DISCLAIMER: I think we all know I don't own the characters, the show, or the concept; that honor belongs to Showtime, MGM, Double Secret, Gekko, so on and so forth. They're just nice enough to let us all play in their sandbox. I write for my own entertainment and – occasionally – edification, and make no money from it.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I'm not even sure where to start with this one. The story is not at all what I intended – it was supposed to be a short and somewhat tongue-in-cheek story for a zombie ficathon. That didn't happen. First, the ficathon was more than a year ago – I might be a little late for it...lol. Second, all these unexpected references to a somewhat dark back story kept popping up. Somehow, I ended up with three acts and a story that was only partly about zombies. The story got shelved for a while, then I started the editing process, added about 7000 words, and ended up with a short novella that still was only partly about zombies. Shrug. In the process of writing this story, I've discovered that time travel gives me a headache, that story research can lead you down interesting paths, and that the CDC has a blog entry about the zombie apocalypse (no, I'm not kidding). I'd like to thank the folks at Stargate Wiki – they've compiled a wealth of useful information and their episode transcripts were particularly helpful. I also want to give a special thanks to Pink Rabbit Productions for some helpful feedback on an early draft of the story, and for coming up with the acronym MHD (and letting me use it). What else? I guess that's about it, other than to say that I hope you enjoy the story. Feedback is, as always, adored, but never required.
SEASON: Starts in season 8, jumps to season 3, ends up in season 4. Major spoilers for Shades of Grey, Jolinar's Memories, The Devil You Know, 1969, 2010; minor spoilers for Serpent's Song, Point of View, Fair Game, and The First Commandment
WARNING: violence, occasional language, minor gore, after-the-fact descriptions of torture – nothing too graphic, but read carefully if that's a squick.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To cheerfuloceangazer[at]gmail.com

In the End Is the Beginning
By ocean gazer


Act I – Present

Daniel Jackson fidgeted, fighting the by-now instinctive urge to look over his shoulder for hordes of zombies. For one thing, Sam Carter, Janet Fraiser, Cameron Mitchell, and Teal'c all stood behind him on the porch; if there were any approaching undead, one of them would see the threat. For another, given the massive concrete walls and obviously well-trained sentries of the fortress town they were in, it was highly unlikely that a zombie could have gotten inside in the first place. In the five years since the newly dead of the earth began rising and eating the living, rural pockets of civilization had survived by barricading themselves away in fortified communities. Urbanites had survived, too, of course, but not in quite as cooperative and organized a fashion.

He pushed away the irrelevant thought and knocked on Jack O'Neill's door for the fifth time, his knuckles slippery with sweat. It was more humid here in Minnesota than he was used to in the mountains of Colorado. Especially since he spent half his life inside the cool depths of Cheyenne Mountain.

"Well, this is a waste of time," Janet muttered from behind him.

Daniel rolled his eyes. Of course it was a waste of time. After all, O'Neill had stormed off and retired – for real – after the whole sordid mess where he'd gone undercover on behalf of the Tollan and Asgard, infiltrating Harry Maybourne's rogue operation to steal alien technology. After leaving the SGC, Jack hadn't seen fit to answer the team's phone calls or return their messages. When three months had gone by with no contact, Daniel and Sam had taken leave and driven halfway across the country to Jack's cabin, to try and convince him that they understood what he'd had to do and that they missed him. The former colonel had listened – stony-faced and with a beer in hand – and then had told them in no uncertain terms that he was done being ordered to do things he didn't agree with and not to let the door hit them in the ass on the way out.

He and Sam had left defeated, but with plans to come back in a few months and try their luck again. But a few days before their next scheduled trip, the initial signs of the zombie apocalypse had shown up on the military's radar, and from that point on, a visit to sweet-talk a stubborn, petulant ex-colonel no longer registered anywhere on the priority list.

The only reason he and the others were here now was because Thor refused to help them carry out their plan to save the world unless O'Neill was involved. Even though Daniel and Sam had saved the Asgard more than once in recent years with their "dumb" ideas, Thor apparently still thought O'Neill hung the moon.

And damn, there was no reason for him to stand here woolgathering. Daniel swore under his breath and started to turn, to tell the rest of the team that recruiting the retired colonel was clearly a lost cause. Then he heard a wooden creak and turned back to face the door, which was slowly opening. For the first time in five years, he was face-to-face with Jack O'Neill.

Daniel quickly managed to swallow his surprise. Pasting on a nonchalant grin, he lifted his hand and waved. "Hi there," he said brightly.

Jack blinked owlishly at him, like he'd just woken from a nap, and scowled. "What the hell do you want?"

Nice to see you, too, Daniel mused. He opened his mouth, then closed it, not exactly sure how to respond to Jack's rudeness. Thankfully, Teal'c stepped forward and stated firmly, "That is no way to greet old friends, O'Neill."

"Friends, you say?" The querulous tone of Jack's voice almost made Daniel laugh; O'Neill sounded just like he remembered. "Seems to me that we weren't on very good terms at the time I left."

Daniel felt Sam's familiar presence as she moved up to stand beside him. Her voice was soft, but intense. "Sir, you know that we were just angry at the situation, at being kept in the dark about your mission. It didn't mean we weren't still your friends."

Jack shook his head and waved a dismissive hand. "Bah." He stepped back into the little house, clearly planning to close the door on them.

Daniel barreled forward, shoving against the door with his body and forcing Jack backwards into the house. His patience was just about at an end. "No, Jack. You shut us out before; you don't get to do it now. When it was just about you and us and the team, that was one thing. This time, it's about the fate of the planet...the human race. You don't get to just walk away."

Even in the dim light, he saw Jack narrow his eyes, the older man's face reddening in anger. Daniel pushed his way further into the house, motioning for the others to follow him inside. When they were all in the pocket-sized entryway, facing O'Neill, Daniel turned back and slammed the door shut, then locked it. It didn't surprise him when Jack swore robustly under his breath before stomping out of the room.

Daniel shook his head and followed, the others trailing behind him, and arrived in the living room just as Jack flung himself down in the middle of a couch that had seen better days. He sat next to Jack on one side, watching as Teal'c sat down on the ex-colonel's other side, flanking him. Janet took the threadbare easy chair across from them, and Sam perched next to her partner on the arm of the chair. Cam, who didn't know anything about O'Neill other than the Asgard and SGC legends, was standing at attention off to the side of the tableau, looking strangely star-struck. The sight irritated Daniel, and he glanced at Sam and Janet, taking comfort in the exasperation written on the doctor's face and the carefully neutral expression on the astrophysicist's.

He looked back over at Jack. O'Neill crossed his arms over his chest, glared at Daniel, and grumbled, "So...to what do I owe this invasion of my space?"

Daniel kept his answer succinct. "Zombies. We have an idea for how to undo the whole mess, and we need your help."

Jack continued glaring at him, but uncrossed his arms and waved a hand around in the air. Daniel took that as an invitation to continue, and looked expectantly at Sam, who cleared her throat and launched into an explanation. "Basically, sir, we've recently learned from the Tok'ra that one of the Goa'uld System Lords, Ba'al, was behind the creation of the MHDs."

Daniel turned his attention back to Jack in time to see the older man's raised eyebrow. He stifled a grin and clarified, "MHDs – Mobile Hostile Deceased." He wasn't surprised by O'Neill's snort of amusement, but ignored it and continued, "The military came up with that. You know how they are about using their own jargon and trying to objectify everything and put it into neat little categories. Most of us ended up just using the word zombies, since that's a term everyone knows and understands, but some people still use the acronym."

He braced himself for a sarcastic comeback, but Jack simply said, "Of course they do."

Daniel glanced at Sam, her hastily averted eyes telling him that she was slightly embarrassed. But her voice was steady as she picked up where she'd left off. "Ba'al engineered a virus, infected a group of his human slaves, then brought them to Earth on a cloaked Tel'tak and unleashed them. From ground zero, they managed to infect enough people to start the worldwide spread of the virus before anyone truly realized what was going on. We've had no luck finding a cure for the virus; it's well beyond our current research capabilities and knowledge base. But once we learned what the precipitating event was, we started going over old data, and pinpointed the general location where the Tel'tak landed, as well as narrowed down the time frame for when it arrived."

During Sam's rendition, Daniel had been watching Jack closely, and he saw that the man's eyes were starting to glaze over. He jumped in quickly. "So now that we know when and where it started, all we have to do is use the Stargate during a solar flare to go back in time and stop it from happening at all."

O'Neill rolled his eyes. "I think you've all been out in the sun too long. You've clearly fried your brains."

Before Daniel could vent his irritation with Jack's belittling response, Teal'c's steady voice entered the conversation. "We are in full control of our mental capacities. We have spoken with the Asgard about this plan and they have agreed to assist us. They have Ancient technology that can predict solar flares, so that we will know when to enter the Stargate in order to travel to the correct point in time."

Daniel jumped when Jack pounded his fist on his knee. "Okay, fine, so you've got some brilliant plan to monkey around with time travel. Cool. Knock yourselves out. But what the hell does that have to do with me?"

Janet spoke for the first time since they'd entered the house, her tone matter-of-fact, though Daniel picked up on the faint hint of annoyance under the surface. "The Asgard specifically asked for you to be involved. Thor wants you to go on this mission with SG-1. He thinks very, very highly of you."

Daniel didn't miss the sudden spark of interest in Jack's eyes. But it also didn't surprise him when the former colonel immediately shook his head. "Nope. Not interested." O'Neill paused there, apparently thinking it over, then shook his head more vehemently. "Oh, I'm so not interested. Not only is it insane to think we'd be able to stop a cargo ship full of zombies by ourselves, it's insane to trust that we'd really end up at the right point in time."

Daniel heard Sam clear her throat. She said, "We'll have time to set up a perimeter to ensure that none of the MHDs can escape to infect the general population, no matter what might happen to us. With all due respect, sir, the Asgard know what they're doing when it comes to using Ancient technology. If they say they can send us back to the right time, then they can do it."

Predictably, Jack didn't give in so easily. "Even so, it's still completely ridiculous. And you're making it sound too damn easy. Back in my day, we had to walk ten miles there and back to kill zombies, and it was in a blizzard."

Cam entered the conversation for the first time, his bemusement evidently outweighing his hero-worship. "Um...Colonel O'Neill, we didn't have zombies back in your day."

