, and it sounded like they were VERY frustrated that the MALP, rather than the goddess, came through the Gate. The first warrior seemed uncertain, and evidently surprised; the others equally so, at first, anyway. The singers and dancers would be junior priestesses, subordinate to the older woman we saw, and they were imploring the goddess to appear and bless them, to end their 'troubles', whatever those are. At the end, the older man, who I take it is the Chieftain, was exhibiting his disgust and anger that the goddess had sent such an unworthy emissary."
He frowned thoughtfully, and then added, "That behaviour indicates an unusual confidence and lack of fear of the goddess; therefore, I'd guess it's been a long time since she's appeared personally, if she ever has." Sandburg paused a moment, marshalling his thoughts, and then continued, "Um, okay, I'll admit I'm extrapolating from what we saw, but the single warrior at the Gate had discarded his weapons, as he would in the presence of his goddess, but was still holding a conch shell, which he probably used to summon the villagers; something made them literally drop everything and race out of the village to the Gate - and it was pretty clear that they expected the goddess when they got to the clearing. The sheer rapidity of their collective response suggests that they have an established signal, so I'd bet that, at some time in their history, someone or something has come through the Gate posing as Pele." His gaze drifting back to stare sightlessly at the screen as his mind replayed his memory of the video, he murmured, "I think…I got the impression that they are scared of something; deeply worried and anxious for her to appear and fix something that's not right in their world." Shrugging, he looked back at Daniel and then toward the General. "Sorry, that's just a sense I got from their behaviour and expressions. I don't have anything really substantive to back it up, and I could be wrong."
Daniel blinked at the extensive information Sandburg had divined from the brief recording, a slight unconscious smile of satisfaction on his face as he murmured, "Good, very good." Turning to face Hammond, unconsciously brushing his hair off his brow, he continued, "General, I believe this civilization was transplanted from Earth by the Goa'uld, hundreds, maybe as much as a thousand years ago. Their culture, language and beliefs will have evolved, no doubt, in that time, but Blair has a far better grasp of the South Pacific linguistic and socio-cultural heritage than I do, as he's just very ably demonstrated. I'd like to have him with us when we make first contact, to help establish communication."
Jack had sat up a little straighter when Blair had identified the most probable roots of the people on the planet scheduled for a formal visit by his team, and had indicated the people seemed to expect a ‘goddess' who came through a stargate - sounded a little too 'Goa'uld-like' to him and, from what he'd heard of the early practices of the peoples of the South Pacific, the half-clothed nubile maidens with the exotic tattoos seemed less innocent and enticing. "Uh…weren't those people cannibals?" he asked with a wary grimace.
"Well, yes," the anthropologist replied as he again absently shoved his unruly long curls behind his ears, knowing that Jack wasn't seeking a history lesson so much as he was trying to assess their current threat potential. "Many early warrior cultures ate their enemies, particularly their brains and/or their hearts, to acquire their courage, knowledge and skill. It was highly ritualized and a tribute, of sorts. In early times, they also practiced ritualized sacrifice to the Goddess. But they didn't usually attack unless provoked or they were in the process of acquiring new territory; in fact, they had a tradition of welcoming and honouring guests or strangers who came peacefully."
Ignoring the implied reassurance that Sandburg was offering, O'Neill remained concerned by the possible aggressiveness of the people as he sorted out what they might expect to encounter in the way of potential trouble. That Chief hadn't been very friendly toward the MALP, though it had offered no threat. The poor, unfortunate machine had just been sitting there quietly, minding its own business, when the old guy had attacked. "Sacrifice? As in human sacrifice?" Jack probed, his lips twisting in distaste.
Nodding, Blair continued soberly, "Usually one or two of their best young maidens or warriors at significant times during the year, like before going out on a big hunt or fishing expedition, or before a battle. It was a supreme honour to be given to the goddess." Looking unhappy about it, though, he sighed as he concluded, "They'd usually be killed first, of course, quickly and fairly humanely, before being flung into the nearest volcano. It's not like they were burned alive, or anything like that."
"Ri-ight," O'Neill grunted and then pinned Carter with a narrow look. "Remind me again why we think we need to make contact with these people?"
"Sir, the soil samples analyzed by the MALP, together with the topographical information it relayed from the aerial units and the spectroanalysis of the metal spear tip indicates -"
"The presence of naquada, uh huh," Jack interjected, waving off more scientific mumbo-jumbo. He turned to the General and shrugged, a wry expression on his face. "If this Pele is a Goa'uld we've never heard of, it could be important to learn more about her and, well, we need to check out the naquada deposits and see if they'll engage in a trading relationship with us."
"Mr. Sandburg, you've only recently returned from your own team's latest mission," Hammond rumbled with a nod indicating agreement with the Colonel. "Would you be willing to head right back out again, to lend assistance to SG-1? I know you may still be shaken from your last mission and need a break."
"No, I'm fine, thanks; it was Jim and Simon who got roughed up, but they're basically okay, too. Dr. Frasier is just keeping an eye on them until tomorrow. I'd only have to be gone for a few days, right? And SG-22 isn't scheduled to go through the Gate again for at least a week?" Blair clarified, his tone carefully neutral. He'd be glad to give whatever help he could to SG-1, but he knew Jim wouldn't be well pleased with the idea of him heading out into the cosmos without his Sentinel.
"That's right," Hammond concurred with a slight smile, pleased by the young man's resilience and apparent willingness to lend assistance. Theoretically, he supposed, he could order Sandburg to go with SG-1, but Hammond was conscious that he had less authority to compel action over the civilian members of his teams. And, he was glad to hear Banks and Ellison presented no cause for concern, as he was certain Blair would refuse to go off-planet if his Sentinel was in any danger.
Shrugging, giving the General an unconscious smile, Sandburg replied without hesitation, "I'll have to touch base with Simon and Jim, but I don't see any problem with accompanying SG-1."
"Good," Hammond smiled more fully in return, the warmth of approval lighting his eyes. Turning to Jack, he asked, "When will SG-1 be ready to depart?"
Courageously resigned to having to face down beautiful wenches whose local protectors might well want to eat him, Jack glanced at his watch and then up at the rest of his team as he approximated, "Oh, I'd say we could get our act together in about an hour, give or take a few minutes."
The others nodded in agreement, and the meeting broke up without further ado.
"It's only for a couple of days," Sandburg cajoled, looking from Simon's unhappy expression to Jim's look of outright rejection of the idea of his Guide leaving Earth without him. "It's a Polynesian culture, pre-civilized with arrows and spears - essentially a fairly gentle people who only make war when insulted or threatened. And I'll be with SG-1. You know they won't let anything happen to me."
Ellison snorted. "Like they didn't let anything happen on your first outing with them?" he grated, his gut twisting at the memory of finding Sandburg in a death-like state in a forest halfway across the galaxy. Shaking his head, he maintained firmly, "I don't like it. Wait for a day, and I'll be able to go with you."
"Yeah, but by then we'd be running against a time-line with our own mission to go out to meet with the Tauri," Sandburg replied reasonably, prudently ignoring the reference to his first mission. It had turned out fine, in the end - but he knew that he was only alive because Ellison had practically forced his way out into the galaxy to find him. It still gave him pause to know that his partner had sensed the danger he'd been in, had been warned by their spirit guides, long before Blair himself had realized the full peril of the situation. "They need my help, Jim," he argued, though without heat as he took the conversation back to academic considerations. "Daniel doesn't have the language or anthropological knowledge to make first contact on his own this time - before being transplanted, this society had no contact with the Egyptians, or the other ancient Middle Eastern or European peoples he's expert in. And we have to make contact, because they have naquada deposits. But once I get them started, they should be okay. I'll only be gone two, maybe three days, at most."
"You said the video made reference to a possible Goa'uld, posing as a goddess," Ellison argued back, his eyes sparking with anger. "This could be a whole lot more dangerous than you're making it out to be, and you know it."
"Well, I guess there's always some risk," Sandburg allowed, albeit reluctantly, and he hastened to add, "But I got the impression that Pele, whoever she is, hasn't made an appearance in quite a while."
Before Jim could protest that the physical absence of a Goa'uld didn't preclude the presence of Jaffa warriors, Simon cut in, his tone authoritative, "I can see why they need your help and it makes sense to me. From what you describe of their weapons, spears and arrows with no evidence of more sophisticated lances, it sounds safe enough. I'll want some kind of communication link established, though, so we know what's going on regularly, and if Jim is still concerned tomorrow when Janet finally gives us our walking papers, he can join you then."
Ellison cut a sharp look at his superior, and rolled his eyes but held his tongue, deferential to his boss's decision. Though he didn't have to like it, he did have to cease objecting strenuously. He sighed when he turned his gaze to his partner, and saw Blair smile with relief. The kid really wanted to do this - so Jim relented and gave a grudging smile in return. Sandburg truly loved using his knowledge and skill to help create alliances with other communities scattered amongst the stars, and it meant a great deal to Blair to know SG-1 had such belief in his abilities. Jack O'Neill was infamous for not suffering fools, lightly, gladly or otherwise, and he rarely took anyone other than his immediate team out on missions, unless directly ordered to do so; that he so readily sought and accepted Sandburg's assistance said a great deal about the value he placed on Blair's abilities and the confidence Jack had in him to do his job superbly.
"Thanks, Simon," Blair replied gratefully and then turned back to Ellison. "I'll be careful. I promise."
With a long-suffering sigh, Jim nodded grumpily. "Okay, fine. But I'll head out to join you tomorrow."
Sandburg's smile widened to a sparkling grin, his eyes twinkling merrily as he rejoined, "Great! I'll see you then!"
With a consoling pat on Jim's shoulder and a wave at Simon, he turned away, eagerly hurrying to get his gear together before joining SG-1 in the Gate Room.
Simon turned his attention to Ellison, well aware of the other man's disgruntlement. "You haven't, uh, heard any wolf howling or jaguar snarling, have you?" he asked, his lip curling in reflexive distaste for the mystical stuff that happened around his two subordinates.
"No," Jim replied curtly. "But that doesn't mean there isn't any danger."
Sighing, shaking his head, Banks settled himself more comfortably in the bed. "He'll be fine, Jim," he said soothingly. "Relax." Closing his eyes, he settled back into sleep.
Ellison's jaw tightened and his lips thinned as he shook his head, but then he sighed and rubbed his still aching head. Simon and Blair were most probably right that it would turn out to be a simple and straightforward first contact assignment. But, even in his short time with Stargate, Jim had come to expect that 'simple and straightforward' was the exception rather than the rule, and he was not at all happy about Blair going out without him. Curling on his side, his back to Simon to wordlessly signal his displeasure with the decision, he tried to relax by consoling himself that O'Neill and his team were very good and they'd be careful of Sandburg's safety, at least until he could get out there himself to make certain of it. Despite his anxious preoccupations, however, his body craved rest, so it wasn't long before he, too, was again fast asleep.
About an hour later, when Jim started to shiver violently as if he were freezing, the duty nurse frowned, but he didn't register a fever and didn't awaken. Covering him with a warm blanket, she noted the physical reaction in his chart and then got on with other duties.
Stepping out of the Gate into a very dark and stormy, decidedly chilly world, O'Neill looked around in startled confusion and then turned to Carter. "Did we get sent to the wrong address?" he asked, more than half serious.
"No, I don't think so," Sam replied doubtfully as she shivered when the wind gusted around them, biting and cold. The meadow bore no resemblance to the sunny, idyllic paradise they'd seen on the video clip. For one thing, there was no sun. For another, the ground looked uneven and lumpy, with several of the stately palm-like trees lying broken around its edges. The nearby sea was no longer graced with gentle swells but was rough and it slammed up against the sandy shoreline, encroaching ever more closely upon the meadow in which they were standing.
Sandburg's attention was caught by the natives about fifty yards away, grouped around a fire, the flames flickering wildly in the strong wind. They had stood and were watching them, their postures tense and guarded. Though they were dressed in the same grass skirts with bare legs and feet, they now each had coverings over their shoulders and wrapped around their upper bodies - some looked woven, others were obviously animal hides and one wore an elaborate long cape of feathers. Squinting as he studied the man in the feathered garment, he observed thoughtfully, "This is the same place, all right. I recognize the guy coming toward us as the young warrior we saw in the replay."
"I concur," Teal'c intoned soberly as he warily watched the dozen or so warriors approach; though ready for action, he kept his lance lowered so as not to appear threatening.
Daniel hunched into his jacket as he turned his attention toward the distant volcano that was still spilling lava and belching sulfuric smoke into the sky. "Must've been some eruption," he muttered, belatedly remembering the smoking volcano in the video replay and wishing they'd paid more attention to it. He sniffed and sneezed at the ash that lingered thickly in the air despite the strong wind off the sea.
"Well, do your stuff, Professor," Jack directed laconically as he waved Blair up beside him, but he looked unhappily up at the sky. "Looks like it's going to start raining," he observed with flat disgust to no one in particular. So far, paradise wasn't living up to expectations at all, at all.
Blair stepped forward and bowed, his hands open and crossed over his chest to the opposite shoulder. He called out softly what he hoped was a greeting they'd be familiar with, in a deferential tone. "Kia Oro."
Startled, the warriors paused, and then the one they recognized stepped forward with a proud, even haughty demeanor. Suddenly, he called out sharply and whirled his spear in an elaborate pantomime of battle. His eyes widened and he grimaced, as if in pain or disgust, and yelled again as he stepped toward them menacingly with a slow measured pace that had a ceremonial stateliness.
Teal'c, Jack and Sam stiffened, but Sandburg held up a hand, as he said softly, "It's alright, I think. It's a kind of test - offering battle, if that's what we want, and saying they will defeat us - but he will probably place a leaf at my feet and then step back, as a token of welcome if we come in peace."
"What's with all the tongue action?" O'Neill muttered sotto voce with a grimace as the warrior again stuck out his tongue as far as it would go while simultaneously widening his eyes and growling. It sure didn't look like an erotic invitation, not that Jack would have been any happier if it had.
Clearing his throat, his tone carefully neutral, Blair replied softly, "He's telling us they will eat us after they kill us, if we dare to fight them."
Jack cut him a hard look and then rolled his eyes. "See, I told you they were cannibals," he jibed, his voice whiny. "But does anyone ever listen to me?" When Sandburg gave him a quick sideways glance, though, O'Neill grinned, to show he held no grudge over it all.
