A vast tract of densely wooded land lay between Ayan'nat's fortress and the Stargate and, according to the healer, the straightest path between the two was not necessarily the quickest. Or the safest. The route across the river, for example, might appear on a map to cut as much as two hours from the journey, but a map could not account for the fact that the river was tidal and, when the moon was full, impassable.
Daniel learned quickly that Merien had amassed a wealth of information about the area during his many forays beyond the fortress walls in search of herbs and roots for his remedies so, while Sam continued to sleep and heal, the two of them talked and planned, analysed and discarded, ideas being pared away like layers of an onion to leave only those things that offered any real hope of success. Each of them strangers in this terrible place, brought here from opposite sides of the galaxy, they set about pooling their knowledge and skills to ensure that nothing about their escape was left to chance and all guesswork had been eliminated.
It was almost dawn, the first pearlescent rays of a new day dribbling into the chamber, when fatigue finally overtook Daniel in a jaw-cracking yawn. Merien laughed gently and, pulling him to his feet, steered him towards the shallow alcove where a military issue cot and a few blankets provided the healer with a very basic place to sleep. It was a far cry from the comfort of a real bed but compared to the stone slab he had shared with Jack or the floor of Sam's subterranean prison cell, it was luxury.
Exhausted, Daniel slept for perhaps an hour before the dreams came, crowding in on him like spectators at a car crash. He found himself back in the clearing, working with the rest of SG1 to gather the remains of all those who had been massacred at the foot of the gate and bury them. Through the dust that swirled in the aftermath of the fire-fight, he saw Jack walking towards him, Stan Kovacek's lifeless body weighing down his arms. Unaccustomed tears streamed over the colonel's cheeks as he asked, over and over again, how anyone could have committed such an obscenity. He raged and he cursed, blaming the Airforce, the Gate Builders, the Goa'uld... Daniel and Sam and the rest of the SGC. He even blamed himself for caring too much, too little, for wanting everything and wanting nothing, and through it all Daniel tried to reason with him, to tell him it was not his doing, that Ayan'nat was responsible and Jack just another innocent victim, like Kawalsky had been. That it was beyond his control now.
His dream self was still speaking when he became aware of a shift in the substance of the dream, a transition from one nightmare to another. He looked down again at the face of the man Jack was carrying and recoiled in horror as he saw the features melt and warp into those of the colonel himself. He looked up again, searching the brown eyes for answers, but the other Jack, the first Jack, merely threw back his head and laughed....
Coming awake was not a gentle climb back to awareness but a violent, wrenching away that stopped his throat with a gasp of fearful understanding. He had found the missing piece of the puzzle and as he completed the picture he found that the truth was even more terrifying for it.
Not one Jack but two.
Two Jacks, but - which one was his?
"Merien!" The cry brought the healer hurrying to his side, his amber eyes darkened to russet concern.
"Peace, my friend," he soothed, his hand cool against Daniel's flushed cheek. "It was a dream, nothing more."
Struggling to rise, Daniel grabbed at Merien's arm for support. "No, not a dream. It all makes sense now."
"It does?" One white brow lifted above the alien eyes.
"I hope so. If I'm right..."
Hope: something Daniel had been on the verge of giving up, despite his confident words to Merien earlier. "Tell me... The bodies at the Stargate - how did they get there?"
Merien seemed as confused as Daniel felt, but he answered as best he could. "At first they were killed and brought there as a warning to those who came through the portal, to leave this place. Those who ignored it were themselves killed. But - surely you were already aware of this?"
His thoughts set on one single course, Daniel ignored the question and hurried on. "Who gave the orders for them to be killed?"
"Ayan'nat, through O'Neill. Of course, Major Dace was more than willing to carry them out. Daniel, I do not --"
"Hear me out, Merien, please. Tell me about them."
"Yes. Who were they?"
Merien shifted to sit, cross-legged, on the floor beside the cot. "Some were native to this world, killed in the first battles with the colonel and his men, before I was brought here. The rest came through the Stargate. Some of them were innocent explorers, others came in pursuit of O'Neill, but Dace made no distinction between them. All were - slaughtered."
