DISCLAIMER: I don't own the ladies and I'm making no money from them.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
WARNINGS: Language, violence, torture.
'Bet you had the map upside-down.'
Doctor Janet Fraiser pursed her lips and deliberately kept her gaze on the windshield. 'I did not have the map upside-down.'
Janet smiled tightly. 'We're on the right road.'
'It doesn't look like the right road.'
'It's a road. It's headed the way we want to go. What's not to look right?'
Janet heard her companion suck in air through her teeth. A blonde head shook in her peripheral vision.
'There's no gas station marked here, for a start.'
Janet turned to her left and studied the woman sitting in the driver's seat. Major Sam Carter had slipped the Jeep out of gear and put the brake on. The engine idled as she inspected a creased paper between her hands. She twisted the rough pencil sketch a quarter turn suddenly, then back again.
'Nope. No gas station,' said Sam, 'and we've passed at least three dirt tracks and a bridge that shouldn't be here.'
Janet groaned quietly. 'Sam, honey, you're really starting to piss me off. It's a sketch map, not an astronomical star chart. Professor Godwin's used to mapping the human nervous system, not territory. He wouldn't bother drawing every track, bridge and frigging gas station.'
Sam sniffed in mild indignation. 'I don't expect Da Vinci drawings. Just a note or two would help.'
Janet carefully put a lid on her growing impatience. Getting mad at her friend wasn't going to help. Sam just liked to be thorough. Precision and all that; exactly what was called for in astrophysics. Janet couldn't really fault her for it, and she had to admit that Godwin's pencil directions were lacking in corroborative detail. She licked her top lip and spoke as gently as she could, hoping it wouldn't come across as indulgent. 'Sam. Trust me. We've turned left at the right lumber trail, we've passed the right saw mill, we've crossed the right railroad.' She glanced ahead and pointed a deliberate finger at the glass. 'We're still on the right road.'
Sam's blue eyes followed the doctor's pointing finger and peered up the worn road ahead of them. Her jaw twitched as she pondered Janet's methodical reassurances, and Janet recognized it as Sam's "I'm not buying this one yet" expression. After a few moments, during which Sam twisted the map a quarter turn the other way, back again, looked left, looked right, sucked in some more air and twitched again, Janet let out a noisy sigh and jabbed her thumb back towards the dilapidated gas station they'd driven past a minute earlier.
'Okay, Sam, if you're not convinced, why don't you just walk in there and ask for directions?'
Sam Carter flicked the map onto the dashboard and started to unbuckle. 'That's exactly what I was going to do,' she said with a little too much nonchalance. 'What do you take me for? A man?'
Janet's exasperation had already melted into amusement by the time Sam closed the Jeep door behind her. She raised her hand quickly and adjusted the driver's mirror so that she could watch Sam retreating down the road. Her eyes settled inevitably on the slender major's nicely toned backside. The cut of Sam's blue jeans accentuated her hips and smooth curves, and Janet had a quite thing for those curves. She watched them swing a little as Sam picked up her pace, purposeful and efficient. Sam's white cotton shirt, creased from the ride and partially untucked, was an inviting touch.
Janet reluctantly dropped her voyeuristic gaze from the mirror when Sam disappeared inside the building. She took a deep breath of summer afternoon air through her open window. The seemingly endless, wooded terrain smelled of soil and evergreen, with a hint of sawdust. For the second time that day she found herself wondering what had led her old professor to choose this forgotten corner of the world to die in.
Professor Godwin had always seemed so comfortable with people, she recalled. He was such a fine communicator. That was rare in a gifted academic, and Janet knew she couldn't have asked for a better teacher. Of course she knew the man had been much more than a teacher during his many years in medicine. A skilled clinician, a World War II field surgeon - he had led a full and varied career long before Janet knew him. He was already old when she met him, by which time he knew more than anyone else about his specialist field and then some. When General Hammond ordered Janet to the Alpha Site to look at a synthetic virus SGC had isolated from a recently surveyed planet, the doctor knew right away which expert's brain she needed to pick about it.
It was a very strange piece of genetic engineering. Designed and sealed in an underground lab by someone long gone, this microscopic critter did things to the nervous system that neither she nor any of her Air Force colleagues could fathom. Two members of the SGC team who had the misfortune to release it by accident it had found themselves incapacitated in minutes, but inexplicably recovered a few hours later. They weren't entirely sure of its purpose, since it displayed beneficial properties in some circumstances and downright scary ones in others. She and Sam Carter spent weeks together building a computer model of its molecular structure and its interaction with human nerve cells, and after some promises and cajoling they got the go ahead to show their progress to Janet's old civilian professor.
In hindsight that had been the easy part. Getting Godwin to agree to look at the virus data turned out to be harder than Janet had imagined. It took her a whole weekend to track him down to these backwoods, and when she finally got him on the telephone he'd been unusually stubborn.
'Jan, my dear, I'm not coming to Colorado.' The old doctor's voice sounded gravelly on the scratchy line. Janet recognised the clipped transatlantic she'd first heard over a decade ago. She remembered hearing that he'd picked it up during the London Blitz. He had found himself over there when war broke out and refused to come home until the bombs and incendiaries let up on the beleaguered civilian population. 'I'm eighty-eight years old and I've travelled enough for six octogenarians,' he told her. 'Now I stay put.'
Janet persevered. She couldn't tell him the subject of study was extra-terrestrial, but she could tell him enough about its properties to intrigue him; but Godwin still wouldn't visit the lab at Cheyenne Mountain. He wouldn't even agree to meet at an Air Force base closer to home. Eventually he spelled it out for her.
'Jan, I have an aggressive lymphoma with secondaries popping up like ping pong balls in a bucket. I've sold up and come here to avoid people I don't like, watch Laurel and Hardy tapes, drink imported Vodka, and leave my worldly goods to Mrs Richmond's Windsor Home for Wayward Young Ladies. Mrs Richmond is long gone of course and her premises are now a nightclub, but she was very accommodating in my youth and her grandchildren can make the most of it. I hear a couple of them have my nose...' He paused for breath, then added abruptly, 'Jan, if you want me to look at your mystery minibeast you'll just have to bring it to me.'
So that was that. A plane, a train and an automobile. Sam beamed when she learned she would be off on an Air Force paid jaunt into the back of beyond with her favourite doctor for three whole days. 'Ooh, do we get to stay in a seedy motel?' she asked. 'Can we? Can we?'
Janet had smirked as she adjusted her laptop in its padded case. 'Major Carter, you're quite the wayward lady and someone ought to spank you.'
As Janet waited in the Jeep the memory of Sam's shocked and instant flush put the smirk back on her lips. She wondered what Godwin would make of Sam. She recalled he had a marked soft spot for brilliant blondes.
Mrs Richmond was probably blonde, she mused. Though hard pressed to be as brilliant.
A sound just beyond the driver's door caught Janet's attention. She turned, expecting to see Sam returning, but there was no sign of the major. She twisted further round to look back towards the gas station, and suddenly felt a sharp pain in the right side of her neck. She gasped in surprise, and then recognised the cold sensation of an intravenous sedative. She panicked, slapping futile fingers at the retreating hypodermic as a tall and unfamiliar figure stood up next to the driver's door from where he had distracted her. Another shadow fell across her from her right.
Janet tried to shout a warning, but only a gurgle escaped her throat as the edges of her vision darkened and her limbs suddenly felt heavy. Her head fell back against her seat as the swift-acting drug flooded her bloodstream, stealing her will and consciousness. Her hearing was the last sense to disappear as oblivion claimed her.
'Get their gear and lose the Jeep,' a man's voice ordered. 'And keep a close watch on the other one. She's resistant to sedatives.'
Dry mouth. An ache in her neck.
Janet came round slowly. She was seated, and at first she thought she was still in the Jeep. Then she opened her eyes and saw that she wasn't.
She was sitting in an old armchair. It was the kind that reminded her of her grandparents. Their generation seemed to favour armchairs like this one - sturdy, upright, with solid wooden arms and firm patterned cushions. That was where the similarity ended. Her grandparents' armchairs were pristine and smelled of sweet peas and furniture polish. This one was filthy. The varnish on its arms was cracked and the worn upholstery reeked of tobacco.
Janet found that she was pinned into it. She was fastened to the wooden arms with black cable ties at her wrists and elbows. Fear welled like raw heat in her chest and settled below her diaphragm. She pulled and found that the ties were so tight that her arms did not have a scrap of movement. Then she noticed that someone had wrapped some lengths of bandage between her flesh and the secure plastic. That puzzled her for a moment; was she wounded? She realised quickly that she was intact, and that the bandages were intended to keep her so. Any struggles would otherwise result in harsh abrasions.
Sam. Where was Sam? They'd got her too. Or had she escaped somehow?
Janet struggled against her bonds again and tried to get some leverage; nothing. She bent down to one wrist and tried gnawing at the nylon tie, but gave up after a minute as she discovered it was hopeless. The strip of ratcheted plastic was far too tough.
Janet steadied her breathing as she assessed her predicament. Someone had jumped them, obviously, and whoever was behind it appeared to have planned for it rather well. She remembered the words she'd heard just before she lost consciousness, and reasoned that their assailants must be familiar with the Stargate program. Sam's resistance to sedatives was due to the naquadah left in her blood after hosting the symbiote Jolinar. No one without knowledge of that piece of her past would be aware of her condition.
Rogue NID or something? Sam would probably know. Where the hell was she?
Janet shook her dark hair out of her eyes and looked around her prison. She was alone in a large timber room that smelled stale and abandoned. Two small windows in one wall let in what was left of the afternoon sun. Twin shafts of pale light picked out specks of dust in recently disturbed, musty air. The floor was bare boards, with discolouration where a rug had once lain. It was littered with odd bits of garbage: crushed cigarette packets, candy wrappers, some spent shotgun cartridges. A broken telephone and a rusty pair of old crutches were dumped in a dim corner to her right - the eclectic debris of a lonely existence. A small chipped table stood between her and a door about twenty feet away, and a single light bulb hung from the rafters, blown grey and dusty. Other than that the room appeared empty. Except for an impressive array of cobwebs, which suggested the place had been uninhabited for years.