The warrior was still yelling threateningly as he continued to advance on Sandburg, who had taken a half step forward, to stand in front of the others. But, just as he came within a spear's length, the warrior stopped, glared ferociously at Blair, and then pulled a leaf from the back of his belt, dropping to one knee to lay it upon the ground before stepping back with a grunt, his spear held ready, as if for attack.
Blair nodded, smiled gently and stepped forward to pick up the leaf. He said something Jack and the others didn't understand, but the warriors all seemed to relax, though they still looked mystified and uncertain. Blair introduced himself and then the others, explaining haltingly as he waved at the sky, that they had come from Earth, as had these people's ancestors, a long time ago.
The warrior gave them a long, considering look and then nodded slowly. "Tzchen," he said, pounding once on his chest.
"He's saying his name is Tzchen," Blair told them.
"Yeah, I got that," Jack drawled, and then added with ironic humour. "Ask him to take us to his leader."
Moments later, they were tramping through the dark jungle, over terrain that sloped ever-upward toward the clifftop village. The hard, heavy rain, when it came, was icy and black with ash.
"Dammit," O'Neill groused as he blew on his stiff and very cold fingers. Sandburg and Daniel had been talking with the leaders for hours now - well, Blair had been talking with Daniel paying close attention and making suggestions from time to time - but they didn't seem to be making much progress, and it was getting colder by the second. Turning to Carter, he complained, "Correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't this a tropical paradise just yesterday????"
"Yes, sir," Major Carter replied, trying to hold in the shivers that assailed her, feeling frozen even though they were somewhat sheltered from the wind in the longest and largest of the simple wood and grass huts. Her short blond hair was still dark and matted from having been soaked by the rain, and Jack presumed he also sported the dirty, smeared streaks of slimy ash that had dried on her face and clothing, as it had on the rest of his team and on the warriors who had led them here. "But the excessive ash from the eruption has blocked the sunlight and…"
She hesitated, frowning as she crossed her arms and huddled for warmth. They were squatting near Teal'c at one end of a communal hut, next to the entry that was inadequately covered against the howling wind with a mat of reeds that had been loosely laced into place with leather thongs. There was a fire some distance away in the centre of the lodge, and they also benefited from the body heat of the crowd of stern, well-armed and hostile-looking warriors that were keeping watch on them. Whether the locals were really unhappy with them, or simply miserable from the cold was anyone's guess; clearly, their skimpy clothing was wholly inadequate in the wretched weather.
"And?" Jack prompted, not reassured by the concerned expression on her face.
"And, well, maybe something more is going on climatically," she admitted. "I can't be certain, but if this is one of a chain of eruptions rather than an isolated event, then the weather might continue to deteriorate, perhaps dramatically."
Squinting at her, the Colonel cocked his head. Sam wasn't inclined toward exaggeration; if anything, she had a tendency to understate dire probabilities. "Dramatically?" he repeated, sniffing against the bitter cold. "Just how dramatic might it get and, more particularly, how soon?"
Grimacing wryly, her lips thinned and she shrugged, uncomfortable with making extrapolations without adequate data. When Jack lifted one palm and quirked his brows impatiently, urging an answer, she couched her hypothesis in explanatory terms. "Given the apparent violence of the initial quake and eruption, the amount of ash that is still darkening the sky after more than twenty-four hours, the frequency and strength of the aftershocks we've experienced in the short time we've been here - "
"Carter, just give me the bad news, okay?" Jack directed, his tone resigned as he rubbed his hands together and looked across the lodge-size structure to where Sandburg and Jackson were sitting with the old guy who had attacked the MALP and an equally aged woman. Momentarily distracted, O'Neill realized he was probably a good decade older than either of the two community leaders, but there was something in their manner that seemed almost ancient; however, when Sam again began to speak, he shifted his attention back to her.
"With such a thick layer of ash blocking the natural heat of the sun, along with the continuing heavy precipitation, we could be experiencing severe cold and maybe even a blizzard in the next few hours, Colonel," she replied grimly, a worried expression in her eyes. "And the cold might well become extreme enough overnight that people will begin to freeze to death." Her own gaze drifting to Blair and Daniel, she added, "I think we need to start bringing in supplies soon to help these people survive. They are completely unprepared for harsh winter conditions."
Jack's lips pursed and his tongue probed a molar as he squinted in thought. Their welcome by the warriors hadn't exactly been warm, and he wasn't only thinking about the temperature. The people here were evidently very disgruntled and suspicious, bordering on furious with a strong underlying current of fear. Arbitrarily bringing in more supplies as if they were taking over the planet, before Sandburg had alleviated their apparent concerns, would only exacerbate the situation. He flicked a look up at Teal'c, who was standing nearby, somberly watching the negotiations and the warriors that were crowded into the long hut with them, and Jack wondered if the Jaffa's impassive expression indicated he didn't feel the icy cold like everyone else did, or if he was just better at hiding his discomfort. Probably the latter.
Teal'c had been listening to their conversation and seemed to feel O'Neill's gaze upon him, for he looked down at his two comrades and offered his own take on the situation. "I would suggest we give Blair Sandburg and Daniel Jackson more time to reassure these people of our good intentions before taking further action," he intoned soberly. He glanced meaningfully at the fully armed warriors who surrounded them, weapons in hand. They weren't prisoners, exactly, but they weren't honoured guests, either.
"But bringing blankets, portable heaters, warmer clothing, food and fuel for fires might help to convince them of our good intentions," Sam interjected.
Jack blew out a breath as he looked from one to the other. They were both right. It was all a question of timing - and to gauge it right, he needed Sandburg's sense of how things were progressing. He stood, intending to move further inside the wood and grass structure toward the powwow going on around the raging fire that was filling the place with acrid smoke. But he stopped when the warriors around him stiffened in warning, and lifted his hands to signal that he meant no harm or threat, as he called out just loudly enough for Sandburg and Jackson to hear him, "Hey, geniuses, we're wondering if they'd accept some help, like blankets, warm clothing, fuel and food, as a gesture of peaceful intentions. Sam says the weather is likely to get lots worse before it gets better. Might be a major blizzard coming."
Startled by his intervention, both Blair and Daniel lifted their gazes toward him and then looked at Sam speculatively. The archeologist was sniffling, partly from the cold and partly from the smoky air that was making his eyes water, and the anthropologist was shivering violently, despite his closer proximity to the fire. Nodding in understanding, Sandburg turned back to the Chieftain, Ktari, and began to patiently explain their offer, struggling to be understood despite the rather significant adaptations these people had made to their language since being transported to this remote world, not to mention the major challenge to communication posed by the fact that they had no words whatsoever to convey concepts like cold or snow or blizzards.
They'd been talking for over three hours, and both Sandburg and Jackson were very aware of the continuing suspicious and anxious demeanor of their hosts. The Chieftain had spoken angrily about how Pele had failed to heed their prayers, and Sandburg had been told in great detail about how the sea had risen up, years ago, to steal away scores of people; in return, he expressed his genuine grief and sorrow for the losses and pain they had suffered. The woman had mumbled more than once about the possibility of them being demons sent to test the people or lead them into destruction - given the coincidence of the horrific eruptions and earthquakes with the arrival of the MALP, not to mention the steady deterioration in the weather during their time on the planet, Blair had his work cut out for him in refuting such an eminently logical conclusion. For the last hour, he'd dared hope he was making some headway, or at least holding his own, given they hadn't yet been taken prisoner but were still being treated with some deference. It had helped, somewhat, that his claim that their ancestors had come from Earth resonated with their own legends of having originated in some faraway land and of being brought to this place by Pele. However, it hadn't helped to honestly admit that they weren't representatives of Pele but only ordinary human beings. These people needed miracle workers, and this new talk of rivers that grew stiff and hard with the cold, and white ice that fell from the sky, wasn't helping their cause any.
Both local leaders looked increasingly skeptical and impatient, afraid and then angry. Abruptly, the Chieftain made a blunt cutting motion with his hand, stopping Sandburg in mid-sentence, and snapped his fingers as he issued a sharp order to the warriors that surrounded them. Blair paled and grated, just loud enough for Jack to hear him, his voice low and tense, "Get out, if you can; back to the Gate. NOW!"
"Oh, shit," Jack muttered as he swiftly brought his weapon into line, even as Sam surged to her feet and Teal'c raised his lance. "What's going on?" he called back, having no intention of leaving without the two civilians. His gaze locked with the Chieftain's, the threat in both their expressions and bearing crystal clear so, briefly, they had a standoff. For a tense moment, it was a frozen tableau, the warriors holding their spears and knives ready to attack, the travelers from Earth ready to defend themselves, if necessary.
"He's decided the Priestess is right and we're demons," Blair explained, keeping his voice calm and even in the taut silence. "I think he hopes that if he sacrifices us to Pele that the Sacred Mountain will stop exploding in anger and the Goddess will reward them by bringing back the warmer weather."
"Great," O'Neill sighed. "Okay, you two get over here before they start sizing you up for dinner. We'll leave together."
Blair and Daniel raised their hands and slowly stood to back toward the others at the entrance to the hut. When one of the warriors lifted his spear and lunged threateningly toward Daniel, clearly with harmful intent, Jack shot once, a startlingly loud explosion of sound in the tense silence; the man screamed as he gripped his shoulder, terrified by the pain and the sudden spurt of blood.
Looking regretful, O'Neill again sought the Chieftain's gaze, patting his weapon meaningfully, but he wasn't entirely unhappy with the chance to show off their superior firepower without actually having to kill someone. Ktari looked astonished and then troubled as he glared back at Jack, evidently having gotten the message, as he remained silent rather than ordering further action on the part of his men.
All too conscious of the tentative nature of the momentary cease-fire, the two civilian team members continued to slowly edge their way toward their escape. But a grinding rumble rose around them as another aftershock rippled through the earth, and the ground heaved viciously, throwing everything into utter confusion; everyone who was standing was thrown roughly to the ground in a tangle of limbs and weapons. By the time the quake had passed, and Jack had gotten back up on one knee, his weapon again leveled, two grim-faced warriors were holding long, wicked knives at both Blair and Daniel's throats - and Sam had another sticking out of the top of her left shoulder, the unlucky victim when one of the locals had lost his grip on the weapon and it had gone flying haphazardly in the confusion of the violent tremor.
"Oh, this just keeps getting better, doesn't it," O'Neill carped, disgusted. They'd almost made it away. Damn it all to hell.
"Go," Daniel snapped, his gaze flickering between the warrior holding him down and Jack. "Get Sam back to the Gate."
"And bring back winter survival gear," Sandburg added, his teeth chattering from the cold. He winced as the blade dug warningly into the tender skin of his throat.
"We'll be back soon," the Colonel promised as he jerked his head toward the mat-covered exit behind him, wordlessly ordering Carter and Teal'c to precede him outside, while he kept them covered. "Try not to get shish-ka-bobbed in the meantime, okay?" he added wryly, with little humour, but felt better for seeing Daniel's lips quirk in a grim parody of amusement and Sandburg even managed to chuckle hoarsely - nervously, but gamely.
Once clear of the hut, resolutely ignoring the sharp wind and bitter cold, the three soldiers ran flat out for the two miles between the village and the Gate, Jack lending some support to Sam as Teal'c covered their back trail. The blade in her shoulder was obviously causing considerable pain, but they didn't want to extract it until they could deal with the increased bleeding that would occur after its removal. There was no pursuit, the warriors no doubt warily respectful of their superior firepower. They made it back to the meadow without difficulty, but it had already begun to snow, a depressingly gray combination of ash and frozen condensation. In minutes, their hair and clothing glistened with the cold crystals that heavily coated the trees and shrubbery, and were blown into drifts by the relentless wind, turning the world into a grim wonderland of ice. When they got to the DHD, Teal'c dialed home, while Jack gave Carter her orders.
"Teal'c and I will go back for the others, but you'd better ask Hammond to muster the rest of SG22 in case we need help," he said quickly, his eyes on her wound as he silently evaluated its severity, conscious of his sense of relief to know it didn't look like more than a bad gash high on her left shoulder. Lifting his gaze to hers, he continued, "You and Sandburg are right - we need to bring in winter survival supplies and lots of them, in one hell of a hurry. Maybe there's still a chance of salvaging this mission and helping these people. There's no indication that Pele, whoever she is, is around and I haven't seen any evidence of Jaffa or advanced military training, so if we give them assistance despite their rude reception, we might still have access to the naquada."
"Yes, sir," she replied briskly as the Gate spun behind her. She was pale from pain and blood loss, her hair spangled with ice crystals, and her skin was blue from the cold.
"And you stay put in Sick Bay," O'Neill added meaningfully. "I don't want to see you rushing back here with the rescue party. Understood?"
"But," she began, only to be cut off.
"That's an order, Major," he growled as he pushed her gently toward the Gate's horizon. "Hopefully, we'll be right behind you."
"Yes, sir," she said again, grudgingly, clearly not happy. Her shoulder scarcely needed a good pressure bandage! It wasn't as if she couldn't - but Jack had propelled her up the short ramp and she took a breath as she stepped through.
It was the howl of the wolf that jerked Jim awake from his restless sleep. For a moment, he felt disoriented as he shivered with cold in the dim light of the quiet infirmary. His heart was pounding and he felt an almost unbearable sense of urgency that he recognized all too well. His Guide was in deadly danger.
"Simon," he called sharply, to wake his superior, as he tossed off the blankets and rolled to his feet.
"Huh? What?" Banks muttered blearily.
"We've got trouble," Ellison snapped grimly, rummaging in the closet for his clothing and tossing Simon's onto the Colonel's bed.
Yawning, Banks rubbed a hand over his face as he looked around dazedly, not hearing claxons or sensing any other immediate threat. The nurse at the night duty desk was already making her way toward them, looking irritated by Ellison's inexplicable behaviour. "What trouble?"
"I heard the wolf," Jim growled as he pulled on his pants. "C'mon! Sandburg and the others are in danger!"
"Wonderful," Simon grunted irritably, as he rose abruptly and began to dress, his motions economical and urgent. He didn't understand the mystical shit, but if Ellison said he heard 'the wolf', Banks believed the danger was very real. When the nurse started to protest, he gave her a sharp look as he ordered her bluntly, "Call General Hammond and tell him SG-1 is in trouble. We're going to the Gate Room to head out there. Track down Conner and tell her to get back here and stand by to render assistance if needed."