Daniel closed his eyes and allowed the images to sharpen. Things were starting to fall into place, but there were still anomalies - like, why would General Hammond send a negotiator like Stan Kovacek to bring back a highly trained Special Ops colonel like Jack O'Neill? Wasn't that a job more suited to Colonel Makepeace and his SG3 Marines? When had the two switched roles - assuming they had?
He groaned softly as he realised it all made sense. He didn't much like the implications for their getting home safely, but be damned if it didn't make sense. Two Jacks, people he knew switching roles, and all those odd things 'Jack' had said, the things he should have known but didn't and the things he seemed to know that were not in Daniel's memories. It was all starting to sound very familiar.
"And what about you, Merien? How did you get here?"
The healer was silent for the longest time, his alabaster brow creased in concentration. Was he trying to remember - or struggling not to? Or was he simply trying to decide how far he could allow himself to trust Daniel?
Daniel was beginning to wonder if he would answer at all, when the strange being sighed and said: "My people were dying. Strangers came to our world, bringing with them a disease against which we had no resistance and for which there was no cure. Even the healers were unable to do more than give comfort to the sick in their last hours. There were, perhaps, twenty of us left when Dace arrived. He was seeking alien technology which your race might use as weapons. Instead he found a dying race, led by a lone healer."
"Yes," he bowed his head sorrowfully, but not before Daniel had seen the grief that still haunted him reflected in the golden eyes. "He left the others behind to die - or... perhaps he killed them first - and then he brought me here by force. That was - seven cycles ago."
Seven cycles? "And that would be - how long?" Daniel asked, even though he already knew the answer, at least in terms of their arrival in this place. The hairs on the back of his neck prickled in anticipation as Merien replied.
"By my reckoning - five of your months."
"And when you arrived..." Daniel could barely speak around the knot of fear constricting his throat, "Colonel O'Neill was already here."
The white head dipped once more in assent and Daniel did not know whether to shout for joy or scream with rage. The creature holding him prisoner here, the host for Ayan'nat, was not his Jack O'Neill.
This was where his dream - if it had been a dream - had led him, to the knowledge that had been pricking at his weary subconscious, that feeling of wrongness that he felt whenever the colonel was near. It left him in no doubt that the real Jack - *his* Jack - had been with him in that first cell, or that the switch had taken place after he had been hit with the zat blast and come round to find Jack missing. From that moment on he had been walking on very dangerous ground, his only salvation the tenuous link he had to this other Jack, who had clearly once loved some other 'Daniel', and the infamous O'Neill stubborn streak that apparently permeated all incarnations of the man, giving him enough strength to fight the alien presence within him.
The being that had brought him out of the cell, shown him kindness and abuse by turns as Ayan'nat's influence waxed and waned, was not Colonel Jonathan Francis Xavier O'Neill-with-two- 'ells'-. The creature with a snake in its head, who had ordered the deaths of over a hundred people and was responsible for Teal'c's execution, was not the man with whom he had stood shoulder-to-shoulder against Ra, the man who had given him a home after Abydos, who had mourned Sha're's death with him and through the years had laughed and cried and fought and played with him.
Two Jacks, one from Daniel's reality, the other from - where? And just who had been stranded in whose reality?
The was one more question and, in Daniel's view, the most important of all: just where in this hell was *his* Jack O'Neill?
"When we were brought here from the Stargate, there was another man with us, one who looked a lot like the colonel. What happened to him?" He leaned forward, searching the alien eyes for anything that might indicate a lie. Merien considered the question for an unnervingly long time before answering, each passing second like a drop of blood seeping from a wound in Daniel's resilience.
"I regret, I do not know," he said at last. "I heard the guards speak of another prisoner, but I did not see him."
"He was in a cell with me, one of the cells above ground. Then they came and took him away..."
"I am sorry, Daniel, I do not know what became of him. All I can tell you is that the cells are all empty. There are no other prisoners here."