She wasn't inside the gas station, she was certain. That was a lone rendered building topped with sloping bitumen. This was a single story, all timber construction with a sharply pitched roof. Old felt was visible above holes near the eaves, and through the grimy windows to her left Janet could make out only evergreen leaves and branches. She guessed that her unidentified captors must have driven her somewhere else. Somewhere remote and quiet.
She listened as voices began to filter through the closed door facing her, and she strained to make out bits of a conversation.
'... another two hours at least... old bastard put two through the engine as well as one through Cole's belly... need to fix a cylinder and head gasket.'
'We can make use of the time,' said a female voice. '... upload the data. Then Fraiser can fix up Cole for us while I make a backup.'
'Have to get the data first,' the first voice resumed. 'Shall I go see if she's ready?'
Janet didn't have time to feign unconsciousness as the door swung open abruptly and a tall figure entered. She recognised the man who had distracted her when she was waiting for Sam in the Jeep. He was lanky and red-haired, with very pale eyes and a thin mouth. He struck her immediately as impatient and twitchy. He slipped a cigarette from a pack in his breast pocket and lit it noisily with a fancy chrome Zippo.
A shorter, dark man and a woman followed him through the door, and Janet caught a glimpse of another near-empty room behind them before the door closed again. She couldn't see Sam anywhere. She flexed her captured muscles instinctively as three pairs of eyes appraised her. Her captors were dressed in practical, unobtrusive civilian clothes, but their identical boots looked like military issue. She quickly tried to make sense of what she'd overheard. They were after some data. And someone was injured. Shot? They wanted her to treat him?
That explained the protective bandages on her wrists and arms. It wouldn't do to bleed into a patient.
The woman slid silently across the room to Janet's left and leaned back against the wall between the windows, her arms folded. The dark man approached the middle of the room, and Janet noticed that he had her laptop under his arm. He placed it carefully on the table between them, opened it and booted it up.
'Doctor Fraiser,' he said, without looking at her, 'your password and encryption codes please.'
Janet stared up at him. The computer buzzed gently as its operating system woke up.
After a moment the man met her gaze calmly. 'Now, please, Doctor Fraiser.'
Janet swallowed, ready to refuse. Her mouth was so dry she could not even manage that, so she just shook her head.
The man straightened and glanced across to the woman. 'Water.'
Janet watched as the woman unfolded her arms silently and sauntered out of the room. She was similar in build to Sam, with straight jet black hair and dark brown skin. Athletic, Janet noted. A match for the major and more than a match for Janet.
The woman returned moments later with a black canteen. She crossed the room and paused at Janet's chair, keeping her distance from the doctor's feet. When she offered the open flask to Janet's lips, Janet accepted some tepid water and swallowed.
'Okay,' the dark man said as the woman moved away again, 'we'll start with your login. Root password please, Dr Fraiser.'
'Where's Major Carter?' Janet asked coldly.
The man's jaw tightened a fraction. 'Tell me your password, Doctor.'
When Janet remained silent he moved to the table's near side, perched on one corner and folded his arms. 'Let me make this clear to you, Fraiser,' he said in a matter of fact manner. 'We know what's stored on your computer, and now you know that we want it. We'll get it, and after we've got it we can all go home and celebrate.' He passed his tongue over his teeth and his tone grew more menacing. 'But how we get it is very much up to you. Easy or difficult. I prefer easy, because I'm lazy, but I do difficult when necessary. Now are you going to give me a nice easy one, or do I have to work for it?'
Janet met his stare and tried to sound resolute. Inside she felt petrified. 'I'm not giving you anything.'
She inhaled sharply as a large hand thrust into her hair and seized a fistful. The taller man was at her side, pulling her head back, forcing her to look up at him. She winced at the sharp pain in her scalp as his grip tightened.
The dark man continued talking softly. 'Ginger here's not so lazy. He likes a good workout.'
The tall man twisted her hair viciously, as if to prove the other's point. 'Tell us!' he hissed down at her.
Cigarette smoke stung Janet's eyes. She closed them and sealed her lips, determined not to let them see her falter. She decided right then that there was no way she was going to volunteer these people access to the virus data if she could help it. She wasn't sure who they were, but she had no doubt the information would be anything but safe with them. How they'd got to hear about it was not something she had time to wonder about right now.
'Password!' the tall man bellowed in her face suddenly. When he got no answer he shoved her head forward in disgust and let go of her. He spat on the floorboards at his feet and waited.
The dark man's calling the shots, Janet told herself. There was a hierarchy at work here, military or otherwise.
The leader sighed dramatically, slipped his hip off the table and turned back to Janet's laptop. He closed the lid, putting it into hibernation and crushing Janet's slim hope that the battery would run down any time soon. 'Ginger?'
'Go and fire up that generator outside. When the doctor's thumbs make intimate contact with bare copper wires, she'll help us.'
The other man smirked around his cigarette and left the room smartly, shutting the door behind him. Janet felt her insides knotting at the ominous prediction. An unpleasant prickling sensation crawled up the back of her neck as she contemplated the pain that electric shocks could inflict on her. But it seemed that her captor proposed an overly elaborate solution to his problem: shock torture, yet they didn't already have a working power supply on the premises? A cigarette stub was just to hand, too. It occurred to Janet that the man's orders were designed to bring psychological pressure to bear on her, and less a practical suggestion.
She felt more certain of this when he began to describe some of the effects for her benefit. 'Do you know what a couple of hundred volts feels like, Doctor Fraiser? Prolonged, merciless... making your body twist in agony. Your back spasms and your tongue swells in your mouth. You'll understand the physiological effects, of course, being a medical doctor.'
Janet took a gamble. 'Yes,' she said as coolly as possible. 'It plays hell with motor co-ordination afterwards. I'll probably make quite a mess of Cole's belly.'
Her captor started in surprise, then tried to hide it. Janet raised her eyebrows at him, challenging him to find an adequate cover for his awkward hesitation. After a few moments he clearly thought better of it. He smirked ruefully. 'Ginger does have a loud mouth, doesn't he?'
Janet dared to hope she might be getting the upper hand as she watched him shift his weight from one foot the other. She opened her mouth to speak, wanting to capitalise on this small advantage, but he interrupted her.
'If you know about Cole, you should also know that your professor won't be any help to you. If you're stalling us so that he can raise the alarm when you fail to show up, you'll be disappointed. He's dead.'
A painful lump formed in Janet's throat as these cruelly casual words sank in. She dealt with her sudden sense of loss with rapid anger. 'You're such brave men, aren't you?' she said bitterly. 'Killing a defenceless old man.'
Her captor sneered. 'Defenceless? He had a pump action! He blew away one of my men, and you will be cleaning up the mess he put in Cole when the others get here, Doctor. And if you start deliberately fucking it up, I'll start deliberately putting bullets through your colleague's knees and elbows.'
Janet gritted her teeth as he threatened her. Her anger at Professor Godwin's death helped her face him with an expression of defiance. The scientist who had dedicated his years to saving lives had not deserved that, and her eyes stung when she realised how much she had been looking forward to seeing her mentor again. It helped to know that he'd put up a fight, and she suddenly realised that the spirited old man might have preferred going out that way over succumbing to cancer. But such knowledge did not quell her quiet rage at his brutal murder.
At that moment the tall man returned. His hands were dirty and he sounded a little out of breath.
'The generator's fucked,' he said. 'Seized up with rust. But while I was out there I found something better.' He flung a tan-coloured object towards the table. It fell next to the laptop, sending dust into the air as it landed. Janet peered to get a better look. It was a short, braided leather whip. She tensed at the sight of it.
The tall man put his hands on his hips, clearly pleased with himself. Apparently the muted reaction his discovery earned him was less than he expected. His smug smile faltered. He glanced between his leader and the bound doctor. 'What?'
The dark man kept his eyes averted. 'She heard about Cole,' he said drily.
The other man's lips moved silently. He suddenly looked uncomfortable. Clearly he realised that he deserved the blame, and that he was getting it. He took a deep breath. 'Well fuck Cole! The useless bastard got himself shot.' He jabbed a finger in Janet's direction. 'Making her talk is all that matters.'
To Janet's relief his superior clearly thought the wounded Cole mattered too. But the leader was in a dilemma, and she realised that it was up to her to push him in the right direction. He'd threatened Sam, and she had to divert him from that route right away. Yet it was the first time he'd revealed that they still held the major captive, and mention of her pointed Janet to a possible way through his warring priorities.
'I'll give you what you want,' she said quickly. 'But Major Carter won't be any use to you, so you might as well release her. That's the deal. Give her one of your radios. When I get word from her that she's safe, I'll give you the information you want and prepare for your patient.'
The dark man stared at her, apparently processing this unexpected offer. Then his lip curled and he gave a short, dismissive laugh. 'Don't insult me. The major will call in the cavalry.'
Janet's mind raced as she sought a way through his scepticism. 'Send her without a radio, then, right now. I take it we're miles from civilian communications. If you give her half an hour to get clear, I'll give you access to the files. Then I'll fix your man when he gets here.'
The leader frowned thoughtfully. He was thinking about it. She began to hope that she could get Sam out of here. If Sam were free she might find a way to defeat their plan to steal the virus data.
To Janet's disappointment he hesitated. 'You may trust your colleague's ability to avoid recapture, but I don't trust you to keep your word.'
'Then I guess you'll just have to give up on Cole and beat it out of me. If you think you can break me.'
Janet knew she was pushing him. She also knew he could break her. It was only a question of how long it took him, and whether he was prepared to go another man down permanently to do it. She was counting on his need to preserve his dwindling team, and the hope that they were working to a deadline.
Unfortunately the other man wouldn't countenance her offer. He let his leader's name slip out in his agitation. 'No way, Rance! The minute that woman's free we'll have another clock ticking. If you want to keep the doc in shape for Cole, let's work the major over instead.'