In less than two minutes, they were racing through the night-dimmed corridors, stopping only briefly at their lockers to haul on their mission gear and grab their weapons and ammunition, before hurrying to the Stargate.
They arrived just as it began to spin.
"It's SG-1," the night duty sergeant advised them solemnly from the control room above. The team wasn't due back for days and a precipitous return could only mean they'd run into serious problems.
"Have we had any communication from them since they left?" Banks demanded, his eyes straying to the clock high on the wall. Given when Sandburg had left them in the infirmary, he guesstimated that the team had been off-world for about four hours.
"No, sir," the technician advised him.
Banks grimaced and shook his head, wondering why Jack hadn't called in when they'd encountered problems. Maybe they hadn't had time, he mused, or maybe things had only just deteriorated. Whatever; he'd know momentarily. Impatiently, they waited, hoping to see their colleagues return safely, but Jim's rigid jaw didn't give Simon a good feeling. He'd be damned if he could understand the spiritual mumbo-jumbo that went on between Ellison and Sandburg, but he'd long ago learned to trust it. If the wolf had called Jim out of a deep sleep, then it wasn't likely that Blair was simply on his way home. Banks frowned as he noticed that Ellison was shivering and looked almost blue with cold.
"What's wrong?" he asked, suddenly worried his subordinate was ill. "You're shivering as if you have a fever or something."
Tightly, Jim shrugged. "I don't know," he muttered. "It's not a fever, but it feels as if it's freezing in here."
The event horizon shimmered into place before Simon could reply and they both looked up hopefully. A moment later, Carter staggered through, shuddering with cold and looking nearly frozen, blood staining her uniform from the wound in her shoulder, the haft of the blade still very much in evidence.
They gaped at her, surprised and very concerned when no one else followed her out of the Gate. "What's going on?" Simon called out, fear at the sight of blade in her body lacing his tone, making it brittle. "I thought the planet was supposed to be a peaceful, tropical paradise."
Moving rapidly down the ramp, her left arm cradled across her body, Sam nodded once, sharply. "It was, yesterday, Colonel, but a major volcanic incident has occurred and a blizzard is starting. You're going to need warmer gear and we'll begin sending survival supplies through after you."
"Where's Sandburg?" Ellison demanded before Simon could ask.
"He and Daniel are being held by the people there - given the unfortunate conjunction of our arrival with the inexplicable, in their view, weather, they decided we're demons and should be sacrificed," she replied somberly, standing sturdily before them, giving no quarter to her wound or the blood flowing from it. "Colonel O'Neill and Teal'c just headed back to the village to rescue them."
His gaze narrowing in concentration, Simon hastily ordered more appropriate gear for their mission. Once one of the noncoms had left to acquire what was needed, he turned back to Carter and said darkly, "Give us what you've got, and then we'll go lend them a hand. I gather the sudden deep-freeze isn't 'inexplicable' to you."
"No, sir. I believe it's related to the cataclysmic volcanic activity on the world," she replied soberly. Briskly, conscious that Ellison was barely containing his impatience to leave, Carter debriefed them on the situation on the distant planet. Nodding as he listened, the most senior officer present until Hammond returned to the Base, Simon waved over the Captain of the patrol that guarded the Gate. "Give Major Carter whatever assistance she requires in putting together the winter supplies ASAP. Send what you have as it's consolidated for transport, fuel, portable heaters, blankets and warm clothing first, then food, tools and equipment and temporary shelter materials. Make sure there are sleds and snowshoes to aid in traversing deep banks of snow."
"And maybe skates," Carter added. "There are a lot of rivers and streams that are nearly frozen already, and it might be faster to travel over them rather than through the thick drifts in the forest. The wind is blowing so hard that the ice may stay clear for quite a while. Infrared goggles might also be useful to help see if the weather keeps deteriorating - it's already very dark there."
The sergeant reappeared with heavier jackets, woolen caps and leather, fur-lined gloves as well as boots for the two SG-22 team members, but handed infrared goggles to the Colonel only, knowing that the Sentinel didn't need them. The soldiers behind him carried additional gear for them to take to the SG-1 and SG-22 people still on the planet.
Within fifteen minutes of their arrival in the Gate Room, Colonel Banks and the Sentinel, Jim Ellison, were striding up the ramp and through the rippling horizon to X-551.
Blair kept trying to explain that they weren't demons but simply men from Earth, where the natives of this world had originally come from, but no one was particularly interested in anything he had to say. Their clothing was stripped off and their skin rippled with goosebumps in the chilly air. His and Daniel's wrists were bound and they were forced to kneel naked by the council fire, glad of its paltry warmth; spears were pointed warningly at them so they remained as still as they could despite the violent shivering that assailed both of them.
"What're they likely to do to us?" Daniel queried, his voice very low as he glanced warily at their guards.
Swallowing, his head bowed and cocked a little as he strained to make out the conversation the two elders were having, Sandburg muttered back, "I think they plan to go ahead with the sacrifice as soon as preparations are made."
Jackson gave his colleague a sharp look and clamped his mouth closed, his lips a thin line as he squinted in thought. "What preparations?" he asked after a moment, wondering how much time they had.
"Well, rituals varied considerably from one segment of this society to another, given the huge distances that separated the islands of the Pacific," Blair replied quietly, taking refuge from his fear in his intellect. "If they thought we were gods, they would probably want us to lie with some of their maidens," he went on, trying for some note of humour. But his voice flattened as he continued, "But, since they think we're demons, that's not likely to happen. I would expect they want to destroy us as quickly as they can to prove their allegiance to Pele."
When the warrior who had led them to the village got into the nearby discussion of their fate, Sandburg returned his attention to the three natives. "Tzchen seems to believe we are only men, as we claim. He's arguing that killing us won't stop the mountain from erupting or miraculously clear the sky."
Daniel gave the young warrior a grateful look. It was good to know they had someone on their side.
"Mwilda, the Priestess, is castigating him for his lack of belief and telling him that he'll only make the goddess more angry with his foolish words," Blair reported with a sigh.
"What's the Chief saying?" Jackson asked as the older man rumbled out a short observation and gave them a baleful look.
"He says that he doesn't know if we are men or demons, but it can't hurt to give our lives to the goddess in any case," Sandburg murmured, his voice tight. "Looks like sacrifice is still leading the immediate agenda."
"Oh goody," Daniel grated, looking disgusted.
"I'm sorry, Daniel," Blair murmured, feeling guilty for having been unable to convince the locals of the peacefulness of their mission. "I guess I didn't do a very good job of representing our intentions."
Snorting, Jackson shook his head. "You were doing just fine - it's not your fault that the planet's ecological system went to hell in a handbasket just as we came on the scene. If anything, I should be apologizing to you for getting you into this mess. Ellison is going to kill me."
Blair huffed a humourless laugh at that. ‘Only after he kills me first, for not listening to him in the first place,' he thought miserably.
Close by, Tzchen grunted and shook his head angrily as he threw them an inscrutable look and then stalked away. Mwilda glared at them before kneeling on the far side of the fire to pour water from a gourd into a clay cup, and then she tossed in some herbs from a pouch on her belt. Using a short stick, she stirred the brew and muttered incantations over it.
"I think they're going to drug us," Blair said then, his voice rising anxiously.
"Drug? With what? Is it poisonous?" Daniel challenged, stiffening; realizing the younger man wouldn't know the answers any more than he did, he shifted his attention to trying to buy them more time. "Keep talking to them," he urged. "Keep telling them we're here to offer help. Medicine. Warm clothing. Whatever they want."
Blair nodded and started jabbering, his tone appealing and earnest, but Mwilda ignored them and Ktari simply shrugged as he flicked a finger at them and the warriors around them grabbed their arms, holding them rigidly in place. Still Sandburg kept up his explanations and offers, arguing that if they were demons, they wouldn't be able to be held captive, but could work magic to free themselves. However, at a hard glance from the Priestess, one warrior pulled a long blade and held it to his throat. Taking that as his cue to shut up, he pressed his lips closed, but he continued to try to maintain imploring, wide-eyed nonverbal contact with the Chieftain.
When she stood and walked around the fire toward them, their guards grabbed their hair, pulling their heads back. She stood over Sandburg first, and made a number of ritualized gestures as she spouted incantations. Then, Blair's nose was pinched as his mouth was forced open and goodly portion of the potion was poured down his throat. He sputtered and gagged at the bitter, sour taste, trying not to swallow, but his mouth was pressed closed while his nose remained pinched. He had no choice but to swallow the foul brew or he'd choke on it; he shuddered as unwelcome memories of a psychopathic murderer and an empty, isolated warehouse flooded his mind. When the hold on his head and face was finally released, she smiled coldly as he gasped for air, and then moved to repeat the ceremony with Daniel. He, too, tried to resist, but equally vainly.
"Yyechhh," Jackson spluttered and spat. "What was that stuff?"
"Like I know?" Sandburg returned with a grimace, hoping it was merely a sedative and not poison. Nausea roiled in his gut, and he hoped his body would expel the draught, but it seemed to be staying down, worse luck. "It's probably a soporific of some kind, so we won't fight and spoil the sacrifice."
"So, it'll just knock us out?" Daniel asked, uncertainly, again wondering how much time they had. "How fast?"
Shrugging, Blair shook his head. "I have no idea. But, I gotta say, if they're going to gut us and rip our hearts out, I sure hope we aren't awake to know it," he replied grimly.
They were hauled summarily to their feet, and shoved out of the meeting lodge into the brunt of the cutting wind that howled across the open ground in the centre of the substantial village. The snow had begun to fall heavily with great, fat flakes that swirled blindingly, wet and cold. Cringing helplessly against the icy wind, they padded rapidly across the frozen ground, the soles of their feet and the skin of their bodies feeling almost as if they were being seared by the cold and snow. The smell of smoke and the acrid scent of burned wood permeated the air, and both men could see that some huts had caught fire, bright hot splashes of light in the darkness of the eerie night, a few already burned to smoldering ashes that sizzled the falling the snow and lifted a cloudy fog of vapour over the area. Given the constant wind, it would be a miracle if the fires didn't spread, burning whole village to the ground. Except for the garish light from the flames, it was very dark from the heavy layers of volcanic ash that filled the air, but the distant mountain still blazed with fiery splendour, thick trails of red-hot lava spilling like slithering snakes from the crater.
"Snow," Sandburg said to the men with them, gesturing with his bound hands, still attempting to bridge the communication gap. "This is snow." Shivering, freezing as the bitter chill ripped him to the bone, he added, "Cold! Very cold!"
"It's useless," Daniel intervened, sounding discouraged. "They aren't listening to you. If Jack hadn't shot that guy, maybe - "
"Maybe you'd be dead," Blair cut back, having seen what Jackson hadn't - the spear aimed toward his friend's back - as they were pushed roughly across open ground. "Jack didn't have any choice, Daniel. If he hadn't done what he did, they might have killed us all in a preemptive strike. At least we bought some time and the others got away to get help."
Ducking their heads to enter through the low lintel into a small, barren hut that barely managed to block the icy wind, bereft of the fire that had burned in the main lodge, both men shuddered pitifully with cold as they were pushed down to their knees on the hard ground. Their escorts tied their bound wrists tightly to stakes driven into the ground and left them to huddle together as close as they could to share warmth.
"So, why didn't they just kill us?" the archeologist asked, with some scientific curiousity, but mostly with foreboding about their immediate future.
Shivering violently, his teeth beginning to chatter uncontrollably, Blair stammered, "B-because th-they w-want t-to d-do it r-right."
"Do what right?" Jackson asked with no little trepidation. "Exactly, I mean. What's going to happen next?"
"The s-sacrifice to the g-goddess usually t-takes p-place in her t-t-temple," Sandburg sighed, feeling more wretched than he had in some long time. Damn but it was cold! Blowing out a long breath, gritting his teeth to stop their reflexive clicking, he avoided going into the details of the ritual itself - if Jack and Teal'c didn't get back in time, Daniel would find out soon enough and there was no point in both of them being haunted by images of being disemboweled, their hearts torn from still living bodies - and explained vaguely instead, "The Priestess will want to prepare spiritually, and the Chieftain will be charged with getting the altar ready. It won't be easy in this weather to clear and cleanse it."
"And we're the sacrifice," Jackson stated flatly, harbouring no hopeful doubts, and pretty sure of what to expect whether Sandburg spelled it out for him or not. He thought about that as he studied the hut and the bindings that held them to the stake, and then began to fumble with the rough cords of woven rope, but his fingers were already too numb with cold to loosen the thick, tight knots. "Damn it," he sighed as he sank back against Sandburg who had also been fighting with the knots to no avail. The ropes were too tight. Together, they tried to wrest the stake from the ground, but it had been pounded in deeply and now the earth was frozen around it, holding it firmly. "How much time do you figure we have?"
Sniffing, shivering, his shoulders hunched as he curled forward to conserve as much of his body heat as he could, Blair shook his head and struggled to speak clearly. "Not sure. S-some rituals require f-fasting for a day to purify the body and spirit. But, unless s-something happens to get us out of here, we'll f-freeze to death before the fast ends."
Briefly, Daniel considered using the mental discipline he'd learned to create flames out of thin air, but the wind was whistling through the cracks in the thin reed and wood walls, and he was afraid a small fire for warmth would soon be blown into a conflagration that would incinerate them. Freezing to death would take a lot longer than going up in a puff of smoke. "Jack will come back for us," Jackson replied staunchly. Giving Sandburg a lopsided grin, he added, "He has to. Jim would kill him if he went back without you."
Blair snickered at that. "Jim'll probably k-kill me for g-getting into this mess in the first p-place," he returned with a yawn that loosened his control on his chattering teeth. "He didn't w-want me coming w-without him." Briefly, a distant look of mingled sorrow and regret filled his eyes, as he wished with all his heart that he'd heeded his Sentinel's will.
"Don't fall asleep," Daniel warned, suddenly alarmed as the younger man's eyelids began to droop, and he wondered if Blair's lower body mass made him more susceptible to the effects of the drug they'd been given. "It's the cold and whatever was in that potion. But, if you fall asleep, you'll freeze to death."
"Yeah, I know," Sandburg replied muzzily, as the frigid air ate into his bones. Yawning widely again in an autonomic effort to drag in more oxygen, shivering uncontrollably, his body burning energy at a furious rate to try to keep warm, he slumped weakly against Jackson.