Daniel ignored his confused teammate, since he was too busy snorting with laughter. "Yes, Jack, and you were barefoot."

Janet was laughing too. "And armed with only a BB gun. No...wait...a slingshot!"

Glancing over at the two women in the easy chair, Daniel saw that even Sam was grinning like a fiend as she added, "Don't forget that it was uphill both ways."

He looked back over at Jack and saw the dawning of a smile on the older man's face, then shifted his gaze over to Cam, who was rolling his eyes, apparently getting the joke. Daniel sighed softly as some of the tension in his shoulders eased a bit. It was good to know that five years hadn't completely changed Jack O'Neill. It didn't mean Daniel was completely over his anger at their former team leader for being such a stubborn ass, but in the grand scheme of things, the possibility of having Jack's help on this mission outweighed anything else.

Jack was grinning openly now. "Damn. It's been too long since anyone really got my jokes. So...tell me more about what you and my old buddy Thor have been cooking up."

Four hours later, Cam and Jack had been officially introduced, rabbit stew had been made and eaten, plans for the trip back to the SGC had been discussed and argued over, and most of the group had collapsed in exhaustion. They'd be leaving early the next morning and a good night's sleep was in order before trekking across the deceptively dangerous plains, even if the naquadah-powered tank they'd be traveling in was nearly impervious to attack by the small groups of undead that roamed the open spaces of the prairies.

Sam sat at O'Neill's kitchen table, a single candle burning in front of her, once again going over the schematics she'd drawn up. She and Thor had already put together a list of potential Stargate coordinates – planets that at this time of year were on the other side of the sun from Earth. As she knew from SG-1's unintended trip back to 1969, dialing a set of coordinates precisely on the opposite side of the sun at the exact moment of a solar flare would turn the wormhole back on itself towards Earth and create a time distortion.

Her task was to calculate the effect of the sun's gravitational pull and subsequent spacetime warping on the wormhole paths between Earth and each of those planets. Her calculations would go to the Asgard, to be uploaded into the Ancient computer core. When Thor had the time of a solar flare, he'd run a program that would combine her data with Ancient and Asgard data to extrapolate the extent and duration of the time distortions, precise slingshot effects, and other things that he hadn't bothered to explain to her.

What mattered was that Thor could use all of that information to select the correct coordinates for them to dial to travel into the past, as well as tell them exactly when to enter the wormhole to end up at the right point in time. As she knew from personal experience, a matter of a few seconds could make a huge difference between going thirty years or going ninety years.

A computer printout that held the bulk of her work sat off to the side. She scribbled more numbers on a sheet of paper, double-checking one of the formulas, knowing that her calculations had to be exact in order to be of any use to Thor. It was crucial that they end up at the right time in the past to ensure that everything was ready before Ba'al's Tel'tak arrived...had arrived...would arrive...

Both the math and the grammar were giving her a headache.

She felt slender hands on her shoulders and didn't need to turn to know they belonged to her lover. Janet began a gentle massage and Sam relaxed into her touch. Daily life with its ever-present threat of MHDs was stressful enough, even sheltered as they were by spending much of their time at the SGC with its barriers and protections. But finalizing these plans, knowing that once again the fate of the world might just hang in the balance, had been a bigger burden than she'd expected. And it had been topped off by the prospect of having to face her ex-CO and deal once again with all the emotional baggage his abrupt departure had brought up. She'd doubted herself for a long time afterward, especially after he'd turned her and Daniel away at his door.

She felt a kiss on the top of her head. Janet spoke softly. "Relax, hon. Just relax."

Sam took a deep breath and then smiled. She knew that Janet knew exactly where her thoughts had gone. Amazingly, there was one really good thing that had come out of Colonel O'Neill leaving the SGC. His absence was actually what had brought her and Janet together as more than friends. She'd initially just turned to the doctor for support, since Daniel and Teal'c had their own anger and hurt to work through. But over the course of several months, their conversations had gradually grown deeper and more intense, leading to a closeness neither woman had ever expected. Granted, they hadn't become lovers for quite some time after they'd gotten so close, but they never would have gotten to that point at all without the unbreakable friendship born from the ashes of the colonel's burned bridges.

With a start, she realized that she wouldn't change a single thing about what had happened five years ago, when her team fell apart, since it would mean not being with Janet today. Sam felt a weight lift from her shoulders that she hadn't even known she was carrying.

She whispered her realization to her lover and felt Janet's arms encircle her from behind. "Thank you, Sam. I wouldn't change any of it either."

Though Sam had to smile at the irony of the fact that they were, in fact, planning to change a great many things. Just not the one that meant they had to go to Minnesota in the first place.

"Well, now, isn't that special? Looks like nothing's changed since the last time I was here."

O'Neill's tone was acerbic and Janet fought the urge to reach out and smack him. They'd just passed through the exterior fence that guarded the entrance to Cheyenne Mountain. Okay, so compared to the places they'd just traveled through, it did look pretty much the same as it always had, though her experienced eyes could pick out the subtle signs of disrepair in cracked pavement, faded roadway paint, and the not-so-crisp uniforms of the soldiers on guard duty. But still, Jack's attitude grated on her nerves. He'd run away and deserted this place and these people; he'd lost the right to make scathing comments about any of it.

From the corner of her eye, she caught the look Sam was giving her. She took a deep breath, then exhaled slowly, shoving her annoyance away. Her desire to rid the world of zombies and – hopefully – let things go back to how they used to be was far, far stronger than her desire to read O'Neill the riot act for how he'd treated her lover – not to mention the rest of the team and the other members of the SGC.

The tank stuttered to a halt along the side of the road, just past the guard booth inside the gate entrance. Janet unbuckled her safety belt, gathering up her travel pack with practiced ease. The vehicle was too big to maneuver easily inside the mountain entrance, so they'd walk the rest of the way from here. That was fine with her after being cooped up inside the metal shell for the past few days, tense from the arduous journey. Inside the armored tank they'd been safe enough from the wandering undead, but in this strange new world, they'd learned to never, ever let their guards down. Zombies weren't the only problem they could have run across. With society essentially in shambles, armed gangs and renegade militias had sprung up from the cracks, and they usually didn't take kindly to strangers on their turf.

The group filed quickly and quietly out of the vehicle and made their way along the road into the mountain. It was about a third of a mile from the tunnel entrance to the end of the road – a staging area where jeeps and trucks used to off-load personnel and supplies. At the narrowest point of the road, just before that now-useless staging area, they came across the checkpoint to enter the SGC. A ten-foot-high concrete barrier blocked the road from tunnel wall to tunnel wall with four troops standing guard behind it, perched on platforms built for that very purpose, armed with zats and crossbows. Emergency lights mounted to the ceiling and powered by rechargeable batteries gave enough light to see in the dark tunnel. On the outside of the barrier, the side where Janet and the others stood, a guard shack snuggled up against one wall and a metal shed stood next to the other, its door open, a white curtain bunched together at the side of the open door.

Janet nodded when the two guards inside the shack came out and beckoned to her. She waited at the shed entrance while one of the guards switched on the lamps inside, then entered the small space with the other guard behind her, hearing the metallic rasp of the curtain rings as the curtain was drawn across the entrance to give some privacy. Knowing the drill, she stripped down so they could check her thoroughly for bite marks. She heard the murmur of Daniel's voice outside the little shed, and even though she couldn't hear what he was saying, she knew he had to be explaining this new procedure to Jack. She tuned it out, just as she tuned out the hands on her, knowing it was a necessary precaution. They'd prevented three infected crewmen from entering the base by doing this.

The exam didn't take long, and she dressed quickly, then waited while the guards summoned Sam in. Janet helped the anxious blonde undress, then examined her – the guards watching closely and doing their own visual check, but knowing better than to touch Sam. Within minutes, Janet ushered her silent lover out of the shed, rejoining the rest of the group, while Daniel took his turn.

Before long, all of them had been examined. Two of the guards atop the barrier lowered a rope ladder, and without discussion, Teal'c climbed up first, so that he could help the others if needed. Janet didn't hesitate to let him help her over the top of the barrier and on to the steel ladder bolted into the concrete on the other side. Once they'd all made it over the barrier, they walked together in silence into the dark staging area. The giant blast door that led into the SGC proper stood partway open, just wide enough for two people to slip through side-by-side. That way, the door could be shut and sealed quickly if the guards at the gate felt there was an imminent threat to base security.

Janet heard O'Neill whistle as they made their way down the corridor beyond the door, and turned her head to see him looking up at the overhead lights with interest. His voice betrayed his surprise. "Whoa. How'd you guys manage to keep the electricity on? I know there wasn't enough fuel to keep the generators up and running this long, and, well, you guys know as well as I do how thoroughly the zombies have overrun everything."

Yes, they did. The zombies weren't intelligent, by any stretch of the imagination; they were slow, uncoordinated, and bumbling, driven only by their violent hunger and an instinct to seek out human flesh. Yet the undead, who had no sense of pain or fear or self-preservation, could do incredible damage just by sheer mass. If one zombie ran into a wooden fence because it was in his way, it wouldn't budge. But if ten or twenty zombies all ran into it at once, then it would topple. The damage done all over the world to the trappings of civilization happened for two reasons: one, there weren't enough of the living to keep things up and running, and two, there were too many of the dead to keep things from falling down. It was worst in the urban areas, where the bulk of the zombies congregated because that's where their food supply was.

Janet knew they were just lucky that Cheyenne Mountain was so remote – not many of the undead made the trip up the steep, winding road, and those that did were generally alone and thus fairly easily dealt with.

She shook herself out of her musings when she heard Sam's answer. "Well, sir, it pays to have allies across the galaxy. The Tok'ra and Asgard still needed our help out there, so they've given us some naquadah power sources that keep many of our systems up and running, including the Stargate."

Jack's bitter "Well, isn't that just peachy?" didn't really surprise Janet. She knew that having power was a luxury most of the world didn't have any more. Not that it made life at the SGC easy. She opened her mouth to make that very point, but Daniel beat her to it, his voice tight with anger.

"Well, believe it or not, Jack, that power comes at a high price. We've lost a lot of good people while continuing to fight the Goa'uld, and helping our allies. Most of us work sixteen to twenty hours a day, every day, between missions through the Stargate and doing the same tasks of daily survival that the rest of the world does – growing food, collecting water, making clothing, so on and so forth. We may have lights to see by rather than candles, but other than that, our lives are the same as yours."