Janet moved quickly to counter the suggestion she had feared was coming. She kept her voice as clinical as possible. 'Major Carter is a combat-experienced professional. She knows the risks she takes on every mission. She'll expect to pay the price for failing this one.'
Rance, as Janet now knew him, looked genuinely contemptuous at her reaction. 'You cold bitch. You just wanted me to release her so she could save your ass, didn't you?'
It suited Janet to let him think so. She needed to close the deal. 'Accept my offer. Set Major Carter free. Hold her and it won't matter what you do with her, I won't tell you a damn thing.'
An unexpected voice spoke quietly from the shadows. 'Oh I think you will, Janet Fraiser.'
Janet turned to her left, startled. It was the first time the dark woman had spoken; she had a slight Caribbean accent. Janet was suddenly aware that her third captor had been standing absolutely still and silent since she had given her the water. The woman had not moved a muscle as she leant against the wall, drawing no attention to herself while she observed proceedings. Now she pushed herself upright and took the few steps that brought her in front of Janet's chair. Her full, dark lips lifted into a small smile as she looked down at the doctor.
'You'll tell us everything if we push Samantha Carter's buttons,' the woman said with quiet confidence. She bent towards Janet and her smile grew conspiratorial. 'Men!' she quipped, as though participating in a bit of female gossip, 'They're crap on body language. Oblivious.' She straightened and stepped away, speaking louder. 'I take it she's a good fuck, doctor?'
Janet thought her heart would stop. She swore it was pounding hard enough to crack a rib and trigger a myocardial infarction.
Rance took a moment to catch on. His eyes flitted from one woman to the other. 'What?'
'Let's not waste any more time,' the woman said casually. 'Ginger's got an idea that will work for a change. Bring in the doctor's girlfriend.'
'They're together?' Rance's dark eyebrows went half way up his forehead. Then they came down again, and the result wasn't pretty. They drew together in a malevolent scowl in Janet's direction. She got the clear impression that he was not the kind of man to forgive a slight, and he was going to take being duped in front of his team personally. As she feared, his tone was vengeful.
Janet's blood ran cold.
Rance dragged the small table to one side of the room as the tall man and the woman brought Sam in. Janet couldn't help a sharp intake of breath when she saw her. Sam's arms were bound behind her and she was blindfolded. They pushed her through the door by an arm each and forced her to kneel in the middle of the floor.
'Sam,' Janet said hoarsely.
Sam reacted instantly to the sound of Janet's voice. 'Janet! Are you hurt?'
The tall man lashed out the moment she spoke, punching her in the mouth. Unable to see it coming, Sam took the blow badly and lost her balance, falling to her side with a grunt.
'Shut up and get up!' he snarled down at her, pulling her back to her knees cruelly by one arm.
'I'm okay, Sam,' said Janet, trying to keep the sickening dread out of her voice.
Rance stepped between them. He tugged the blindfold away and Sam blinked in the dimly lit room. Her eyes sought past the man standing over her and found the doctor fastened to the chair. Janet saw a succession of emotions in swift order: relief, anxiety, anger, guilt. The major licked a speck of blood from her lower lip as she scanned her surroundings quickly, eyes lingering on Janet to assess her condition, then peering swiftly in all directions. Janet recognised the practised soldier checking for potential weapons and escape routes.
Rance was speaking. 'Major Carter, I don't suppose you know the current login details and encryption codes for Doctor Fraiser's computer?'
Sam glanced up at him. She scowled.
'They want the data model,' Janet said tightly.
Rance didn't waste any time. 'No, of course you don't. That would contravene all security protocols.' He moved away again. 'Though apparently you are prepared to contravene some military protocols...' He poked a finger at the braided whip on the table. Then he looked up at the roof, examining the timbers. He waived a hand at the two supporting beams on either side of the room. 'String her up between those.' He drew an automatic pistol from the small of his back and pointed it at Sam to cover her.
'No!' Janet blurted. Their captors ignored her. The tall man shoved Sam so that she fell forward, then placed his boot on her back to pin her down. The woman produced a coil of nylon rope and dropped to one knee beside the prone woman. She cut through the ties on Sam's wrists, then rapidly bound a length of rope around each one. They hauled Sam up and looped the far ends of the ropes over the beams, pulling her arms out hard to the sides.
'Tighter,' said Rance.
'You bastard,' said Sam contemptuously.
'Save your breath for your sweetheart. Tell her to talk to us.'
'Go fuck yourself.'
The other two pulled on the ropes so that Sam's wrists rose level with her head, stretching her arms wide, and tied them off with casual expertise. Janet saw with dismay that Sam's heels left the floor as she was suspended between the solid beams. 'You don't have to do this,' she said impotently.
'Of course we don't have to do this,' said Rance, stepping behind Sam. He drew a knife from a sheath hidden at his ankle. For a moment Janet didn't know what he was going to do with it. 'It's your choice, Doctor.' He sliced through the collar of Sam's shirt, then grabbed the pieces with both hands and ripped them down to her waist. 'Isn't there something about such decisions in your professional oath? First do no harm?' He picked up the whip and tossed it over to the other man. 'Here Ginger, it's your toy. If the doctor keeps shutting us out, you can do the honours.'
'Don't tell them, Janet,' Sam said shortly. 'They want to make a biological weapon.'
Rance lost his patience with the major. 'Gag her!'
The woman ripped a strip from Sam's ruined shirt. She folded it and pressed it hard into Sam's mouth, then knotted it tight. Janet saw Sam wince.
'Please...' Janet didn't want to believe what was happening. They were going to do it. They were going to make Sam suffer for Janet's silence. They were going to flog her.
Rance moved back to the table and wiped some dust from the lid of Janet's laptop, reminding her of her choice in the matter. 'You can speak as soon as you like, of course. Give me access to your files and it will be over before it's started.'
Sam caught Janet's eyes. She shook her head, silently insisting that Janet refuse. What else Sam was trying to convey Janet could guess at: Stay strong for me, Janet. Try not to watch this.
But Janet could not avoid bearing witness. The humiliating spectacle was to be played directly in front of her. The red haired man was already backing up to the door, taking up a position behind Sam and shaking out the whip's short coils. Bits of dirt and grimy cobweb fell to the floor and he brushed it impatiently with his fingers.
Jesus. It wasn't even clean.
A long-forgotten memory jumped into Janet's mind: Professor Godwin sitting with his young colleagues in a bar, knocking back glass after glass of neat vodka, telling them about Napoleonic military surgeons and the medical history of Admiral Nelson's navy. If a man was to be flogged, he explained, he endeavoured to make his own cat'o'nine tails. The sailor unpicked a new piece of rope, first into three strands, then into nine, putting knots in the fresh fibres. After it was used once, a good ship's surgeon made sure the cat was thrown away. The practise kept wounds clean and prevented cross-infection.
Janet closed her eyes. She remembered reflecting on the brutal practicality of such a tradition. Sam's pain would be hardly different. A piece of efficient brutality, only in search of information.
Janet heard a slap and her head snapped to one side.
'Open your eyes!'
Her face stung where Rance had struck her. She obeyed and saw Sam staring at him in mute fury. The red haired man behind her raised his arm, it seemed to Janet in slow motion, and then in the room's sudden eerie silence, during which Janet heard her blood pounding in her ears, his arm shot forward at ferocious speed.
The whip didn't crack. It wasn't long enough for the tip to break the sound barrier, especially in such inexperienced hands. But the last third of its length landed across Sam's right shoulder with a hard, dull snap and drove her forward against the unforgiving ropes. A sharp groan escaped her throat, and Janet watched as Sam's eyes shut tightly for an instant, then opened again and widened in shock.
Janet knew that look. She had seen it too often when working in the field. Sometimes anaesthetic was not feasible, nevertheless there was a task to fulfil: clean out an infected wound or set a fracture. If the patient was lucky the pain was sudden then quickly dissipated, but sometimes it was another kind of pain - the kind that struck fiercely, then flared fiercer still for long, agonizing seconds until the nerves eventually relinquished their hold and let it recede all to slowly. Janet's hand had endured many a tight, bone-pressing grip as she held a patient through that kind of pain.
She wished she could hold Sam now. She saw that Sam had not come to terms with the fire of the first stroke when the second landed, an inch to its left. The whip drove her forward again and this time Sam lost her precarious footing. Her back arched as she instinctively sought to escape the blow. A third struck as she got her weight back onto her toes, forcing a tormented gasp from between her clenched teeth.
A fourth. The man wielding the whip was getting used to his weapon, growing familiar with its weight and reach. His aim caught Sam straight across her waist and her head fell back as she endured the prolonged, searing pain.
More followed. The tip of the whip snaked around Sam's defenceless body and bit into her abdomen. Janet watched in horror as a welt rose under the vicious touch. Three dark beads of blood emerged along its length where the braided leather broke the skin. They met and formed a thin rivulet that seeped down Sam's side, flushing bright red as the blood found fresh oxygen. The lash fell again like a savage viper across Sam's shoulders and she writhed in the taut bonds, her guttural cry of pain hardly stifled by the cloth in her mouth. Another, and another...
Janet realised she was also crying out. 'Stop! Please stop it!'
Rance signalled and the other man paused, dropping his arm to let the whip dangle on the floor. Sam shuddered and her head fell forward as she tried to collect herself at this respite.
Rance hovered above the laptop. 'Yes, Doctor?'
Janet felt powerless. She tried to reason with him, her words hurried, stumbling. 'Please stop this. Those files won't be any use to you. There's no way to replicate the molecular structure with our technology and the effects are too unpredictable...'
'Don't bother, Doctor!' Rance spat back angrily. 'Insulting me with such pathetic crap only reveals how desperate you are. We'll let you have ten minutes to rethink your position. Give the major's endorphins time to settle down again, ready for another go if you don't come to your senses.'
With that he stalked out of the room and the other two followed him. The door closed.
Sam moaned. Janet almost choked.
'Oh god Sam...'
Sam raised her head and looked directly at her. She made an obvious effort to calm her ragged breathing, trying to brave out the pain in front of her helpless friend.
'Don't pretend with me, Sam,' said Janet. 'I don't have to be a doctor to see what that thing's doing to you.'