"Talk to me, Blair," Daniel urged in an effort to keep his friend awake. "Tell me what they said when we were back in the lodge."
"Huh? Oh, well," Sandburg began, and then tried to stifle another yawn. His voice became increasingly weak and distant, his body's energy failing, as he reported dutifully, "Uh, well, it seems Pele hasn't been back since She brought them here - I'd guess, from their language and possessions about seven or eight hundred years ago, round about the time the Maori found, and settled in, New Zealand." He swallowed and shivered, his face gray with cold and his fingers turning blue, then continued, "They've been praying pretty much nonstop, I guess, for her to return, especially after a tidal wave or tsunami hit the coast about thirty or so years ago, killing a whole bunch of people. They thought, when the Gate activated, that she was finally responding. They weren't happy, as was pretty evident, when first the MALP and then we appeared."
His voice had grown very slow and faint, and he'd stopped shivering, his teeth no longer chattering; not good signs in Daniel's view. When Sandburg finally trailed off altogether as his eyes dipped closed, Jackson nudged him once and then more roughly. His gaze narrowed in concern when he looked down at the younger man and realized Blair was very close to falling asleep. "Stay awake," Daniel commanded sharply, but he could feel lassitude growing in his own body; he had to bite off a wide yawn of his own.
"Not sure that hypothermia and sedatives are things we have any control over…" Blair murmured very softly and then, afraid they might really die on this distant planet, whispered more softly still, "Sorry, Jim. So s-sorry…"
Even straining, Daniel couldn't make out the last sibilant words, though he guessed at the sentiment. He felt a pang of deep regret for having dragged Sandburg into this mess, but he also desperately hoped that O'Neill and Teal'c would get to them in time to save their lives. Shifting and squirming a little, he was able to loop his bound arms around Blair, to draw him close and share as much body heat as he could. The younger man lay limply against his chest, his breathing slowing as he slipped into a heavy sleep. Jackson frowned anxiously as he bent to rest his chin on the top of Sandburg's head. As much as Daniel wanted to argue and urge Blair to fight the deadly sleepiness, he felt himself also fast succumbing to the cruel cold and the effects of the soporific drug. No longer feeling as if he were freezing, he instead felt an illusion of warmth and wellbeing that he knew to be false, but he could scarcely keep his eyes open. "B-better h-hurry, J-Jack," he mumbled, feeling oddly confused, no longer sure where he was as he blinked heavily and finally could not longer resist letting his eyes slip shut. The two men slowly crumpled against one another as they slid to the frozen ground.
Deeply unconscious, neither scholar felt the next shocking tremor when the ground lurched under and around them, bringing down part of the roof and one wall of their tiny hut, allowing the driving snow entry to drift in and over them, a grimy blanket against the elements.
A narrow, fractured fissure opened not more than half a mile downhill from the village; lava boiled and bubbled out, rolling slowly toward the increasingly turbulent and invasive sea.
Waves surged powerfully over their knees as they lunged out of the Gate, causing them to stagger and flounder their way to higher ground. The icy wind cut through the wet clothing, and snow billowed around them, reducing visibility to zero.
"Dammit," Simon cursed as he toggled his radio. "I hope you can see or sense something through this muck," he growled to Jim before snapping off orders to the technicians monitoring them back on earth. "The sea is encroaching on the Gate. Send the supplies through on rafts and a team will need to come with them, to secure them on higher ground."
"Roger that, SG22," came the tinny response.
Squinting through the darkness and disorienting blizzard, Ellison cocked his head and then took Simon by the arm. "I'm picking up three heartbeats about half a mile away," he reported, as he led off. "The village Carter told us about is in the same direction. It's probably O'Neill and Teal'c."
"Uh huh," Banks grunted, slogging through the slippery drifts. Once again resorting to his radio, he switched the frequency and called, "Jack? You reading this?"
"Hey, Simon, you got Jim, our handy-dandy Sentinel, with you?"
Smiling grimly as he jogged behind his intrepid team member, Banks replied, "Where else would he be? He's picked up your trail and figures we're about half a mile behind you. Hold up. We'll join you in ten."
"Glad to have the company," Jack drawled back. "We've just come across a new fissure and we'll have to find a way around it, but Teal'c and I are currently lost in the mother of all fogbanks. The brain trust is still in the village and they're expecting to be rescued, sooner rather than later, if you get my drift."
"So Carter told us," Simon replied, his head down and shoulders hunched against the wind. When they encountered a thick bank of fog short minutes later, Banks was more than content to grab hold of Ellison's jacket and simply let the other man lead him forward.
"We're close to the fissure," Jim told him soberly, impatience clear in his tone. "The combination of the hot lava and the snow is probably what's generated this mess."
"You going to be able to find a way around it?" Simon asked, as keenly aware of the urgency of getting to the village, as was Ellison.
"Count on it," the Sentinel growled. If the situation weren't so dire, Banks might have grinned ruefully; it would take more than minor little obstacles like an erupting volcano and weather gone wild to keep Ellison from getting to Sandburg. Shortly after, they came upon O'Neill and Teal'c, who had taken some shelter under the trees, but were still so snow-covered that they resembled abominable snowmen as they rose like apparitions at Ellison's call.
"Can't see a damned thing in this soup," Jack grunted, but he grinned in greeting and they gratefully pulled on the heavier coats the others had brought for them. "'Course, I guess you don't need to see, do you, Ellison?"
Impatient to keep moving, Jim simply grated, "This way," as he led them through the swirling fog and snow. Though even he couldn't see much, he could make out the glow of lava deep within the miasma, but it was his sense of touch that he was relying upon as he moved unerringly around the heat generated by the molten rock and then uphill, toward the village.
Ellison ran with a swift economy of motion, setting a fast pace, as he raced unerringly through the growing blizzard, the others stumbling in their effort to keep up with him. Cold, implacable urgency filled his gut and pressed into his chest, and he could hear the wolf howling almost continuously now, its eerie, haunting cry rising over the blustering wind. Fear darkened his eyes and tightened in his throat, and he pressed forward, faster still, knowing without doubt that Sandburg was in lethal danger.
"Bring them," Mwilda commanded austerely.
Knowing that his mother was in no mood to be reasoned with, Tzchen shook his head as he muttered to his father, "This is a mistake."
Ktari simply glowered at his son until the younger man stiffened and turned away, calling to two of his friends to follow him. His expression impassive, though his eyes burned with anger, Tzchen strode out of the sturdy and resilient, wooden Temple to Pele. As he crossed the open square and saw the remains of the collapsed hut, he broke into a run as he wondered if they'd find their prisoners alive, or if they would have succumbed to the cold. Mwilda would not be well pleased to learn her hostages were already dead. He and his comrades scrambled to brush the snow away that had drifted over the two men, and the warrior was amazed to find them still breathing, as if the cold gray stuff had formed a kind of blanket over them, protecting them from the worst of the wind. Still, their skin was blue and their breathing shallow. Swiftly, their bonds were cut and Tzchen pulled the smaller of the two prisoners into his strong arms, while his friends shared the burden of the larger man.
They all hunched against the terrible wind, stiff and aching from the relentless cold, as they bore their prisoners back to the temple, anxious to pass under its elaborately carved lintel of stained red wood and get out of the strange and awesome storm. Inside, it was still cold, but the fires built in metal drums in each corner, and flickering in torches held in sconces around the walls, helped cut the chill. The people crowded inside moved out of their way as they carried the so-called demons to the long sacred stone alter, laying them head to head along its length. Behind the altar, in the flickering shadows, was a life-sized statue of Pele that loomed over the people who worshipped Her.
Mwilda chanted as she and her acolytes danced three times around the raised dais to create a sacred space and honour the Goddess, bowing deeply as they passed the statue, telling her of the gift of the lives of these demons that they were about to give to Her. Their voices, gentle and lyrical, intrinsically warm, obscured the grimness of their intent that night. Then, halting the dance and the singing, Mwilda paused beside the one who had told them such lies of being men who had come from the stars through the Sacred Wheel, but who had brought such trouble with them. Demons. They had to be demons or nothing made any sense.
One of her subordinate priestesses handed her the ceremonial blade, a long, curved weapon of ancient bone that had been hewn from the rib of a kia, and was richly decorated with intricate carvings etched along its length. She lifted it high, its polished surface glinting in the firelight as she chanted the final strains of her prayer to Pele. In moments, the knife would sweep down and rip open the man with the long curls…and then, once his heart was cut from his still living, breathing, body, his friend would suffer the same fate.
Tzchen closed his eyes and turned his head away, unwilling to witness what he considered nothing more than wanton murder. These men were no demons and, though he could not understand the magic that had brought them through the Sacred Wheel, he had believed the one with the long, wild hair. The man had spoken openly, his eyes and voice holding truth - there had been no air of deceit about him. And his friends could have killed them all with their mysterious but very powerful weapons…surely demons wouldn't have run away, but would have massacred them rather than abandon their fellows? Sacrificing them would be a useless waste - worse, these men who harnessed such amazing power might have been able to help them. They'd offered supplies of food, clothing and fuel for warmth, but if these two were summarily killed, their comrades weren't likely to make those offers good. Ending their lives to satisfy superstition seemed unbelievably foolish to Tzchen, but the decision was not his to make.
"What the bloody hell is going on?" Conner demanded as she raced into the Control Room. She'd hastily dressed in jeans, sweatshirt and boots when she'd received the urgent, middle of the night call to report for duty; her face was pale with anxiety, and haloed by her mane of bright copper, loosely bound hair. All she'd been told was that Sandburg had gone out hours earlier with SG-1, and that Banks and Ellison, certain the other team was in trouble, had headed out after them.
Rapidly, Sergeant Davis brought her up to date as teams of workers continued to swiftly transfer crates of supplies into the Gate Room below. Listening with growing alarm, she interrupted only to ask another technician to bring cold weather gear to her, while she remained in the control room for the rest of the briefing. Her expression grim, she looked up as Carter loped into the room, her arm in a sling, just as the duty sergeant finished. "You okay?" Megan asked with a frown of empathetic concern for the lines of strain around Sam's mouth and eyes.
"Yes, I'm fine," the other woman replied briskly as she slid into a chair and punched on the computer terminal. Shifting the discussion away from her health back to the business at hand, she continued quickly, "I'm going to enter the readings I took on the planet to see if we can get a better handle on the ecological disaster that's underway there. It might not be enough to only send supplies - we may have to evacuate everyone before the world becomes uninhabitable."
"How many people are we talking about?" Conner demanded, already considering the logistics of such an evacuation.
"I'd estimate there were about seven hundred people in the village," Sam replied with a shrug as she entered in data and squinted in concentration as she studied the screen. "I don't know if there are other villages, but I'd doubt it. These people seemed well ensconced near the Gate and I doubt they'd've drifted far from it since being taken to the planet."
Too many people to be housed in the mountain complex, at least for any length of time, and there was a strict policy of not allowing off-worlders to mingle with the unsuspecting people of earth - nobody was ready to tell the worldwide populace about life on other planets and the threat of the Goa'uld. Biting her lip, Conner murmured, "We'd have to find another planet for them." Sam nodded in agreement as she focused on entering more data into the computer.
"I heard that Sandy and Daniel have been taken hostage," Megan said then anxiously, her own impatient gaze on the preparations below.
"Yeah," Carter grunted and then looked up, her worried eyes belying her reassurance, "I'm sure they'll be okay. Jack and Teal'c were going back for them, and Simon and Jim headed out nearly twenty minutes ago to help."
"We're just about ready to ship the first load," Sergeant Davis intervened as he began to dial up the Gate.
"Good," Conner snapped briskly. Turning toward the door, she added as she swiftly hauled on the weatherproof and insulated pants and then the warm coat that had been brought to her, along with infrared goggles, woolen cap and gloves, "I'm going with it." Less than a minute later, her weapon in hand, she strode resolutely up the ramp ahead of the first raft full of crates, which was carried by six soldiers, and stepped through the event horizon.
Carter watched them leave, her jaw tight with chagrined regret that she wasn't able to go as well, and then she returned her attention to the computer screen, unconsciously chewing on her lip as she continued her analysis of the ecological disaster so very many millions of miles away.
Too far away to intervene without putting Sandburg and Jackson at risk, they watched their colleagues being carried into the large wooden building they assumed was the local temple. Teal'c loped off to do a swift reconnaissance to determine if there were any other entry points besides the wide, open portal above a short flight of three stone steps.
"There is no other way in, Sentinel," he called softly without waiting to return to report, knowing time was of the essence if the sacrificial ceremony was already underway. Ellison had assured them that both Jackson and Sandburg were still alive, as he'd been able to hear their heartbeats, but his obvious worry about how deeply unconscious both men seemed had communicated itself to the others. They were all tense, primed to attack, undeterred by the fact that the four of them were going up against the hundreds of people crammed into the temple.
Jim's lips thinned as he listened to the melodious chanting, impatient to get inside and stop whatever was happening before it was too late. As soon as he saw Teal'c coming round the side of the building, he said stonily, "Okay, we're out of time and options. We go straight in and shoot over their heads to frighten them so we can use the surprise to get to the altar, which, from the sound of things, is located in the far end. If there is an immediate threat to Blair or Daniel, I'll handle it. Agreed?"
"Go for it," O'Neill, the senior officer present, ordered immediately, and they rushed up the steps and into the temple. As soon as they were inside, Simon and Jack let off a barrage of bullets toward the roof, inciting screams of terror as the villagers jostled to get away from the deadly threat behind them. Taller than any of the locals, Jim had a clear view of the wicked blade plunging down toward his partner's body -
He shot without consciously aiming, only knowing that he couldn't, wouldn't miss.
The bone shattered under the force of the bullet that tore through it, leaving a single jagged bit still attached to the hilt in the Priestess's hand. Her downward thrust was severely jolted by the blast, but didn't stop, the muscles of her arm carrying out the action already started, and the shortened but still sharp remains of the blade plunged into Sandburg's upper body.
"NOOOO!" Ellison screamed with terrible rage and furious denial, and then he was pushing desperately through the crowd of frenzied people between him and his best friend. Simon and Jack stayed close behind him as Teal'c brought up the rear, keeping them all covered with his deadly lance.
