DISCLAIMER: Stargate SG-1 and its characters belong to MGM, Gekko, Secret Productions etc. No copyright infringement is intended.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This started out many moons ago as a challenge to use a plot from one science fiction series and adapt it for another. So, elements of the plot were abducted from the Voyager episode "The Thaw". It also uses elements from Stargate episodes "The Gamekeeper" and "Avatar". Harlan quotes from 'A Tale of Two Cities' by Charles Dickens.
SPOILERS: Set early season 8. Oh, and Dr Fraiser, she's alive and well and living in Colorado Springs.
CHALLENGE: Submitted as part of the Epic Proportions challenge.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Fight or Flight
Sam Carter loved many things about Janet Fraiser. Her compassion, her gentleness, her fire, her abilities as a cook, the deep love she had for her daughter, her family and friends, her inventiveness as a lover, her sometimes reckless bravery, her utter commitment to her craft as a doctor and healer and her unsurpassing devotion for a certain TV series and its two main characters.
So when Sam found out that the 'nicknames' for the newly discovered planetary body 2003 UB313 that was being posited as the Sol system's 10th planet and its attendant moon were 'Xena' and 'Gabrielle' it seemed to be an omen.
She had planned to take Janet on a birthday trip in an F-302, in the guise of a test flight for some of the latest modifications that Alec Colson and his team working out of the new Alpha site had come up with. A trip to Venus and back had been her first idea. But with the announcement of the California Institute of Technology's latest discovery, a trip out to the Kuiper Belt beyond Neptune suddenly seemed a lot more alluring. And navigating the Kuiper Belt would definitely put the F-302 through its paces.
They hitched a lift on the Daedalus which was running systems checks and trials before heading out to the Pegasus Galaxy. Officially, Janet Fraiser was supervising the final set up of the small infirmary unit on board and Sam was helping the engineering team finish up the interfaces between Ancient, Asgard, Goa'uld and Human technology. As one of the foremost experts on all four technologies, she was very much in demand. And owed many many favours. It was therefore relatively easy for her to arrange her little side-trip.
"You've never flown in an X-302, have you, Janet?" Sam asked.
Janet grinned, shook her head. "You know I haven't, Sam. I might be in the Air Force but the wings on my dress uniform are purely honorary."
"I'm doing a test run on the new shielding tomorrow, taking an X-302 out towards the Kuiper Belt, a two hour jaunt, tops," Sam said. "Do you want to be second-seat? I cleared it with the General before we left it's a sort of 'what do you get the woman who has everything' birthday gift."
"Really?" Janet stared at her. Sam had taken her flying a few times, but never anything like this. This beat chasing the sunset which had been one of the most spectacular experiences in Janet's life so far, something that Sam had arranged for her thirty fifth birthday. She did not need to ask if Sam had considered all the safety aspects. Sam Carter might be a bona fide certificated adrenaline junkie but she would never take risks with anyone else's life and particularly not Janet's. The memory of what had so nearly happened to Janet on P3X-666 was still far too fresh. As always when her thoughts strayed in that direction, Janet's hand stole out to rub gently at the flesh above her left breast where the staff blast had hit her ending her life, almost for good.
Sensing the direction of her thoughts Sam reached out to take her hand before she could complete the gesture, enfolding it between her own. "I'll take the best care of you, don't worry. But if you don't want to do this, I understand. I'll just have to fall back on Plan B and wine and dine you when we're back home again."
"Sam, I'd love to fly with you, you know that. And I know there can be no where safer than with you."
"Then it's a date," Sam whispered. She drew the smaller woman into an embrace for a moment, as much as she dared do whilst they were still both on duty. Although their relationship was an open secret, they still had to follow protocol.
The two women got suited up and Janet familiarized herself with the second seat cockpit as Sam went through the systems checks. Ten minutes later they were cleared to proceed.
The newly discovered moon was tiny, eight times smaller than 'Xena' about 155 miles wide and around 9 billion miles away from the Sun three times further out than Pluto. It had been spotted by an earth based observatory in Mauna Kea, Hawaii. 'Xena' or 2003 UB313 as it was more formally called had been discovered two years before and was the largest celestial object in the Kuiper Belt. Since it was larger than Pluto, the recognized 9th planet in the solar system most astronomers recognized 2003 UB313 as the 10th planet. Xena was five times smaller than Earth, with a diameter of about 2,800 kilometers. Gabrielle was eight times smaller than the moon and the two were separated by a distance about ten times smaller than the Earth-Moon separation. It had the astronomers in a tizzy and would likely mean redrawing the solar system and reclassifying what was and wasn't a planet. Sam was following the debate with interest though she had doubts about some of the proposed terminology 'planetoids' for example. It sounded like a bad B-movie alien. She preferred the term 'dwarf planet' and hoped that would eventually get adopted.
She had set the systems on the X302 to do a complete sweep and analysis of the two celestial bodies. The SGC would find a way to 'leak' the data through a reputable source into the astronomical community. It was one time her cover story of 'deep space radio telemetry' did come in handy.
"Are you ready for this?" she asked Janet.
"Always," came the reply. "So where are you taking me?"
"Through the Kuiper Belt. Remember a few months ago, all the press about the new planet that had been discovered and the name it had been given?"
"Planet Xena," Sam could hear the smile in Janet's voice. "And they had named the moon Gabrielle."
"How do you fancy a fly-by?" Sam asked. "It's probably not much to look at. Like most things this far out it's just a mass of rocks and methane ice "
"But it's the thought that counts. It's a fantastic birthday present, thank you," Janet said.
Sam took the X302 out of the landing bay and angled steeply away from the 'Daedelus' heading towards the shimmering strand of asteroids ten thousand kilometers ahead. A few minutes later they were weaving their way through the larger asteroids, the shields taking care of any smaller particles that they impacted. The one drawback of the X302 was that pilot and co-pilot could not see or touch each other, Sam thought. She would dearly love to see the expression on Janet's face right now. And of course as per SOP they were on open channel back to the Daedelus.
Xena was a dull pewter grey in colour and the thin haze around it proved that it did indeed have a thin atmospheric layer probably caused by methane sublimating from the ice. It was currently 'summer' on Xena, a bracing -232 degrees Celsius. Just appearing in the upper quadrant was Gabrielle, its surface more rocky and irregular due to the gravitational forces constantly acting upon it. It wasn't the most prepossessing planet Sam had ever seen. In fact it was kind of
"Oh my god, Sam, isn't it beautiful," Janet breathed. "I can't believe that I'm sitting here looking at something only a few people oh, thank you. Thank you, love, you don't know how much this means to me."
Sam blinked and looked again this time from the perspective of her lover. Of course it was beautiful, that wonderful opalescent pearl grey banded here and there with darker swirls and the occasional vein of dark red that were tholin deposits on the surface. She forgot she was a scientist for a moment and just drank in the view. She remembered her first sight of Earth from space after they had ejected from Apophis's mothership just before it exploded and wondered sadly when just when she had become so jaded.
The radio peeped. It was Colonel Caldwell. "Colonel Carter. There's an urgent communication come in from the SGC. I'm to get you and Dr Fraiser back there with all speed."
"Okay, we're heading back to the barn," Sam said, programming the X-302 into a lazy corkscrew backflip that made Janet squeak with apprehension as they skimmed Xena's thin atmosphere and did a quick fly-by of Gabrielle before heading back towards the Daedelus.
Four hours later they were back at the SGC. The Asgard built engines just about made working in the Kuiper Belt a commutable distance. They were both ushered towards the briefing room where Colonel Barnes of SG6 and Drs Lee and Felger were waiting along with Teal'c and Daniel Jackson.
SG6's latest mission was to provide military back up to a science team on P4J-198. Initial investigation by MALP had shown what appeared to be a domed area very like the Ancient outpost SG1 had investigated a few months earlier on the planet designated Proklarush Taonas. The dome appeared to be in good condition with a breathable atmosphere and several active power sources. In their search for more ZPMs, General O'Neill had okayed a mission to investigate further.
They discovered that whilst the dome had originally indeed been an Ancient outpost in more recent times it had been used by a completely different civilisation. Most of the original Ancient technology had been stripped out. However, the new technology was no less intriguing. They had thought the city long abandoned until Dr Felger had inadvertently opened up a bunker and found the stasis pods.
"The active power readings were coming from several life support units something of a cross between those in the Gamekeeper's dome on P7J-989 and those we found on board the Stromos," Dr Lee reported.
And both those missions had gone so well. O'Neill discovered he was grinding his teeth again.
"Yes, sir," Dr Felger said eagerly. "About a dozen are still active. The rest have ceased to function. We don't know why." He glanced across at Dr Fraiser. "We thought that Doctor Fraiser might have some ideas on that. She got a pretty good look at the set up on the Stromos." Both Sam and Janet nodded at that. On that occasion Janet had got to grips with the suspended animation technology whilst Sam had lashed together a completely new power system to keep the survivors alive long enough for the reanimation sequence to be safely activated.
O'Neill could feel his headache getting worse. They had nearly lost the Doc just about a year ago when she'd gone through to an escalating hot zone. She was just to say back on her feet again. But then again no one knew that better than Carter. She wouldn't have okayed the suggestion unless she thought it absolutely necessary.
"Okay, Carter, I want you and the Doc to go through and take a look at the set-up. See if we can help these people or if they're best left alone." O'Neill knew he was making a valid point. They didn't have the happiest of records with people in long term stasis. It still griped at him that he was stuck here pen-pushing at the SGC, making life and death decisions about sourcing cheaper cold cuts whilst his former team mates were out there fighting the good fight, seeking out new worlds and other clichés.
"And I want everyone clear. I don't want any repeat of what happened on that damned cruise ship," O'Neill said, glaring at Daniel, who held up his hands, a deceptively innocent look on his face.
Dr Lee took a recorder out of his pocket. "One more thing of interest. I found what appears to be an automated message. I managed to record it." It was slightly fuzzy and distorted and the voice was curiously accented but perfectly understandable, they listened to the message in silence.
"I am Viorsa, planner for the Kohl settlement. By now you must be aware of the catastrophic disaster that has destroyed our home. A few of us have managed to survive in a state of artificial hibernation, programmed to end in fifteen great cycles from the date this was recorded. At that time, when the eco-recovery has begun, we will attempt to rebuild our settlement. Please do nothing to interrupt our timetable."
"I think they overslept," Colonel Barnes said. "By a good forty-fifty years."
"Perhaps that's why so many units failed," Sam said. "They just weren't designed to operate for that length of time."
Dr Lee shook his head. "There isn't a systems malfunction that I can detect, no reason why they didn't wake up on schedule didn't wake up at all. The units are all still powered, but the inmates are dead. And some have been dead for years, others for only a few months or weeks."
"How many are still alive?" General O'Neill asked.
"Only thirteen," Felger said sadly. "General "
"I know, Doctor Felger." This had just become a rescue mission. O'Neill just hoped that it didn't bite them in the ass this time. "Are there any automated security systems?" He remembered the bright light that had packed quite a punch on the Stromos. "We already triggered a "Do Not Disturb" sign and I don't want to set off anything worse."
"We'll keep a careful eye out, General," Carter said. Barnes nodded. He knew better than to let anything happen to SG1, particularly not Colonel Carter.
"Okay Carter, you and Doc Fraiser need to get some sleep and then get yourselves kitted out and prepare to go through," O'Neill said. "You guys head back now. Send Teal'c to the Gate to meet them, escort them to your location in about eight hours. These guys have been on ice for fifty years, they can wait a few hours more."
A few minutes later O'Neill found himself alone in the briefing room. He sighed, scrubbed his hands through his hair for a moment. It was times like this that being General sucked. It had been months and he still couldn't get over his misgivings over his 'kids' being out there without him.