Daniel paused for a moment, and when he continued, Janet heard the anger give way to resignation. "Actually, I guess our lives aren't really the same. We have to make do with limited supplies and resources just like everybody else does – only we're not just dealing with zombies and the fall of civilization, we're also fighting aliens and trying to keep the planet safe at the same time."

Janet watched O'Neill closely and saw his mouth snap shut on whatever smart-ass comment he'd planned to make. Which was a good thing. She hadn't really thought about it until she heard Daniel state it so baldly, but in some ways, the people at the SGC were worse off than those outside. Those outside were responsible only to themselves and their chosen communities; they didn't have the same weight of the world on their shoulders. Zombie plague or not, the Goa'uld still had an interest in Earth and the Tau'ri, and still posed a threat to the planet.

She stared at Jack as he looked at each member of the group in turn, really looked at them. Up to that point, while he'd come along on their "little adventure," as he'd termed it, he'd still been holding himself apart, playing up the role of put-upon outsider. Now, something in Daniel's words seemed to have struck a chord and reminded him that he used to be a part of this team, this life. It didn't surprise her when both Sam and Daniel blushed and looked away under Jack's sudden, serious scrutiny. She studied him while he studied the members of his former team.

Janet didn't need to look around her to know what was finally registering with him. They'd all lost weight, Sam and Daniel looking almost gaunt, and they all had lined faces and bags under their eyes from nearly non-stop work. All but Teal'c sported new scars, from injuries her limited medical supplies couldn't adequately treat – and while Sam had gotten more proficient with the Goa'uld healing device, it took too much out of the blonde's already-limited energy reserves to use it except in the most dire emergencies.

She saw Jack's eyes linger on twin jagged scars running down Daniel's cheek, then on the mess of stark white lines marring Sam's hands and wrists. Those scars had barely been visible in the dim light of the ex-colonel's house or the dark interior of the tank, but stood out in stark relief under the fluorescent lights inside the SGC.

Her gaze was still focused on Jack, so she saw him swallow hard as his face paled. When he finally spoke, his tone was completely serious for the first time since they'd shown up on his doorstep. "What the hell happened to you guys?"

For a long moment, she waited to see if Daniel – who'd played unofficial spokesperson thus far – would respond, but he remained silent. Not too surprising, since he and Sam had been seriously traumatized by the incident that gave them those particular scars. Janet stepped forward, putting her hand unobtrusively on her lover's back, and spoke softly. "They were taken prisoner by Apophis." She saw a shudder run through O'Neill at the mention of the name. "As you can imagine, he wanted a little revenge for your escape on Netu."

She could have said more – could have told him how close the team had come to dying under the torture, how close the SGC had come to telling the Tok'ra to take a hike once and for all when they refused to risk the identity of an undercover operative to aid in the rescue. But she didn't, feeling Sam's tensed muscles under her fingers. She rubbed her lover's back soothingly, and said simply, "They went through hell, Colonel. But that's a story for another time."

His sharp gaze landed on her and she jerked her chin minutely at Sam and then shook her head. Thankfully, he was as adept as ever at reading her non-verbal cues, and merely cleared his throat instead of asking the questions she could see written in his eyes. Following her lead, he said, "Right. So...I take it we're heading down to see General Hammond."

Cam jumped into the conversation. "Yeah. Things are a lot more informal now since the chain of command outside the mountain is pretty well non-existent. But George still likes to meet with all his teams, make sure the lines of communication are completely open."

Janet almost laughed at O'Neill's raised eyebrow and disbelieving look. Not that she could blame him. For someone so steeped in military life – resigned, retired, or not – using only a superior officer's last name was a breach of protocol, let alone using his or her first name. But she sobered quickly at the reminder of how completely the world had changed. George Hammond was still very much in charge of the SGC, but most of the trappings of rank and privilege had been thrown out the window as soon as it became clear just how thoroughly the SGC was on its own.

Daniel had clearly picked up on Jack's reaction as well; she could hear the trace of humor in his voice. "You'll get used to it quickly enough. Well, maybe. Sam still hasn't quite mastered it."

Janet chuckled at the mock glare her lover shot the archeologist. Not that his statement wasn't true; Sam just hated the reminder that she was still too damn polite for her own good. No matter how endearing and/or amusing the rest of them found it.

Cam led the way and they headed for the stairwell. Before Jack could ask, Daniel was explaining, "While we do have a power source, we've found it's best to ration what we use it for. So we have computers and some lights up and running, but the elevators and non-essential services are shut off. There are entire floors we don't use any more."

The conversation lapsed then, since they were spread out single file on the staircase. Granted, going down was a lot easier than going up, but it still took a while to get down to the lower levels of the mountain. They emerged onto level 28 and headed into the corridor leading towards the gate operations room. Janet and Sam trailed slightly behind the others, and the doctor watched as O'Neill looked around with obvious interest. Either he'd forgotten what the place looked like, or a part of him had missed it. She wasn't sure which one was more likely.

And then, there was no time for further reflection, because they were in the operations room and heading up the small staircase that led to the briefing room. She wasn't too surprised to see George Hammond already sitting there, clearly waiting for them. He didn't bother to stand; Janet knew his back was probably bothering him, since he'd been scheduled to spend the past three days at the Alpha Site fields, planting corn and potatoes alongside Cassandra and his granddaughters. But his face split in a wide grin when he caught sight of Jack, and his tone was warm. "Welcome home, son."

O'Neill's answering grin was more smirk than smile. "It's interesting to be back."

Janet noted the way Sam and Cam both winced at the ex-colonel's expression and statement. Glancing around, she saw that Daniel was merely rolling his eyes and that Teal'c's eyebrow was slightly quirked in his patented I-still-do-not-understand-why-the-Tau'ri-play-such-ridiculous-verbal-games expression. Reassured that she had, indeed, read Jack's reaction correctly, she snorted and moved to sit down next to Hammond. Apparently getting the joke, Sam simply shook her head; Janet wasn't surprised when the blonde came to sit next to her, folding her hands primly and setting them on the tabletop. The doctor reached out and put a hand on top of her lover's, caressing reassuringly.

She watched as O'Neill sat down on George's other side, with Daniel and Teal'c quickly taking seats on that same side of the table, leaving Mitchell standing alone, looking troubled and confused. That only made sense, she supposed, since Cameron still didn't really know the former colonel and had no frame of reference to understand the undertones.

When Cam spoke, his words only confirmed her assessment. He walked over to stand behind Hammond, stared down at O'Neill, and said, "Look, I don't want to be the bad guy or anything, but if you don't want to be here, then why the fuck did you agree to come? We've been busting our asses to find a solution to this zombie plague, and now we think we've got a good shot at stopping the whole thing from happening. We can do it just fine without the help of a selfish, bitter, entitled jerk."

Janet tensed at the anger in Cam's words and the stormy expression that crept over Jack's face. She heard Sam's sharp gasp and Daniel's muttered "Oh, boy."

Thankfully, it was Teal'c who broke the tension, turning a stern eye towards his teammate. "Cameron Mitchell, you should not make judgments about those whom you do not know. O'Neill's sense of humor is quite different than what you are accustomed to hearing." Then his gaze swung over to his former team leader, his dark face implacable. "O'Neill, while I understand that you are, indeed, being humorous here, in general you have been acting like a petulant child. The choice to leave was yours, as was the choice to return."

For a long moment, there was silence as Teal'c and Jack stared each other down. When O'Neill sighed and looked away, Janet let out a breath she hadn't been aware of holding. The ex-colonel's words were soft, but sincere. "You're right, Teal'c. I did choose to come back and help out. So let's get down to business."

It wasn't exactly an apology, but it was as close as they were likely to get. Janet watched the way Cam looked over at Teal'c and saw how he waited for the Jaffa's slight nod before he made his way over to sit down next to Sam. Not for the first time, it amused her that even though Mitchell had officially been appointed the leader of SG-1 after O'Neill resigned, in many ways it was Teal'c who led the group, through his quiet observations and calm presence.

Hammond cleared his throat and all eyes swung to him. "Since we're ready to proceed, let me signal Thor so that he can join us." The general reached out and pressed a button on a contraption the Asgard leader had left with the SGC, so that they could make contact in case of an emergency that threatened the safety of Cheyenne Mountain or the Stargate. Or, as in this case, when they had other pressing reasons to speak with the Asgard Supreme Commander.

Even after all this time, the Asgard beaming technology still managed to catch Janet off-guard. She blinked in surprise as Thor – or rather his holographic image – appeared at the other end of the table from General Hammond. The little grey alien stared at her for a moment, and then his gaze swept around the table to take them all in, before going back to linger on one person in particular. Thor's voice was warmer than usual as he said, "O'Neill, I am pleased to see you again. I have missed your presence."

If it was possible for the hard-boiled ex-colonel to squirm, he was doing it now, Janet noted, amused by the sight. O'Neill's words were hurried. "Um, yeah, good to see you, too, Thor. So...I hear you're going to help us out with this whole zombie situation."

If the alien was perturbed by the abruptness of the greeting, his response didn't show it. "Now that Samantha and Daniel have found a solution that we are able to assist with, yes. We regret that our war with the Replicators has prevented us from being of more assistance, since we are indebted to all of you for your help over the years."

Janet still had her hand on top of Sam's and could feel her partner's start of surprise at the words. Thor was rarely effusive when it came to thanking them for their help; normally, he simply snatched them up without warning and returned them as abruptly as he'd beamed them out.

But there was no time to reflect on that, since Thor continued, "Based on solar activity, it appears a series of suitable flares will begin in roughly fourteen Earth hours, though our technology can only predict the exact time of each flare about an hour before it happens. We will dial the Stargate from our ship to ensure that the opening of the wormhole is synchronized with the beginning of the flare. We will then tell you exactly when to step through the Stargate to ensure you arrive at the correct point in the past. I assume Samantha has done the calculations for the various coordinates, as we discussed earlier, and has them ready for us to upload."

And that was a lot sooner than Janet had expected. She looked around the table, seeing the mix of anticipation and uncertainty on her friends' faces. Sam nodded at Thor in response to his question, O'Neill scowled at no one in particular, and Hammond took a deep breath. The general spoke up. "Thank you, Thor. That will give the team time to get their supplies together and get a little bit of rest before they leave."