Pulling the shattered blade free and then dropping it to clatter on the stone-paved floor, Mwilda shrank back in fear as the men she honestly believed to be demons advanced rapidly upon her; and then she trembled in relief when they ignored her, having interest only in the men upon the altar. Ktari was calling upon his people to restrain their terror and to listen to him, and Tzchen shook his head as he wondered if these strangers would kill them all in revenge for what had just been done. Certainly, as no weapons were ever brought into the Temple, he and his people had no way of defending themselves against their evident fury. But for the muted sobbing of terrified women, an eerie silence fell over the crowd as they watched the four frightening men run toward the altar.
Jim's heart had clenched so painfully when he'd seen the remnants of the blade plunge into Blair's body that he could scarcely breathe. Despite his exceptional vision, the angle was wrong and he couldn't tell if the wound was mortal or not, and he was too shocked and stunned to focus his hearing, to know if Sandburg's heart was still beating. Pale with dread, trembling, he leapt up the steps and slid to a halt by the altar, his gaze raking Blair's body even as he tossed the coat he'd brought over his friend to cover his nakedness in the very chilly hall, and then reached out to touch his Guide and slam his hand over the ugly, hemorrhaging wound. Behind him, Jack headed directly for Daniel to cover him with the last extra coat, equally afraid to find that they'd arrived too late after all.
"Jim?" Simon called out from behind him, weapon trained on the crowd. "Is he…"
"He's alive," Ellison grated with profound relief. "They both are." Taking a breath to steady his jangled emotions, he added, "The wound's in his shoulder, not his chest."
"Thank God," Banks sighed meaningfully.
"They're freezing," Jack muttered angrily as he pulled off his own coat to bundle it around Daniel's legs and feet, and Jim did the same to cover Sandburg's limbs, before fumbling in the small medical kit he carried for a topical antibiotic and pressure bandage.
Simon and Teal'c made an imposing image as they stood tall and scowling above the villagers, and waved their weapons menacingly to signal everyone to move back and away from the front of the Temple. Scrambling backwards, pitifully glad to still be alive, the locals complied with the wordless but unmistakable command, many taking the chance in the confusion to slip out the doorway, the men taking their families to safety and then grabbing up their weapons, as useless as they were as protection against the powerful magic of the intruders.
Ktari, however, and Tzchen, remained in the large hall, neither having missed the significance that, as angry as they'd been, these strangers had not killed anyone in their rage and fear for their friends. The younger man exchanged a steady look with his father and then his mother, but kept his tongue stilled. It would be disrespectful and inappropriate, not to mention precipitate, to crow that he'd been right and the elders had been wrong. These men were no demons - the young one bled like any other man. Nor were they intrinsically evil, or they would have wreaked a bloody and immediate revenge. Mwilda, too, was beginning to have doubts about her assumption of the evil intentions of these beings who had come through the Sacred Wheel, and she bowed her head with deep regret and fear for perhaps having destroyed any hope her people might have of help from these powerful men.
"Chief?" Jim called softly as he worked over his friend's shoulder. "Can you hear me?" while Jack was lightly slapping Daniel's cheek as he cajoled, "C'mon, Daniel, wake up, already!" But both men remained insensible.
"I think they've been drugged," O'Neill grated, deeply worried after checking Jackson's pupils and finding them grossly dilated. "Dammit all to hell," he ground out, only loud enough for Jim to hear him, as he stared helplessly at his best friend's face.
"Drugged or poisoned?" Simon called back over his shoulder as he kept watch on the silent crowd.
"Or, perhaps, they are simply suffering from exposure," Teal'c suggested, wanting to offer hope, though his expression maintained its intimidating scowl.
"Or all of the above," Jim muttered, as he finished securing the dressing and slid up onto the altar to gather Blair up off the freezing stone, and hold him close to share warmth as he rubbed his partner's back and arm with nervous anxiety.
"Should we try to get them back to the Gate?" Banks asked then, with a quick, worried glance.
"No, we can't take them out into that blizzard in their condition," Jack replied, his voice and expression tight with frustration at not knowing how best to help Daniel and Sandburg, scared that they could both be dying. "The cold would kill them."
"What are the chances of our comrades being able to find their way to this village with the supplies, without a guide?" Teal'c rumbled, not sure if any of them but Ellison could even find their way back to the Gate in the howling storm and darkness.
"Nil," Ellison grated, swallowing hard. God, he didn't want to have to leave Blair, but he knew as well as did the others that he was the only one who could make that journey and back again with the help they needed. He bowed his head to rest his cheek against Sandburg's curls as he closed his eyes, and he unconsciously rocked Blair in his arms. Taking a breath, he told them with as steady a voice as he could manage, "Both their heartbeats are abnormally slow, and their respirations are shallow, as well as also too slow. I don't know if it's the effect of the drug they've obviously been given or hypothermia or both. But they're in bad shape. We need to warm them both up as well as we can here, or we'll lose them."
Ktari had been watching them closely and now he called out an order in a low, calm voice. Immediately, the warriors around him followed his lead in shedding their cloaks of cloth or leather or feathers. As a gesture of good faith, albeit belated, he gathered the pathetically inadequate coverings together, and stepped toward Simon and Teal'c, holding them out as he gestured with his chin toward the men on and around the altar.
Nodding soberly, Simon motioned for him to come closer and to deposit the cloaks on the floor in front of him, and then he picked them up while Teal'c maintained watch. Shrugging off his own coat to add to the ragged pile, he carried everything to Jack and Jim. "Here," he said. "The old man is right - these might help if we roll them in layers." Once he'd again resumed his position on guard, Teal'c divested himself of his own heavy coat and gave it to Jack for Daniel, letting Ellison layer Banks' coat over Sandburg.
Ellison and O'Neill worked over their friends, massaging warmth into icy hands and feet, and then their arms and legs. Jim took a momentary break his ministrations to rig a small pot over one of the fires around the altar to heat up some water, which they then patiently fed, almost drop by drop, into the unconscious men. All the while, they kept up a low, encouraging murmur, calling to their friends and urging them toward wakefulness.
Simon's radio came to life when Megan called to tell them she'd come through the Gate with the first load of supplies.
"What's happening?" she demanded as soon as she'd relayed her message. "Are Sandy and Daniel all right?"
"We've got them, but they aren't in great shape," Banks replied grimly, as he glanced at Ellison, hating to have to order the man to go back to the Gate, but not seeing much other choice. "We need the portable heaters, blankets and warmer clothing ASAP if they, and the rest of these people, are going to survive this deep-freeze."
"We've got more problems on this end, sir," she told him then. "The water is rising around the Gate and I'm not sure how many loads we'll be able to get through before it's submerged too deeply for use. I've chatted with Carter, and she thinks the tidal flooding may be temporary, but it's hard to predict how long it will last or how high it will get before it begins to recede. I'm not sure I should leave here with my current team of helpful elves, to bring what we have now, or wait until we get everything we can through and up to higher ground. They are stepping up the transport to get as much as they can to us in the next twenty to thirty minutes."
"Great," Simon sighed as he rolled his eyes at Jack, who shrugged and shook his head dolefully. "Do what you can to secure as much as possible before we lose contact with the other end," he told her. It was tempting to demand another team come through the Gate to allow the first team to transport what had already arrived, but Banks didn't want to put any more Stargate personnel at risk if, more likely when, the Gate became unusable - and it sounded like they might be stuck on this godforsaken planet for some considerable period of time. If the weather continued to deteriorate, or the volcanic activity got any worse, none of them might make it back home alive…or even dead, for that matter.
Jim felt a deep, hollow ache of despair to know he was soon going to have to leave Sandburg to go for the others and the essential supplies they had brought from Earth. God, he wished he could be sure the kid would be okay; it felt so wrong to leave him when he was so very vulnerable. Intellectually, Jim knew it was his sentinel instincts that were demanding he stay when he wasn't really needed, but his heart was on the side of his instincts, and he did NOT want to go.
"Jim?" Simon called quietly, understanding his friend's reluctance to leave his partner, but there was no one else to send.
"Yeah, yeah, I know," Ellison replied irritably, even as his grip tightened protectively around his friend. Taking a breath, he was about to lay Blair down upon the altar when he picked up the sound of deepening respirations and a slightly faster heartbeat. "Chief?" he called with anxious hope. "Sandburg?"
The younger man grimaced, and moaned softly, the pain radiating from his shoulder into his chest warring with the soporific effects of the herbs, dragging him back into semi-consciousness.
"J-Jim?" Blair murmured on a wisp of air, blinking heavily, confused, barely conscious, and then he winced in agony.
"Easy, kid, I've got you," Jim soothed as he stroked Sandburg's brow.
"Wha'…where?" Blair muttered, his gaze unfocused, and he frowned with his effort to marshal his thoughts - and then groaned as a wave of pain radiating from his shoulder overwhelmed his fragile awareness.
"We're in the temple on X-551," Jim told him, and then went on reluctantly. "Blair, I…I have to go lead Megan and the folks with the supplies we need from the Gate to the village. I may need to be ferrying people back and forth for hours - none of the rest of us can navigate in the darkness and blizzard conditions."
"Need…help," Blair muttered, thinking dazedly of the mountain of supplies needed to support the sizable village and how long it would take to transport all that from the Gate. Again, he blinked slowly, trying to clear his hazy vision; he was dizzy with the effects of the drug and blood loss, and the world just kept swimming around him, blurred and indistinct. "Tzchen…Tzchen can help."
Listening, Jack stiffened, not so sure of that, but Sandburg kept muttering, "Is he here? Bring 'im to m-me. Tzchen. Chief's son. Warrior - stood up for me'n Dan'l."
Turning toward the gathered villagers, Jack scanned the crowd and then pointed as he called out. "Tzchen!" Motioning to give meaning to his words, he added, "Come here."
Surprised, uncertain, not having heard Sandburg's muted, dazed murmurings, the young warrior hesitantly stepped forward and mounted the steps, moving carefully past Banks and Teal'c. Jack pointed toward Sandburg and the warrior shifted to stand closer to the wounded man.
"Tzchen's here, Chief," Jim told him, not sure what Blair thought the young man could do for them.
Mustering his strength and concentration, Blair began speaking at wispy length to the native, who tilted his head and then replied with a few brief sounds none of the others understood.
"S'okay," Sandburg whispered then, swallowing heavily against the wooziness and pain. "He'll take a group of warriors to carry the supplies back here."
"You sure about that, Chief?" Jim challenged with a wary look at the strong warrior.
"Yeah. Tzchen…fre'n," Blair murmured, nearly fading out of consciousness again as the pain flared and he moaned miserably. "Drugged us," he managed to gasp out faintly. "Don't know…what…Tzchen not sure…magic of the…priestesses…"
His heavy lids drooped, the false energy of adrenaline as his body grappled with his wound exhausted, and he lost his grip on awareness.
The young warrior had watched the exchange and, when Sandburg lost consciousness, he said, "Tzchen." He pounded his chest once and then pointed out the door.
Jim glanced at Simon and then at Jack, his brow cocked.
"I don't know, Jim," Banks muttered, not yet ready to trust any of the locals.
"If Blair Sandburg believes him to be trustworthy, then I would be inclined to accept his judgment," Teal'c intervened, appreciating his colleagues' uncertainty but, having once been an alien they'd been reluctant to trust, understanding that not everyone was always an enemy, despite appearances.
"I'd go with Teal'c on this one," Jack said then, though he sounded almost reluctant. "Sandburg's the only one who understands these people at all. If he puts his money on this Tzchen, I'd lay my bet alongside his."
Simon shrugged. "Even if we can trust him, he won't get far in that blizzard in a grass skirt," he observed dryly.
Jim nodded and waved Tzchen back toward him. "We'll have to give him the warmest coats and cloaks," he said, though he hated to deprive Sandburg and Jackson of the clothing that covered them. But if they didn't get the generators and fuel, as well as blankets and other survival gear, the two men remained at risk anyway. Jack nodded in understanding and, equally reluctantly, began to unravel the wrappings around Daniel as Jim did the same with Blair. They'd have to make do with the inadequate cloaks of hide and cloth that the Chieftain had given them, to keep their friends as warm as they could until Tzchen got back.
Holding out the coats and the best cloaks, Jim then said, "Tzchen, go." He waved toward the exit, and the warrior, surprised and touched by the gift of warm clothing, nodded. He took the offering and backed away, calling to several of his most trusted companions, and then handed out the coats and cloaks. Before leaving, he said something to Ktari, and threw a dark glance at Mwilda, and then he and his men hurried out into the blustery night.
Simon was on the radio with Conner, to let her know that a group of the local warriors led by a young man named Tzchen were on their way to begin the transport of supplies to the village, when the Chieftain spoke firmly to the old Priestess, and she looked uncertainly at the strange men. Sighing, she nodded. Reaching to her waist, she pulled a pouch from her belt, and then a smaller sac from within it. Hesitantly, she held it up to Simon after he'd stopped talking to the air that seemed to talk back to him (truly, their magic was unnerving and awesome). When he didn't seem to understand her, she pointed at the two unconscious men, and then urged him to take the small sac.
"I think she's trying to give us something to help them," Banks rumbled thoughtfully.
"Or else finish the job of killing them," Jack replied sardonically. Sighing, he grimaced and then shrugged. "They seem to be regretting their earlier hasty and very unfriendly actions," he added sarcastically, before continuing soberly, "And if the stuff Daniel and Blair were given was poisonous, they'll need an antidote."
Jim bowed his head, feeling trapped between a massive rock and very hard place. If they made the wrong decision here, they could be sealing their friends' death warrants.
"They are unlikely to do further harm knowing we have the power to kill them all in retaliation," Teal'c pointed out reasonably, knowing how he would think and act in such a situation. It would be foolish to do more damage to beings who held the power of life and death - but wise to help them if they seemed to pose no threat, but rather were offering assistance.
"Okay," Jim grated hollowly, knowing the others were deferring to his role as the only qualified medic on the scene. Sandburg had been willing to continue trusting these people, despite having been their victim. He had to trust his partner's judgment. Looking up, he waved her forward.
But if whatever she did seemed to do more harm than good, he wasn't sure he'd be able to stop himself from killing her in swift retribution.
Though he lacked the words to communicate that to her, the look in his eyes spoke volumes, and she visibly paled, evidently having clearly understood the message. But she lifted her head proudly and continued toward him. She would do what Ktari had commanded her to do.