"Are you coming home?" Janet asked, standing at the door of Sam's lab. She saw on Sam's open laptop what she presumed was telemetry from their flight around Xena.
"Actually I was probably going to stay on-base," Sam confessed. "And go over this "
"The General did stress getting some sleep," Janet reminded her gently. She pouted. "And technically it is still my birthday."
Sam's grin slowly widened to almost feral proportions. "So it is." She glanced at her laptop and then back at Janet. "Another heavenly body to map."
"You astrophysicists think you have all the best chat-up lines," Janet scoffed, shaking her head. "Come on then, flygirl. You have a mission to fulfil."
"Yes ma'am." Sam lost no time in securing her lab and after a short detour to pick up some things from her quarters the two women signed out and walked towards the car park. Most days their work patterns were so different that they could not travel in together so as usual they were in separate cars. Sam got into her beloved vintage silver Volvo and a couple of spaces over, Janet got into the hybrid Toyota that Cassie had persuaded her to buy a few months before. The young woman had become increasingly concerned with environmental issues affecting her adopted planet over the last year or so. She was taking environmental science as a minor to her main engineering degree.
Janet followed Sam's car down the mountain towards the home they shared in Colorado Springs. It was just heading towards twilight and she could not help but grin widely at the thought that just a few hours before she had been half way across the solar system getting an up close and personal view of something that was rewriting the science books. Sam had explained to her that given the agreed international naming conventions for such things it was highly unlikely that the nickname would become the official name of the planet which Janet thought was a bit of a shame, all things considered.
It had been several days since either woman had been home so they stopped off at the local store and they bought something for dinner from the delicatessen counter. Sam had toyed with the idea of trying to get a last minute reservation at Janet's favourite restaurant but realized that she wasn't in the mood to share Janet with anyone right now.
The moon was peeking above the trees as they parked in front of the house. Sam took the two bags of food into the kitchen and took out plates and cutlery whilst Janet went to have a quick shower and get changed. Sam also took the opportunity to retrieve the small birthday present she had purchased a few months earlier and wrapped before the Daedelus mission. On one of their missions regarding the so-called Lost City they had visited M3X441. The Stargate was in the main square of the city of Lios and it was market day. No one had given them a second glance. Daniel had been very excited by it as it reminded him strongly of the souk markets in the Egypt of his childhood. Sam had done a little trading when she saw a beautiful set of red-gold jewelry on one of the stalls that she knew would look wonderful against Janet's skin. The trader had driven a hard bargain but Sam got the earrings, necklace, bracelet and anklet in exchange for her mp3 player, spare medical kit and two Snickers bars. She had to wonder what the denizens of Lios would make of Radiohead, Snow Patrol and the Dixie Chicks. And whether Hershey's were aware of the franchise opportunities available to them at the other end of the wormhole.
Sam set the table and laid the gift wrapped box by Janet's plate. She took a quick shower herself and changed into Janet's favourite shirt, ice blue silk and a pair of navy blue slacks. As they weren't going anywhere she went barefoot. After spending hours in army boots, it was a pleasant luxury.
She went back downstairs. Janet was on the phone to Cassie. Her adopted daughter was delighted to find her mother home for once when she called to wish her a happy birthday. Sam chatted to her for a few minutes whilst Janet had finished laying out the food and had lit the candles and poured the wine. They had only bought a half bottle as they were heading out again in a few hours. Sam put the phone down at last and smiled up at Janet.
"She's a great kid. You did a great job with her."
"We did a great job with her," Janet said. She handed a glass of wine to Sam and then one elegant tapered finger tapped the box. "That looks intriguing."
"It's for you. A little something I picked up in a market place on M3X441," Sam explained. "Open it."
Janet set down her glass and picked up the box, pulling at the shimmering ribbon, then opening the case. She lifted out the pieces of jewelry one by one, exclaiming softly. The redgold metal seemed to glow in the candle light. "Oh, Sam, it's beautiful!" Fine strands of subtly different tones of gold entwined around each other in a rope that somehow remained as flexible as if it had been made of fabric. "Help me " Janet took out the studs she was wearing in her ears and twisted through the gold ropes as Sam fastened the necklace around her throat. Janet held out her wrist and smiling, Sam fastened the bracelet around it, gently turning Janet's hand palm upwards to kiss the pulsepoint and then the palm, Janet's fingers curling round to caress her cheek for a moment. Janet sat in her chair and Sam knelt before her, fastening the anklet around her slender leg, letting her fingers linger, tracing the line of her Achilles tendon up to the back of Janet's knee. Janet was wearing a long wrapover skirt of a dark purple silky material. Sam pushed it up, kissing her way up Janet's bare leg, her fingers caressing higher and higher until she touched soft warm curls. She smirked. Someone had expectations of dessert.
Deliberately she withdrew. Some things were worth waiting for. "We should eat," she said softly. "It's been a long day and it looks like we'll be having another one tomorrow."
The salad and smoked salmon were delicious. They drank their wine, indulged in the kind of conversation that only two people who knew each other completely could have, full of half sentences and tangents and do-you-remembers. At last Sam stood and gathered up the dirty dishes.
"You know, Sam, I hope something like today never gets old for me I never want to get used to that," Janet said softly.
"Like I have?" Sam said. She held up her hand as Janet moved to soften her implied criticism. "It's okay, I know. I didn't realize just how jaded I'd become, how desensitized to wonder. It was just today seeing it as you were seeing it, it made me realize. So I should be thanking you." She leant over the smaller woman and kissed her deeply.
There weren't enough dirty dishes to warrant using the dish washer so quickly she washed them off in the sink, rinsed and dried them and put them back in their proper place. Janet was sitting on the counter finishing off her wine, watching as Sam dried off her hands and rubbed a little moisturizer into her skin. She came to stand between Janet's parted thighs and they kissed again, mindful of the edge of the kitchen cabinets behind Janet's head. They weren't the kind of people to make the same mistakes twice. Janet wrapped her legs around Sam's waist, crossing her ankles over Sam's behind.
"It's still early but we need to make an early start tomorrow," Janet said, nuzzling at Sam's throat, gently nipping at the skin.
"So we should probably take this upstairs," Sam said. She adjusted her hold on the smaller woman easily lifting her off the counter. Janet let out a muted 'eep' of surprise and tightened her hold on Sam. Sam might have seven inches in height on her but her willowy frame meant that their body weights were much closer. Every time Sam lifted her like this she was amazed at the woman's natural strength. It didn't stop her from anxiously scanning her lover's face for any sign of strain.
"I would say that's just what the doctor ordered," Janet smiled impishly.
"Well, one thing about me, I'm good at following orders," Sam grinned. She carried Janet through into the hall and then started up the stairs. Janet rested her head on Sam's shoulder.
"You do know it impresses the hell out of me every time you do this," she said.
"Yeah," Sam huffed slightly, negotiating the turn at the top of the stairs and walking them both along the upper hallway towards their room.
Mindful of straining her back she gently lowered Janet onto the bed then followed her down, covering the doctor's body with her own kissing her way down Janet's throat to between her breasts undoing the small buttons on Janet's blouse as she went. She laved the tip of her tongue along the lacy edge of Janet's bra feeling Janet's nipples stiffen and swell in anticipation of what was to come. Janet made an urgent encouraging noise under her breath. Sam kissed and nibbled her way down Janet's sternum and across her abdomen, unfastening the clasp on the wrap over skirt Janet was wearing and pushing the silky material out of the way. Her earlier explorations had not misled her, Janet was not wearing any underwear and the delicious scent of her musk told Sam all she needed to know about how ready her lover was for this.
Janet's legs were raised and parted; she gazed up at Sam, her dark chocolate eyes almost black with desire. Sam positioned herself, raising one of Janet's legs so that it rested over her shoulder, her long fingers caressing the delicate folds of flesh, circling the slit before teasing the tip of her finger inside. She felt Janet's leg muscles quiver. She lowered her head, took the nub of Janet's clit gently into her mouth, tracing around it with the tip of her tongue, suckling gently on it before releasing it and teasing her tongue between the folds of Janet's labia. Janet's bottom lifted off the bed and she whimpered. Sam used her other hand to gently press on her pelvis, anchoring her lover in place. Sam continued to tease and worry Janet's clit and then outline her labia with her tongue all the while working first one and then a second finger deeper into her lover with maddening slowness. She glanced up long enough to see that Janet was playing with her nipples, pinching and twisting them, sweat beading her forehead, her eyes unfocussed mouth slightly open as she panted for breath. Sam nuzzled at her again, brushing the tip of her nose against Janet's clit as she temporarily replaced her fingers with her tongue, curling and flicking it across the hypersensitive tissue. Janet's taste was wonderful, slightly sweet and tangy. Sam most often compared it to peach juice. Honey flooded her mouth as Janet began to climax as Sam angled her fingers again, brushing deeper inside Janet feeling the different textures and sensitivities of the tissues. Her pinky stretched out angled to push against the puckered bud of Janet's anus. Janet's moans got louder the sobbing note taking on the cadence of Sam's full name, prayers to some unnamed deity and predictions of imminent explosion and expiration.
Minutes later, Sam's diligence paid off. Janet's orgasm was explosive, her whole body almost lifting off the bed, her weight supported on her heels and the back of her head as she twisted and mewled. Sam crawled up her lover's body and once Janet had relaxed almost bonelessly was ready to take her lover into her arms for a much needed cuddle.
"So what happened to these people?" Daniel asked. "Did the system just break down?"
"No, not that we can see," Sam said. She gestured over to where Drs Felger and Lee were examining a bank of instrumentation and bickering quietly for the moment. "We're not reading any pathway failures in the hibernation pods. The circuitry all seems to be functioning. Dr Lee was right. It isn't a hardware malfunction. The system is a cross between the set up on the Nostromo and the Gamekeeper's system. It looks like their brains are interconnected in a complex sensory web controlled by this computer over here. According to these indicators, their minds are active."
"So if they've been living some sort of artificial VR existence for a couple of hundred years are we absolutely sure that waking them up is a good idea?" Daniel frowned.
"We'll know if its possible when Janet gets here," Sam said. A last minute problem at the SGC had delayed Janet's arrival by a couple of hours. SG2 were bringing her through as soon as she was ready and would stay to provide extra security if they were suddenly confronted with a group of unwilling refugees.
Dr Lee came over, waving a palm pilot. "It's amazing as you can see they're all showing high levels of REM activity they're dreaming! There's some kind of interactivity with the computer. It's not just scanning their brain functions, it's sending a focused data stream back to them as well."
"Okay, it's generating an artificial environment for them. Kinda like the Matrix," Sam managed to interface with the system log on the computer. "Here we are. This is the history every decision made by the computer, every event there are terabytes of information here this could take some time to decode."
"There's more. When the system was supposed to bring these people out of hibernation almost forty years ago, it wasn't left entirely to the computer. The programmers obviously wanted the people in the system to decide for themselves when it would be safe to come out. This was accomplished by a subroutine that periodically displayed atmospheric conditions to them."
"So they should have known years ago that the biosphere had recovered," Sam frowned. "They had an escape hatch why didn't they use it?"
"Maybe that's what malfunctioned," Daniel said.
"No, that's what so odd about this. As far as we can tell, it's working perfectly," Bill Lee said.
"Well maybe they just like it in there," Daniel dismissed the problem. "I'll see if there is any cultural databases or artifacts if they went to this length to preserve part of their population, it makes sense that they would try to preserve other elements of their history and culture as well," Daniel said. He went to a spare console near a bank of the hibernation units. Remembering the acquisitive nature of previous systems he paused before he touched anything. "Ummm nothing's gonna grab me here, is it?"