O'Neill cleared his throat and Janet swung her gaze over to him. He said, "Okay, so I know I'm late to this party. But if you don't know exactly when the Goa'uld's cargo ship arrived, then how do you know we'll get there in time? And what, exactly, is the plan?"

This time, it wasn't Thor who responded, but Sam. "To answer the second question first, sir, the plan is pretty simple. Once we arrive, we'll set up a force field perimeter to make sure the MHDs can't get past us. Then, we'll find a secluded location and set up camp while we wait for the Tel'tak to arrive. When Ba'al unleashes his infected human slaves, we'll do whatever is necessary to destroy them. If we're lucky, we might even be able to blow up the Tel'tak somehow and eliminate the general threat posed by Ba'al. We're out of C4 and grenades, but I might be able to rig up some kind of explosive device out of the supplies we bring with us."

It didn't surprise Janet when Sam paused there; she knew it meant her lover was gauging whether or not she still had the attention of her audience. After a moment, the astrophysicist continued, "To answer your first question, by looking at old satellite data and thermal maps, we were able to spot an atmospheric disturbance that could only be caused by something like a Tel'tak. Unfortunately, there were not precise time stamps on the data we had; we pieced together a basic time frame by cross-comparing the data to other known events, including the extrapolated beginning of the MHD viral plague, but couldn't narrow it down to anything more precise than a five-day window. We'll arrive several days prior to the beginning of that window in order to ensure we can complete our preparations before Ba'al arrives."

Janet was watching Jack, amused to see that the years of his absence hadn't improved his patience with long or scientific explanations. He shook his head and muttered, "Okay, if you say you've got it figured out, that's all I needed to know. So we...what?...go back, take out the original zombies, and destroy this bowling ball guy if we can. Fine, sure, piece of cake. Then what?"

Staring at him for a long moment, Janet realized that they'd never really talked too much about that part of the plan. The few conversations the team had had about that piece of it ran mostly along the lines of: "We need to make a pact to ensure that none of us ends up turning into zombies." She realized, to her horror, that she – and presumably the others – had assumed that none of them would survive the mission. They'd run out of conventional ammo a couple of years ago, and they'd discovered the hard way that zats had no effect on the creatures, so the fighting was likely to be up-close-and-personal. She'd figured that everyone except Teal'c would end up getting bitten when they got close enough to the undead to destroy them, and that the Jaffa would then have to eliminate his teammates before they became zombies themselves.

She shook herself out of that wholly depressing train of thought, though judging by the sober looks on the faces of her friends, they all were thinking the same thing. Teal'c said, very softly, "I do not believe any of us thought we would be returning. I believe, at best, we thought if we survived, we would be stuck in a past in which we had no place."

Janet turned to look at Jack again, who was staring at them as though they'd all lost their marbles. He blurted out, "Well, that plan totally sucks. I've done the whole suicide mission thing and it's way overrated. How about we figure out how to kill off the zombies without getting eaten in the process?"

Daniel's voice was exasperated. "We've talked about that, Jack. I assume you know as well as I do that in order to stop these zombies permanently, you have to completely destroy them. You can't simply shoot them, because you can't kill what's already dead. And for some reason that we don't understand, zats don't have any effect on them. Even a third zat blast won't disintegrate them. It should, but it doesn't, and all we can guess is that Ba'al built that kind of safeguard into the virus for some reason."

When he paused, shaking his head, Janet picked up the thought, saying, "We don't know exactly how it works, but that little virus cooked up by Ba'al is sheer genius. Sheer evil, mind you, but still genius."

She saw Jack opening his mouth, presumably to object to the characterization, and was glad when Daniel spoke up quickly, getting back to his original point. "We all know that even taking a P90 and blowing their damn heads off won't stop the bodies from moving, though at least they can't bite anyone to infect them." He paused again, before finishing with, "Still, that's a moot point because we don't have any more bullets for our guns."

Jumping in, Cam volunteered, "Teal'c's staff weapon works great for taking their heads off, but since zats don't work, the best the rest of us can hope for is to use swords or knives to damage them enough that they're stopped in their tracks. Then we can throw them all in a big pile, make a bonfire out of them, and completely destroy the bodies. But we'll have to get pretty damn close to do that – we'll be well within biting range."

Jack was shaking his head in open disbelief and Janet found herself wanting to snap at him for dismissing their plan so casually. After all, she'd been there for the hours of agonizing discussion they'd had over it; it wasn't something they'd just thrown together on a whim. Trying to keep her temper in check, her gaze went to her partner's face; Sam always was able to calm the worst of her demons. The blonde met her gaze and Janet was momentarily taken aback at the dullness in blue eyes that hinted at soul-deep weariness and defeat – and she was suddenly aware that beneath her own anger, she felt the same way.

Abruptly she realized that maybe that was really why Thor wanted O'Neill to be involved – the ex-colonel brought a fresh perspective to a tired conversation. The rest of them were exhausted and operating in self-sacrifice mode – they'd spent too long by themselves on the front lines, trying to save everyone else.

She wasn't aware that she'd muttered that last bit out loud until she heard O'Neill cough. She looked over to see him staring at her with sudden sympathy. His voice was kinder than she'd expected. "I do get it, you know. It wasn't that long ago that I was out there, willing to die to keep the planet safe. But I'm not in the mood to die today, so let's figure out a new plan. One thing: if the zats don't work on them, then it's probably safe to assume that this Ba'al character made it so that a force field won't have any effect on them either."

Daniel sighed. "It's too bad that there are only a handful of Free Jaffa. If they had any staff weapons to spare, that would help a lot."

Cam sighed. "I know, right? Even if we had something like spears, which are designed for throwing, I don't think that any of us would be that dead-on with the aim. Hell, most of us still aren't very good with the crossbows."

Sam sighed. "How on earth are we going to ensure that the MHDs don't slip past us if we can't use a force field?"

Jack threw his hands up in the air. "You guys are starting to depress me. C'mon!"

Janet sympathized with his obvious frustration, but at the same time, she was annoyed with the man. They'd had a plan set up, even if it wasn't the best plan in the world, and he'd trashed it without offering any alternative idea. She was about to give in to her temper and tell him that, when she heard Teal'c clear his throat.

"We can do nothing to change the weapons we have available. Swords and knives are what we have and what most of us are proficient with; we will have to find a way to make those work. Perhaps we should change the terrain on which we fight."

Janet narrowed her eyes, trying to figure out what he was talking about, and glanced around the table to see that everyone else, except Sam, was staring at the Jaffa, clearly as confused as she was. Sam had her head quirked to the side, lost in thought. Teal'c raised an eyebrow and offered, "The area of northern California in which the Tel'tak will land is heavily wooded. We could climb into the trees and attack the zombies from that angle. There will still be risk involved, but as the beings lack the coordination to climb, we would be able to retreat upward in the face of danger, rather than being on equal ground."

Janet was mulling that over, when she heard O'Neill exclaim, "See, now that's what I'm talking about. We need ideas like that!"

Cam's response to his teammate's suggestion was sarcastic. "How the hell are we supposed to climb up to get out of reach if we're hanging down low enough to attack the zombies?"

Janet had to concede his point, only Daniel popped up with, "Well, maybe one person could be hooked up with ropes, hanging down to fight, and another person could be holding the ropes in order to pull him – or her – up out of danger."

Hammond coughed and Janet's attention swung back around to him. His voice was stern, but not unsympathetic. "Until you actually see the ground you'll be fighting on, you can't really come up with a definitive plan for how to fight the MHDs. Given that you need to be ready to ship out in less than fourteen hours, you also don't have a lot of time to sit around arguing about the details. I suspect you'll have to figure this out once you're in place and waiting for Ba'al's cargo ship to arrive."

Daniel spoke up. "He's right, you know. We'd better just take anything and everything we think might be useful, and then see what the terrain looks like when we get there. Though we'd probably better figure out what we're going to use as a perimeter if the force field won't stop them."

Unexpectedly, Sam chimed in. "I think I have an idea for that. The MHDs lack coordination and the mental capacity to process information or make plans. So if, for example, they fall into a deep hole, they can't figure out a way to get out. What if we dig a circular trench – like a moat? That could be our perimeter, and we could hide its presence from Ba'al's sensors by using the force field."

Janet swung her gaze over to Jack, who looked suitably impressed. "Good thinking, Carter. Of course--"

"I know, sir. We'll have to arrive earlier in order to have time to dig the trench, and I'll confer with Thor about the specifics of that..."

Janet almost laughed when Sam sputtered to a stop, the blonde's face red with embarrassment about interrupting her former superior officer. O'Neill, for his part, just raised an eyebrow and said, "I see some things never change."

He paused there, clearly as amused by Sam's embarrassment as Janet was, and then continued, "Okay, so we'll get there a little earlier and make up the plan as we go. Now there's just the matter of what happens after we win this little fight. I assume that even though none of you thought about this, the Asgard wouldn't send us into the past unless they knew how to bring us back to the future...I mean, our time...I mean, right now. But once we've changed the past, then how will we know what's happened over the last few years, since we won't have lived through it?"

His face scrunched up as if he had a headache, and Janet completely sympathized. She'd just started thinking along the same lines. They couldn't stay in the past, since they already existed there. Well, actually, they could; there was nothing like entropic cascade failure to contend with since it was their own reality. They'd just have to stay away from everything and everyone they'd ever known to avoid contaminating the past. But coming back to the present would mean a five-year gap in their memories – and how the hell could they explain that away? One person could claim amnesia without causing much suspicion; six of them claiming it would raise enough red flags to cover the distance between the SGC and the Pentagon.

No wonder time travel was nothing to play around with. The chances of screwing everything up beyond repair were enormous.

She glanced at her lover, half-expecting her to jump in with a long, complicated explanation, but Sam just sat there, shaking her head. It wasn't an "I don't know" gesture; Janet could read her expression well enough to know that the astrophysicist knew the answer – or at least one possible answer. When the blonde finally spoke, her words were succinct. "Because we're deliberately changing the past, instead of trying not to, it will create a paradox – and it's impossible to predict what the ultimate effect will be."

Janet stared at Sam in confusion, not having to look to know that O'Neill, Cam, and Teal'c were doing the same. She started in surprise when Thor spoke abruptly, saying, "I will take care of it." She'd completely forgotten the little alien was in the room.