General George Hammond, his uniform and person as immaculate as ever despite the ungodly hour, strode into the Control Room only moments after Conner and the team bearing the first load of supplies had gone through the Gate. He blinked to see Major Carter, who'd last been on a mission to planet X-551, working on one of the computer terminals, and evidently injured, if the sling supporting her left arm was to be believed. Below, he could see teams of workers hurriedly stockpiling supply crates on what looked like rubber rafts. Scrubbing a weary hand over his face, wishing he'd gotten more than a couple of hours sleep before receiving the urgent call to return to the Base, he asked with quiet and calm deliberation, "Major Carter, what is going on? And…are you all right?"
Startled, she looked up at the sound of his voice and nodded. She shifted to stand respectfully, but he waved her back into her chair. "I'm fine, sir, thank you; it's only a flesh wound. As for what's going on…"
With brisk and effective efficiency, she brought him quickly up to date. His eyes widened briefly as he listened, the only evidence of how much her report, and the threatened wellbeing of his people out on that planet, seriously alarmed him. When she was finished, he nodded thoughtfully, chewing unconsciously on his lip as he stared down at the scurrying workers. "As many as eight hundred people you say? And the Gate at the other end is quickly being submerged under water?"
He rubbed a hand over his mouth as his eyes narrowed in concentration. "How long can the basic life forms on the planet - vegetation, animals, sea life - live given the massive amount of ash in the atmosphere and the severe drop in temperature that has caused?"
"Oh, sir," she sighed, "there are so many variables and so much we don't know about the world." She bowed her head a moment, tapped on the keyboard, squinted at the screen, and then looked back up at him as she replied, "These are rough estimates, General, but I'd say no more than a month. Much of the vegetation would 'hibernate' during that time, and a lot of it could recover if it warms up and enough sunlight can get through to support photosynthesis. Many of the indigenous wildlife species will perish from the cold, but the aerial survey did indicate some species that are furred and may well be able to adapt, providing they can find enough forage to survive. However, offsetting some of the negative elements, the heat from the lava flow will mitigate the cold in some areas, so that will help sustain the flora and fauna. And, in some respects, the heavy snowfall may also help, as it will provide some degree of insulation against the bitter cold for anything that can survive under the drifts. As for the sea life, again, some species that live closer to the surface will die off, but the species that live deeper should be fine for at least that long - it takes a very long time to impact on the mean temperature of an ocean."
"A month," he echoed, his lips compressed. "What about the Gate? Is it likely to be fully submerged and, if so, for how long?"
Sam puffed out her cheeks and shook her head as her eyes went out of focus. Watching her, Hammond nearly smiled at how he could practically see the wheels turning in her extraordinary mind. She grimaced and then replied, "Given the degree to which the water rose in the twenty minutes between Colonel Banks' report on arrival and Megan Conner's report, we can extrapolate that the depths will be unmanageable within the next two to three hours, and quite probably sooner rather than later. The Gate is located on low land, very near to the shoreline so, yes, I think it very likely, given the terrestrial upheavals, that it will be completely submerged before the sea level stabilizes. As for how long it would be before it would return to normal levels…" she shrugged helplessly. "I'm sorry, sir, but I just don't know. It might days, weeks, months, years or never. If you're thinking about evacuating the people off that planet, I really regret to say that I think the logistics would be prohibitive - if the cold keeps up, the temperature of the relatively shallow water over the Gate would be severe enough to kill very quickly - if they had to swim any distance at all, most probably wouldn't make it. I've run some probabilities, and I think the time is already past to have been able to do that successfully. The environment deteriorated just too rapidly to respond fast enough, especially given the other complications of linguistic and cultural misunderstandings and their quite comprehensible suspicions of us."
The General blew out a sigh and nodded crisply. Reaching for the microphone to speak to the officer in charge of the supply squad below, he swiftly directed, "Captain Edwards, have the supplies ferried through the Gate by teams in insulated diving gear, and keep sending supplies until we've deemed to have sent enough clothing, fuel, equipment, tools and rations for up to one thousand people to survive severe weather conditions for the period of one month. Clearly, that will soon exhaust our existing inventory, so I'll contact nearby bases to transport the necessary additional supplies to us by helicopter as soon as you provide me with the list of what we need. The delivery team can alert our folks on the other end that the transit of goods will continue until they have everything they need."
"Yes, sir," Edwards replied with a brisk nod. "I'll have the list of requirements to you in fifteen minutes."
"Very good, Captain, thank you."
Megan and her team had been busy while they waited for the next load of supplies to come through. They'd set up a canvas tent with heaters, to provide a respite from the cold when it threatened to overwhelm them. More canvas had been strung as a kind of windbreak to provide some relief in the area where they were swiftly attaching ropes and skis to the largest crates, to turn them into sleds upon which smaller packages could also be transported. Lights had been rigged with their portable power generator, to give them the illumination necessary to see what they were doing. She'd chosen high ground as their staging area, some distance away from the Gate to hopefully ensure they wouldn't be engulfed anytime soon by the rapidly encroaching sea.
A native of Australia and its perpetually warm, even hot, climate, she found the bitter cold a misery. Even her winter in Cascade had not prepared her for the merciless, cutting wind and blinding, heavily falling snow. While their weather-resistant gear had safeguarded them from freezing after they were soaked to the thighs when they'd emerged from the Gate, she wasn't looking forward to repeated dunkings in that water - their gear wasn't designed to protect them from full immersion to chest and shoulder levels. Truthfully, she despaired that their attempts to help these people were doomed to failure because if they got that wet, they'd all soon freeze in the ungodly wind and icy temperatures.
When the Gate began to spin, signaling that the next load was about to arrive, she eyed the rapidly deepening water unhappily, and was no more pleased by the thick coating of ice that was building up on the land that surrounded it. Shaking her head, she figured there'd be any number of sprains and broken bones from falls on that ice as they wrestled crates up onto higher ground. With a determined set of her jaw, unwilling to order others to be soaked and risk freezing to death without taking the same risks herself, she had just gingerly stepped into the slippery shallows when the event horizon glimmered and a team of airmen in wet-suits splashed out into the shoulder-deep, surging water.
Surprised, she grinned in relief. "Brilliant!" she called out, realizing they'd prepared to ensure she and her team wouldn't have to risk further soakings. "Careful over here - it's very icy."
Sergeant Mathers, in charge of the squad of frogmen, briefed her quickly on the General's assurances that supplies would keep coming until there were enough to sustain the life of the villagers for at least a month, with the hope that that would be sufficient time to give the layers of ash clouding the atmosphere time to dissipate and settle.
"A month?" she echoed, her eyes widening, and then she blinked as she did a quick calculation of just how many crates of supplies they were talking about. "You'll be transporting goods for days," she exclaimed.
Shaking his head, the non-com replied, "We calculate the transfer should be completed in twenty-four hours." Looking at the watch on his wrist, he added, "Once the Gate is fully submerged, which from the look of things won't be long now, it will be impossible to maintain radio contact. The transit team will take messages back and forth after that point."
Nodding, she frowned as one of the men slipped and fell heavily with a muffled curse, on the ice at the water's edge; she was relieved when he pushed himself up again, seemingly unhurt. Grimacing, she said soberly, "We'll need medical supplies to deal with breaks and sprains - and probably frostbite, as well."
"Noted," Mathers acknowledged as he waved his team back to the Gate for their return to Earth and the next load.
"Company's coming," someone called out just as the Gate closed, and she turned to see a group of ten warriors loping toward her. Small men, though they appeared sturdy; however, the Stargate issue clothing hanging very large on six of them gave them the look of snow-covered waifs lost in the blizzard.
Waving, she strode toward them, up to her knees in snowdrifts that glittered under the illumination of their floodlights.
The small band of warriors slowed, expressions of consternation followed by awe on their faces. And then they were kneeling reverently in the snow.
"Hey, now," she called to them, disconcerted by their elaborate greeting and apparent gratitude for the supplies they'd come to drag back to the village. "There's no need for that," she added as she reached them and leaned down to grip the leader by the arm, frustrated by her inability to communicate in their language. Drawing him upward, she peered into his face. "Tzchen?" she asked, and he nodded dumbly, his eyes wide, before he straightened with formal respect.
"Pele," he murmured respectfully as he bowed his head, and then added more that she didn't understand at all.
"Conner," she said, lifting a hand toward herself, thinking he was greeting her in the name of their goddess and deciding to keep it simple. Then she waved toward the impromptu sleds. "C'mon," she urged, drawing him forward, knowing she was babbling to no good purpose but unable to stop. "We need to get these heaters, fuel and clothing to your village - and I'm anxious to see Sandy and Daniel. I'm worried about them, you know?"
Clearly, he didn't understand most of what she said, but he blinked at the names and gave her a considering look before nodding and waving his comrades forward to help shift the sleds over the drifts of snow.
"Pele," he murmured again in a tone of astonished wonder as he drew one of the ropes over his head and leaned into it, dragging his load forward, and watched her do the same.
Jim and then Jack gingerly took the small clay cups of the potion she had prepared from the old Priestess. Hesitatingly, Ellison looked from the cup to Sandburg, who he was supporting against his chest with one strong arm. Jim's mouth was desert dry, and his chest was tight with uncertainty. What if these people were still determined to kill them all and were only feigning cooperation? What if he were holding a cup full of death? Ellison looked up at O'Neill, who was watching him intently.
"Any idea of what's in it?" Jack asked.
Jim shook his head. "Smells slightly sweet, but the herbs are alien. No telling what their properties are."
O'Neill grimaced gloomily as he looked down at Jackson's pale, lax features. "We might kill them if we give them this stuff," he muttered hollowly, feeling sick.
"I know," Ellison replied starkly. "But they might die from the effects of the drug in their system, if we don't." Taking a deep breath, Jim lifted the cup to Blair's lips and tipped it slowly, letting a little of the liquid flow into Sandburg's mouth. Once he was sure his friend had swallowed it, he tipped in more, and then a little more. And all the while, he listened to his partner's heart and respirations, and watched for any change in the deathly pallor, hoping for some physical signal that the concoction was helping to make Blair stronger.
Jack watched for a moment, fully understanding and empathizing with the bleak, haunted look on Jim's face. Swallowing heavily, he set the cup down on the altar and then drew Daniel up into his embrace, his friend's head and neck supported in the crook of one arm. Gently, he brushed Jackson's hair back from his brow and then let his fingers lightly cup one pallid cheek. "Jesus, Danny Boy," he whispered hoarsely, "I don't mind admitting that I'm scared shitless to do this. I don't want to kill you, you know?" Then, with the grim resolution of an innocent man facing the gallows and hoping for a place in heaven, he reached for the cup and lifted it to the archeologist's blue-tinged lips.
Simon and Teal'c watched silently, concern dark in their eyes, and both glanced at the Priestess and the Chieftain, to monitor their reactions to the sight of the potion being fed to the unconscious men. The two village leaders only looked grave as they also watched O'Neill and Ellison slowly empty the cups into Sandburg and Jackson.
And then they could only wait to see what would happen.
Just over an hour and a half after he and his men had left, Tzchen loped into the Temple, still panting from the exertion of dragging the heavy sled uphill and into the centre of the village. "Pele!" he called out and then fired off a string of sounds that none of the Stargate team understood, but they could clearly see his words were having an electric effect on the villagers. When Conner strode in close on his heels, flushed from the cold and exertion, her hair now loose and wild, there was a collective gasp, and then every last one of the locals dropped to their knees, their foreheads pressed to the wooden floorboards.
Megan gaped at the prostrated assembly and looked askance down the hall at her colleagues, who seemed equally astonished. "They sure have a nice way of saying 'g'day', now don't they?" she quipped, bemused. Soft murmurs of "Pele! Pele!" filled the Temple. Shaking her head, she again reached to haul Tzchen to his feet. "We don't have time for this, boyo," she muttered, pointing outside to the crates that needed to be unpacked. Gesturing at several other stalwart-looking individuals, she waved at them to follow her outside. "I'll just get them started, and bring in a few portable heaters to take the chill off - it's bloody nearly as cold in here as it is outside."
Reluctantly turning away, she looked at Sandburg and Jackson, her throat tightening to see they were evidently unconscious, and she would have liked nothing more than to know immediately what was wrong with them, but getting the place warmed up had to be the priority. "I'll just be a minute," she called over her shoulder as she harried along the villagers she'd chosen to help outside.
"What was that all about?" Simon breathed, looking back at Jim and Jack in consternation. They shrugged and shook their heads, equally mystified. Teal'c cocked a brow but had nothing substantive to offer. It was obvious to all of them that the locals thought Conner was their goddess, Pele - the swift drop to the knees and the awed murmurs conveyed that much. But none of them had a clue as to why.
Scratching his cheek as his gaze drifted around the Temple, hoping for some clue, Simon stilled and gaped at what they'd all missed until that moment, their attention all upon Blair and Daniel, and the need to maintain some kind of authority over the villagers. "I'll be damned," he sighed as he shook his head and pointed to the statue in the flickering shadows at the rear of the hall, just behind the altar.
Frowning in confusion, the others turned and stilled as understanding dawned. The carved and painted effigy of Pele was representative of a slender woman about six feet in height, with a milky white complexion, generous lips, sculpted cheekbones, big, heavily lashed green eyes - and long, luxuriant, copper-coloured curly hair.
"Holy shit," Jack marveled. "Who knew 'Pele' was just one more member of the Stargate Program? And here we thought she was a Goa'uld."
Jim blinked and shook his head. The resemblance was uncanny. "Well, I guess this'll make it official for them - we're definitely not demons, but minions of the goddess," he said bemusedly.
"This could work for us," Banks mused. "They'll do anything she indicates she wants them to do."
Jack nodded but grimaced. "As tempting as that is, and believe me, it's REALLY tempting to string them that line, we can't risk their anger when they inevitably find out it's a lie."
"It's not like we can tell them the truth," Simon drawled. "They don't understand a word we say, and they seem to have already convinced themselves she's Pele incarnate."
"Colonel Banks is correct," Teal'c observed. "But, as Colonel O'Neill has suggested, we cannot take undue advantage of their mistake. Until Blair Sandburg is awake, the confusion is, however, likely to continue."