Sam sagged in the ropes and she closed her eyes. Beads of sweat had erupted on her forehead and were starting to matt blonde hair to her pale skin. A tremor travelled across her outstretched arms. Janet followed it up to Sam's wrists, and swallowed hard when she saw fresh rope burns.
'I'll tell him what he wants to know.'
Sam's eyes shot open and she shook her head vigorously: No!
'Then what are we going to do?' Janet started pulling at her own bonds again, straining at the plastic straps that held her immobile. She pulled and twisted until her captured muscles hurt but it was impossible. Frustration stung her eyes. 'I have to tell him Sam. They could beat you to death if I don't.'
Sam just shook her head again: You can't.
Janet did not have access to the time but she was sure they returned in less than ten minutes. Rance came in first, and she detected an urgency in his stride. He was trying not to appear impatient but something was clearly bothering him. Whatever clock was ticking for these people, it had to be important. The tall red haired man followed Rance in and waited in front of the open door with his whip, but the woman did not appear this time. She had to be occupied with something else.
Rance moved to the table again. This time he opened the laptop. 'Well?'
Janet looked at Sam. Her friend met her gaze steadily, her wishes unmistakeable, ordering her to silence. Janet said nothing, and cried inside.
It was worse this time. The red haired man delivered his blows with frustrated vigour and Sam was soon hanging with all her weight on her tormented wrists. The whip found its way around her ribs and shoulders and left fierce red welts in its wake. As it struck her back repeatedly, flecks of blood appeared on the floorboards near her feet. Her face was a contortion of endurance, all other expressions lost - defiance, anger, contempt - all drowned by pain that was relentless.
Janet could not look any more. She bowed her head and squeezed her eyes tight shut, forcing tears from under her eyelids as her chest heaved. She just sobbed.
Eventually her world went quiet again. They had stopped. She was alone in a closed room with her tortured companion, who was also silent. Janet blinked the salty blur from her eyes and dared to look at her.
Unconscious. Bleeding. Sam's still form was pitiful. Her shirt hung in useless tatters, remnants clinging like storm-torn pieces of sail to her arms and waist. Her face was hidden and her body was utterly limp.
Janet became aware of a new and frightening threat. Sam was hanging in a dangerous position. Her arms were taut at shoulder height and her chest was under considerable stress. Her body weight was no doubt pulling down on her diaphragm, preventing it from rising efficiently to push air from her lungs. Carbon dioxide would soon build up in her blood. Already Janet could see that Sam was struggling to exhale in her fainted state. Prolonged restraint was impeding the pectoral and intercostal muscles and she would slowly asphyxiate.
Janet's stress levels took an extra leap as she realised how serious this could get: carbonic acid rising, increased heart rate, oxygen depletion leading to damaged capillaries, pericardial and pleural effusion... the images of fluid building up around Sam's heart and lungs came fast and unbidden into her mind. 'Sam!' she said urgently. 'Sam, wake up!'
Sam did not respond.
'Sam, wake up! Get your weight on your feet!'
The door opened and their female captor peered in, alerted by Janet's shout. She assessed the situation quickly. Seeing that both prisoners were still secure, she started to retreat.
'Please cut her down!' said Janet. 'In that position she could asphyxiate.'
'You want to let me into your laptop?'
Janet tried to hide her anguish. They wouldn't give her an inch. Her only option was to push for concessions, keep making offers, and threaten or bargain with the one bit of advantage she still hoped she had.
'If Major Carter dies your man Cole will get no help from me. I can swear to that.'
The dark woman paused. She glanced back into the other room, then came further in and held the door close behind her, not quite shutting it. It was a furtive movement and she spoke to Janet softly so that she would not be overheard.
'Cole's a brute. I hope he dies hurting. If you give me your security codes I'll free you both.'
Janet couldn't hide her surprise. What was the woman doing? Was she breaking ranks? Planning a private venture? Her mind raced as she sought out new options. Of course it could just as likely be a trick.
'How will you get us past the others?'
'They're busy. I'm guarding you.' The woman raised a shapely black eyebrow, as though the explanation were obvious.
'Let Carter go first.'
'You think she can get far without help?'
'If you give her enough time.'
The woman gave a sardonic smile and shook her head. 'As I'm sure you've guessed, we don't have much of that.' She turned away again.
Janet's tone grew vehement. 'Cut her down! She can't breathe like that!'
The woman relented and approached Sam from behind. She lifted the unconscious woman's chin and removed the gag, checking her airway. Satisfied, she let Sam's head drop. 'She's breathing.' She glanced back at Janet as she left. 'Maybe you can find a way to let me know if you change your mind.'
Before Janet could think of something else to say to keep her talking the woman was gone.
Janet swore in desperation. Then she forced herself to calm down. She wouldn't be any good to either of them if she panicked. She took some deep breaths, in through her nose, out through her mouth, steadying herself. She had to get Sam awake, fast.
'Sam, can you hear me? Please wake up.'
Sam showed no sign of regaining her senses. At least she couldn't feel pain at the moment. Janet didn't want to rouse her back to suffering, but the consequences of letting her hang there would be worse the longer it continued.
'Sam, you have to stand up!'
Still no response. Janet loathed shouting at her injured friend.
'Damn it! On your feet, Major!'
The harsh order got a reaction. Sam shuddered, moaned, and slowly lifted her head.
Janet spoke more gently. 'Sam, honey, please stand up. You have to take your weight off your arms.'
Sam opened her eyes. They looked vacant. With painful slowness she focused on Janet. Her dry lips moved. 'Oh... christ.'
'Stand up, Sam, please.'
Sam struggled into a standing position, at last taking the deadly pressure off her chest. Janet was relieved to see that the ropes had stretched a little during the torture and Sam was able to place her feet completely on the floor. Just. Sam swallowed and caught a few painful breaths before she managed to speak a sentence.
'You didn't tell them, did you?'
Janet blurted a short, half sobbing, mirthless laugh. Sam amazed her. 'No.' Then she added, faltering, 'Not yet.'
Sam blinked some sweat from her eyes. She was obviously in a lot of pain now and Janet could not bear being unable to help her.
'No offence,' said Sam, 'but it's your laptop. Why aren't they smacking you around for it?'
'They have a wounded man. ETA under two hours. They want me to remove a bullet.'
'Ah. A little field surgery. You going to do it?'
Sam nodded. She grimaced.
'Sam, do you know who they are? The one in charge is called Rance. Are they NID?'
Sam's pallid brow creased. 'Think so. Ex maybe. Out on their own at least.'
'You think they want the virus model to replicate it?'
'More like sell it...' Sam was struggling to breathe and talk at the same time, still suffering the after-effects of strained muscles. She swayed slightly, and Janet saw her position slipping.
'Stay on your feet!'
'I know, my love.' Janet held back another sob. Damn these bastards. Sam was probably right about them - a splinter group in this for money. They could well have a buyer lined up for the technology already. If that was what it was, ruthless greed had cost Godwin his life and now they were torturing Sam for it. For personal gain? It sickened her. And what would they do with their captives once they had got what they wanted from them?
'They're going to kill us.'
It was Sam who had spoken. Unbidden, her pained voice answered Janet's unspoken question.
'Have to get out of here, Janet. Didn't keep us blindfolded... won't let us live to report them.'
The door swung open abruptly behind her and all three of their captors entered. There were no insincere pleasantries this time. The woman moved briskly to the laptop and set down some equipment with an aerial dish beside it, deftly unravelling a short wire and connecting it to a port at the rear. A satellite router? She arranged the dish and waited. Rance approached Janet. He was holding the coiled whip and he gestured with it.
'You have five seconds to give us your current password before your girlfriend dies on the spot.'
Janet saw Sam tense at the dark man's proximity. Despite her pain she glared at him.
'Three. Two. One...'
Rance stepped behind Sam and swiftly wrapped a thin coil of the whip around her neck. He tugged it tight.
'No!' yelled Janet. 'Let her go! Stop!'
Rance did not stop. He wrapped the rough braid around his palms for extra grip and pulled the loop tight under Sam's chin, sealing her airway so that she started to choke. 'Password?' he said.
Janet was overwhelmed with terror. Sam's lips started to purple and her eyes were forced wide open. She struggled helplessly as the whip bit deep into her throat.
'Now, Doctor, or else!'
'One... lima... zero...' Janet began to weep.
'Victor, three, mike...' Now the letters and numbers spilled rapidly from her trembling lips. '... five, alpha, mike...' It was almost a release, or it would have been if she were not suffused with horror at the sight of Sam choking to death in front of her. Rance kept up his strangling grip on Sam's throat while the woman tapped the password into the keyboard. Sam's eyes began to roll upwards. Her feet kicked weakly as her beaten body starved of oxygen. Suddenly the woman nodded.
Rance released Sam abruptly. She shook and gasped violently as she fought to recover from the assault. Janet cried unashamedly.
'Well?' asked Rance impatiently. The woman continued typing for a few moments. Green LEDs erupted on the device plugged into the laptop. She touched some buttons, checked the screen, then looked up briefly to shake her head. Rance scowled. 'What about the files? Are they encrypted?'
The woman glanced at Janet as she disconnected the aerial device from the laptop. 'I could probably get into them from root eventually, but if she gives me the shortcut...'
'Minibeast,' said Janet, crushed.
Rance smiled in sinister triumph. His tone was unmistakeably gloating at her defeat. 'That's better, Doctor. Now all you have to do is wait for your patient. We'll keep your beloved major around for encouragement.' He turned to the other man. 'Cut her down and secure her for transport, just in case.'
The red haired man came forward with a drawn knife and sliced through the ropes at Sam's wrists. She fell straight to her knees, still breathing hard, lacking the strength to resist as he seized her arms and pinned them behind her. He shoved her face down to the floor, looped a cable tie twice round her crossed wrists and tightened it harshly.
Janet's intestines knotted at the sight of Sam's back. It was scored with welts, many of them still oozing fresh blood where they crossed. Her smooth skin was reddened and torn and the top of her jeans had turned rust coloured where blood seeped into the denim.