Still looking at Sam, Janet saw the way the blonde cocked her head to the side, studying the Asgard, her gaze intensely curious. Thor said, "I will not tell you the specifics, Samantha, for that is knowledge the Tau'ri are not yet advanced enough to have. Even the Ancients, who knew the secrets to traveling in time, did so only on rare occasions and did not share that information freely or lightly, as it is a great responsibility to bear."

Janet saw the slow nod Sam gave in response; she had no doubt the astrophysicist understood that better than anyone else in the room.

Thor inclined his head slightly, in what Janet had come to recognize as a show of respect, and continued, "I can ensure that when you re-enter the timeline, you will carry the memories of your lives as they have unfolded in that timeline. I have a device that will open the iris and beam you directly to the forest when you step through the Stargate into the past. You will use that same device to signal my past self if you successfully complete your mission. There will be an encoded message on the device that will let my past self know what has happened, and tell him what he needs to do in order to avoid a paradox when he sends you back to the right point in time."

Thor stopped there, and Janet watched her lover, seeing that Sam was thinking hard, trying to put all the mental pieces together. The Asgard spoke again, his voice taking on a strangely hypnotic quality. "I appreciate your desire to understand, Samantha, and there may come a time when I can explain the details to you. For now, I simply ask that you – that all of you – trust me."

Janet glanced around at her friends, not surprised that Daniel, Teal'c, Cam, and Sam were doing the same. They were non-verbally checking in with one another to see if they were all still on board with going ahead without knowing the particulars. She noticed that Hammond missed the by-play entirely, his eyes focused instead on O'Neill. For his part, Jack had a big grin on his face and eyes only for the little grey alien. The ex-colonel's voice was more cheerful than she would have expected under the circumstances. "Of course, we trust you, Thor, old buddy. That's all I needed to hear. Let's get this show on the road!"

She saw the lingering questions in Sam's eyes, the uncertainty on Daniel's face, and the slight twitch of a muscle in Teal'c's jaw. Cameron alone seemed completely at ease with the situation, his gaze shifting over to O'Neill, clearly reassured by the former colonel's enthusiasm. The other three members of SG-1 turned to Janet for her opinion, and she shrugged in response. Her words were soft. "Whatever he has planned has to be better than dying or being stuck in the past."

Sam took a deep breath, Teal'c gave a nod, and Daniel straightened his shoulders, rubbing his hands together as he said, "Right. Let's do this."


Act II – Past

"Trees. Why are there always trees?"

Sam fought the urge to roll her eyes at the colonel's question. Beside her, Daniel had no such compunctions. He said, "Why do you always ask that every time we go through the Stargate? It's not like we went to an alien planet or anything – the wormhole sent us back to the SGC and Thor's device beamed us straight here. You already knew what to expect."

"Did not."

"Did so."



Sam was grateful when Teal'c stepped forward and said decisively, "Enough. Though I am pleased to see that your camaraderie remains intact after all this time."

She was, too, honestly, but at the same time, she was tense enough with the enormity of what they were undertaking to not want the distraction. She'd feel differently, she knew, once they'd gotten things set up for Ba'al's arrival and she could stop worrying that their cordon wouldn't be in place in time.

She felt Janet's hand on her back, rubbing gently, and sighed softly, grateful that her lover was here with her. She knew Colonel O'Neill was confused about why a non-team-member had come along on this mission, but he'd accepted Teal'c's terse "Doctor Fraiser's skills may be needed" at apparent face value. None of them were about to explain that those skills weren't really related to medicine, but rather to Janet's ability to calm the nightmares that both Sam and Daniel had suffered since their ordeal at the hands of Apophis. Not that either of them had had nightmares lately, but given the gravity of what they were doing and the pressure they were feeling, it was better to be safe than sorry. They all needed to be at the top of their game. But still, even though he was in the field with them now, it fell under the category of things her former CO no longer had the right to know.

Sam was relieved when the colonel didn't argue the point or continue his supposed banter with Daniel. Instead, he simply smiled winningly at the archeologist and clapped Teal'c on the shoulder. "Right. Zombies to stop and all that. Who wants to drive the backhoe?"

She saw Cam's face scrunch in confusion and heard Daniel's soft snort. Teal'c was the epitome of patience as he replied, "There is no backhoe, O'Neill, a fact of which you are well aware."

Sam wasn't surprised when the colonel's gaze swung accusingly over to her. He responded, "I know that, T, but I'm still saying that the tools we brought with us just aren't going to cut it. Not without us breaking our backs in the process, anyhow. We should have brought a MALP or a FRED – at least we could have used it to pull a plow or power an auger or something."

Once again stifling the urge to roll her eyes, Sam sighed in exasperation. "Sir, you already know we could only bring along whatever supplies we could fit in our packs or carry by hand in order to ensure that we don't leave anything behind. That's why we arrived so much earlier – to give ourselves plenty of time to dig."

Really, had none of them paid attention to her conversation with Thor while they were packing up the supplies? Well, come to think of it, Cam and the colonel probably hadn't. Even though the conversation had been more mundane than scientific, they'd probably both tuned out at the first hint of what they called techno-babble. Still, she thought they might have listened to the part where she and Teal'c had talked about the need to destroy or bury their zats and his staff weapon if it appeared their mission wasn't going to be successful.

Cam shook his head. "Yeah, I still don't get that. We're already going to completely mess up the timeline if this works. Who cares if we leave some stuff behind in the woods?"

Sam focused on Janet's hand caressing her back and took a deep breath to calm her rising annoyance. Still, she couldn't quite keep the edge out of her voice as she said, "There's a huge difference between fixing the effects of outside interference in the timeline – such as Ba'al violating the Protected Planets Treaty and bringing infected slaves to Earth in the first place – and messing up the natural development of the timeline. Bringing along some of our top-secret technology and then leaving it lying around for just anyone to find would definitely have qualified as messing up the natural development of things."

She paused, searching for the right words to get her point across. "The bottom line is that we need to do everything in our power to minimize our impact. You've all heard of the butterfly effect--"

"Uh, uh, uh," Colonel O'Neill broke in, waving his hands around the way he always did when he wanted to get her attention. "You are not explaining that to us again. Look, all I'm saying is that if we can find a nearby logging or construction site and...uh...borrow some equipment and bring it back here, then we'll get the job done a lot faster. It'll give us more time to get rested up and ready for action. And since anything we borrow is already in the past...present...whatever, it can't really change things in the present...future..."

Despite her frustration, Sam nearly laughed when the colonel scrubbed his forehead with a fist and continued, "For cryin' out loud, you all know what I mean. Damn, time travel makes my head hurt!"

Before she could respond, Daniel spoke up hesitantly. "You know, Sam, he's got a point."

Sam looked around, taking in the scenery. They were standing in a good-sized clearing on top of a hill in the forest – the projected landing spot of the Tel'tak. A ring of Douglas Fir and Ponderosa Pine trees surrounded the clearing. While she wanted as wide a perimeter as possible, given that they didn't know for sure that the Tel'tak would touch down in the clearing, the terrain itself might make that impossible. Digging their trench in the open space right along the treeline might have to be good enough, especially if it allowed them to use machines that otherwise wouldn't be able to maneuver through the trees.

She nodded at her friend. "Actually, he does. Though we should probably return any equipment after we're done with it, because otherwise it might have unintended and unwelcome consequences."

She glanced back over at the colonel. His eyes gleamed and he pumped a fist in the air. "Sweet!"

Remaining calm and ready while waiting for the battle to begin was a skill every true warrior learned. But two weeks of waiting was testing even Teal'c's patience. He leaned back against a tree trunk, fighting the urge to sigh as O'Neill and Daniel Jackson once again began arguing over some inane detail.

The trench to contain the zombies was long finished and the force field was working to conceal it. Cameron Mitchell and O'Neill had come across an idled road construction project and helped themselves to both a backhoe and a mini-excavator. They hadn't had to dig at the edge of the clearing after all. Scouting around the forest had revealed breaks in the trees where the machines could maneuver without doing harm – a dammed-off and dried-up branch of a stream, a weed-choked dirt road, and the churned-up remains of a several-year-old clear-cut. Their perimeter was roughly an oval, its distance from the center of the clearing ranging between a third of a mile to just under a mile.

They'd rigged several groups of trees – some near the clearing and some near the edge of the trench – with climbing ropes, which would allow them to attach their harnesses and scale the trunks quickly to escape the zombies. They were all armed and as ready as possible for the arrival of Ba'al's Tel'tak. Their encampment was well-hidden in the underbrush. Even the daily chores of collecting water and looking for food to supplement the rations they'd brought had already been completed for the day. There was absolutely nothing left to do.

It was boring.

He understood that to be the reason his friends were arguing; it gave them some entertainment and relieved the anticipation of what was to come. He also knew it to be a sign of how much they'd missed one another during O'Neill's time away from the SGC. While Cameron Mitchell and Daniel Jackson had grown to be friends, there was not the same type of bond between them. Teal'c had grown to enjoy the company of Cameron Mitchell, but he, too, had missed O'Neill's presence, grieved as he still was by the choices his former teammate had made.

Perhaps if they survived this mission and returned to whatever time the Asgard thought appropriate, he would have the opportunity to either tell O'Neill his thoughts or guide the other man's actions so that he would not leave them again.

If they survived...

Despite O'Neill's optimism, Teal'c was not at all certain how successful they would be. He had no fear that the zombies would be stopped, one way or another. He was less certain that he and all of his companions would survive. Slow and stumbling the creatures might be, but they were strong in the sense that they were impervious to pain and fear, had no sense of caution or self-preservation, and were driven solely by hunger.

Until this outbreak on Earth, Teal'c thought he'd fought every type of opponent there was. He'd never, however, fought an enemy who had no wants, needs, or motivations that could be made sense of or reasoned with. The zombies' hunger might be a need, but unlike any other type of hunger, it could not be assuaged except with human flesh. There was no room for negotiation or for any tactic he'd ever learned, save that of doing whatever was necessary to survive.

He looked at his companions. Daniel Jackson and O'Neill continued their argument. Cameron Mitchell was sharpening his pocketknife and muttering to himself. Major Carter and Doctor Fraiser sat side-by-side, their arms touching, while they both stared off into the distance, watching for any signs of disturbance.

There was a simple innocence in the women's affection that made his heart beat a little faster, even though he'd seen such displays from them a hundred times in the past.

Samantha Carter had survived so much already, could easily have turned bitter or jaded, and yet she still opened her heart to love, still focused on the good and the positive.