Daniel's initial reaction to the healer's obvious remorse was that it was no more than a facet of this gentle being's innate compassion, until he saw a shadow flicker across the strange eyes and felt a chill slip down his own spine.
"You think he's dead, don't you," he said flatly. "You think they killed him, too."
"If, as you say, he bore a strong resemblance to O'Neill, enough that they considered him to be a threat then, yes, I regret that I do."
As painful as the possibility might be, Daniel was forced to concede that the healer was probably right. The progression was easy to follow: kill the real O'Neill and substitute the alternate, using the deception to slip through the gate and - disappear into another life, taking Daniel with him, because with the archaeologist at his side, who would question him? Once safely on Earth, Ayan'nat would have her choice of hosts. It might have worked, too, had Ayan'nat not turned her attention on Carter, leaving them with a whole new set of problems to solve.
Two Jacks equalled two realities, yet he had seen nothing that looked in the least bit like a quantum mirror anywhere in the fortress, which meant they must have found some other piece of alien technology to do the job, or - maybe even the Stargate itself. It was an outside chance, yet the possibility could not be ignored because, despite the vast spectrum of research expended on it over the eighty or so years since it had been unearthed, they had barely scratched the surface of its capabilities. The fact that nobody back on Earth had been able to establish a link between realities, using the Stargate, did not mean it was impossible. After all, they had used it to travel through time, back to nineteen sixty-nine and forward again to - well, Cassandra had not specified the year, but he had guessed it was at least fifty years into their future.
"It would be the most likely course of action for Dace to take, in order to protect himself and his queen," Merien continued, his hand closing over Daniel's arm.
Feeling his world begin to crack and crumble, Daniel asked "How do I find out for sure?"
"Dace would know, or one of the guards perhaps, but I do not think it would be wise to let them know that you are aware of their deception."
"But - I have to know. If Jack is still alive I won't leave here without him."
"Yet if you stay, you will put Major Carter's life at risk. Is that what you would wish, Daniel, after you fought so hard to save her? Would you pay for your colonel's life with hers?"
Would he? He had considered just such a scenario many times, but it had always been from a safe distance, a hypothetical analysis of a situation he was certain he would never find himself in. Jack was their team leader, Sam his 2IC and Teal'c was a seasoned warrior, experienced in giving orders and making decisions. Daniel had never anticipated that the burden of responsibility would one day fall on his shoulders, that he would hold the power of life or death over the people he cared about most in the world, and he found himself quickly developing a new appreciation of what it must be like for Jack to be in that position, day after day, holding all their lives in his hands.
It was then that he recalled something he had heard Jack say, very early on in their friendship: nobody gets left behind. I was like a mantra to Jack, perhaps because he himself had been left behind in Iraq, and had suffered so much during his imprisonment. But it was something he believed in, right to the very core of him and, because of that, Daniel believed in it also.
Nobody. No. Body. To Jack it meant that, if at all possible, even the dead were brought home. He had even intended to return here for the bodies of Kovacek, Lansdown and any of the others whose remains they could find and, as he acknowledged that fact, Daniel asked himself if Jack did not deserve the same consideration. His own deep feelings for the man behind the uniform set aside, didn't he and Sam owe it to their friend to bring him home, whatever his condition?
Slowly, a pale hand lifted towards him, the long fingers splayed to cup his face. The touch was light and warm, bringing with it a feeling of peace and consolation.
"You are a most amazing man, Daniel," Merien informed him. "My people would have been proud to claim you as one of their own."
"But - I thought... You told Dace you wouldn't risk one life to save another."
"Nor would I, when good is to be sacrificed to save evil, but I have learned enough about you and your colonel - and the major - to know that a great bond exists between you all. Such love is worth fighting for."
Daniel covered the hand that lay against his face with his own. "Then - you will help me?"
"Even if it means - putting your own life at risk?"
Merien smiled, climbed to his feet and pulled Daniel up beside him. "Even then," he vowed adding sadly "I am the last of my race, Daniel. If I do nothing, Dace will eventually kill me too, of that I am certain. I would prefer to - cheat him of that victory. I do no know the Jack O'Neill of whom you speak but I have come to trust you and if you tell me he is a good man, then that is enough."