Their captors took the humming laptop and left them alone again. Janet felt utter despair. Rance had broken her after all. He was going through her files this very moment. Sam's suffering had been for nothing.
After a few moments Sam rolled carefully onto her side, wincing, so that she could look up at Janet. 'Sorry,' she said.
Janet was stunned. 'What for? I'm the useless lab-rat who gave them what they want.'
Sam managed a faint smile, enough to tell her that she did not blame her. Janet realised she was letting her see that she knew she'd faced an impossible choice. 'They didn't get everything,' Sam said after a few more deep breaths. 'I think the woman was trying to upload to a satellite. Maybe their buyer's own secure one. It's orbit must have taken it out of range for the night. We bought some time.'
Janet nodded, understanding. 'They couldn't send the data.' She frowned as she remembered. 'They said something about a backup.'
Sam moved again. Slowly, with obvious effort, she levered herself onto her knees, steadied her balance, then climbed to her feet. 'They'll be busy now, going through the files. We can escape.'
Janet was incredulous. 'How?'
'Shh. Keep it down. There's over a foot of clearance between these floorboards and the ground beneath us. If we can force a couple up we can slip out.'
'We're tied up!'
But Sam was already at her side, turning her back on her and seizing hold of the chair under Janet's right arm with her bound hands. 'These wooden arms are glued to the uprights. If we can pull them off...' She started to heave up, muscles bunching with the strain.
Janet did not have time to marvel at Sam's fortitude. She added her efforts to the major's, pulling up as hard as she could. With her own weight holding the heavy armchair down and three adrenalin-fuelled sets of biceps hauling in the opposite direction, the solid wood suddenly came unstuck and Janet's arm shot up, almost smacking her in the face.
Sam hushed her again and moved quickly to the left one. 'Same again.'
Janet was amazed and elated at how soon she was free. The nylon ties still held the lengths of wood tight along her forearms, but she was out of the chair and rubbing circulation back into her legs in seconds. She looked around for something to cut Sam's bonds but there was nothing sharp in the room.
'Light bulb?' she asked, hopeful. 'Window?'
'No. The noise of breaking glass carries.'
There was nothing to be done about Sam's wrists so they turned quickly to the floorboards. Sam scuffed some with her toe, scraping away layers of dust to get a look at their condition. At one side of the room she found some stained ones where the nails were rusty and the surface edges were pitted and more uneven than the rest, as though liquid had settled there for a length of time and early decay had set it.
'Here, bring those crutches.'
Janet fetched the old crutches from the corner. This project did not strike her as promising, but Sam was moving now with remarkable efficiency and confidence.
'In there,' said Sam, nodding towards a damaged corner of one floorboard. 'Force it.'
Doubtful, Janet lay one crutch down and placed the blunt point of the other in the gap that Sam indicated. She bore down on it hard at an angle. 'I don't think it's going to work.'
'It will, keep going.' Sam steadied herself against Janet's shoulder and placed her foot on the crutch's crossbar, adding her weight suddenly to Janet's and slamming the rusty metal down hard. The dull crack of wet wood splintering rewarded their efforts and the crutch broke through the floor. Both women looked up at the door sharply, fearful that the noise had alerted their captors, but no one came and they turned back to their task. Sam kicked the other crutch under the broken plank, wedging it horizontal against the neighbouring ones as Janet levered the wood as high as she could. Between them they lifted the splintered board further away, prising the remaining nails loose until the whole length came free with a low creak. Janet found herself looking down through a four foot long hole to the bare earth beneath the building.
They did not need to remove another entire board. Janet was able to prise a second loose and grip it partially to one side, allowing Sam to drop down awkwardly through the gap.
'Bring the canteen,' said Sam as she pinned the board with her foot so that Janet could follow. Janet grabbed the flask which their captors had left behind and squeezed down past her.
The feel and odour of wet soil and damp wood filled Janet's senses as she ducked down under the boards. It mingled with the stale, oddly sweet smell of spilled beer. So that was what had soaked into the floor. She held the board safely to one side as Sam twisted horizontal to join her, then let it spring back into place as quietly as she could.
They had to lie flat in the limited crawl space. Janet began to move towards the nearest edge of the timber structure, but Sam nudged her in a different direction and whispered.
'No. Go to the far end. They're less likely to see or hear us.'
It was not easy crawling the distance in such confines, especially for Sam who was injured and unable to use her arms. Janet kept a firm grip on the canteen with one hand and helped Sam wriggle over the soft earth with the other, using her elbows for leverage and trying to keep Sam's cuts and abrasions clear of the dirt. The lengths of wood still tied to her own arms dug into her flesh, but she focused on the strip of daylight ahead which marked the edge of the building, spurred on by a growing optimism that they could make good their escape.
Wood lice and centipedes scuttled around the unwelcome disturbance and Janet had to sweep cobwebs from her nose and mouth more than once, but at last they emerged into the open. They stood up next to a windowless timber wall, breathing hard from the difficult exertion. The evening did not seem as bright as Janet's eyes adjusted. They were in a small clearing surrounded by grim forest. She estimated they had little more than an hour before night fell.
She took her cue from Sam, who scanned their surroundings before nodding at the trees directly ahead.
'That way. Now!'
They sprinted the short distance. Janet half expected to hear shouts of alarm or even gunfire behind them, but they covered the ground in seconds without interruption. They plunged into the undergrowth at the edge of the clearing and ducked branches as the trees enveloped them, hardly slowing their pace as they sought the hidden sanctuary of dark foliage. Janet's spirits soared as she followed Sam's fast pace into thick cover. They had made it this far at least.
Sam did not slow down for at least an hour. She led Janet deep into the thickly wooded terrain, choosing a path that took them steadily uphill. Janet said nothing as she simply followed in Sam's relentless footsteps, acutely aware of the other woman's stamina. Janet liked to keep herself fit, and as both a doctor and an Air Force officer she regarded it as essential to maintain a robust cardiovascular system.
Sam was in a league above. Despite her painful injuries and physical restraint, the active-duty soldier kept up a vigorous pace. By the time she let them pause for rest, both women were dripping with sweat.
It was getting dark. Sam sank to a sitting position beside a small tree trunk and leant her shoulder against it. Janet knelt in the dirt beside her and unscrewed the top from the canteen. She lifted it so that Sam could take a few sips, then drank sparingly from it herself.
'You think they'll come after us?' asked Janet.
'They might try. But they'll find it hard to track us in this, especially in the dark.'
Janet looked at the ground. There was little vegetation in the shadow of the trees, but the dark soil was covered in fallen pine and needle leaf. It would not be easy for their pursuers to spot signs of recent disturbance on this muddled, sunless earth. The odd broken twig perhaps. The trees were mature enough to leave few stems above ground to snap.
'Do you think there's carnivorous wildlife?' she asked suddenly.
'Nothing big I hope.'
Janet looked down at her arms. Now she had a chance to remove the remnants of the chair. She started by tugging the bandages out from under the tight cable ties, taking extra time to fold the cloth loosely and place it in her lap away from the dirt. She decided she might need it afterwards. Then by stretching an arm out straight she was able to slide one length of wood down past her wrist and let it drop. She repeated the process with the other arm, and with the wood out of the way she eased the loosened ties down over her hands, free of them at last.
Looking up, Janet noticed Sam blinking some sweat out of her eyes. She leaned into her.
Janet wiped the sheen from Sam's forehead, then spontaneously cupped the other woman's face in her hands and kissed her glistening cheek. Sam's flushed skin was warm and tasted of salt.
Sam looked at her sideways. 'You're taking advantage, Doctor Fraiser,' she murmured, then quickly turned her head so that her lips brushed Janet's mouth.
Janet spread her hands up into Sam's damp hair and combed it gently back from her face, letting her fingers tangle in the unkempt strands. It was comforting contact after what they'd been through. They broke the chaste kiss and touched foreheads, remaining still together for long moments as the light faded.
'I have a novelty pen-knife on my keyring,' Janet said wistfully.
'A one-inch blade. Nifty little souvenir. I got it on vacation when I was a teenager. It's great for ripping open packing tape. I always have it on me.' Janet did not need to add that she didn't have it on her now. She frowned against Sam's brow, thinking. 'Maybe a stone? Some flint?'
'Wrong kind of geology.'
Sam sighed and her lips found Janet's again, delivering a soft kiss which Janet realised was an attempt to reassure her that she could cope. 'Looks like I'll be your prisoner a while longer, Janet.'
'Yeah, but your seedy motel room would've been a nicer setting for it.'
They had nearly lost the light. Under the forest's canopy the approaching darkness was especially swift. It was comforting to know that it would hide them, but it also meant that they had to stay put. Janet suddenly knelt up and pulled her shirt off.
'What are you doing?' asked Sam.
'You're half naked and perspiring. Appealing though that is, I don't want you catching a chill on my watch.' With that Janet began to press any dry parts of the fabric she could find carefully against Sam's exposed skin, trying to avoid the welts as she dabbed at the moisture as best she could. Sam flinched nevertheless. Janet paused, examining her injuries up close for the first time. She grimaced.
'Okay,' she said, slipping her shirt back on and grabbing the canteen, 'I have to clean these first.'
Sam started to protest. 'No, don't waste the water, we're going to need it. Just let them dry...'
Janet cut her off. 'Not an option, Sam. That whip was filthy and you crawled under a house. If they were clean I'd leave them to their own devices but they're not. The worst will get infected if left in that state.' She poured a little water onto one of the folded bandages and replaced the cap. 'I'll try not to hurt.'
I did hurt, but Sam endured it. She flinched several times and once she hissed sharply under her breath, but for the most part she held still while Janet carefully cleansed each long wound of accumulated dirt. Some dried blood fell away and a little fresh blood appeared beneath it, but Janet let it flow just enough to take away any bacteria that had already settled before staunching it gently with a clean piece of bandage. It was a painstaking process and she had to lift Sam's bound arms awkwardly to reach some of the welts. By the time she was done she could hardly see what she was doing in the fading light.