Teal'c took a deep breath. While he lived, he would protect that love and their lives at all cost. If he died amidst a sea of zombies, so be it, as long as these two women and his other friends remained safe.

Janet was in the middle of explaining to Cam, yet again, why she'd never liked camping, when Teal'c held up his hand. She instantly fell silent, listening for what had caught his attention. She didn't hear anything, and judging by the blank looks on their faces, neither did Mitchell, O'Neill, or Daniel. Sam didn't appear to be listening for anything in particular; instead, the blonde was intently peering up through the tree canopy, looking for something. The doctor's gaze followed her lover's, but she didn't see anything at all, just as she didn't hear anything at all.

Teal'c's whisper caught her attention and she looked over at the Jaffa. "Ba'al's Tel'tak is arriving."

She still couldn't hear or see anything, but she trusted him. And Sam seemed to be tracking something – if not the naquadah in the cloaked ship itself, then some disturbance in the atmosphere that the rest of them couldn't follow. Instantly, Janet felt a surge of adrenaline. This was it.

She felt a sudden shift in mood in their little circle. Almost as one, they all stood. Cam and O'Neill already had their swords in hand. Teal'c's staff weapon was at the ready. Sam and Daniel were patting themselves down, presumably making sure the rope harnesses that each of them wore were actually still attached. For her part, Janet just stood still, mentally running over their plan – such as it was.

It was pretty basic. Retreat to the trees to stay out of reach of the zombies. Climb down and use the swords if a zombie was near but in a vulnerable position. Let Teal'c blast as many as possible with his staff weapon. Allow the rest to wander around and fall into the trench, to be dealt with at the team's leisure. And finally, set fire to the bodies to destroy them.

It was brilliant in its simplicity, and yet she still felt fear pounding through her veins, knowing that things rarely were quite that easy. Especially not when SG-1 was involved.

O'Neill's whisper pulled her attention fully back to the moment. "How far away is the ship?"

She watched Sam and Teal'c look out through the treeline and then glance back at each other. Sam hesitantly said, "I'm not sure...maybe about a quarter mile..."

Teal'c nodded decisively. "Indeed. The Tel'tak is now hovering over the clearing where Major Carter projected it would land."

How he could tell that, Janet had no idea. The ship was still cloaked, to begin with, and between the underbrush and the tree trunks and branches, there was no straight line of sight. Still, Teal'c didn't say things unless he knew them to be true, and the Jaffa's senses were far sharper than their own.

O'Neill gave a profoundly relieved sigh. "Well, that's one worry off my mind."

Janet sympathized heartily. The perimeter wouldn't have done them any good if the cargo ship had landed outside of it. At least now, they knew that the zombies wouldn't be able to escape.

Even if their plan went horribly awry and none of the team survived, she knew that sooner or later all the zombies would wander far enough to fall into the trench, driven by the need to find food, and they would – eventually – rot completely away. While they still had no idea how, exactly, the virus worked, despite five years of studying it when they could spare the time, the one thing Janet had managed to determine was that the zombies depended on living human flesh in order to sustain their...er...lives. Without it, their bodies would eventually lose all motor control and they'd lie where they fell until their corpses returned to the dust.

Before she got too sidetracked by that train of thought, she heard Cam whisper, "Let's move in. It'd be a good idea to see what we're up against."

Janet felt Daniel tense beside her, and automatically reached out to place a hand on both his back and on Sam's, massaging gently. The habit was so ingrained that she didn't even realize she'd done so until she caught O'Neill's confused – and concerned – look. She didn't bother to explain, just stared him down until he flushed and turned away. Concentrating again on her two dearest friends, she felt them each draw in a deep breath and knew they had nerved themselves up for what was ahead.

She glanced around and saw that Cam had been watching the duo out of the corner of his eye, waiting for this moment. He didn't say anything, simply moved forward, O'Neill right behind him. Teal'c appeared beside Daniel, curving his hand to the archeologist's shoulder, and they both moved to follow the other men. Sam turned back and gave Janet a soft, sad smile and whispered, "Thanks." Then there was no time for more words as they followed the others.

The group flitted quickly from tree to bush to tree, keeping hidden in the foliage. Even knowing it was unlikely that Ba'al would detect their presence, or suspect them of being anything other than random campers if he did, Janet felt the hairs on the back of her neck standing up. She saw Cam hold up his hand and stopped along with the rest of them. She edged her way to the front of the group, standing hidden behind a dense cluster of shoulder-high huckleberry bushes growing at the edge of the treeline, and looked out into the clearing. She still didn't see anything.

Then, abruptly, she saw a human – well, what had once been a human. It was now a ragged, vacant-eyed, rotting creature. It was a zombie.

Her blood ran cold at the sight. Even though she'd gotten used to seeing the undead over the years, inured to the rotten flesh and filthy appearance, this struck fear into her in an all-new way. This was one of the originals; this might well be patient zero. And the Goa'uld who brought this monstrosity to Earth was sitting right there, no doubt laughing at them.

More human shapes appeared, seemingly shuffling into existence out of thin air. Even knowing there was a cloaked ship in front of them, that there was a rational explanation for their sudden appearance, it still looked like magic. Oddly, or so it seemed to Janet, the zombies stayed in one spot, not wandering off, not heading towards their little group, drawn by the smell of flesh and blood.

Behind her, she heard O'Neill mutter, "What the hell?" and knew she wasn't the only one confused by their docile behavior. Automatically, she and the others looked to Sam for an explanation; the blonde simply shook her head in response.

Before long, there were ninety-odd zombies standing around in the middle of a clearing in a forest in northern California.

Janet swore under her breath. There were a lot more of them than she'd expected. A lot more. They must have been packed like sardines into the cargo space of the ship. And then she swore again as a gold-cloaked figure appeared out of thin air. Ba'al. Her lip curled in disgust at the sight of him. In his hand was a long rod with two metal prongs at one end, which looked suspiciously like a cattle prod to her, and he held it up to the back of the neck of one of his slaves.

Watching as he repeated the motion with a second slave, Janet suddenly realized that the rod must somehow "activate" the zombies. They were clearly already infected with the virus, but it must be a two-stage process, at least for the original creatures, where simply dying and being reanimated didn't lead to the violent hunger. Once the virus became fully active in these zombies, then anyone bitten would be infected by the current version of the virus, and...

Taking a deep breath, she shook off the thought. Interesting as it was, it was also irrelevant, since there was nothing she could do about it. She heard Cam's whispered, "So...what...they're like robots? They're zombies, but not quite zombies, and now he's turning them on and setting them loose?"

She nodded, without bothering to turn and look at him, and heard O'Neill's muttered swearing as they watched Ba'al move from slave to slave with the rod.

Then she jumped when a blast of energy went whistling past her ear and nailed Ba'al squarely in the chest. The Goa'uld looked profoundly surprised, and even as he began to crumple in place, another staff weapon blast tore open his throat. Ba'al fell to the ground in a bloody heap, and Janet didn't need to be up-close-and-personal to know that both host and symbiote were dead. She knew exactly where the symbiote was located in a host body, and Teal'c's aim had been dead accurate.

She turned in surprise and saw a grim smile on the Jaffa's face. O'Neill was grinning from ear to ear, and Cam looked suitably impressed. Not surprisingly, Sam and Daniel both looked a little shell-shocked. Teal'c's words were calm and matter-of-fact. "At least now he will no longer prove a threat."

Janet found herself wholeheartedly relieved by that. While they'd worked with Ba'al before during the past few years – both parties subscribing to the motto "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" – he was also the Goa'uld who posed the biggest threat to Earth and the galaxy. That had been their opinion before they discovered he was the one responsible for the zombie plague. Not because he had grandiose plans for galactic domination, like Apophis, or because he delighted in death and destruction, like Anubis, but because he was affable and calculating and took the long view of things.

"What the fuck are they doing?"

O'Neill's question pulled Janet's attention back to the group of zombies and she shook her head in puzzlement. She had no idea what they were doing – or rather not doing. There was fresh meat in front of them, so to speak, and yet they were all just standing around, shuffling aimlessly in little circles. Even though the Goa'uld hadn't managed to activate all the zombies before Teal'c killed him, he'd gotten to at least a quarter of them. And yet even those were still just standing there docilely, paying no attention at all to Ba'al's bloody body. Where was the biting, the chewing, the gnawing?

She cleared her throat and responded, "I have no idea what's going on. I don't understand why the ones he touched with the rod aren't doing anything. The only thing I can guess is that he set it up so that the virus activation is on some kind of delay, giving him plenty of time to get away from here before they turned violent."

Cam spoke up. "So they're not the ravenous zombies we all know and love."

Janet shook her head. She was about to say more, when Sam beat her to it. "Not yet, anyway. Knowing how Ba'al thinks, he's probably built in a secondary trigger as well – so that his plan would still succeed even if something prevented him from using the activation device. I wouldn't be surprised if the virus is coded to become fully active after a set number of hours."

Glancing over at O'Neill, Janet saw him nod as he said, "Right. So we'd better take care of these guys now, while they're still acting like sheep."

It was the most anticlimactic fight Daniel had ever witnessed. He, Sam, and Janet stayed back in the trees, while Jack, Cam, and Teal'c dispatched the zombies. It wasn't for lack of fighting prowess that the trio stayed clear, but rather the reality of the fighting field – the passive undead were still bunched together in one spot, not straying too far from each other, and too many sharp blades swinging in such a tight space could lead to catastrophe.

Jack and Cam used their swords with deadly precision, while Teal'c opted to swing an ax, his staff weapon not a good idea in such close quarters. The doomed slaves didn't even fight back, just milled around aimlessly until their heads were separated from their bodies.

Daniel was feeling a little queasy, and as he glanced at the women beside him, he realized he wasn't the only one. While Janet looked only mildly shocked at the carnage, Sam had averted her eyes and was looking distinctly green.

Even knowing the creatures were already dead before being decapitated, that they couldn't feel any pain, he still felt sorry for them. Had they been attacking, coming after the team intent on dinner, he wouldn't have wasted a single thought on compassion. He knew the zombies had to be destroyed for the good of the human race. And yet, watching as their heads were chopped off, one by one, he couldn't help but feel it was more of a slaughter than a fight.