Before Sam had chance to reply she was commed from the mouth of the tunnel informing her that Dr Fraiser and SG2 had arrived. Telling her scientists to keep analyzing the systems, Sam set off up the tunnel to meet Janet and escort her in, taking the opportunity to bring her up to speed with their discoveries so far.
Janet wasted no time in getting to work analyzing the telemetry from the systems for the surviving inmates and those who had died most recently. Within an hour she had an initial report for the team.
"Well I can categorically say that Daniel's theory of them not using the escape hatch because they liked it in there is unlikely to be true. The last three victims all died the same way, as the result of massive heart failure and long term neural trauma."
"That doesn't sound very pleasant," Daniel said.
"Are you saying they were tortured to death?" Sam asked, horrified.
"It's more like they died of fright," Janet said. "Not the most scientific explanation I know, but it does happen. The readings suggest extreme fear, an extended period of mental stress."
"It sounds like we should get them out straight away," Felger said.
"You're not suggesting we simply unplug them?" Sam asked, her blonde brows drawn into a frown.
"Dr Felger, you have a dozen brains whose survival has depended upon careful monitoring by a sophisticated computer system for a very long time," Janet said. "And just disconnecting them might cause severe neural damage. None of us know the system well enough. It's also difficult to isolate just one neural pattern. They're woven together somehow by the technology to form a gestalt, a unifying experience. If we try to separate them from the system ourselves we could end up with the wrong neural pattern in the wrong body or a body without any neural pattern at all." She paused, blinking at a particularly vivid flashback to standing over Sam, ready to disconnect her from the respirator keeping the husk of her body alive after the Entity had apparently overwritten her neural pathways. She was startled to find Sam's fingers enclosed around hers under the table for a moment; Sam must have realized the memories this was bringing to the surface: one of the worst day's of Janet's life and one she still had nightmares over.
"They know the system," Sam stared into the face of one of the sleepers, a middle aged man. It was the same man they had seen in the message: Viorsa. "Why don't we ask them how to proceed?" She moved to the bank of instrumentation. "We already have a means of communication: the unoccupied pods."
"We could add a backup life support system using our own computers and medical technology," Dr Lee said. One of his pet projects for the last couple of years had been utilizing the Gatekeeper's VR technology as a potential training tool for SGC staff. He was just itching to get his hands on this technology and see how he could retro-engineer it.
"Okay, let's give it a try," Sam said, getting to her feet.
Janet was starting to like this idea even less than just pulling the plug on the surviving aliens. But it seemed to be the only solution.
It was inevitable that Sam Carter should be the one to use the unoccupied pod and go into the system. Janet knew it from the moment her lover came up with the plan. Lee and Felger had rigged the monitoring system that Sam had developed for use with the Gatekeeper VR system and interfaced it with the pod. They would be able to see what Sam was experiencing. They had also set up an automatic recall subroutine. Sam would be immersed in the environment for five minutes only before she was brought back. Janet would be monitoring Sam's mental and physical functions. Her neural pathways would remain separate from those already in the system so any sign of Sam running into difficulty and she could also remove Sam from the environment without endangering her.
She was with Sam in a side room, Sam had taken off her shirt to allow Janet to attach the monitor traces to her body. As she smoothed the adhesive transponder pad over Sam's upper chest, Janet took a moment to press her lips against Sam's collarbone. "Just be careful, okay."
Sam carefully shrugged back into her shirt, batting away Janet's fingers as she fastened the buttons on her own. "No heroics, I promise. Purely recon."
Janet smiled, remembering their last recon the day before. "You know one thing I do regret about our little flight yesterday," she said softly. "The design of those craft doesn't allow for much physical interaction. Not to mention the flight deck crew on the Daedelus could hear every word we said."
Sam's eyebrow quirked "I see what did you have in mind? Setting a new standard for the Mile High Club?" The two women were already members of that elite. It had been a long flight back from Antarctica after the Ayana incident and they had felt the need to celebrate being alive.
"Just a thought," Janet smirked.
Sam snorted with laughter. "I'll keep it in mind for the next upgrade." She picked up the headpiece that connected her mind to the monitoring system and positioned it on her head, the nodes tight against her skull. It was uncomfortable but she would only be wearing it for a couple of minutes. "Okay, I'm ready to be hooked up." They went back into the main room which was a hive of activity. Drs Felger and Lee had removed several panels from the side of the pod, their technology looking hopelessly primitive compared to the elegant crystalline structures inside. But they had managed to get a stable working interface.
"I'll be monitoring your mental and physical functions. The moment anything looks off I'm pulling you out," Janet said. Sam stepped into the pod. Janet reached up to check the leads from the transponder. Her hand was shaking.
"I'll be careful, don't worry," Sam smiled at her lover. She took hold of Janet's hand and pressed it over her heart for a moment. They gazed at each other in silence for a long moment, eyes eloquent of everything that lay between them. At last Sam let her hand go, took a deep breath then glanced at Felger who had been studiously looking anywhere else but at the two women having the kind of moment he could only dream of. His ears were red. "Let's do this," Sam ordered.
Janet stared into crystal blue eyes, reading the resolve there and the love. She remembered the previous evening dozing in the afterglow aware only of Sam's hands softly caressing her body making her feel so loved, so beautiful. She remembered lying against the pillows watching Sam undress for her recalling how shy she had been the first time they had made love, ashamed of her scars, afraid of seeing revulsion on Janet's face. She remembered how Sam had cried the first time Janet kissed her way along the scars on her back and shoulder, kissed the burn scar on her palm all the time whispering how much she was loved. Sam had not heard that enough in her life and Janet resolved there and then to let her know every day.
"Inducing primary stasis," Felger said, reading from the panels. "Autonomic nervous system link is secure." Janet put her hand to her throat, her fingers shaping the sign for 'I love you'. It was the last thing Sam saw as she succumbed to stasis, her eyes fluttered closed, her features relaxing as she appeared to progress rapidly into a state of deep sleep. Janet checked the transponder output, all her readings were in the green, blood pressure was slightly elevated but that was to be expected. She glanced over at Dr Lee who was monitoring the visual interface. He looked pleased.
"We're starting to get visual output," he said. "She's successfully integrating with the environment." The screen cleared to show what looked like a busy marketplace. People of all shapes and sizes milling around, dressed in garishly coloured outfits. Everyone looked very busy, almost manically happy. To Janet the architecture looked like the Munchkin city in the Wizard of Oz. All the colours seemed slightly off, like watching a colorized black and white film on the screen. And though she couldn't put her finger on it, there was something faintly sinister about it all.
"Wow, Munchkin Gothic mixed with Early Maniac," Jay Felger commented, echoing her thoughts. "These must be characters and settings generated by the computer. I don't know how she's going to be able to tell the computer generated people from the one's we're trying to contact."
They watched as Sam, after taking a moment to orientate herself in this new and decidedly odd landscape, made her way through the crowd of people, vainly looking for someone who might have some answers for her. A clown like figure capered in front of her and Sam tried to get him to acknowledge her presence.
"Excuse me, I'm looking for my friends," she said, trying to remember the faces of some of the people she had seen in the remaining active pods.
"Friends we're all friends here," the clown grimaced. Watching, Janet felt a chill of disquiet. She had never liked clowns, had always found them faintly sinister beings. This one was no exception.
Sam tried to move on but the clown contrived to remain in front of her. He peered up at her face. "You're new!"
Sam smiled. "Yes yes I am. I just got here. I'm looking "
"Where are you from?" the clown interrupted her.
"Another town?" Sam bluffed.
"There aren't any other towns," a small round woman piped up. Her make-up was heavily overstated, obscuring rather than emphasizing her features. Sam was attracting quite a crowd now. One figure in long black robes that shadowed his face laid a long-fingered gloved hand on her arm. He reminded her uncomfortably of Anubis.
"Perhaps I can help you to find your friends?" Sam felt a chill go through her. It wasn't her imagination that the other characters seemed to back off a little as the spectre-like figure claimed her. "What do you want with them?"
"I just want to talk to them," Sam said.
"Why talk, when you can dance?" the clown took her hand and pulled her away from the robed figure. Sam did not feel any safer in his clutches.
"I need to get out of here," she gasped, pulling herself free of the clown and setting off again through the milling crowd. She caught sight of a face she recognized one of the people still in the pods. He looked terribly nervous. Then the spectre had hold of her again, she struggled, kicking out and trying to overbalance and throw him but he was immovable. An icy hand closed around her throat and she began to choke. Effortlessly he lifted her off her feet. Desperately Sam wrapped her hands around his forearm, trying to pull his arm away and ease the pressure on her throat but she was starting to black out.
The man she had recognized earlier Viorsa - dashed forward. "No! Stop! She's an alien, an outsider and she's probably not alone. Kill her and her companions will just shut down the programme."
"Let her go," the clown ordered. The Spectre dropped her unceremoniously to the ground. "Viorsa, what do you know?"
"We knew this would happen some day that someone would find us. It was only a matter of time," Viorsa gabbled.
"Only a matter of time, yes," the clown stared at Sam.
"Who knows what kind of people they are? Who knows what will happen to this world if you hurt them."
"I do, I know. So curious always getting into trouble aren't you, Samantha, playing with things you don't fully understand. Which is why you're here, isn't it. You just plugged yourself in to our little society."
Sam shuddered. The system was reading her, accessing her conscious mind and memories something it should not be able to do she had figured somewhat naively in retrospect that the same protection that had defeated the Gamekeeper's attempts to interact with her consciousness would work here. The adaptations Dr Lee and Dr Felger had put in place should have meant that her neural trace was held separately from the others. If the system could read her it meant that her neural trace was now part of the gestalt. It might also mean that she was trapped here. Hopefully Janet and the others could still monitor what was going on and would figure she was in trouble and pull her out before it was too late.
"You see, I know everything. This is my world, my festival. And you're here without an invitation."
"Is he real like you?" Sam asked Viorsa, "or is he part of the programme?"
"I created him. I created all of this for myself and my companions. He has the face of the man who led our people into folly and destruction, the dictator Ptarman. It amused me," Viorsa said wearily. "But not any more "
"You will talk to me!" the Clown shouted. The grip on her shoulder tightened painfully. "I speak for them and I speak for you now. You don't understand that yet. You don't accept it, but you will."
"Over time something happened. I don't know I'd set the system to be intuitive as well as interactive. At first it pleased me that things were happening outside the original strictures. Then I began to wonder if he was the manifestation of an outside influence or a virus in the system. I was not without my critics before this happened, I " Viorsa's voice trailed into silence. "And so he is my bane. He calls himself "
"A virus A virus ," the Clown crowed, spinning Sam round to face him. "He thinks I am a virus. And you you pretty lady so many thoughts in that busy head of yours. A mind full of technical thoughts and ideas. All those theories, all that knowledge. Warp drives and stargates and quantum mechanics. Such a busy little brain." He reached out to touch Sam's cheek, she flinched as if his touch burned. "But I'm part of you too, I'm part of everyone tell her, Viorsa."
"Stop this!" Viorsa begged wretchedly.
"I know you came here to get them and take them away. But if you do that, we'll all disappear," the Clown whispered in Sam's ear.
"Disappear because you're all characters created by this program, and once their minds stop interacting with the system you won't exist anymore," Sam said, staring straight ahead of her, trying to remain calm, cool and collected. But the Clown had access to her mind.