When night fell total darkness enveloped them. Janet could no longer see the trees that surrounded them, nor Sam, nor even her own hand in front of her. Their world turned utterly black.
'We must rest,' said Sam. 'Try to sleep.'
Sam could not lie on her back so Janet made herself as comfortable as she could in the leaf litter, which wasn't much, and pulled Sam down gently to lie on top of her. She cradled her friend's head against her chest and they shared their body heat as night leached the summer air of its remaining warmth. Janet's smaller frame insulated Sam's from the ground, her arms resting gingerly over Sam's back. It was a position destined to leave her aching come day break but it was the best she could do.
Within minutes Janet felt Sam's breathing slow against her and realised that her friend had fallen into a soldier's automatic sleep. Only then, as her own body lay still under the major's weight, did Janet feel the adrenalin she'd been running on intermittently since their capture drain away. Suddenly she was spent, her limbs heavy and her muscles worn out. She closed her eyes and drifted off too, exhausted.
The cold woke Janet before day break. It was very unpleasant, seeping up through her thin layer of clothing and penetrating her outstretched body all along its length. Her shoulders, back, hips and legs felt as stiff and chilled as a corpse on a slab.
Her neck ached too. Janet liked a plump feather pillow, and this pile of dry prickles didn't cut it. She rolled her head from side to side, trying to ease the soreness. The rustling sound alerted her human blanket to the fact that she was no longer asleep.
'These accommodations are lousy,' said Sam in the dark. 'Except for the bed, which is a bit squidgy in places but rather nice.'
Janet raised her chin onto her chest, trying vainly to see her companion, then let her head rest back in the needles again. She took a deep breath, feeling Sam's head rise and fall with it.
'Squidgy? Which bits?'
'The right bits.'
'Well thank god for that.' Janet shifted her position under Sam's weight, relieving the numbness around her vertebrae. 'How are you feeling?'
'Could be worse.'
'What time do you think it is?'
'I guess under an hour before we'll see some light. I've been awake the last two.'
'Yeah, but like I said, the bed's nice.'
Janet smiled and stroked Sam's hair affectionately. 'You make heavy bedding.'
'You okay with it?'
They lay quietly for some moments, simply taking comfort in each other's intimate presence. In the darkness her contact with Sam's firm body was Janet's only point of reference.
'You know what I could do with right now?' said Sam after a while.
'A really big dopamine hit.'
It took Janet a few seconds to figure out what Sam meant. Her eyebrows shot up in astonishment.
'You want an orgasm?'
'That'd do it.'
'Especially now. I've been lying here helpless with your gorgeous breast wrapped round my nose. The least you can do is let me come.'
Despite her physical discomfort Janet chuckled. 'Sam, you are never helpless.'
'I've been helpless to attend to myself. This bondage thing has its drawbacks.'
Janet lowered her hands and gently eased Sam higher up her chest. Face to face in utter darkness, they found each other with their lips and kissed tenderly. Janet accepted the smooth tip of Sam's tongue into her mouth. She whispered huskily into Sam's warm breath. 'You always want to be on top.'
Janet grinned and pulled away, then playfully licked Sam's earlobe. Sam groaned with shameless desire. 'Just get on with it!'
It was probably not a bad idea, Janet mused as she delved between them obediently to find the button on Sam's jeans. The endorphins released by sexual arousal would have an analgesic effect, easing the pain of her friend's injuries. In addition the intense hormone release at climax would raise Sam's blood pressure and get her heart pumping warmth to chilled extremities.
In fact Janet wouldn't mind a bit of that herself.
Her hand found a path inside Sam's jeans and brushed the soft curls within. Sam moaned encouragement against her cheek and Janet cupped her gently, sliding practised fingers along smooth folds of flesh that quickly ripened at her touch. Familiar toned thighs spread an invitation in the darkness, eager and impatient. Janet let her fingers glide over silky warmth, teasing her arousal at the edges, feeling the breath near her neck grow short and ragged. Stroking, circling, she smiled in anticipation as hips moved back and forth against her and teeth grazed her shoulder. Firm limbs tensed, taut muscles quivered, and Janet tipped the other woman over a steep crest of shuddering, exquisite climax. The darkness sparkled behind her eyelids and she gasped as her lover bit into her flesh.
Yeah, that'd do it.
Janet's hand held Sam tightly through the trembling aftershocks. Her mouth caressed her ear with soothing whispers until Sam's limbs relaxed and her spent breaths lengthened against Janet's tingling skin.
'That was quick,' said Janet, kindly.
'I told you I was desperate.'
'Lots. I should prescribe my own treatment more often.'
'Don't get cocky, honey.'
Janet twisted her arm carefully and with some difficulty she extricated her hand from Sam's tight warm spot. She placed her elbows on the ground and pushed herself into a sitting position, helping Sam to sit up. Silver grey light filtered through the branches above them and Janet could just make out Sam's silhouette sitting astride her waist.
'We'll have to move soon.'
Sam nodded. 'As soon as we can see well enough.' She paused abruptly, holding still. 'Hear that?'
Janet fell silent, listening. Then she caught it - a low rumbling sound in the distance, continuous and repetitive.
'What is it?'
'Railroad,' said Sam. 'Probably for freight. We could hitch a ride.'
'Sam, we need to get to a telephone. We've got to warn the SGC about Rance before he uploads those files. How long do you think we've got before he gets the satellite back?'
'A few hours at most. With you gone he probably gave up on his injured man to chase it; or us. The satellite could come back in range before anyone can intercept him.'
'We have to try, Sam. Someone could get lucky with that virus model. Any decent lab could have a go at replicating it without really understanding it, and then the whole planet could be in trouble.'
Sam was clearly assessing their options, devising a strategy to get them out of the hole they were in. It was a mephitic, steep-sided hole, Janet decided, with nasty bugs in it.
'Sam,' she said after a while, 'Rance told me that Professor Godwin's dead. I think they shot him.'
Sam sighed heavily. She didn't sound entirely surprised at the news. 'I'm so sorry, Janet.'
'I think he went down fighting. He took out one of Rance's men and wounded one other, at least.'
'Really?' To Janet's ears Sam sounded unusually subdued. She realised what was gnawing at her friend when the major added, 'I should have been more careful.'
Janet stroked her arm lightly. 'None of this is your fault.'
Sam was insistent. 'I should have anticipated the danger. When we get back I'll have to recommend they overhaul the security policies. If rogue NID operatives are looking into SGC personnel backgrounds to dig up useful acquaintances from our past to watch, just on the off chance we might use their help on something classified...' Sam shook her head, frustrated.
'You think they had Godwin's phone tapped? Because he knew me? Because he was an expert?'
'I don't see how else they could have found out about it.'
The thought that she had put him in so much danger turned Janet's stomach. Security at the SGC was paramount, but their every line of communication with the rest of the world could not be guaranteed. She recalled her conversation with the professor, trying to remember if she'd let something slip. She had said nothing that broke the normal protocols, she was sure; but then she would not have to to spark the interest of someone both in the know and unscrupulous.
'It was a bad line, too,' she muttered.
Sam had come to a decision. 'We have two priorities. We have to stop them distributing the data, and we have to avoid recapture.'
'Pretty equal priorities,' said Janet sourly. 'I want to live to identify them so we can kick their asses later.'
'We also have two options,' said Sam. 'Option one is to contact someone to order an intercept. Hammond can get the nearest Air Force base to send choppers after them. He could even commandeer local law enforcement if necessary. If we can get to a road or rail link without getting caught, we're bound to find someone with a radio or cell phone.'
'And the second option?'
Sam paused. When she spoke again she sounded less certain. 'We stop them ourselves, as soon as possible. Given that we're out-numbered, have no weapons, can't be sure of their location now, and I'm partly incapacitated, that's quite a long shot.'
Janet did not hesitate. 'Then I vote for trying option one. But we have a third priority.'
'You. As soon as I can see what I'm doing I'm going to check you over. You've taken some vicious punishment and I'm not letting you move until I know you're going to be okay.'
Her declaration was met with silence. Janet waited. When Sam still did not reply, Janet was immediately suspicious.
'What is it, Sam?'
'Um... not much.' Sam sounded chastened, as though she had already been admonished because she knew she was going to get it.
'Sam, what did you do?' Janet said dangerously.
'When I came I think I tore a gash in my wrist.'
Half an hour later Janet was able to examine Sam's injuries. She checked her wrists first, which were chaffed and reddened. The tie around them was tight and unforgiving, and the inside of one wrist was indeed raw where the tenderest skin was exposed to the harsh plastic. Fortunately it wasn't bleeding, at least not yet. Janet wished desperately that she could cut through the cruel bond and release her friend, but she was powerless to help her. She knew that Sam's arms and shoulders were cramped by now. When she did get free the first few movements would hurt like hell.
Janet looked over Sam's other injuries. The welts were obviously still painful but not inflamed. Several hours of exposure to the cool air had dried any broken skin and the blood was well clotted. Provided they remained clean they would heal by themselves. Janet would have liked to put a few sutures in the worst of them to help them along.
'Some will scar,' she said sadly. 'I'm sorry.'
'Promise to kiss them?'
Janet noticed some dark areas on Sam's throat. She grimaced at the fresh bruises and touched them tenderly with her fingertips, checking for signs of damage to the trachea and oesophagus. 'How does that feel?' she asked, concerned.
'It aches a bit.'
'Any trouble swallowing?'
'No. I'm okay.'
Janet could not resist rewarding Sam's bravery with a kiss on the lips.
They drank some water. Janet stretched the aches out of her muscles and massaged the night's chill away, doing the same for Sam as best she could. As the cold receded with their activity she felt another ache taking precedence. Hunger.
'I so want breakfast.'
'Hmm. We missed dinner. You could dig up some worms for us, Janet.'
Janet pulled a face in revulsion.
Sam sympathised. 'I know, raw worms aren't that palatable. They don't know when they're dead and keep wriggling. They're not bad fried in a pancake though.'
'Enough!' Janet held up her palms, no longer hungry. 'Let's just go, okay?'