It was gruesome and grisly and over in less than an hour

Daniel turned his eyes away from the killing field, watching as Janet gently massaged Sam's back. After a few minutes, he noted that the doctor's eyes were still fixed on the scene in the clearing. Following her gaze, he saw that Jack, Cam, and Teal'c had donned medical gloves and were dragging the bodies and heads into one big pile. It struck him as morbidly funny that they were so concerned about sanitation, given that all three were splattered with blood. When the three of them were mostly done with that task, Teal'c walked over to where Ba'al's body lay. Taking a stick, the Jaffa poked around, and Daniel wondered what in the world he was doing. When Teal'c held up a small lump of blue, speared on the end of the stick, he realized his friend had been checking to make sure the Goa'uld's symbiote was truly dead. Without ceremony, Teal'c picked up Ba'al's body and tossed it onto the pile.

Daniel blinked as he realized Jack was motioning for the three of them to come out of the trees. He nudged Janet, who whispered something into Sam's ear, then took a moment to stretch, his limbs stiff from standing in one spot for so long. He walked over to where the other men stood waiting, washing themselves off as best they could with the contents of their canteens. He pointedly looked away from the pile of bodies, instead focusing his gaze on Sam and Janet, who were making their way towards them.

Once the whole group was reunited, Cam said, "So, we need to burn these bodies and then figure out what the hell we're going to do with the cargo ship, since we obviously can't leave it here."

"Indeed." Teal'c's tone was thoughtful. "We also must find a way to ensure that this blaze does not burn out of control."

Daniel wanted to groan in frustration, since he knew as well as the rest of them that they didn't have any fire-fighting supplies. Yet he also knew that even if a bonfire was the only way to be sure the human race was completely safe from these creatures, they still couldn't just leave the forest to burn. But then he saw Sam's eyes light up; it was such a rare sight these days that it made him feel as though anything was possible.

Sam smiled. "We do have the force field generator. Now that we don't need it to hide the perimeter trench, I can configure it to cover this area and keep the fire contained. Once it's out of fuel, it will burn itself out."

Jack said, "Do it," and Daniel smiled. Despite the surreal circumstances, it almost felt like old times.

Some weeks later, Sam stepped out of the Tel'tak and winced at the bright desert sun. She pulled her cap onto her head and took a few more steps out onto the sand, waiting for her teammates to catch up with her.

After much debate, they'd decided to take the Tel'tak to Dakara. The line of reasoning that finally won the debate was that since they had no idea how their trip to the past would change their present or their future, the Tel'tak needed to be left somewhere strategically neutral. If the Jaffa became free and settled on Dakara, which Teal'c said he and Master Bra'tac had always hoped for, then they could use it. If the team retained memories of their trip to the past, then they could find a way to recover the Tel'tak and bring it to Earth. If it fell back into Goa'uld hands, then it wouldn't really matter one way or another in the cosmic scheme of things. Of course, that assumed anyone actually found the cloaked vessel in the first place.

Even knowing they were on the far side of the planet from the Stargate and that there hadn't been any life signs anywhere near their landing spot, Sam's eyes swept the horizon, her zat in hand, looking for any signs of trouble. From the corner of her eye, she could see Cam, Teal'c, and Daniel doing the same thing. When she was certain they were safe, she turned back towards her companions, frowning slightly to see that Colonel O'Neill was completely nonchalant about their arrival on the planet. His zat was out, but dangling negligently from his fingers, and he wasn't looking around with anything other than mild interest.

A sudden sense of dislocation hit her hard and she actually swayed on her feet, grateful for Teal'c's quick, steadying hand on her elbow. Her former CO had been in Black Ops long before he joined the Stargate program – caution and suspicion were his middle names. Even though he was no longer military, the constant threat from the MHDs should have kept his paranoia in full force. She couldn't imagine how he'd changed so much in five years – how any of them had changed so much in five years. She was a soldier who'd nearly gotten sick at the sight of MHDs being decapitated to save the world.

She felt Janet's hand on her back, felt twin pairs of brown eyes and a set of blue eyes assessing her. She shook her head and managed to smile up at Teal'c, Janet, and Daniel, who'd formed a semi-circle around her, their eyes on her, clearly concerned.

There was so much good that had come out of the MHD timeline, despite the horrors – her relationship with Janet, her deep friendships with these two men she now counted as brothers – and she couldn't bear the thought of losing those things. Yet she knew in that instant that too many things were wrong – that this wasn't how the timeline was supposed to go. The people they'd become weren't the people they were supposed to be. Not all the changes in them were bad, but they'd all lost some indefinable spark, some piece of their soul...and she couldn't put it into words...couldn't explain why she was so certain of that.

Then she laughed, shakily, at the realization that it didn't matter anyhow, because they'd already changed the timeline. It was going to unfold in the only way it could from that point on – based on whatever choices they made, whatever choices other people made. And they couldn't be anything other than the people they already were, already had been.

Softly, so that neither Cam nor Colonel O'Neill could hear, she said, "I'm okay, really. Just thinking too much."

She straightened her shoulders, tucking her zat away and pulling out the device Thor had entrusted to her care. She held it in her left hand, reaching out to hold Janet's hand with her right. This time, she pitched her voice to carry beyond the semi-circle around her. "Let's signal Thor and finish what we started."

Janet, Daniel, and Teal'c nodded, and Sam looked past them to where Cam and the colonel stood. They nodded as well, and she thumbed the switch that would signal the Asgard.

In a flash of light, they were gone.

Thor took the device Samantha offered him and read the holographic message it displayed. He studied the group of Tau'ri in front of him for a moment, then read the message again, slowly and carefully.

He'd been startled to receive a summons from the planet Dakara on a frequency used only by the High Council of the Asgard. It had been even more of a shock than the mysterious message that had come via the Nox mere days before, requesting that he go to Dakara and wait.

Now it all made sense.

Ignoring the impatient Tau'ri staring at him, Thor read the message one more time. He nodded to himself. Erasing their memories was an obvious step. Merging their past and present consciousnesses at the point of return, rather than submerging the present consciousness in the past one, was not the usual way, but it had been done before. Clearly, there was something in each of them that his future self thought important to preserve.

He pressed the controls that would set his ship on a course back to Earth. There was little time to waste. If he wished to return the Tau'ri to their world at the moment specified in the message, and then trigger the Ancient device that would merge their current selves with their selves in the present timeline, he needed to act quickly.

His voice echoed through the control deck of his ship. "It will not be long now. Do not fear. I know what needs to be done."

Before any of them could ask any questions – he could see from their expressions that they all wanted to – he pulled a device out from the console in front of him and turned it on. A beam of light swept over all six of them and they collapsed where they stood.


Act III – Future

Eight months after the point of return...

George Hammond sat at the head of the conference table, staring at the man who'd stormed out of the SGC roughly fifteen months before, swearing never to return. Colonel Jack O'Neill was fidgeting under his scrutiny, but he didn't care. Truth be told, even after all this time, George was still annoyed with the man. His teammates had tried to talk to him in person two or three times since his undercover mission for the Tollan and Asgard, and each time he'd thrown them out of his cabin. The general understood the toll the mission had taken on the colonel, he truly did, but Jack's behavior had been unexpected, not to mention rude.

"So, why am I here, General? The goon squad that showed up on my doorstep wasn't exactly forthcoming with details."

George bit back a laugh. The colonel's distinct lack of patience was still in evidence. But he carefully kept any hint of amusement out of his tone. "You're here because we need your help."

He saw Jack open his mouth, likely to make some smart-ass comment, and held up his hand to forestall it. He continued, "Your former teammates have been captured by Apophis. We spent three weeks looking for them, but the trail was stone cold."

Watching Jack carefully, he saw the way the man went white for a moment at his words, then pulled himself together. Good. George hadn't been entirely certain O'Neill still gave a damn about what happened to his former friends. He explained, "We know Apophis is the one who has them – he made a point of releasing Major Cameron Mitchell, who took your place as the leader of SG-1. Mitchell was captured with the others, but Apophis had no interest in revenge on him, since he wasn't part of your mission to Netu, or any of the other missions where you tangled with Apophis. He left Mitchell unconscious by the Stargate for us to find."

George didn't miss the nearly inaudible sigh that escaped O'Neill's lips as the colonel absorbed the news. Half-expecting some kind of quip, he was caught slightly off-guard by the resignation in Jack's tone. "So what do you want from me? I've been out of the game for a while. If you're expecting me to have some idea where to look for them, you clearly haven't been paying attention to what a big freakin' galaxy it is out there."

Hammond felt a subtle flare of annoyance. "I'm well-aware of that, son. After all, we're the ones who have been out there looking for them." He saw that his rebuke had hit home and softened his tone. "Jack, as disappointed as I was with your decision to leave the SGC, I respect the fact that it was your decision to make. I wouldn't be asking for your help unless I thought it was the only way to bring back SG-1. The Tok'ra contacted us two days ago. They have a plan and it involves you."

O'Neill leaned back in his chair and his tone was sardonic as he said, "Gee, let me guess – they have an operative who's infiltrated Apophis' ranks, and they want that operative to use me as bait."

George smiled. Obviously the time away hadn't dulled the colonel's tactical abilities. "Got it in one, Jack. Apophis took over Sokar's fleet and commands many Jaffa, but he's paranoid and hiding even from his allies. The operative gained a place in his inner circle after Teal'c defected and yet even he's in the dark. All he knows for sure is that Apophis is on board a Mothership, where he can jump into hyperspace at a moment's notice to avoid detection."

He heard Jack clear his throat, and spoke quickly, not giving the colonel time to start arguing. "It's pretty clear that Apophis is holding SG-1 on the ship, since he can't take his revenge if they're not there with him. The plan is for the operative to contact Apophis and say he captured you while on a scouting mission, then see how things play out after that. He's fairly certain that Apophis will deem the news important enough to come to where he is, giving the rescue party more options for getting in and out of the Mothership. But if Apophis insists on meeting elsewhere, he'll take the rescue party on his Al'kesh and use the transporter rings to beam them to the Mothership, and you'll be fitted with a locator beacon so that they'll be able to find you."