"Ah see the technical mind at work. It seeks diagnostics, data analysis. Well here's more data for your mind to analyze and diagnose, Sammi. I see your fear little girl. I see it. So small you were and the world so large and you all alone your mommy and your daddy gone after they promised to hold your hand. So many people and none of them yours. And then the Clown comes and he bends down from his great height to take a hold of you and you scream and scream so loudly but no one comes. No one came then. No one will come now. You're mine, little girl."
"I don't think so," Sam said. She had forgotten why she had never liked clowns but suddenly her memories of that day at the carnival were sharp and harsh. The noise, the smells hot dust, engine oil and burnt sugar, all the people rushing around her, the sense of helplessness, of loss. She swallowed back bile. "It's been a real pleasure, but I think it's time I went." She looked at Viorsa who still looked terrified.
"If you leave, one of them will die. One of them will die. Try it and see. If you leave he dies!" the Clown shouted pointing at Viorsa who shied away almost overtoppling backwards in his eagerness to escape that pointing finger. Sam noticed that the Clown's teeth seemed larger, sharper, skeins of spittle dripping from them.
"He can do it! He's already killed so many " Viorsa was almost crying.
"How is that possible?" Sam asked.
"I cut off their head," the Clown grinned impossibly widely, his gloved fingers making a snipping gesture as if he were deadheading a flower.
"But none of this is real," Sam argued.
"Of course it's real," the Clown said. He brought his face close to Sam's again. "As real as a nightmare," he whispered.
Sam thought about this for a moment, remembering Janet's words. Many of those who they had found dead exhibited signs of having suffered massive heart attacks after suffering immeasurable stress.
Again the clown demonstrated that he could read her thoughts. "Immeasurable stress yes unmanageable fear now what could cause that I wonder?" He placed his finger on his chin in a nauseatingly coy gesture, and then held his finger up as if he had had an idea. "I know how about having your head cut off!" The robed figure appeared again, the Spectre. And this time he had an axe in his hands. The crowd of avatars parted to reveal the chopping block, the wood chipped and darkly stained. It was an eloquent scene.
"You scared them to death," Sam conceded that this was possible. And that meant she was in so much trouble.
The watching scientists had already come to that conclusion. Janet was alternating between watching Sam's readings and those of Viorsa. If she was analyzing them correctly they showed that the alien man was under increasing physical strain. His blood pressure was rising steadily and his heart rate increasing. The stasis system was struggling to compensate and in doing so throwing other systems out of sync. Sam's own readings via the transponder were still borderline stable but she was also showing signs of mild stress. There was no interruption of brain wave activity.
"Recall activating in ten nine eight," Dr Lee kept a steady countdown but there was no other indication that anything was happening.
"Shouldn't we be seeing some sign that she's disengaged from the system?" Janet asked when Dr Lee had reached zero and there was no apparent change in Sam's condition.
"Nothing " Teal'c growled.
"The recall subroutine was deliberately subverted from inside the system. By Colonel Carter," Jay Felger reported. He stared at the monitor screen. "That Clown thing is still holding on to her. And it's laughing." He took some more readings. "Uh-oh."
"What now?" Dr Lee came over and stared at the readout. "Jay that's slightly more than an 'uh-oh'."
"You will explain," Teal'c said before Janet had chance to ask her own question.
"Colonel Carter's neural trace. It's no longer separate. What we did to isolate it didn't work. She's part of the gestalt," Dr Lee said. "Dr Fraiser, I'm sorry. She's trapped in there with the rest of them."
"Very wise of you, young lady," his gloved hand stroked her face. "It's bad enough that they can spy on us. Still, it would be remiss of me not to give them a show, don't you think. After you've gone to all this trouble."
"Look, this is your chance to send the outside world a message, to tell them your demands," Sam said.
"I have only one demand to exist!" the Clown snarled.
"Then you had better not harm me or anyone else here or my friends will shut down the system. Because I promise you, that will happen," Sam said levelly.
"Really. I don't think that your Doctor Janet would agree to that, not if there was any hope of getting you out again," the Clown said. The Ghost laughed, sending cold shudders down Sam's spine. Suddenly he let her go, pushing her towards Viorsa and the other 'real' people. "Tell her, Viorsa. Tell her what you did." He reached out, stroked Sam's cheek again, laughing as she was unable to stop herself from visibly shuddering at his touch. The sound of his laughter screeched through her like nails sliding down a blackboard. "We'll continue this later."
He vanished from sight as if he had never been, as if he truly was a diseased figment of her imagination.
"How did this happen?" Sam asked, rubbing her shoulder where the Clown's grip had apparently bitten deep into her flesh. It ached, the cold burning reminiscent of the frostbite she had once suffered in the Antarctic.
"The system was designed to be adaptive, to observe and respond to our thoughts and adjust the environment to our wishes," a woman said.
"Who wished him up?" Sam asked.
"It happened over months without our even noticing it," Viorsa said. "All of us had fears about survival, recovery. We never anticipated the computer would manifest those fears into him or that he would be able to have so much control over us. Our only hope was that someone like you would come along and find us. That's who he is, what he calls himself 'Fear'."
"It's obvious that he had access to our minds. He seems to know what we are thinking," Sam said.
"He's generated by the system and our brains are monitored by the system. So, yes, in a manner of speaking, he can," one of the younger women explained hesitantly. Sam nodded thoughtfully. That made a dreadful kind of sense. She had been presumptuous to think that 'Jolinar' would protect her this time. This was a completely different technology to that of the Gamekeeper. She was undoubtedly now part of the gestalt. General O'Neill was going to be pissed. This was precisely the situation he hadn't wanted.
"Shenara is right. But there is a delay before he becomes aware of what we're thinking," Viorsa continued.
Shenara nodded. "It takes a few minutes for our brain activity to be processed by the system."
The clown reappeared as suddenly as he had disappeared. "Well, I've come to a decision with the help of my friends. You're staying with us, Sammi." He glanced upwards. "And I'd like this opportunity to tell Dr Janet and all the little scientists scurrying about out there that if they try to shut us down if we die, they die and you die, Samantha." He turned to Shenara. "So, I've decided to let you go. You were beginning to bore me anyway, little mouse." Ignoring the trembling woman he turned back to Sam, throwing an arm around her. "So, you've just become my new best friend, Samantha. Because she would never kill you, would she, Sammi. No, not if she loves you as much as you think she does. And the others I see in your thoughts General Jack O''Neill, Daniel Jackson, Teal'c, Cassandra, your father and Selmac. So many who love you. We are so honoured, so lucky that you decided to join us, Samantha. So very lucky."
Viorsa and the other survivors clustered around Shenara who looked somewhat dazed and was quietly crying. Viorsa whispered something to her and she nodded. They embraced her one by one and then stood back. The young woman composed herself, closed her eyes and a few seconds later faded silently from their sight.
Jay Felger was almost dancing on the spot. "Someone's activated the recall subroutine from inside the gestalt."
"It's not Colonel Carter, though," Lee traced the circuitry. "It's someone in bay three over that way." Felger took off and after sending a troubled glance towards Sam's too-still body, Janet followed him. The second unit in bay three was indeed in active mode, the readout on the front of the unit showing a rise in body temperature and traces of neural activity returning to normal. The unit housed a young female with pale skin and dark hair.
"She should regain consciousness in about twelve minutes," Felger reported.
"Hopefully then we'll get the answers to a few questions," Janet said pensively, regarding her new patient.
"See how nice I can be, how accommodating," Fear said. He put his mouth close to her ear. "To my friends, of course. And we are going to be such good friends, my dear Samantha." He put his arm around her shoulders. "What a pleasure it is going to be to have someone of such intelligence and experience join our little family. There's so much you can bring to our gathering, so many stories you can help us tell. But first, let's do something about your clothes, shall we? Drab green is so not your colour." He moved away and pointed to her. Sam blinked as her BDUs changed into something tighter fitting yet slinky at the same time, in a shade of blue that complemented her eyes. She stood out like a beacon amongst the pastel clad natives.
"Oh, much better, my dear," Fear smiled. "Don't you think?" As Sam remained silent he began to frown. "It's only polite to offer thanks even if you don't appreciate it."
Sam closed her eyes, concentrated. When she opened her eyes she was wearing her own olive green BDUs again. Fear looked positively petulant.
"I see. So this is how it's going to be is it? You're new, so I can grant you a little leeway. I'm still feeling in a generous mood. But cross me again, Samantha and you will be punished, most severely. And be warned. I expect a steep learning curve from my friends. Fail and the punishment can be " he drew her attention to the chopping block and axe, "terminal."
"If they're demanding to exist, can we find a way to let them exist in this artificial world of theirs or is that too obvious a question," Janet asked.
"Not unless you're prepared to leave one person in stasis permanently. The computer uses bio-neural feedback from the participant's brains to create the environment."
"Can't we remove them from the environment so that this thing can't hurt them and then resuscitate them?" Janet asked. "Is there any way to speed up the resuscitation?"
"Only by a few minutes," Dr Lee shook his head. "Anything more and we'd be risking serious brain damage. I can't see us being able to bring it down to anything less than ten minutes. And then there's the whole gestalt thing to unwind."
"Ten minutes gives that thing in there more than enough time to kill all of them," Felger said.
"How the hell can we negotiate with what is essentially an emotion, a manifestation of fear?" Janet asked. Fear was the most primitive, the most primordial of biological responses after all. "I mean, fight or flight, it's one of our most basic responses. The ability to recognize danger that's what fear gives us. But when fear holds you hostage, how do you make it let go?"
"I don't know, make it laugh?" Felger grinned weakly. "Anyone know any good jokes?"
"Maybe if we try to meet the clown's demands in some way," Janet said thoughtfully. "Maybe you can come up with a way to modify the system so it can run without bio-neural interaction. Something that would enable someone say me to go into the matrix without handing over control of my physical body or entering the gestalt We have to come up with a safer method of communication. We can't just hand this thing another hostage."
"Dr Fraiser this thing is way beyond our current level of technology. Our best chance of making any changes to the system is Colonel Carter and we can't get to her without well it's a real Catch 22 situation " Bill Lee frowned. Once upon a time that would have been it as far as he was concerned. He would have rationalized his position, cut his losses, been the good little scientist. That was before his little side trip to Nicaragua. "I'll see if the SGC database has anything or Area 51 they work on retroengineering a lot of the technology we find - the team there may have some useful insights."
"Okay, good " Janet said, smiling at the scientist.
"We could always see if Harlan could help us," Felger said suddenly. "He or one of his constructs could probably interface with this thing without any danger. I was one of the team sent to Altair where the cybernetic entity Harlan made a copy of SG1 to study the technology. The cerebral matrix created by his system is sophisticated enough to fool just about anything." Janet nodded, remembering how shocked and distressed the construct SG1 had been to find that they were not the real thing.
"You follow up on that, Jay. It sounds like a good idea. Can you help us at all with the technical side?" Janet asked, turning to Shenara.
"My father designed the system. I was just a child," Shenara said. "I know more about how the stasis pods function, that was the area that I did work on in the months before we entered the system, but the bio-neural interaction I'm sorry."
Janet stared up at Sam's face, the backlighting of the unit highlighting the fairness of her hair, the translucence of her skin, making her look like a sleeping angel. "This is unacceptable. There has to be a way to get her back." She remembered the brief study she had been able to make of Harlan's construct SG1. "I need to talk to General O'Neill again."
"Doc you want to what!"
Making a mental note to check O'Neill's bloodpressure when she got back, Janet started her explanation again. "Unfortunately, Colonel Carter is trapped in the simulated environment. The controlling presence there is threatening to execute her and the remaining natives if we try to remove her. From the preliminary autopsy I've been able to carry out on the most recent corpses we discovered, they died of acute shock of fright, if you will. The Presence did something to them within the simulation, something so horrific, so terminal that their bodies went into shock so rapidly and so severely that the system was unable to compensate. Apparently the inmates call him Fear though he looks more like a clown."