Sam led the way again, moving steadily in the direction of the railroad they had heard earlier. Janet estimated it was at least a couple of miles away. The sun rose rapidly and sent bright shafts of light at an angle through the branches to warm their faces. Every so often Sam would stop and stand perfectly still, listening intently for any indication that they were being pursued. Janet stood silent beside her, becoming more aware of the natural sounds of the forest each time they paused. In other circumstances it would have been an enjoyable summer hike.
Janet's estimate of the distance turned out to be inadequate. They picked their way over roots and stones until noon before they approached a cleared tree line which marked the course of the railroad. Tired and thirsty, they rested and shared the canteen again. Janet shook the flask experimentally.
'One more, I reckon.'
'We're not drinking enough for this,' said Sam.
'I know.' They had not found any springs or streams during their trek through the forest. The tall trees must be drawing their water from deep in the soil, Janet reasoned. 'So, which way?'
Sam nodded to their left. 'Down hill. We'll follow the tracks until we find something; or someone.'
Janet hoped that "someone" would not be their former captors. She had no doubt that if they were caught they would both wind up with a bullet in the back of the head.
They kept to the edge of the trees. Janet felt safer knowing they could leap into the woods at any moment to hide if necessary. As the sun drew high in the sky she started to sweat again. They drank the rest of their water but didn't stop to rest this time, though Janet would have liked to. Her clothes felt dirty and her feet were aching. She was rubbing some troublesome grit out of her eye when Sam suddenly halted in front and she almost collided with her.
'What is it?'
They both listened. The sound was slow and dull, but did not seem far away.
'It's ahead of us,' said Sam.
'Coming this way?'
Sam studied the track, then glanced at their surroundings. She listened again, intently. 'No. I think it's starting to move away from us. Come on!'
She broke into a run, foregoing the edge of the clearing in favour of smoother terrain next to the tracks. Janet instantly sped after her, renewed optimism soon dispelling her thirst and aches. The steady downward slope leant speed to their efforts and after a few minutes Janet glimpsed something large on the track in the distance. It was the rear of the train, and it was moving off slowly.
They sprinted. There was no sign of activity beside the tracks so Janet guessed that the train had simply been on hold for a while and was resuming its journey. They had to reach it before it really got going. With any luck the heavy freight wagons would take time to get moving.
They drew alongside the rear car just as the lumbering machine began to pick up its pace. Janet realised with dismay that the first was a tank car and Sam would struggle to climb on to it. The next she could see were open wagons loaded high with lumber that would afford little purchase. Sam kept on running, however, and Janet looked beyond her and saw what she was heading for. The fourth one along was a boxcar, with the near side door half open.
Heart racing now from the prolonged exertion, Janet pounded the ground beside the moving train behind Sam, hoping that neither of them would stumble. They seemed to overtake the wagons with tortuous slowness but at last they reached the one they wanted. Janet didn't need Sam to tell her that she would have to help her get into it. She simply ran into her, seized her round the hips and heaved her violently onto the ledge above them. Sam landed with a grunt, her legs dangling over the side, and Janet reached up with an enormous effort and hauled her own weight up beside her. They scrambled onto their knees into the safety of the boxcar, Janet pulling Sam in after her, and landed together in a heap on the hard floor.
It took them several minutes to recover. Janet's lungs hurt as she gradually got her breath back.
'Okay,' said Sam next to her when she could speak, 'now I really have torn my wrist.'
Janet struggled up onto her elbow as fast as she could and looked. She groaned out loud when she saw the thin trickle of fresh blood oozing from beneath the tie and down the inside of Sam's thumb. She sat up, reached into her back pocket and took out some of the bandage. She managed to find a clean spot and gently dabbed Sam's wrist.
Sam yelped angrily. 'For fuck's sake, Janet, that hurts!'
Janet stopped, remorseful. She waited. After a few moments Sam rolled slowly onto her side to face her, drawing her knees up. Her blue eyes glistened.
'I'm sorry, Janet.'
Janet lay down next to her again, as close as she could. She stroked Sam's face with the back of her fingertips. 'You've been tortured. You're tied up. You're tired and hungry and thirsty. I'd say you're bearing up well, my love.'
Sam's mouth found Janet's in a second. The move was unexpected and Janet almost fell back. Hungry, aggressive, Sam's lips forced hers to part and her tongue invaded, demanding contact. Janet surrendered without argument and the feral kiss deepened, slowed, softened, and finally broke. Sam's face fell against Janet's shoulder as her chest released a single, violent sob.
Janet held her. 'It's all right,' she said, soothing, repetitive. 'It's all right. We'll be all right.'
'I didn't mean to bite your head off,' Sam said into Janet's damp shirt.
Janet smiled. 'With the yell or the kiss?'
'If I yell at you again like that, feel free to toss me on my ass.'
'Not much hope of that. You've got me totally out-classed. I think I'd have to settle for stealing my kiss back.'
After a while they mustered the energy to move to a wall of the car and sit against it. The train was running at a decent speed now, rocking them gently. The dingy red metal boxcar was only a third full with what looked like crates of machinery. Janet got up to take a look around between them, searching for anything useful.
'A P-90 would be nice,' called Sam. 'Or a sat phone. Some wire-cutters. Cheese sandwich.'
Janet returned and sat down empty-handed. 'Sweet FA. The driver hasn't even left us his lunch box.'
'Damn. Ever since we got here the room service has sucked.'
The air inside the car was hot, despite the open door's ventilation. The freight train rumbled on for a few more miles. It slowed down briefly, and Janet thought it might stop again, but then it resumed its steady pace through the wooded and otherwise featureless landscape. They rested their tired legs and simply waited.
Janet guessed it was about forty minutes later when the train braked. Apparently it was an unscheduled stop because they slowed more abruptly than the previous time, coming to an ungainly halt. As soon as they had stopped moving Janet got to her feet and looked cautiously outside. She peered up the straight track ahead and saw movement in the distance. They were at a road crossing, and a black vehicle was parked some yards back from the track. Three people were standing next to the locomotive, dwarfed beside it. Janet's mouth opened when she recognised them. A dark haired figure was talking up at the driver. A tall red haired figure and a shorter one were waiting behind him.
Janet ducked back inside the car and crouched next to Sam. 'Rance and company!'
Sam bit her lip. 'Great.'
'Okay, Sam, is this good or bad? What do you think they're doing?'
Sam pushed herself to her feet and went to the open side. She put her head half out, using one eye to gauge the situation. Seconds later she slipped back in, her face tight with concentration.
'Rance has got the driver out. They're looking at a map. My guess is he's getting directions for an unobtrusive route out of here, in case we've already got the Air Force on to them.'
Janet felt a small tingle of victory at that thought. 'Well it's nice to know we're giving them trouble, even if it's only in their heads.'
Sam frowned again. 'Maybe we can make it more real than that.'
'You think?' Janet wasn't being sarcastic. She couldn't see how they could for the life of her.
Sam looked straight at her. 'This could be our best chance to stop them, Janet. We've seen no signs of civilization yet. They'll have radios. If we can get hold of one we can get a warning out.'
'Or we can get ourselves shot!'
Sam's gaze was steady. 'What d'you want to do? Take a chance that virus will come to nothing? Even in some terrorist's hands?'
Janet already knew that Sam didn't have to convince her of the right course of action. They both knew they were going to do it. She sighed and pushed her damp hair back from her face. 'What's the plan?'
'We'll have to be quick.'
Moments later Janet was dropping down to the track, praying that no one was looking in her direction. She ducked below the boxcar and scuttled underneath it, hearing Sam land and follow right behind her. They emerged on the other side of the car, out of sight, and ran quickly towards the locomotive, hidden by the various freight wagons between them and their target.
They reached another boxcar near the front of the train. Its doors were shut but it would have to be their ride out of here, if their plan worked. Janet released the door's heavy steel catch as quietly as she could and pushed it open just far enough so that Sam would be able to slip inside. Turning her back to the car, she made a stirrup for Sam's foot and lifted her up against her shoulder. Sam sat on the ledge and drew her feet up.
'I wish I could do this,' said Sam, anxiety etched around her eyes and mouth.
'I'll make it. Don't worry.'
Janet didn't feel half as confident as she sounded. Her stomach was churning and the muscles in her legs shook. Trepidation was a strangely warm sensation, she realised. Primordial and intense, it spread rapidly through the arteries to quicken the breath and make the heart race. Every inch of her skin seemed to prickle unnaturally, though Janet was sure there was really nothing unnatural about the reaction at all. She was a hunted creature fighting her instinct to flee imminent danger. In other words she was scared shitless.
Janet knew that if things started to look inevitably bad for her, Sam was ready to distract them and draw them off. It wasn't much of a comfort. Over the past few hours Janet had seen mounting evidence of the major's resourcefulness, but she didn't believe Sam could both lead the enemy away and escape herself.
All the more crucial that they don't see me, she reminded herself.
She reached the side of the locomotive. It was a huge striped machine towering over her. Janet had not realised before quite how big they built these things. She ran to the front, crouched instinctively, and peered around it, tentative.
They had their backs to her. All three of her former captors were engrossed in the map, talking to a burly man who had to be the train driver. Their black vehicle was between her and them, just a few yards away. She could reach it in seconds. If anyone turned and looked straight at her she would be lost, but as long as they kept conferring and focusing on the map...
She just had to risk it. She took a breath, held it, and ran from cover straight to the vehicle, diving to the ground on the near side. She waited a beat. The relief she felt when it was clear that no one had spotted her was enormous.
Her pulse still racing, hands trembling, Janet eased the driver's door open silently and looked inside. The interior was almost empty. They had to be keeping their equipment, including her precious laptop, locked in the trunk. She cursed inwardly. It had been a slim hope that she might be able to steal back the data and any backups. She leaned in on her belly and began checking under the seats. Just a pencil, damn it. No keys in the ignition. She opened the glove compartment... gloves. Crap.
Janet dared to raise her head and saw something dark perched on top of the dashboard. It was a radio. She seized it like a starved child grabbing a crust of bread. There was something else behind it, something shiny. It was Ginger's cigarette lighter.