Jim swallowed and nodded tightly as he gazed down at his partner. It had been more than half an hour since he'd finished feeding the potion to Blair, but so far, there'd been no evident change in Sandburg's, or Jackson's, condition. The only thing that kept him from being seriously worried about whether Blair would ever wake up was that the wolf had stopped howling once they'd entered the temple.
Megan reappeared, hauling a battery-powered heater. "We brought several portable generators, so the batteries can be recharged," she explained as she set it up near the altar, trying to ignore the fact that all the locals in the temple had again dropped to their knees. "Figured that was more efficient and environmentally friendly than hauling in umpteen cans of fuel." As soon as she had the heater going, she turned, rubbing her arms reflexively against the cold and moved slowly, with evident apprehension, toward the altar and her unconscious friends. "How are they?" she asked quietly, flicking a look at Jim. "They'll be all right, won't they?"
Jim's gaze dropped as he bowed his head and shrugged helplessly. "We sure hope so," he sighed miserably.
Some of the villagers had followed her inside with other heaters, and she got them set up. Then, she waved several more outside. "I'll get them decked out in warmer clothes - the more people who can be hauling the supplies up to this clifftop town, the faster things'll get done." Frowning, she turned a troubled gaze to those who were still on their knees. "Why are they doing that? They don't bow to all of you, do they? Is it just women they honour?" she demanded, uneasy with the worshipful behaviours.
"No, only Pele, their goddess, warrants such reverence," Simon told her, a trace of amusement in his voice.
When she looked up at him in confusion, he waved to the statue behind him. "Seems they think you're Pele," he drawled.
"Bloody hell," Megan gaped and then closed her mouth with a snap. Disconcerted, she shook her head. "How do we tell them they're wrong?" she asked plaintively, reaching to those nearest her to pull them to their feet.
"I thought every woman wanted to be treated like a goddess," Jack smirked, unable to resist teasing her as he forced an impish grin, though it was harder to conjure than usual, given his deep fear for Daniel's life.
Throwing him a sardonic look, she shook her head. "Every woman is a goddess," she shot back haughtily. "We just prefer to be worshipped for ourselves and not be confused with someone else."
"Touché," Jack chuckled. "Well, get used to it, Conner - until the Professor wakes up, we don't have any way to tell them they're wrong."
"This is ridiculous," she muttered. Abruptly, she clapped her hands loudly, startling the villagers who looked up at her. With determined gestures, she waved them all to their feet. Uncertainly, they stood, and when they'd all complied with her instruction, she smiled brightly at them and nodded. "Good," she praised them, "well done. No more bowing." With that, she turned on her heel and went outside to supervise her local work crew.
She returned shortly after bearing a stack of blankets to put around their unconscious colleagues, Tzchen following behind her to return their warm coats to the Stargate crew, now that his people had obtained warm clothing of their own from the provisions sent from Earth.
"Those heaters aren't going to do much good in the grass huts," she murmured fretfully as she handed the warm, woolen covers to Ellison and O'Neill. "All the heat escapes through the cracks in the flimsy walls and thatched roofs." Belatedly, she remembered she hadn't yet given a full report of what was happening back at the Gate to Simon and Jack. "By the way, the water level is rising sharply, and the Gate is probably fully submerged by now," she sighed, looking from one to the other. "But frogmen are ferrying the supplies through, and they will continue to do so until enough is stockpiled to support these people for a month."
"A month?" Jack exclaimed. "Isn't that a tad generous - not to say 'overkill'?"
Shrugging, Conner replied, "I gather that it might take at least that long for the ash in the atmosphere to disperse enough to allow sunlight through again."
"Providing there aren't more eruptions," Jim observed grimly as he tenderly wrapped Sandburg in the blankets.
Jack cast him a speculative look as he finished covering Daniel, and then his expression turned thoughtful. "You know, I hadn't noticed with all that's been going on, but we haven't suffered any quakes for at least a couple of hours."
"Maybe the world is settling down," Banks reflected. "Which would be good news. Lord knows, we could use some."
Teal'c gazed inscrutably at Conner, though there was a twinkle deep in his dark eyes as he said, "It seems you were correct, MeganConner."
"About what?" she asked innocently.
"Apparently the shaking of this world ended when you arrived. Clearly, you are a goddess," he answered dryly with the barest nod of respect.
Startled, she blinked at him, and then grinned. "You're a riot, you are," she quipped back with a snicker, though she blushed faintly, pleased.
Returning to one of the issues Conner had raised, Simon's eyes narrowed thoughtfully as he rumbled, "Megan's right, though - if this deep freeze is going to go on for a month, those grass huts aren't going to be at all adequate."
"Need to build…snow houses," Daniel grated, his voice hoarse and rough with discomfort.
"Danny boy!" Jack crowed in delight as he looked down at the man he was supporting against his chest. "You woke up!"
"So it seems," Jackson grimaced, wrapping his arms around his body and curling a little in pain. "What's going on - last thing I knew, they were going to sacrifice us."
"Yeah, well, we didn't think that was such a hot idea," O'Neill replied archly.
"And now that Megan has arrived with survival supplies, and they've decided she's Pele," Banks added, "they no longer think we're demons, but angels of mercy."
"Really?" Jackson replied, looking around in amazement before he pressed his eyes closed and moaned softly.
Frowning with concern, Jack demanded as his grip on his friend tightened, "What is it, Daniel? What's wrong?"
"Cramps, in my gut," Jackson grated through clenched teeth. "Hurts like hell."
O'Neill flashed a fast look at Ellison, who was distracted when Sandburg curled in pain, groaning briefly, before he stifled it with a gritted, "Shit, that hurts."
Alarmed, Jim quickly focused in on Blair's heartbeat, while his hands ghosted over Sandburg's face to check for fever. "Easy, Chief," he murmured, the tension in his shoulders easing marginally when he only found signs of recovery, not of further debilitation. "We gave you something to counter the effects of the first drug they gave you. The cramps are probably some kind of side effect."
Jack blew out a silent whistle of relief at that assessment, hoping Ellison was right.
Blair clenched his fists as he wrapped his arms around his body and that pulled on his wounded shoulder, making him flinch as the new pain registered. "Ow," he protested with a harried frown as he lifted his right hand to press against the wound. "What the hell happened?"
"Uh, well, she was aiming for your heart, I think, but she missed," Ellison replied, his throat tight with the memory.
"Missed?" Sandburg echoed squeakily, and then, looking around, he realized he was in a temple, lying on an altar. "Oh wow. That had to have been close," he whispered, swallowing hard.
"Very close, Blair Sandburg," Teal'c told him matter-of-factly. "If your Sentinel was not such a superb marksman, we would not be having this conversation."
"Uh huh," Blair grunted, flashing a grateful look at this partner, but then his body clenched as another agonizing cramp assailed him. "Oh, man, I hope this gets better soon," he muttered grimly, and focused on trying to breathe through it, conscious of Jim's firm embrace supporting him.
Relieved that his friends appeared to be recovering, if with some discomfort, Teal'c returned to the earlier discussion. "Daniel Jackson, you mentioned building snow houses. I am not familiar with such a construction. Would people not freeze inside them?"
"Uh, no," Daniel grated through clenched teeth, flinching against the pain in his belly. Taking a steadying breath, he continued, "The Inuit in Canada and Alaska build dome-like homes of snow that insulate them against the exterior wind and cold. Once they get a fire going inside, they can be … reasonably … comfortable."
"I see," Teal'c nodded austerely, and looked pensive. "Is there enough snow now to build such domes?"
"Oh, I'd think so," Megan affirmed with a disgusted expression, thinking of the heavy, deep drifts that had built up outside and were still growing.
"How are such houses of snow built?" Teal'c persevered, curious.
"Well, you cut blocks of snow out of the ground and use them like big bricks, shaping and angling them into a dome," Jack replied, gazing at Daniel unhappily as he wished there was something he could do to alleviate the very obvious pain Jackson was suffering. "You sure you're all right, kid?" he asked.
"No," Daniel sniped back, then sighed. "But, since both Blair and I are awake and alert, I'd have to say we're in better shape than we were. How long were we out anyway?"
"At least three hours," Simon supplied.
"Perhaps we should try building these snow houses," Teal'c continued, valiantly striving to keep the conversation on track.
"They're called igloos," Blair supplied. Looking up at Jim, he asked, "Do you know how to build them, ‘cause I sure don't."
"Yeah, we got a lesson during basic winter survival training," Ellison replied, then shrugged. "Not sure how good I'd be at it."
"Well, you better go give it a try," Sandburg observed with wry resignation. "Megan's right," he added with a shiver of memory, "those grass huts are SO not good enough to live in when it's this cold."
Jim hesitated, preferring not to leave his guide when said guide was still in severe pain, but Blair looked up at him, eyes wide with understanding. "Go on. Teach these people how to stay alive. I'll be okay."
Nodding, though he grimaced unhappily, Ellison turned to O'Neill and cocked his brow. "Yeah, yeah, Igloos 'R Us," Jack groused, not at all enthusiastic about mucking around in the icy cold. "I'm with you." Looking down at Daniel, gripping his friend's shoulder he said, "You need anything, you just holler. Don't be trying to play the hero, or something stupid like that. We don't have a fine clue what the effects of these alien herbs are, so if you start to feel worse, you let Megan know."
Lifting his gaze to Conner, he added sardonically, "I think it's safe to leave you in her tender care. The folks here aren't going to mess with their goddess."
"Goddess?" Sandburg echoed, looking confused.
"Long story, Junior," Jim sighed, but a ghost of a smile was playing around his lips. "I'll let Megan fill you both in while we go play in the snow."
"C'mon, Teal'c," Jack said then. "We'll show you how to build a snow house."
"Igloo is the proper term, is it not, O'Neill?" Teal'c replied soberly with a massive impassivity broken only by the exaggerated arch of one brow.
Snickering, O'Neill clapped the big man on the shoulder. "You know, your sense of humour gets better every day," he praised enthusiastically.
Teal'c merely inclined his head, the corner of his lip quirking briefly, and then followed his leader, Jim and Simon, out into the endless stormy night.
Hours passed, everyone losing track of how many, as the blizzard continued to rage and the darkness remained cold and bleak, changeless. The villagers, led by a curious Tzchen, learned how to build houses made of snow. More and more supplies were hauled from the Gate two miles away, and were stockpiled under tarps in the open square of the village. The merciless cold ate at everyone, sapping their energy, until their actions became sluggish with exhaustion. Jack groaned as he hefted yet another block of snow to dump it on the growing wall of an igloo, and he grimaced as he straightened and looked around, idly counting how many had already been built. "God, I feel like I haven't slept for a month of Sundays," he griped.
Fifty igloos were in various stages of creation, some nearly completed. They figured they'd need seventy or eighty of them to accommodate everyone, working from a ratio of ten per domicile. It would be crowded, but that was, in part, the point. Body heat was a big factor in keeping the places warm.
"Time for a break, Jack," Simon said, groaning as he, too, straightened. "Won't do anyone any good if we all collapse from exhaustion and hypothermia. Let's go back to the temple and check on our guys."
"Good idea," O'Neill concurred, and they waved at Ellison and Teal'c to join them as they stumbled wearily back to the temple, sighing in gratitude when they entered its warmth and light.
Having told Megan in no uncertain terms that lying on the cold stone like sacrificial lambs was giving them the creeps, Blair and Daniel had removed themselves from the altars and were now recumbent upon the floor, wrapped in nests of blankets and sipping at mugs of tea rifled from the supplies that had been brought in.
"Well, you two are looking a lot better," Simon observed with a yawn, as he plopped down beside them. "God, I'm tired," he sighed, pulling off his glasses, which had steamed up, to rub his eyes.
Jim, Jack and Teal'c sagged down to lie on their backs, too weary to take off their coats or grab blankets from the pile now stacked by one of the fires in the metal barrels. In seconds, they were all snoring. Deciding they had the right idea, Simon rolled onto his side, asleep before his head reached the pillow of his arm.
"Poor babies," Megan murmured as she rose to get blankets and then covered them all.
"You should rest, too," Daniel said quietly. "We're okay to stand watch." Blair nodded to support the idea, neither of them revealing that the cramps, though steadily abating, were still too painful for either of them to even imagine being able to sleep.
"Right you are," she replied, needing no further encouragement to curl into her own mound of blankets.
"Jack? Simon?" Daniel called softly, as he leaned over the two men and shook them gently to rouse them. "Sergeant Mathers needs to talk to you."
"Huh? What? Oh, right," O'Neill muttered blearily, forcing himself to sit up and scrub at his face. He grimaced at the aches in what felt like every muscle of his body. Sniffing, scratching his unshaven cheek and wondering if the whole Iraqi Army had trooped through his mouth when he wasn't paying attention, he squinted up and asked, "What's up, Mathers?"
Simon grunted as he also dragged himself into a sitting position to participate in the conversation.
"We've finished transporting the supplies, sir," Mathers replied wearily. Gesturing at a crate in the corner, he explained, "General Hammond had enough wet suits and tanks packed that you and your teams can come back with us now. I brought the suits, so you can dress here; the tanks are in the transit area, near the Gate."
Blinking, barely awake, Jack looked askance at the man. "Go back? Yeah, I guess," but his tone was uncertain as he looked at Banks.
It was Sandburg, though, who replied. "We can't all go back, not right away, anyway. These people haven't got a clue about how to survive in these conditions! I mean, they need to be taught how to hunt and fish in the snow and through the ice. How to avoid or deal with frostbite. They don't even have words to describe what's happening here. I have to stay, for a while longer at least, to make sure they're all right."
Awakened by the conversation, sighing, Jim rolled his eyes - but he couldn't disagree. Even if the ash cleared from the atmosphere before the food supplies ran out, the cold was very likely to continue for some time - and a lot of their traditional food sources would have died off. The hunts would have to be further afield, which meant learning how to camp in the snow. There were so many skills that he took for granted that these people didn't have a clue about.
And Blair was the only one who spoke their language, so all the teaching would have to be done through him.
"Sandburg's right. A lot of 'em, maybe most of them, will die if we leave them to their own resources now. Even the foodstuffs we brought for them are foreign in terms of preparation. There's been no time to teach them how to use snowshoes, cross-country skis or skates, or whatever," he said with flat forbearance. "I'll stay, too."
"And they still think I'm their goddess, so I can hardly leave them in the lurch," Megan weighed in.