Ronald McDonald gone bad just what I need, Jack O'Neill thought to himself. Actually he thought that despite Carter doing exactly what he told her not to do and get sucked into the system, he was handling it pretty well. "And you think one of Harlan's little buddies will be able to infiltrate the system and fool him long enough to either negotiate a way out of this or safely shut the system down," O'Neill nodded. He paused. "Does it have to be Harlan? Can't one of our less irritating allies help on this one?"
"Dr Lee and Dr Felger both agree," Janet said. "Harlan's technology gives us the best chance of getting the hostages clear if we can get this thing to negotiate with us. Dr Felger and I will gate directly to Altair from here there shouldn't be any need to involve the SGC."
She could hear the relief in his voice at that. Although not top of O'Neill's personal "So-called Allies I never want to see again," list (Janet's guess was that the Tok'ra Anise was top of that list), Harlan was pretty much up there. The alien's unfailing cheerfulness, lack of any insight into what he had put them through and childlike enthusiasm had rubbed the General up the wrong way from the beginning, without the whole 'duplicate' issue. Remembering her own 'evil twin' from the foothold situation a few years back, Janet knew exactly how he felt.
"Who's going to get Xeroxed?" O'Neill asked.
"Me probably," Janet said. "I'll make sure Harlan realizes that the duplicate is only to exist for as long as we need it and will be destroyed once we have freed the hostages."
"And you're okay with that," O'Neill checked. "Personally I wouldn't have a problem but you've got all these ethical "
"It's a copy, a robot, Colonel. I understand that," Janet said. "It won't be a problem, sir."
"Okay, doc you have a go," O'Neill said heavily. "Take Teal'c with you." Janet knew that there would be nothing the General would like more than to be here with them, in the thick of things. But that wasn't to be. "Doc maybe I should look into this duplicate thing as well, what do you think? There's got to be a way of getting a version of me that actually likes doing paperwork."
"Yes sir, we'll check with Harlan to see if it's possible," Janet laughed.
A group of avatars were performing some sort of acrobatic routine. Their attenuated limbs were extremely flexible. Sam winced as one of them just about tied themselves into a pretzel shape. Everyone seemed to be watching. The Clown clapped his hands in obvious enjoyment, grinning widely.
The unchanging shadows made keeping track of time difficult. Sam had no idea how long she had been here. She was not tired nor hungry nor thirsty. The avatar entertainers began to pull each other's limbs and torso's. They stretched like taffy or funhouse reflections. Two twined bonelessly around each other, touching and caressing each other in an increasingly sexual manner. There were oohs and ahs and comments from the peanut gallery at that. Sam could easily pick out the 'natives' by now. They were watching the show because they had no other choice but they showed no reaction or appreciation of it. The avatars were amusing themselves. Viorsa ghosted up to her side.
"I regret very much what has happened to you. You came to help," Viorsa said sadly. "You didn't deserve this." He sighed. "I regret so many things."
Sam wanted to physically shake him out of his depression. "Look, we don't have time for regret. My team is working on a way, right now, to get us all out of here. And we have to help them if we can."
Viorsa closed his eyes. "You'll leave hope behind after a few months of this."
Months Sam could not bring herself to think in those terms. "Why does he do this?" Sam asked.
"We're his canvas, his blocks of marble," a young man sobbed. "With us he practices his ghastly art "
These people have been stuck in here far far too long, Sam thought. How long before I end up like this? There has to be a way
"Thinking about escape, are we, Sammi? Naughty, naughty girl. I don't like those thoughts. We're going to have to do something about them." The Clown leered into her face, his finger shooting out to rest between her eyebrows as if with little effort it could drill right through her skull and remove her thoughts that way.
"She's new, she can't help thinking about getting out," a woman cried out. She looked very like an older version of Shenara, the woman the Clown had released, Sam wondered if she was a relative.
"She can," the Clown sneered. "You don't think about it any more, do you? Oh, but she's new and you're old. New and old. Old and new. Well then, the answer is simply to make you old, Sammi. Are you afraid of growing old, Samantha ?"
Sam blinked. For a second her hands had been twisted and wrinkled, the knuckles proud in the creped flesh. Then they were her own hands again.
" I see it your grandmother in a care home, spending her days crying and not remembering why or O'Neill growing old before your eyes what a diverting place that was! Machello you'd never seen anyone that old Is that what you fear, Samantha. Being put away somewhere alone and forgotten, cared for by nurses who don't give a damn who you were and what you did with your life? To be forgotten "
She was back in that room, the smell of damp and disinfectant cloying, the dryness in her mouth from the sedative they were pumping into her driving her crazy, the buzz from the defective fluorescent lights and the harsh brightness that she could not get away from making her addled brains ache, her limbs cramping tied to the bed for hours at a time, so-called doctors calmly discussing her dissection wondering why no one had noticed she was missing why no one was coming to her rescue. Janet where was Janet where
"Time for your medicine," one of the very small creatures cackled, pulling at Sam's sleeve. It was dressed in a parody of Janet's standard uniform and white lab coat, its scarlet hair in a bun. Sam tried to shake it off but its grip was tenacious, pincer like fingers biting into her flesh. Another arm curved around her waist, pulling her back against an all too solid body. It was the Spectre. A cold breath on the back of her neck made her shiver. It felt like all the heat and energy was being leached from her body.
"You don't like being helpless, do you Samantha? You're no damsel in distress. You like to take care of yourself; you have done for a long time, ever since your Mommy died." His face fell into a parody of sorrow at that and there was a mocking chorus of 'boohoo's' and 'oh, poor thing, her mommy died' around the throng. Abruptly the clown made a cutting gesture and the avatars obediently fell silent. "But you're afraid of being alone as well, aren't you? Of dying old and alone with no one to care no one to mourn your own passing. So many fears running around that head of yours so many contradictions. Poor, poor Samantha."
She could almost feel him in her mind, sifting through her memories, ransacking the contents of all those long-locked rooms where she had kept those thoughts and feelings that she didn't feel capable of dealing with. She tried to repel him, to do whatever trick she had done when she had changed her clothing back but it was no use. He sneered at her.
"No Extraordinary Measures. Such big bold letters. Do Not Resuscitate. But they did, didn't they? So many diverting ways to keep on dying, or to keep on living. The Sarcophagus the best and worst of both worlds. The living death that the Entity gave you, trapped in nothingness. And Jolinar trapped in your own mind, able to watch but not to act totally helpless while she threatened an innocent child, taunted your friends. A puppet with its strings cut." It flopped suddenly in dreadful parody. There was a roar of laughter around the throng of creatures who all abruptly fell silent as the clown straightened up again.
"This is not reality. This is an illusion," Sam said steadily, her eyes closed.
"When your only reality is an illusion then illusion is a reality," the Clown said triumphantly.
"No. This is not reality " Sam said. "The only thing " She had been about to say 'the only thing we have to fear is fear itself' but that cliché had a particularly hollow ring to it about now. She tried to listen for her own heartbeat, for the sound of the air in her lungs soughing in and out of her body. She could not find it. She was anchorless. Her eyes flew open again. It was somehow less terrifying to stare her would-be executioner in the face.
"Oh, and I thought we were going to be friends." The wide mouth downturned in a pout. "Didn't' want to do this, Samantha. No, I didn't want to bring this up in front of the others, but I know what really scares you, Sammi more than anything else." He brought his lips close to her ear. "The dark place, Sammi remember the dark place?"
"Comtreya! Comtreya!" Harlan rushed forward to greet his visitors. "Dr Felger, a pleasure to see you again so soon. And Mr Teal'c yes, a pleasure to see you too and "
"Dr Janet Fraiser," Janet introduced herself. "Harlan, we need your help. Or rather, the use of your robot-making facility."
"I am not a recreational facility, Dr Fraiser," the android sounded deeply affronted. "We are not toys we were once like you long ago. Wallas, Sacara, Beeth, Tira and Hubald of course and so many others built this so something of our civilization could survive. And survive we have. And though with Dr Felger's help the power situation is a lot more stable now and the repair schedule is not so all the time, still, the resources are "
"Dr Fraiser did not mean to insult you or what you are. SG1, or rather Samantha Carter is in trouble," Teal'c said. "The services of one of your robots would enable us to save her life and those of a dozen other people being held hostage with her."
"We are not a life form like you, but we are not expendable," Harlan huffed. "Dr Felger has been most helpful on this point. He told me of the great thinkers of your race Asimov and his laws of Robotics. The one called Turing. And of course Data and Shakespeare do I not bleed?"
"Yes, but it is a synthetic lubricant, it isn't blood," Janet said. This was an old argument and one she knew she was not going to win. "Please, Harlan. I don't mean you or your kind any disrespect. We think you are our best hope of getting these people out alive."
"Samantha Carter you say a most magnificent female I miss her I miss all of them I do owe her a great deal her work on the power packs and the monitoring systems " Harlan considered the problem. "You say you wish to recreate another unit. Who is to be the model this time?" He eyed Teal'c with some trepidation remembering earlier problems with disentangling the Jaffa's consciousness from that of the infant Goa'uld he carried at the time.
"Me," Janet said.
" I know how when you were nine, your brother dared you to go into the abandoned house, the haunted house. You were such a brave and bold little girl. You marched right up to the door and crawled in through the broken panel. But what your brother didn't know and you didn't know was that the floorboards had rotted out and you fell you fell so far. And it was dark and cold down there in that cellar and there were noises water dripping, small creatures chittering and things moving around down there, crawling, crawling and your leg hurt so much you couldn't move. And you could hear your brother laughing and joking about with his friends outside. And however much you called his name he didn't come did he? He did not come. No one came "
Sam shuddered despite her resolve. The memory enveloped her with shattering clarity. Mark had got involved in a game of street hockey. He had forgotten that he hadn't seen her come out of the house again. He went to a sleepover at a friend's house. Sam had been supposed to be on one as well. When she hadn't shown, her friend's mother faced with corralling six giggling mischievous pre-teens had just assumed Sam had changed her mind. It had happened before. Even then Sam Carter didn't really run with the crowd. It was only when Sam did not arrive home the next morning that the alarm was raised and her family had realized that no one had seen her since the previous afternoon. At first Mark had been too ashamed, too scared of the consequences to admit what had happened, but at last he had told Jacob what he had dared Sam to do.
Sixteen hours alone and hurting in the dark dank cellar had been a lifetime to the nine year old. She had told the rest of her team once that she hadn't been afraid of the dark since she was two. That wasn't entirely true. Her imagination had been her own worst enemy then as well. She could not allow the same to happen now.
"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Your father told you that didn't he, afterwards when you had nightmares about the cellar, about the spiders and the rats and the monsters that your imagination provided for company? Carter's don't show fear. He taught you to be a good little soldier, didn't he, Sammi. The things you put yourself through to gain his love and you're still not sure whether you ever did enough."
She was back there, in the cellar, in the darkness, the chill seeping into her bones. But it wasn't the spiders or the possibility of rats that terrified her. It was the slugs with their silvery glistening trails. What if they crawled on her what would she do? The clown's white gloved fingers trailed damply over her cheek and she flinched.
"It is a bit of a cliché, I suppose," the Clown leaned closer. "So many father figures to try to please. Your father General Hammond General O'Neill. Although that one's a bit more complicated for you, isn't him. You desired him for a time "
"No " Sam whispered. "Stop this "
"Another cliché there's no place like home. There's no place like home. Ha, ha! Try clicking your heels together three times, little girl. Hail Dorothy. But you're not the strong one now, you can't stand against me. You're afraid, Samantha. Admit it. Go on. You'll feel so much better when you do. Admit that you're scared."