Janet slid back out of the vehicle with both objects, thinking quickly. What could she do with a naked flame? Melt Sam's bonds? She quickly dismissed that idiotic notion, annoyed at herself for wasting time. Sam's skin would roast long before the cable tie came to harm. Torch the vehicle? An idea leapt into her feverish brain and she dug into her pockets, bringing out both lengths of the bloodstained bandages. She crawled to the rear and prised open the flap on the tank, then unscrewed the fuel cap. She was rewarded with the strong smell of gasoline.
Janet risked a glance through the tinted rear windows to the figures standing by the train. They were still in discussion, the driver gesturing with a sweep of his large arm towards the wooded horizon in the opposite direction. Janet knelt in the dirt, balled a fistful of the bandages and stuffed it hard into the tank, letting the thick cloth fall deep inside the spout until she was sure it was soaked in fuel before pulling it out again. She repeated the process once more so that she had a long gasoline drenched wick. She lay the bandages down on the ground and arranged them quickly into a length which she hoped would make the best fuse for her purpose. She moved an arm's length away, flipped up the Zippo's lid and flicked the wheel with her thumb, putting the instant yellow flame to the tattered end of the bandages. Then she grabbed the radio and ran like hell.
Janet didn't know how long it would take. She didn't even know if it would work. She just knew she had to get back to Sam as fast as possible and hope for the best. Before she realised how far she'd run she saw Sam's face looking anxiously down at her from the edge of the wagon. The other woman straightened as soon as she saw her and braced herself against the metal side with her foot outstretched, providing a firm handhold for Janet to grab and haul herself up.
'You got one!' said Sam on seeing the radio, excited.
'Yeah! And prepare yourself. There might be a bang.'
It turned out to be a hell of a bang. The metal car reverberated around their ears like a big tin can. Janet swore her brain rattled. She winced as her eardrums protested the assault. 'Ooh!'
Sam stared at her in what little light filtered through the door, open-mouthed and cringing. 'Janet, what did you do?'
Janet held up the Zippo and grinned back at her. 'Fuel tank.'
Outside the predictable hell broke loose. Janet recognised the red haired man's shocked curses and Rance's furious shouts. From the sound of things the vehicle had to be ablaze and they were trying desperately to get into the trunk. Rance yelled something about getting the fucking keys and the other man howled in angry pain, apparently thwarted and scorched. Rance let fly an enraged tirade of obscenities. It was like sweet music.
'You know,' said Sam, smiling, 'I have a feeling he didn't re-establish contact with that satellite yet.'
Their delight was short-lived. The red haired man's unmistakeable voice cut through Rance's fury.
'They gotta be here!'
Rance roared his rage. 'Find them!'
They had no time to escape their car. Within seconds a set of feet pounded past them on one side while the noise of boots on metal erupted up ahead. Their pursuers were spreading out, checking the ground on both sides of the train, climbing up the ladders on the tank wagons and slamming doors aside.
'They're searching the whole train,' said Sam.
Janet remembered that Rance had kept a pistol on him. They probably didn't store their personal weapons in the trunk. This was bad. Her eyes darted around the dim car, desperate for a hiding place. Like the other wagon this one was not full. Just a few tall wooden crates and a pair of steel drums were stacked at one end. There was a gap between the crates and the rear wall, and before Janet could move of her own volition Sam shoved her with her shoulder towards the narrow space. There were no solid objects to hand, nothing to furnish them with a weapon. They could only hide and wait.
A boxcar door slammed open, somewhere between them and the locomotive. They heard more shouts.
'Check under the cars!'
'You see 'em, O'Rourke?'
The red haired man's reply came from some distance away. 'Nothing!'
The woman's voice rang out. 'Clear!'
Janet held her breath. Then she remembered that she had to breathe after all and she let the air out of her lungs as quietly as possible before sucking some in again. Sam was silent next to her. She could feel the tension in the other woman's frame.
Another door was shunted hard aside, closer this time, and they both flinched. A few seconds passed.
Janet looked down at her feet, willing their pursuers to pass on by. Unreasonable hopes flashed through her mind. They might miss this car. They might give up before they got to it and search the trees instead. They might look straight at them and not see them in the shadows; ridiculous, futile notions.
The noise of their car's door grinding further open shook her from her helpless thoughts. A boot landed, not too loud, followed by another. Janet looked up at the dark ceiling, praying for their lives. She wondered if it would hurt much.
Silence. Another dreaded footfall, and a flashlight darted around the car. Janet felt a bead of perspiration drip down the middle of her back. The beam steadied, then widened, and suddenly she was dazzled by it, blinking in the painful glare. A dark figure emerged in its wake, the unmistakeable gleam of an automatic aimed at Janet's chest.
It had been quite a game, but now it was most definitely up.
The woman's voice greeted them. 'Well, aren't you something, Janet Fraiser?'
Janet's heart felt like it had landed in her stomach. She had wanted to face this without flinching, but she had a horrible feeling that she was quaking visibly in the stark light. She sensed movement beside her and before she could process its meaning the woman launched a vicious kick. Sam reeled back, the impact of the boot in her midriff slamming her into the corner of their steel prison; soon to be their coffin, Janet realised. Sam slid down to the floor, winded, her strike swiftly parried.
'And that was close, Major Carter. Not bad for someone in your condition.'
Before Janet could react the beam dropped and she was pushed hard against the side of a crate. Her eyes adjusted and she found herself looking up into a pristine ebony face. Cold metal touched her under the chin, the automatic nudging her head back. She swallowed hard against it.
'The others had to dump Cole's body,' the woman said grimly. 'Thought you'd like to know that.'
'Don't you touch her!' Sam's voice was hoarse.
'Not really your call now, is it, Carter?' the woman said. Then she smirked. 'Boy have you two made Rance mad. He had a Swiss account set up ready for that data, and now he won't get to use it. Pissed or what?'
Janet felt the pressure on her chest recede, though the gun remained firmly in place. Pascual removed something small and silver from an inside pocket and held it up. It was a memory stick.
'Fortunately I made my own copy. I think I'll lie low with it for a bit.'
The woman smiled again as she tucked her prize away. Her eyes dropped. 'I see you bagged one of our radios. I'm impressed. Looks like you can do me another favour then. Call your people in. I could use the diversion.'
Rance's shout broke in from several cars away.
Pascual paused. Her fingers moved lightly on the automatic and Janet felt the icy vibration on her skin. She shivered. The woman glanced down at Sam, who was glaring up at her, her eyes like twin blue furnaces. Suddenly the woman pulled something from behind her back and smacked it into the crate beside Janet's head.
'For your sweetheart,' she whispered. Then, in a voice which Janet knew she would be hearing in her nightmares for months, she shouted back to Rance.
A blade glinted in the wood beside Janet's right eye. The woman had gone. Janet heard the men shouting in the distance, moving their search into the outskirts of the forest, Rance yelling at a shocked and no doubt terrified driver to get his god-damn train out of their god-damn way. Her skin felt clammy and her hands shook as she yanked the combat knife out of the crate.
Sam staggered to her feet and they emerged from the gap behind the crates just as the train lurched into motion. Janet signalled for Sam to kneel down and she moved behind her, willing her hands to steady. It only took one simple cut and Sam's wrists sprang apart. The major gasped.
'Easy!' said Janet, dropping the knife and holding Sam's arms, preventing sudden movement. Sam's groan was as much one of pain as relief as she rolled her cramped shoulders and slowly brought her arms forward.
'God that hurts.'
The train sped up. With every passing moment Janet felt her fear receding with the danger. She collapsed, slumped against the unyielding steel, and closed her eyes.
Janet didn't take much notice as Sam took charge of the radio. She vaguely registered a "This is Major Samantha Carter" and then something about their position and an Air Force base. After that she just shut it out. The rocking wagon was comforting, kind of hypnotic.
Sam sat down beside her. 'They're on their way,' she said. 'We did it Janet. You did it!'
Janet had just got round to believing it. 'Yeah.' Then she frowned. 'Why'd she do it?'
'Obvious. You're hot.'
Janet slapped Sam's arm. The movement was so lacking in energy it was pathetic.
Sam teased her some more. 'I saw how she touched you up. She did it to make me jealous.'
'Did it work?'
'Of course.' Sam flexed her fingers and massaged her upper arms. She sighed. 'Rance, Pascual, O'Rourke... we can put names and faces to them.' She grinned slowly, satisfied. 'They are so screwed.'
'I'm not so sure about Pascual. I think she'll manage to bail out on them. She seems resourceful.'
'Yeah. She tried to cut her own deal with me while you were unconscious.'
Sam's eyes narrowed. 'What sort of a deal?'
'Not that sort!'
The freight train rumbled on, interminable.
'How long before this thing stops?' asked Janet.
'A couple of hours. Quite a bit of time to kill.'
Sam turned onto her side, the length of her body pressing up against Janet's. She touched Janet's waist with one finger, finding a gap between the shirt buttons and circling the flesh beneath. 'What do you think?'
Janet glared at the impertinent finger, feeling her skin tingle in response.
'I'm not giving you any more orgasms, Sam. You're injured and you can't control yourself.'
'Hey, I'm not tied up this time! I won't hurt myself.'
A male voice crackled over the airways, a little awkward. 'Er, ladies, this channel is still open.'
Both women stared in surprise at the radio. Janet was sure she detected another voice in the background stifling a laugh. She reached out quickly and shut it off.
Whatever expression Janet had on her face was enough to make Sam erupt into an uncharacteristic fit of girlish giggles. Janet scowled back. Sam wasn't remotely intimidated.
'And what about your channel, Doctor Fraiser? Shall I take a look?' Intrepid fingers tugged the clothes at Janet's waist, exposing her hips and then some.
'Just you wait 'til we get back to the Mountain, soldier. I'll have you locked up in my infirmary for a month.'
Sam rolled further over and Janet felt a smooth warm tongue against her breast, then at her naval, then over her abdomen as the major travelled down her body, melting her scowl and her resolve alike.
'Promises, promises,' said Sam casually. Then she slid further down to her task.
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