"Well, we can't all stay, and this was SG-1's mission, lest you have all forgotten," Jack reminded them, and then scrubbed at his eyes. Damn, but he was tired. "Look, how about this? Simon, we'll trade teams for a while. You go back with Daniel and Teal'c. Sam shouldn't be laid up too long with her shoulder wound. Then Hammond will have a full team for the duty roster - "
"Jack," Daniel began to object, not liking the idea of being sent home while the others remained in what was still a very risky environment.
"No, Daniel," O'Neill cut him off. "I know you'd rather stay in this delightful winter wonderland, but no."
"How will you communicate with the Gate covered with water?" Banks asked argumentatively, rolling his shoulders against his own aches and persistent exhaustion. The idea of leaving his whole team behind didn't sit at all well with him.
Shrugging, Jack replied, "We'll keep four wet suits - we can dial home, easily enough."
"If the DHD device works - it's under freezing cold water, Jack," Daniel argued.
"Well, I don't know," O'Neill groused, irritable with weariness. "What do you suggest? Regardless of who stays and who goes, it's still the same problem."
Megan, the only one of the group who had actually worked around the Gate while the water level rose, had been giving the problem some thought for a while. "Stargate will have to dial us," she asserted. "Maybe, I don't know, every twelve hours on a set schedule. Then, if we're having problems or it's time to go home, we know when we can be in contact."
Jack gazed at her and then turned to Teal'c. "You know, I think you were right last night. She is a goddess. And, before you say it, I know you'd rather stay, too, but they need you more back home, for other missions. Jim and I know a lot about winter survival. We've been trained to survive in this kind of environment. If Megan left, they'd feel abandoned by their goddess, no matter how well the Professor tried to explain things to them and, frankly, I don't feel like throwing them more curves that would only confuse them right now. Sandburg is our mouthpiece and, as such, he's essential to the success of this mission." Turning to Simon, he added, "And I know you'd prefer to stay with your team, too - but this is my mission. I'm staying."
Banks grimaced. O'Neill outranked him and it looked like Jack wasn't open to any discussion about his decisions. Not happy about it, he nevertheless pushed himself to his feet. With a glance at Daniel and then Teal'c, he said dryly, "Okay, people, let's get this show on the road. Sergeant Mathers is waiting to escort us, and no doubt the work team at the Gate, home."
"Actually, they've already gone, sir," Mathers interjected quietly. "They were exhausted, so once they'd suited up, my men helped them back through the Gate."
"Good decision, Sergeant," Banks commended him. He stood for a moment, staring at the floor, and then lifted his eyes to his own team members. "You three … be careful, okay?" Looking toward Jack, he added sternly, "I want them back, in one piece, as soon as is feasible. There's no need to stay for the full month - we can always come back to see if the sky clears. Once Sandburg has negotiated your deal, and you and Jim are satisfied their skills are adequate to the challenge, I want my people back."
"You say that like I might get them dented, or something," Jack protested wryly.
With a meaningful look toward Blair, who still looked peaked and whose shoulder would take a while to fully heal, Banks grated, "Or something."
Abashed, Jack nodded. "Okay, point taken. I'll take good care of them."
"See that you do," Simon rumbled.
The first priority was to finish building the igloos and get heaters installed in all of them. One group after the other, the inhabitants of each domicile were drilled on how to keep the heaters going and how to recharge the batteries. The next priority was to teach the villagers how to live in a wintry world. First, there were lessons in the use of snowshoes, skis and skates. Megan, who'd never learned how to use any of that equipment took the opportunity to learn along with the villagers. Since the training would be through physical demonstration, they figured they could make do without translation, so Jim took the snowshoe classes, Jack the skiing lessons and Blair tied on a pair of skates after he'd shown his students how to shovel snow off the frozen lagoon. By splitting the work and running concurrent classes, they'd be able to train everyone that much faster.
"You sure you can do this, with your shoulder?" Jim challenged with a worried look in his eyes as he glanced at the sling, the day the lessons were to begin and the improvised rink was finally cleared.
"Yeah, piece of cake," Sandburg drawled, waving off the concern. Looking up with a grin, he added, "I used to be a half-decent skater when I was a kid."
"You're always full of surprises, Sandburg," Ellison teased. "I wouldn't have thought you were coordinated enough to stand up on skates, let alone move around on them."
"Funny, Jim," Blair snorted and shook his head. But he smiled peacefully as Ellison finished lacing up his skates for him, something he couldn't do for himself with one arm incapacitated. His partner was easing up - Jim didn't joke around when he was seriously worried.
Nevertheless, Ellison held his own class in snowshoeing on what used to be a meadow with a Stargate in it - now it was a flat surface of snow edged by icy water. They were using the floodlights the supply party had originally rigged to illuminate the general area, as the murky world was still as dark as night all the time. As he listened in on Sandburg's nearby class, glancing over every once in a while to watch what was going on, he relaxed as he realized that his Guide really did know something about skating - both how to do it and how to teach the skill. Blair moved with practiced ease despite the sling that supported his left arm and shoulder.
But it wasn't until they were nearing the end of the first two-hour lesson period that he realized just how good Sandburg was. The kid was trying to encourage people who had spent more time on their asses than upright during the lesson that it was possible to not only get around on skates, but to truly have fun on them. Curious, Jim looked up and watched his partner skate rapidly down the long stretch of cleared ice, and then turn to race back, going faster and faster, until he leapt into the air, his left arm tight against his chest, his right out for balance, as he twirled and then landed almost flawlessly, before launching into a blinding whirl, his right fist punching high into the air, his left tight against his body.
Ellison gaped in amazement, and then couldn't resist applauding after his friend had brought himself to a sharp, graceful, stop, and Blair was laughing with the pure exhilaration of what he'd just done. His class and Sandburg's had watched with fascinated awe, never having seen anything even remotely like the demonstration before. And then, following Jim's lead, they all clapped enthusiastically, too.
Releasing his students to head back to the village, Jim snowshoed over to Sandburg, smiling widely. "You really ARE full of surprises, aren't you, Chief? When did you ever learn to skate like that?"
Grinning with delight, feeling really good, Blair revealed, "Well, I was a pretty good skater when I was a kid, but I took a bad fall and hurt my knee, so I had to give it up, as far as competing, anyway. But I've always loved it, you know? I can't do the fancy stuff like I used to, but it's good to be back on skates again."
Nodding, bemused, Jim pulled his friend into a sideways hug and ruffled his wild curls. "Looked pretty fancy to me," he said warmly.
They all helped the locals learn how to prepare the foods brought through the Gate and, in the process of the various lessons, the villagers began to pick up some English and Jack, Jim and Megan started to learn some of the Aeterroean language - Blair had learned that they referred to their planet as Aeterroea. Sandburg found that interesting, telling the others that that was the name the Maori used for their home, The Land of the Long White Cloud, otherwise known as New Zealand, and it pretty much clinched his belief that their ancestors had been kidnapped from those islands hundreds of years before.
Jack and Jim took the men hunting and showed them how to fish through the ice. Megan remained with Blair while he met with the elders to negotiate the deal to mine naquada. After all that had occurred, the discussions progressed easily, the locals more than happy to have a continuing alliance with the people of Earth. Surreptitiously, many also still believed that Megan was their Goddess and, since she so clearly supported the men from Earth, who were they to argue?
Finally, nineteen days after Simon and the others had left, they decided they could head home, too. They suited up and the entire village, carrying torches to illuminate the way, escorted them to the water's edge, watching as they hauled on the air tanks and tested connections and hoses for one another. But, before they left, Ktari told Blair he had a message for all of them, and he asked if Sandburg would mind translating for him. When Blair readily agreed, the Chieftain turned to Jack, who he'd learned was the leader of the group from Earth, and said with simple sincerity, "You came to us as strangers from the stars, and we failed in our obligation to offer you shelter and the hospitality of food and drink."
Hanging his head for a moment, the elder took a breath and then straightened before continuing, "I am ashamed to say we were afraid, and we acted badly, without thought or reason. On behalf of all of my people, I apologize and vow that, henceforth, you will always be welcome in our lodges - we consider you brothers, and hope that someday, you will think of us the same way." Clearing his throat, he said with formal and heartfelt gratitude, "We would probably all be dead by now if you had not forgiven us our mistakes. You have been generous beyond all imagining, and you have taught us much. Most of all, you have taught us that we are not alone in the stars but part of a great community of worlds and peoples. We have debts to you that we will never be able to repay, for our very lives and those of coming generations would have been snuffed out without your help. But know this. So long as people draw breath on this world, for all the time to come, your memories will be cherished and honoured above all others and we will tell the story of your time with us for all eternity."
Blair's voice caught a few times as he relayed the message as well as he could, and his lashes were damp by the time he'd finished. Megan sniffed and brushed at her eyes, while Jim and Jack nodded wordlessly for a moment, their throats working as they strove to swallow back the emotions the Chieftain's message had evoked. Embarrassed by such effusive gratitude, Jack cleared his throat and brushed at his nose before he replied, his voice hoarse, "Would you tell Ktari that we very much appreciate his words and his thanks, but they aren't necessary. We're glad that we were here to help, and we understand the confusion at the beginning. It was a very frightening time. But, uh, tell him we'll take him up on his offer of hospitality. We'll be back in eleven days to see if the skies clear, to make sure life on this planet is sustainable. If it isn't, we'll work out something to move him and his people to a safer place."
Sandburg turned back to the Chieftain and pitched his voice so that all in the crowd could hear his words on Jack's behalf. Smiles broke out then, the people sincerely glad to know their friends would be returning so soon, and immensely relieved to know that their safety and wellbeing continued to be of concern to these powerful people from Earth.
Thinking they were done, Blair began to turn away, to follow his companions into the water, but Ktari touched his arm, and asked for a moment more. Mwilda stepped forward then, a finely wrought necklace of bone and stone in her hands. "I called you 'demon'," she said, still looking humiliated by her terrible error, "and I nearly took your life. You are no demon, but a spirit of light, who forgives easily and who has been the bridge between your people and ours. I thank the Goddess," she went on with a sidelong look at Megan, still convinced that Pele was playing games with them, testing them and was indeed there amongst them, "for having brought you to us. In my heart, you are one of my people and I hope that feeling does not offend you. If you will agree to be adopted into our clan, I would be most honoured, as would all of us here."
Blair blinked, astonished and very moved. "Thank you," he replied with a nervous inclination of his head. "You do me a great honour and I'm very grateful to you."
Smiling then, her eyes crinkling with happiness at this evidence that he had, indeed, forgiven her, she stepped forward and lifted the necklace over his head to lay it around his neck. She then took his face between her calloused palms and leaned forward to touch her nose to his, three times. Stepping back, she called out so that all could hear, "Here stands the one we call Bright Flame, for he brings light and understanding to our darkness. He is my son, and I am well pleased with him…and love him."
The people raised their voices then, calling out in good cheer and delight, adding their thanks to those given by Ktari and Mwilda - and urging him to remember to come home often.
Not sure what was going on, Jack sidled closer to Sandburg and asked, "Uh, care to share, Professor? What the heck is happening here?"
"Uh, I've just been adopted by Mwilda, and I'm now a member of their family. They're just telling me to remember to come home often."
Jim smiled softly as he nodded, knowing what such an accolade meant to Blair, even if Jack and Megan didn't. Anthropologists treasured such moments of intimacy with, and acknowledgement from, the people they'd worked closely with and come to admire and even love. "They give you a name, Chief?" he asked, remembering how Incacha had given him his name, 'Enqueri' when he'd been adopted into the Chopec.
"Uh, yeah," Blair replied, blushing. "They call me Bright Flame, because they say I bring light and understanding to their darkness."
Ellison's smile broadened as he moved to loop his arm around Sandburg's shoulders. "Good name. Fits. Definitely works for me." Looking up at the sky, able to discern that the layer of ash was beginning to thin and hopeful that, soon, others would be able to detect the increasing light filtering through as well, he added quietly, "God knows, you've been my Bright Flame, illuminating my darkness with understanding - a flame I'd follow anywhere."
"Oh, please," Jack snorted at the blatant sentimentality, as he waved at Ktari and the gathered host, "he's your Guide, for Pete's sake. You have to follow him. C'mon, they won't keep the Gate open forever."
Blair laughed shakily, glad that O'Neill had relieved the emotionalism of the last few moments before he lost it completely, but he lifted his arm around Jim's back, as he said quietly, "Works both ways, partner. Works both ways."
But, when Jim started to draw him toward the water, he held back. "Just give me a minute, okay? I'll be right behind you." Jim looked at him but didn't question the request, just nodded and headed into the water behind Jack and Megan. Blair turned to Tzchen and moved to draw the young warrior into a tight hug. "You were the first to believe in us, the first to stand up for us. Daniel and I were grateful then, and we always will be. I'm proud to be your brother."
Tzchen smiled shyly, cradled Blair's face and touched noses three times. "Come back to tell me more of your world, brother," he said. "I want very much to learn."
"I will, I promise," Sandburg replied with a bright smile, and then he turned and, lifting the mouthpiece to take a couple of experimental breaths before he slipped below the surface of the pool. He found Jim waiting for him by the Gate, and they swam through it together.
Moments later, they all emerged from the Stargate under the mountain in Colorado, and were greeted by wild cheering. Jack looked around as he pulled off the tight-fitting cowl of his diving suit, more than a little surprised to see the gathered assembly as no one could have predicted when they'd come through the Gate - and he wondered if his colleagues had waited hopefully every twelve hours for the past nineteen days, to welcome them home. His throat tightened and his chest ached a little as he realized that was exactly what they must have all done. He waved at Sam, Daniel and Teal'c as he chimed impishly, "Hey, kids, Daddy's home." Then he turned to Simon, gesturing toward the three people who had followed him through the Gate, as he added facetiously to hide the emotion he felt, "And I brought your kids back, safe and sound. Aren't you proud of me? I gotta tell you, though, they're pretty good. Maybe not quite as good as my kids, but pretty damned good."
"It's great to have you and the rest of SG-22 back, Jack," General Hammond chuckled indulgently. "We missed you. All of you. Welcome home."
Note: One of Tia's requests for this story was to have Blair back on skates, so I tried to oblige. However, this 'universe' bears no relation to the Dark Secret 'universe', so I hope the fact that Jim didn't know Blair could skate so well didn't seem odd to those familiar with my stories Shattered Dreams and Recovery.
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