"My thoughts are my own," she whispered. "My thoughts are my own." Her voice was stronger now. What was that thing her brother Mark used to quote when he was a kid from that science fiction book with the worms so large you could ride them? Fear fear is the little
"Fear is the little death, fear is the mind killer." He grinned hugely. "I couldn't have put it better myself, my dear girl. You see how futile this is. You couldn't keep Jolinar out. Nor Apophis. Nor that tiresome creature Urgo. And as for Fifth, he read your memories, your hopes and fears and desires as if they were pages in a book. What makes you think you can keep me out?"
"The Gamekeeper could not read my mind. And this is similar technology. I have to try " Sam concentrated all her thoughts on building a wall. Smooth faceless bricks like Replicator tiles so closely interlocking that there was nothing to get purchase on. The clown's grip on her arm grew more painful and she wasn't imagining the growing look of frustration on his face. Higher and higher she built it, pouring her will into the structure. Abruptly he left go of her arm.
"Playing hide and go seek, eh. Run away then, little girl. You think you're so strong. But I will find you again and when I do, I'll make you suffer. And that's a promise. All your nightmares will come true, I promise you, Samantha. You can't hide away from me forever." Abruptly he vanished again. And so did most of the baying rabble that surrounded her.
Viorsa and the older woman helped her to sit down. Sam realized that she was shaking with reaction. The Clown was right. She would not be able to keep her mental shield in place forever. Sooner or later she would falter and he would have his chance to plunge her into nightmare again.
And he would have so many to choose from
"We've all tried that at one time or another but he always gets past it. He chisels and he chisels and he chisels and suddenly you can feel him in your head again and he brings out the worst " Viorsa was ringing his hands, his voice a monotone.
"We have to find a way to get out of here. Viorsa, ultimately you created this place - is there any kind of back door to the system, any way to bypass or close out the Clown?"
Viorsa looked panicked, on the edge of breakdown. "I . I . I don't know " he gabbled. "And if I did then he would know. You put us all in deathly danger thinking like that."
"I'm sorry," Sam whispered. In her mind, dust sifted from the wall, the bricks shifting slightly. She cringed, closing her eyes, certain she could almost hear the Clown's maleficent laughter echoing around her.
Being 'read' by the machine was a little claustrophobic but not a painful procedure in any other way. Janet estimated that it took about twenty minutes to do: about the same length of time as it took to do an MRI exam. Superficially the technology looked similar. Just a lot grubbier. Everything seemed to have oil smears or bright patches of rust. The hood over the machine retracted and Janet was able to sit up again with Teal'c's help. She saw Dr Felger conferring with Harlan next to the vat like structure where her robot alter ego was being constructed. To her surprise and consternation she also saw Felger doing some sort of systems check on a console on the other side of the room. She was pretty sure that the scientist had been under fairly strict orders from the SGC not to get himself 'xeroxed' whilst he was working with Harlan. Obviously the civilian scientist had taken as much notice of that as he did over any other order. A few seconds later she saw a third and fourth version of Felger walk past the open door to the lab deep in conversation with one another carrying a long piece of fabricated metal between them. Teal'c had followed the direction of her gaze. His lip curled. He had never really been a fan of Dr Felger. Now he had at least four to contend with. Harlan came over, a bright smile on his face.
"No after effects I hope," he clapped his hands. "It is working well. Your other body will be finished and ready to go within the hour. The system got a little confused. It thought from your height that you were a child. We did not create children. But Dr Felger and I have put it right. It understands now. You are "
"Short," Janet smiled stiffly.
"Ah yes. It is a source of amusement to some apparently. But I cannot see how. Dr Felger told me the derivation of Napoleonic Power Monger. I did not understand. Surely it is a great compliment to be compared to a great warrior chief of your race."
"I suppose you could look at it like that. Could I speak with Dr Felger in private for a moment, please," Janet asked.
She steered the excitable man to an unoccupied corner.
"About the Napoleonic Power Monger thing " the scientist mumbled. "It wasn't me who "
"Forget it. Jay . Who or what is that?" she asked, pointing to his double who seemed to be at full stretch trying to reach something that had dropped in the narrow gap between two of the consoles.
"Erm " Dr Felger realized he was busted. "They were supposed to stay out of sight whilst you were here. Well there was always so much to do here just keeping the place running that it was getting in the way of you know actually discovering anything so I agreed to erm lend a helping hand or three."
"Dr Felger just how do you think General O'Neill is going to react when he finds out?"
The scientist winced. "Well I was kind of hoping that he wouldn't. He er well, Harlan's pretty sure that he doesn't like him, not that he understands why and well, I don't think he'd understand. It just seemed like a really good idea at the time "
"Do you know the kind of medical procedures I'm going to put you through once we get to the SGC just to make sure that you are you?" Janet asked.
Felger winced. "I did it for the best of reasons, Dr Fraiser. Harlan and I were getting on so well and well, this way he's got company and someone to help him fix things up around here. I was afraid he was going to be well, lonely, again when we went back to the SGC And it's not as if they're going out on missions or anything I mean, is there really any reason we need to bother General O'Neill with this I don't know as much as you guys might think I do about stuff at the SGC you know it's not that much of a security breach, not really " his expression took on distinctly puppy dog qualities.
"Very well, I won't tell General O'Neill about your helping hands," Janet said, fixing him with a steely glance. Felger breathed a somewhat premature sigh of relief. "But you will, Dr Felger. And I will expect to see you in the infirmary for a full work up when we get back." The glare intensified. System Lords, Senators and Five Star Generals had quailed before that look.
Felger hung his head. "Yes, Dr Fraiser."
There seemed to be some sort of market going on. Or a free form tug of war. It was difficult to tell. Someone had something and someone else wanted it. Sam stuck to the edge of the square not wanting to get involved. The Clown was sitting on the chopping block waving his arms as if he were conducting music or orchestrating the mayhem.
She blinked. That had been Janet's voice. Had they found some way to communicate with her. No one else reacted to the sound. The Clown was roaring with laughter at something. One of Viorsa's people was groveling on the ground trying to pick up something that just melted through his flesh to pool on the ground again.
"Sam over here "
The voice came from somewhere to her left. Around the corner of the building against which she was sitting. Sam climbed to her feet and walked towards the corner. As she turned it she caught a glimpse of the edge of a white coat disappearing between two buildings.
The doctor had been wearing BDUs when she had last seen her but this was the matrix and her mind would be processing information into familiar forms. And the sight everyone longed for when they got to the bottom of the ramp especially if it had been a hard mission was Janet in her lab coat ready to dispense her warmth and care to whoever needed it.
"Sam hurry I've come to get you out of here."
She crossed to the gap between the two buildings. It was narrow, the two buildings leaning in towards each other and the gap seemed to narrow the further down one traveled. It was dimly lit but there was definitely someone moving.
"Sam, it's going to be okay. We're going to get you out of here."
Sam glanced around. No one seemed to be taking any notice of what she was doing. The avatars seemed to have formed a conga line, Viorsa's people forced to join in. They circled the Clown's seat singing some sort of triumphal march that sounded like Souza on acid.
"Janet, is that you?" Sam whispered.
She started to walk down the narrow alleyway. The sound of her footsteps was curiously hollow and it got darker the further down she traveled. She could dimly see the shape ahead of her, hear the click of Janet's heels. The alley seemed to be angling downwards. Her shoulders brushed against the walls and still it narrowed. She slowed, paused. Perhaps this was a trick. Fear had found another way in. She glanced back towards the square but all she could see was impenetrable blackness. The only way was forward it seemed. A few steps further on she had to turn side-on and shuffle along.
"Keep going Sam, not much further " Janet's voice seemed a lot closer.
The wall a few inches in front of her face seemed to bulge out as if there was something behind it and a face formed. It was as if it had been impressed in a sheet of rubber. The features were recognizably Janet's. "Never leave anyone behind, remember?" the voice said. Suddenly the wall behind her seemed to fall away and Sam found herself falling down a shaft. She looked up and saw the avatar that had taken Janet's form earlier waving at her and cackling.
Then she was falling through air to land on what seemed to be a gurney. Before she could react she was restrained and a bright light was shining in her eyes. The Janet avatar stood beside her with an over large scalpel in its clawed hands. The Spectre stood at the foot of the bed and the Clown loomed over her, a surgical mask over its face.
"What are you made of, Samantha Carter? What are little girl's made of? Sugar and spice and all things niche? You know I think it's time we found out the truth." He held out his hand and the Janet avatar slapped the scalpel into his palm. He lowered the scalpel to the base of her throat and began to cut. Sam screamed.
Janet exited through the gate on P4J-198 and turned to see a subdued Dr Felger come through with Harlan followed by Teal'c and herself. Janet had taken Harlan at his word when he said that her counterpart had all her thoughts, feelings and memories up until the point the copy was made. Part of her wanted to talk to her counterpart and test it out. The larger part did not want to know. Private things, private memories should stay private. She wasn't happy with anyone else knowing them, even if it was another version of herself.
Daniel came to meet them looking very ill at ease. "It's getting pretty bad in there," he said. "He's torturing Sam. One of the avatars has altered its appearance to look a bit like you."
"Then there's no time to lose," her counterpart said crisply, stepping forward. "Dr Felger, you and Dr Lee need to get a second interface set up immediately. I'm going in to put a stop to this once and for all."
They entered the cavern. Dr Lee looked up. "We might not have much time. Dr Carter is being put under incredible stress. Frankly I don't know how long she can hold out."
Janet stared at the monitor in horror. It was a vivisectionist nightmare. Sam was spreadeagled on a gurney, Fear had opened up an incision from the base of her throat to her navel. His gloved hands were digging in her abdomen. Sam was conscious, her eyes wide and dark with terror, her teeth gritted in a rictus of agony. An avatar that bore a superficial resemblance to Janet, complete with white coat was assisting.
"What is he doing?" Janet gasped.
"Trying to find out what little girls are made of," Daniel said glumly. "Janet how long can she take this?"
Sam's heartrate was well over two hundred, her bloodpressure was plummeting. She was going into shock. "Not much longer," Janet said grimly. "We "
"We're ready to proceed," her counterpart said. Dr Lee had the innards of one of the stasis units spread out on the floor. He wired the interface into place and helped the robot Janet fit it to her skull.
"Wish me luck." The robot's eyes closed and her features went slack.
Illusory or not, the pain was incredible. Worse even than torture from a ribbon device. There it only seemed like your brain was melting. This set fire to her lungs and her bones and she could feel her heart begin to falter. She wasn't going to make it. This was it. This was the
The pain stopped.
"Sam, it's going to be okay. We're going to get you out of here."
Sam's eyes flew open. Janet smiled at her. Not the crude caricature avatar Janet. The real Janet. Her Janet. She was no longer strapped to the table. The terrible wound was gone, no sign it had ever been there. They were someplace else. She was sitting propped up against Janet who was kneeling behind her, her arms around her. "Janet no! You can't be here. He'll trap you as well. He'll " The air in front of her seemed to tear and the Clown appeared. It wasn't her imagination that his teeth seemed bigger and sharper. Sam found herself sprawling on the ground as the Clown pushed her aside so that he could loom threateningly over Janet.
"You're different," he growled. "I don't know anything about you. You're not on the system."
Janet smiled beatifically. "No, I'm using a different technology, not yours. I'm here to negotiate."
"How am I supposed to negotiate if I don't know what you're thinking?" the Clown asked.
"We have access to technologies that would allow you to continue. Think of it as a simulated brain no human intervention required. Our only condition is that you release all the hostages."