A life for a life. Daniel stared at him, long and hard, understanding how much was being offered. "We'll get him out," he promised, determined now that Dace would not win, "and we'll take you with us. I know at least one doctor back home who'll want to talk to you," he added, picturing Janet Fraiser's face when she saw the gentle physician emerge from the wormhole.
And then another thought hit him.
"Ohmigod! The GDO's!" he exclaimed, startling the healer with his outburst.
He had accepted that the likelihood of finding their weapons was small and had been prepared to make the escape using whatever came to hand, but it would all count for nothing without a GDO to signal the SGC that it was safe for them to open the iris. Even with a GDO there was still a chance that they had been out of communication long enough for General Hammond to order their codes locked out of the system, but without the signalling device - the 'garage door opener', as Jack called it - there would be no way home.
"I do not understand," Merien shook his head, "what is a geedeeoh?"
"It's a signalling device. It identifies us to the people back home. Without it, they won't let us through."
"And where would one find such a device?"
"We each carry one, so - with the rest of our equipment. I don't suppose you happen to know where that is?" he asked hopefully. To his surprise, Merien nodded.
"All weapons are stored in the armoury; anything else is taken to the Operations Room until it can be examined."
"Back-engineering," Daniel nodded, "of course." Then, for Merien's benefit, he explained "They take a piece of equipment - like the one you're using on Sam - and they take it apart to find out how it - does what it does. That's what Dace and his people have been doing with the things they steal from other worlds."
Merien seemed to become nervous at his words, his gaze sliding away from Daniel's, as if he was afraid to read anything more there. "And do they also - 'back-engineeer' people?"
Remembering how desperate the Maybourne of his own reality had been to obtain a Goa'uld symbiot, preferably one already implanted within a host, for experimentation and how the man had done his best to have Teal'c transferred to Area 51, Daniel shuddered.
"They try," he responded bleakly. "Which is another reason why I won't leave you here."
"You are one man, Daniel, and your first loyalty is to your O'Neill. You may not have a choice." He touched Daniel's shoulder, and once again Daniel felt an overwhelming sense of peace. "You must accept that, my friend."
"But what about you? You don't know what these people are capable of."
"If it comes to that, I will - retreat from them. One thing all of my people share, healer or not, is the ability to retreat, at will, to a place that transcends the physical. When the danger is gone we can return or - move on to - You humans have no word for it."
The curiosity of the linguist was mesmerised. "What do you call it?"
"*Keerish N'all*." Daniel repeated the words slowly, then smiled. "It sounds like a beautiful place to be."
"Yes, it is. More beautiful than even my people can imagine." His thoughts seemed to drift for a moment, then he gave a sharp laugh and slapped Daniel on the shoulder. "But I have no wish to go there until it is absolutely necessary. Come, there is no more time to waste. I will search for this 'geedeeoh' of yours, but first I will show you how to wake Major Carter. She will need time to adjust."
Merien began to move towards the bed where Sam lay, but Daniel caught his arm to stop him. "Why can't I get the equipment? You can give me directions."
"True, but you would be noticed. I have a certain amount of freedom to come and go as I please and no one will notice my presence in the Operations Room. Trust me, Daniel, it is much safer this way."
The blue gaze, laced with uncertainly, shifted back and forth between Sam and the door. Should he give his trust? Could he, to someone other than Jack? The healer appeared genuine enough and willing to put his own life on the line - or was that just his way of winning Daniel over? What if he was going to the Operations Room not to get the GDOs, but to tell Dace of Daniel's plans?
// What if I just sit here and wait until they finish us both off?// he thought ruefully, ashamed at his own lack of faith in the man who had given him no cause to doubt. He had to take the chance, for all their sakes. For Sam and Jack, for Teal'c's memory, for Earth itself. There was no other way.
"Okay," he said, moving to Sam's bedside. "Show me what I have to do..."
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