"I know that you're lying. Sammi here doesn't know anything about a simulated brain. And if Sammi doesn't know it then it's not worth knowing. Isn't that right, Sammi?"
"Artificial intelligence isn't my area of expertise," Sam said carefully. "There are scientists on this project who know far more than I do and our allies know even more than we do. I am sure with their help that we can achieve a suitable environment for you."
Somehow they were back in the square, the avatars in front of them, Viorsa's people behind them.
"And all I have to do is release the hostages," the Clown mused. "Viorsa could they do this?"
"It might require a recalibration of the optronic pathways," Viorsa said hesitantly.
"Liar!" The Clown sneered. "After all this time, do you think I can't tell when you lie? This is my domain. Mine! Why would I put myself at your mercy? No! They stay!"
"I don't believe you will kill them. We are going to remove them from the matrix. And you will die anyway," Janet said stonily. Sam knew that look. Marines and Generals and even self-serving Senators and Goa'uld had quailed before it.
"Who are you to tell me what to do?" he snarled.
"She's the one out there with the off switch in her hand," Sam laughed.
"She would never kill you, not her Sam. I know you. I know her through your eyes."
"You saw it yourself in my mind. No Extraordinary Measures. And I'd rather die than spend my life in here with you. Janet knows that," Sam's expression was tranquil but her grip on Janet's hand was like a vice. If this was real, the doctor would be treating herself for crushed fingers later.
"I won't let them go," the Clown blustered.
"A compromise then. Let some of them go," Janet suggested. "We've studied your systems. You only need one active mind to survive." Research had obviously been progressing apace whilst she had been stuck in here, Sam realized.
"And if that one gets sick and dies? No, I need them all. Now go away. I'm disappointed, you know. Really disappointed. I expected much more from you."
Janet turned to Sam. "I have to go, Sam. But I will be back. We will get you out of this all of you, I promise."
Janet watched as her counterpart opened her eyes and accepted Felger's help in removing the interface and stepping down from the stasis pod. She flexed her fingers thoughtfully. "It is quite amazing. My fingers are tingling from where Sam held on to my hand so tightly."
Janet knew it was ridiculous to feel jealous of her self but it didn't stop her visceral reaction. My Sam. Hands off!
"He didn't go for it," Dr Lee said despondently.
"He's highly unstable, unpredictable everything you would expect from Fear. What worries me is that the longer we allow this to continue the more likely it is that he will take his frustrations out on the hostages. We can't let that happen. Dr Lee, in your opinion, what would happen if we do simply disconnect the hostages?" Daniel said.
"There would certainly be brain damage," Lee said. Janet agreed with his assessment.
"It's likely that such brain damage would be way beyond our medical technology to repair and alien healing technologies we've come across have only variable results when it comes to brain injuries," she said. Forcibly rescuing Sam from this might well condemn her to a lingering death-in-life existence.
"I still think we could switch over to a simulated brain without the clown noticing it," Felger said.
"Oh he'd notice it," Shenara said. "He was very smart to reject the whole notion of a simulated brain. It just wouldn't be the same. There is no way an artificial intelligence can replace actual brain functions."
"I'm not so sure," Felger said. "Harlan's systems are pretty sophisticated. When we first came across them they fooled just about everyone until Doc Fraiser started an actual physical examination."
Janet remembered how terrified she had been of the constructs. She realized that her counterpart had exactly the same memory though from a different viewpoint. To be so human and yet know that the actual length of your existence was little more than an hour. She wished there was more time to discuss it with her counterpart. The philosophical implications were fascinating.
"Whilst I was in there, Viorsa said something to Sam about a recalibration of the optronic pathways," Janet said. "Does that mean anything to you, Shenara?"
"I don't know what he could have been talking about. The optronic pathways have nothing to do with the neural interface. It doesn't make any sense," Shenara frowned.
"Then perhaps he had another reason for saying it," Janet said thoughtfully. "How do the optronic pathways function in this system?"
"They control the basic elements of the environment, access data banks that were programmed when the system was created. Wait, he's right! If we interrupt the optronic pathways, we could disassemble that entire world and its characters, piece by piece!"
Janet nodded. "If we can't remove the hostages from the environment, then we might be able to remove the environment from the hostages."
"What I don't understand is how Viorsa managed to communicate this without Fear becoming aware of it?" Dr Lee asked thoughtfully.
"Perhaps because he was focused on Sam and myself, he was distracted, his attention divided," her counterpart said thoughtfully. "He could not read my thoughts which displeased him. How long will it take to block these pathways?"
The two scientists consulted with Shenara for a moment. "Some time," Lee said at last. "It looks like we're going to have to do each one manually because we don't know how to deprogram the system."
"My bet is that you'll only have a few minutes at best. Once Fear knows what we're up to it will be a race against time to save the lives of those hostages." Janet considered for a moment then looked at her counterpart. "You're going to have to go back in, keep him off balance. It's risky but it could be our only chance."
What passed for life amongst the avatars continued regardless. Viorsa and his remaining people huddled together at one end of the courtyard trying to stay out of the way, hopefully unnoticed. Sam did not have that luxury.
The Clown appeared to be in a bad mood. Apparently it was her fault. As long as he left her alone she really didn't care. She found her fingers rubbing gently down her sternum where he had cut her and made herself stop. It hadn't really happened. She was fine.
"Go away. I want to be alone," the Clown sulked.
"You're ruining the festival," the Spectre complained.
"Don't be a poop," the Janet avatar made as if to slap him on the arm but thought better of it.
"I can't help it. I'm feeling sorry for myself," the Clown's mouth was downturned, his whole body slumped in dejection.
"Don't take it out on us," the little woman whined.
"Take it out on her," the Spectre advised, pointing one impossibly long finger at Sam.
The Clown visibly perked up. "You people. You wonderful people. My friends," the Clown was almost crooning with pleasure. "You do know how to make a man feel better, don't you? Okay, then, what shall we play? Ah, the insect game." There was a chorus of approval. Several avatars dropped to the floor lying on their backs, hands and arms scrabbling in the air as if they were upturned beetles. Others put their hands near their shoulders and started to flutter them as if they were tiny wings spinning round and round in circles with dizzying speed all the while making buzz buzz buzz noises. Then all eyes turned to Sam. She took a step back. For a moment she had received a sickening vision of her body bristling with ants, stripped to the bone of flesh, their acid burning through her veins, more insects boiling out of her breached stomach cavity, her mouth, her eyes and all the time she was still alive, aware, screaming.
Then Janet reappeared, standing between her and the crowd of avatars, her hands on her hips.
"You again," the Clown snarled. "You're the one who ruined my mood in the first place. You have a new offer to make I suppose but no simulated brains. I want real brains."
"We have a different offer to make," Janet said. "We have allies they have a technology that could give you bodies of your own, everlasting cybernetic bodies that have all the sensations that real human beings have. They have enhanced strength, enhanced abilities "
The Clown turned to Sam. Sam couldn't feel anything but she knew that he was trying to get through the wall she had painstakingly built around her thoughts and memories. She allowed a chink to form, allowed him to see her memories of Harlan and the cybernetic SG1 before she shut him out again. The effort left her shaken. She hoped she would not have to do it again. She might not succeed in shutting him out next time. Janet laid a comforting hand on her arm, squeezing it gently.
The Clown shared what he had discovered with the rest of the avatars. A murmur of interest went around the group.
The Janet avatar waddled up to the real thing and sneered. Janet stared her down. "Go away," she said. The avatar blew a raspberry and vanished in a puff of evil smelling smoke.
"Wait " the Spectre said. "These bodies are dependent on a power source. You would just make us slaves to a different machine "
"There are forty separate pathways to disable, Dr Fraiser, but I should be able to get it done in under two minutes."
"Good, let's get started," Janet said. In real-time it was a little over six hours since Sam had been hooked into the system. She wondered how that translated into avatar-time. Shenara did not really want to talk about her experiences inside the gestalt. Janet could not really blame her. Harlan's friend was standing in one of the vacant alcoves. It was disconcerting to watch to listen But hopefully it would be enough to fool the Clown if it came to Plan B.
" your systems will be protected. We will disable your Stargate so that no one will come here by accident again. You may live out your lives as you will, you won't be dependent on anyone else." Janet was using her most persuasive, friendly voice, the one she used with small children and Jack O'Neill when she was about to give him an injection.
The clown turned to Sam for verification. "Is this possible?"
"Yes," Sam said. "A naquada generator coupled with your existing geothermal power systems will power your new bodies indefinitely. And there are several ways we could disable or block passage through your Gate." She winced as his fingers closed around her wrist again, sure she could hear the small bones grind together.
"I don't know if I believe you. I don't know yet, but I'll know soon if you're telling the truth. You can't fool me. What do you want in return? And don't say the hostages because I'm not giving them up." He pulled Sam towards him again, holding her close, almost cradling her, his arm around her waist, his chin resting on her shoulder.
"Our primary concern is the safety of the hostages " Janet began.
"Such warm and noble sentiments. How I wish you were really one of us, Doctor Janet. If I promise to take really good care of my hos my friends, my good friends, would you come and visit us properly? We could be friends, more than friends colleagues. I'm really not such a bad fellow " Suddenly there was a low rumbling noise and Sam felt the ground shake beneath her feet. She fell to her knees as the Clown pushed her away and Janet moved forward to help her stand again. "What's happening? You tricked me! It's an attack! It's an attack! Red Alert! Danger, Danger!" Whirling and whirling like some deranged dervish his gaze alighted on Viorsa and one impossibly long arm reached out and snagged the terrified man by the collar, pulling him to his knees. "You you warned them! You told them how it could be done! Take him!"
"No, please, no!" Viorsa gabbled, begging for his life. "No, please! I didn't do anything! I didn't do anything!" It was too late. The creatures swarmed over him lifting him off his feet and carrying him away. Abruptly Janet vanished. Sam got to her feet intent on going to help Viorsa. The rest of the natives were huddled together weeping. They had already given him up for dead.
Viorsa's head was on the block. No one was holding him in place but he showed no inclination to move. He seemed frozen in terror. The Spectre gave the axe a few practice swings.
"Don't do this," Sam begged Fear. "If you have to punish someone, punish me."
"What do you think I'm doing?" Fear asked. The Spectre swung the axe and even above the oohs and aahhs of the avatar's, Sam could hear the slick wet crunch and thud as Viorsa's head was parted from his body.
"Twenty twenty one twenty two " Lee counted the relays as he disabled them.
"Hurry it up," Janet advised. "Somehow he knows. He's turned on Viorsa." The system showed his metabolic ratings were fluctuating wildly, his heart rate and adrenaline levels rocketing. Sam's readings were also rising though less dramatically. Short of dragging him bodily out of the unit there was nothing she could do to help him. And that would as surely kill him as much as whatever Fear was putting him through.
"We're more than half way there, Doctor Fraiser," Lee said. His intimation was clear they were going as fast as they could. Then without warning his panel went dark.
"Shit, there's some kind of protection subsystem. I'm locked out. I'll try to disable it but it's going to take time," Dr Lee glanced over at Felger who was conferring with their visitors.
"Viorsa's systems are critical, he can't last much longer," Janet said. Whilst he was still locked into the system any medical intervention she made would only make things worse. Fear would take it as further evidence of an attack.
Dr Lee got his panel working again and Felger joined in on a second panel. They were down to ten functioning relays when Viorsa flatlined. Janet watched helplessly.
"We're too late. He's dead. Massive heart failure. Levels on the remaining survivors and on Colonel Carter are beginning to peak."
"He's going doomsday on them," Felger said. "He must think he's got nothing left to lose. We'll have to restore the entire programme or he'll kill them."
"Dammit," Janet swore. "Bill Jay stop now. Restore the system."
"I'm sorry it didn't work. But your decision to capitulate saved the lives of the other hostages, Dr Fraiser. You should take some comfort from that," Shenara said.
"I wish I could," Janet said morosely. "We misjudged him, somehow. There has to be another way to reach him. Isn't there more to fear than a simple demand to exist? Why do people enjoy dangerous sports or driving too fast or, hell, jumping through a wormhole for a living? Why do people ride on rollercoasters or watch horror films?"
"Fear can provide pleasure," Felger said.
"It's a highly sensory experience," Lee nodded.
"To seek fear is to seek one's boundaries," Teal'c said.
"But what happens at the end of the ride?" Janet asked. "What happens to fear then?"
"I might have a solution." They turned as Janet's counterpart opened her eyes. She was still standing in the stasis pod. "I'm going to end this. Offer myself in replacement for all of the hostages including Colonel Carter."
"You can't you'll be trapped," Janet bit back her words. What was she thinking? This was why the robot had been created, it was too late to be having regrets now.
"It's what I have to do. It's what you want to do, isn't it? Exchange yourself for her. How could I do any less? After all, that's why you created me. I am, what did you call it Plan B."
"You're next! You're next!" Fear screeched, dancing around Sam. "We've won. We've won. Start the music. Celebration! Celebration!" He pulled the unresisting Sam into a waltz. All the other avatars were capering and dancing as well. The surviving humans huddled closer together. Viorsa's death had hit them hard. Though his body had vanished the block glistened with fresh blood, the axe negligently propped up beside it. The Spectre lounged nearby, basking in the adulation of the avatars.
"You understand, don't you, Sammi, that I'm going to have to punish you for Doctor Janet's little trick? To the winner go the spoils and you are the spoils after all. We can talk about that later. For now, enjoy yourself Well, you certainly know how to bring a party to a halt."
Janet was back. "That's not usually the case," she said. "I have it on good authority that I'm quite the party animal." She winked at Sam.
"I bet," the Clown was getting snarky.
"I have an ultimatum for you," Janet said steadily. She turned to Sam. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine, Janet," Sam said.
"Ultimatum! Ultimatum! You would give me an ultimatum? Did Napoleon give an ultimatum after Waterloo? We won! We give the ultimatums around here," the Clown sneered. "You may be small but that is the only resemblance."
Janet ignored his histrionics. "Another one with the Napoleon jokes. I could get a complex you know. Anyway, what I came to say was that we are prepared to shut down the systems one minute from now if you don't agree to our terms."
"And scramble the brains of all of my guests, including Sammi? I don't think so "
"Fifty two seconds," Janet said. "I am willing to risk brain damage to the hostages, but I will end this and end this now, one way or another."
Sam allowed the Clown to see a memory of Janet, her gun trained unflinchingly on Nirrti's head.
The Clown hung his head in seeming defeat. "What are your terms?"
"Forty three seconds. You are allowed to keep one person on the system. The other hostages must be released."
With a cold shudder, Sam realized how this was going to work. "Janet no!"
"Unacceptable!" the Clown snapped. "I won't agree."
"You have thirty seconds to avoid termination," Janet said steadily.
"I need more time, time to think," the Clown smiled a ghastly ingratiating smile, wringing his gloved hands before holding them out in a gesture of supplication. "Two! Let me keep two!"
"Twenty seconds " Janet stared at Sam willing her not to intervene. "There is another proviso. The one hostage you will be allowed to keep is me."
"You would choose to be with me?" the Clown said, a sense of wonderment creeping into his voice. To Sam's ears, he had never sounded more human.
"Your time is up. Answer, please," was Janet's only response.
The Clown did not smile. "Yes."
"Sam, hold on. It'll all be over soon." Janet faded away.
Janet opened her eyes and looked down at herself. "He's going to let them go."
The doctor nodded. "Excellent. Bill, Shenara - initiate the recall subroutine and prepare the resuscitation equipment." She turned back to the chamber, reached up and took her hand. "Thank you."
Harlan beamed at her. "Are you ready?"
"I'm ready." She took a deep breath and settled herself more comfortably against the backrest. If plan B worked, she could be here for a very long time.
"This won't hurt you, will it?" the doctor asked, anxiously.
She shook her head. "I will be fine, Dr Fraiser. It will just be like falling asleep and dreaming. Only for me, the dream will never end."
Harlan patted her arm. "I am proud so proud " He turned to the doctor to explain. "I have read your classics to better understand 'It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done ' such a sacrifice is very "
"Human?" Janet smiled crookedly.
"Sparkling " the Clown danced. "I want everything sparkling for her arrival. Sparkling!" Sam started to back away heading towards the other surviving hostages but the Clown grabbed her, pulling her towards him again. "Ah! Ah! Sammi not so fast. They can't have you until I have her. No more tricks." His arms were around her waist, his chin resting on her shoulder again. He held her tightly. "Oooh, she's coming. I can feel the system beginning to scan her brain. This really is such an extraordinary gesture she's making. I am so moved. You don't quite believe it yourself, do you? That she would sacrifice herself to save the hostages."
"Sacrifice herself?" Sam could barely believe this was happening. She couldn't let herself think of alternatives, not whilst Fear could still read her mind. This was how it had to be, but it didn't mean she had to like it. She was the soldier, she was the one that was supposed to die in battle. Not Janet. Not again.
"You can be so cruel, Samantha. You don't appreciate my hospitality." The pressure on her ribcage became acute, his chin digging into her collarbone before abruptly he released her. He had a new toy to amuse him. "You're here. You're actually here. I don't believe it."
"The arrangement was that the others would be released," Janet said steadily.
"You show remarkable trust, Dr Fraiser. How could you be so sure I would keep my word?"
"I understand Fear," Janet said. "It's a very healthy thing most of the time. And you've been with us almost from the beginning. The fear response is conditioned in humans. Fight or flight. You warn us of danger, remind us of our limits, protect us from carelessness. As a medical doctor, I've learned to trust fear. It has saved a great many lives."
The Clown grinned impossibly widely. "Finally someone who appreciates me. Am I blushing?"
"Let them go." Janet was obdurate.
"Yes, yes, of course you may depart. Farewell, my friends, my sweet Samantha." His gloved hand enfolded hers and he brought it to his lips, kissing it in an almost courtly gesture. Sam just managed to resist the urge to wipe it clean of his touch on her BDUs. "Do come back and visit. I'll always be here. We will always be here." Sam nodded numbly, not allowing herself to hope.
Janet drew Sam into an embrace. "Don't worry," she whispered. "I'll be waiting for you on the other side."
Before she had a chance to ask what Janet meant, Sam felt a curious tingling sensation in her limbs and the environment around her began to fade away. Janet's dark eloquent eyes were the last thing she saw.
"The recall subroutine has been activated," Felger reported.
"Body temperatures are rising," Janet Fraiser confirmed.
"Initiating all back up systems," Lee said from his board. "The hostages should regain consciousness in less than ten minutes."
"I can't wait to get to know you, to make you a part of me," the Clown capered.
"As I understand it, it takes a few minutes before you become aware of my thoughts. Is that true?" Janet asked, taking a seat on the edge of the platform after giving the macabre apparatus behind her a thoughtful look.
"An eternity of anticipation," the Clown crooned.
"And then what happens?"
"And then then the fun begins."
"Would you be honest with me?" Janet asked, after a long moment of silence.
"Fear is the most honest of all the emotions, doctor. You should know that."
"You really want to end this as much as I do, don't you?"
The Clown tutted. "Now, now. Don't be thinking of leaving. I'm not going to let you go, not after all this. Mirror!" A large ornate mirror appeared in the air in front of them. "Don't we make a beautiful couple, Doctor?"
"I'm not Janet Fraiser," she said.
The Clown smiled beatifically and batted his eyelashes at her. "Could have fooled me. I know quite a lot about you you see. Before Samantha was very rude and shut me out I got a lot about you from her thoughts. She holds you on quite a pedestal. I couldn't fail to be impressed. And here you are in person."
"Not really. I'm afraid I did fool you," Janet said gently.
The Clown blinked. "Pardon?"
It had been the slowest ten minutes of her life. Felger and Lee were trading numbers back and forth. Neither of them looked particularly anxious so Janet supposed it was going well. "All systems functioning as anticipated. Resuscitation entering final warming."
"Bio-functions are returning to normal," Janet was able to confirm. "Their own hearts are taking over. They don't need supplemental life support any longer." Even though she had an equal responsibility to all her patients, she could not help but gravitate to Sam's side.
"I'm not the real Janet Fraiser. I'm a copy of her consciousness housed in a cybernetic body, exactly like the ones we offered to you as a solution to your problem. I have all the thoughts and memories of Janet Fraiser so I can respond to you as she would have responded. I can feel emotions, I can feel pain, but you can't kill me like you killed Viorsa and the others. And you won't be able to enter my mind and feed off my thoughts and fears."
"But I feel you, you're on the system " the Clown stammered out.
"An echo a ghost. The goal was to let you sense her brain activity without putting the real Dr Fraiser in actual jeopardy. You will be able to confirm what I'm telling you soon, as soon as you become aware of her thoughts or rather, you don't." She cocked her head, eyed him thoughtfully. "Why is this such a surprise? You know as well as I do that fear only exists for one purpose. To be conquered."
"She tricked me," the Clown pouted.
"Did she?" Janet asked. "Or was a part of you actually hoping to be defeated? Isn't that why you allowed Janet Fraiser to come here? Because you sensed she had the power to subdue you?"
"No. She lied. That wasn't very nice of her," the Clown continued to sulk. It wasn't pretty. Janet was quite glad that this would be over fairly soon.
"You threatened the life of someone I she cared for very much," Janet said.
"I suppose " There was a long silence. It was beginning to get dark. All of the other avatars had vanished, even the spectre. A long black cloak draped over the Block was the only sign he had ever existed. "What will become of us? Of me?"
"Like all fear, you eventually vanish," Janet said.
"I'm afraid," he whispered.
Harlan had gone home. Sam knew what she had to do but it was difficult. It had been hard enough to look into the face of her own dying counterpart back on Cronus's ship but this was Janet
Gently she pushed against the bottom hand rib and a section of the stomach slid open. She could see the power cell glowing. Carefully, she deactivated and removed it. Behind the cell was a small block of circuitry, at the centre of which was a slender translucent violet-blue crystal. This was 'Janet'. She unclipped the crystal from its mounting and placed it on the ground at her feet. She brought her boot heel down on the crystal until it cracked then ground it into powder.
It was over.
The survivors had been taken back to the SGC for medical checks and counseling. Eventually they would be relocated. Though their own planet had largely recovered from the ecological disaster that had caused them to seek refuge in the first place none of them were eager to reclaim it. Daniel was negotiating with Jonas Quinn for Langara to offer them sanctuary for the interim. He figured they would be happier there than the less technological Land of Light.
The rest of the team were packed and ready to ship out. Janet the real Janet was waiting for her at the end of the tunnel. "I want you in the infirmary as soon as we get back, Sam. Your system was put under a tremendous amount of stress even if it was only for a matter of hours. I also want you to talk to a counselor as well."
"I can't believe it was less than eight hours somehow it feels like no time at all passed whilst I was in there and yet at the same time it feels like I lived several lifetimes. About the counseling I'll talk to you, if that's okay." Sam said. "It wasn't as bad as Fifth, or the illusions that Apophis put me into. Most of the time anyway. I knew from the start that this wasn't real. And I knew that you were out here, waiting for me, watching over me."
"And I always will be," Janet said softly. "Come on, let's go home." There was no one to see them so they held hands, at least to the other side of the wormhole.
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