He studied Jack, noting the subtle nod indicating that the colonel approved of that piece of the plan. George continued, "SG-2 and SG-3 are ready to deploy as the rescue team, which also includes Major Mitchell and Dr. Fraiser, whose medical expertise may be sorely needed. The Tok'ra have pledged to send two of their people with us. The only catch is that you'll have to travel by cargo ship from the nearest Tok'ra base camp to the planet where the operative will be pretending to scout around. He specifically chose a planet with no Stargate and no Jaffa presence in order to even the odds a little – as well as to pique Apophis' curiosity about how you got there in the first place. It will take a few weeks to travel to the planet, as well as a few weeks to get back afterward. The only ship the Tok'ra can spare for this mission is one that doesn't have a fully functional hyper-drive."

It didn't surprise the general when O'Neill's eyebrows jumped somewhere into the vicinity of his hairline. What once would have seemed miraculous – being able to get to a planet across the galaxy in anything less than a lifetime – now seemed like forever to those who'd become accustomed to gate travel.

He bit back a grin at that thought and added the final incentive. "Given the help of the undercover operative and the other Tok'ra, as well as the isolation of the planet, we think there's an eighty percent chance of the rescue mission being successful. Apophis is paranoid about his own safety, but he's not expecting anyone to come after his prisoners. You know as well as I do that those kinds of odds are rare. But regardless of the outcome, it's going to be a long mission."

He watched Jack's eyes narrow, and knew that the colonel was mulling it over. He wanted to say more, but knew that pushing too hard was likely to come across as manipulation, which was part of what caused the man to leave the SGC in the first place.

O'Neill leaned forward again in his chair. "Let's be clear on one thing. This doesn't mean I'm agreeing to come back to the SGC. This is just me agreeing to go on this one mission, because it could save..." The general heard Jack's voice falter for a moment, before he hardened his tone and changed tacks. "Apophis is a royal pain in the ass and I only wish he'd died the first time we tried to kill him."

George didn't offer any reassurances, despite realizing that the colonel was more concerned about the fate of his former teammates than he was willing to admit to. The reality was that Apophis' interest in SG-1 was personal. The Goa'uld was out for revenge, and God only knew what types of tortures they were enduring. He could only imagine what kinds of sadistic things Apophis had learned from his time in Sokar's prison – and he knew O'Neill wouldn't appreciate him trying to gloss over that reality.

He kept his tone businesslike. "Of course, Jack. Just the one mission. Let me dial up the Tok'ra and we'll go over the plan."

Four months later...

Janet Fraiser glanced around her living room at the six people sprawled across various pieces of furniture. She didn't even pretend to look at the TV screen since she'd already seen the movie playing more times than she could count.

Cassandra was wedged in between Cam Mitchell and Jack O'Neill on the love seat, the teen's eyes darting back and forth between the two men she considered her uncles, giggling as they sniped at both the movie and each other. Janet chuckled to herself; Cass had seen The Princess Bride more times than she herself had, and she had a hunch the girl had selected the movie simply so she could focus her attention on the people around her.

Janet turned her head slightly. Teal'c sat in the recliner next to the couch, his feet up and his head leaning back against the chair's cushion. His eyes were fixed raptly on the screen. Daniel sat on the other end of the couch from her, closest to where the Jaffa was sitting, and he, too, appeared to be paying careful attention to the movie. She suspected neither man was terribly invested in the plot, but that they were each relishing the opportunity to just sit and relax and bask in the sense of normalcy and safety that came from knowing that they were all here together. They'd been back on Earth for two months now, but between debriefings, psych evaluations, physical therapy, the usual galaxy-threatening disasters, and various other distractions, this was the first time all of them had been away from the base at the same time.

Janet looked down at Sam, who was lying on the couch between her and Daniel, her feet in Daniel's lap and her head pillowed on Janet's thigh The doctor combed her fingers gently through the tousled blonde hair, the tactile sensation strangely comforting. Sam's eyes were shut and Janet couldn't quite tell if she was actually asleep, or if she was finally feeling safe enough to relax.

Not that it really mattered; it was a good sign either way. Janet sighed softly – she knew better than anyone that both Sam and Daniel were massively sleep-deprived, their nights haunted by nightmares out of the hell Apophis had created for them. Even Teal'c had reported that achieving a sufficient amount of kel'no'reem was proving difficult. And for her part, there were nights when her dreams featured the scars on Daniel's face and on Sam's wrists and hands, the scars that neither her medicine nor the later use of the Tok'ra healing device could erase. She supposed she should be glad she'd been able to heal the wounds without permanent nerve damage, but it did nothing to prevent her feelings of guilt and sorrow.

She fought down a shudder at the memory of the rescue mission, at seeing the three teammates looking more dead than alive. Their two Tok'ra allies had sacrificed their own lives to allow the rest of them to get off of the Mothership, and to provide cover for their operative to stay in place within Apophis' ranks. Janet knew that guilt about their deaths was still hanging over Sam and Daniel's heads, even though Garshaw herself had made a special visit to the SGC and reminded them that they had taken equal risks to protect Tok'ra lives on more than one occasion.

Since neither SG-2 nor SG-3 had much experience using Goa'uld or Tok'ra technology, Jack and Cam had been left on their own to figure out how to fly the cargo ship and find their way back to the Tok'ra base camp using what they could decipher of the data banks, while she'd had her hands full taking care of Sam, Daniel, and Teal'c. The trip back to the Tok'ra base camp was little more than a blur in her mind. For the first week, all her energy had gone into keeping the trio alive and healing their injuries as best she could, with the help of the limited supplies she'd been able to bring along. After the initial danger was over, her attention had been on doing what she could to heal their minds.

Admittedly, she hadn't done much for Daniel and Teal'c – they'd bonded deeply while prisoners and started working through some of their demons together, with a little help from Jack, who'd opened up about some of his past experiences, much to her surprise. Given the especial hell Sam had been put through this time, it was good that Janet had been able to devote all her time and energy to her friend.

Janet took a deep breath, fighting off the memories that hovered too close to the surface, and felt a hand caressing her thigh. She looked down as Sam shifted below her, and found herself staring into concerned blue eyes. An irreverent corner of her mind noted that clearly her friend hadn't been asleep after all. Leaving her fingers tangled in blonde hair, she reached down with her other hand, covering Sam's hand where it was still pressed against her thigh.

She kept her voice low, not wanting to disturb anyone else. "I'm okay. It's just..."

She trailed off then, having no clue how to give voice to her thoughts. She saw understanding dawn in her friend's eyes and heard Sam's ghosted whisper. "We've all been through hell and sometimes it just hits you that things could have turned out far, far differently."

Janet breathed, "Yeah." She was more touched than she'd expected by Sam's effortless understanding of her thoughts, and by the blonde's casual acceptance of the fact that the capture of SG-1 had been hard for those left behind as well. It would have been all too easy for the other woman to have gotten locked inside her own pain and misery, the way she had after the death of Jolinar.

Janet was still awed by how much her friend had opened up to her in the aftermath of the rescue. Then again, she and Sam had gotten much closer in the past year or so, ever since Colonel O'Neill stormed out of the SGC, leaving a self-doubting Major Carter in his wake. She loved Sam...

She blew out a shaky breath as looking down into guileless blue eyes gave that simple thought a whole new weight than it had ever carried before. She'd known she loved Sam as a friend for a long time, had even told her that more than once. But something had shifted recently – for her, at least – and it was big and important and it scared the hell out of her. She didn't just love Sam; she was in love with her.

Various moments from the past several weeks ran through her mind in a jumbled blur – simple, ordinary scenes of time spent with Sam as she recovered from her ordeal. But with the new knowledge embedded in her mind, Janet replayed those memories and started to wonder if she was the only one for whom things had shifted.

Was it possible that Sam was in love with her, too? Or was she just reading too much into things?

Sam's hand shifted under hers and long fingers squeezed her hand gently. Her friend looked up at her in concern, and Janet realized some of her inner turmoil must have shown on her face. Taking a steadying breath, suddenly remembering where she was and who all was there, she mouthed, "Later," trusting Sam to understand. The blonde squeezed her hand harder, clearly still worried, but nodded.

Deliberately, Janet shifted her gaze over to the TV screen, willing her heart to stop beating quite so fast.

Janet ran her fingers through her hair, staring at her reflection in the bathroom mirror as if it would help calm her sudden bout of nerves. On the surface, there was nothing to be nervous about. She and Sam had slept in the same bed more times than she could count – whenever the blonde crashed at her house after a late night, they always just headed up to Janet's room. The guest bedroom had never even been discussed. So why, tonight, when Cam and Jack were camped out in the living room and Teal'c and Daniel were taking over the guest room, did it feel so odd to know that Sam Carter was waiting for her in her bedroom, in her bed?

She snorted at herself. Like that was a real question. Now that she realized just how she loved Sam, actions that used to be completely innocent took on a whole new meaning. Only now she also carried the fear that the feelings were one-sided, that Sam still only cared for her as a friend.

And none of that was going to be resolved if she just stood there in her pajamas, staring at herself. Taking a deep breath, Janet turned on her heel. She'd never been one to sit idly by and just wait things out; she wasn't about to start now.

Slipping through the door that connected her bathroom to her bedroom, she stopped short at the sight that greeted her. Sam was sitting on top of the covers, in a T-shirt and boxer shorts, her back against the headboard, her long legs stretched out as she looked down at her lap, studying something intently. In and of itself, there was nothing unusual about that; the blonde always looked like that before bed. What caught Janet off-guard was that instead of being focused on a book or her laptop like usual, the other woman was staring intently at her wrists, rubbing the scars absently.

The sight broke Janet's heart and she was across the room and climbing into bed before she knew it. Sam didn't even seem to register her sudden presence. She reached out, covering her friend's hands with her own, and felt the blonde's start of surprise. Gently, Janet ran her thumbs over the hardened skin of Sam's wrists and hands, tracing the intersecting trails of scars. She could feel the tension in the woman beside her, could tell that it was taking all of Sam's considerable self-control not to pull away and bolt.

She spoke without thinking. "You are a beautiful woman, Sam, and these scars don't change that. What they do is show your strength...show that you are a survivor."

Looking up at the woman next to her, she wasn't surprised to see the sharp shake of a blonde head. Sam disagreed, "But I'm not strong, Janet. I...I broke. I let Apophis get to me."

Janet shook her head. This was a familiar argument – one she hadn't yet won – and she felt the familiar frustration rising. "Sam, you didn't give away any information about Earth, or about the Tok'ra, or about anything of strategic importance. So what, exactly, makes you say you broke?"

Her friend had not yet answered this question, evading the topic with a skill Janet thought politicians would be impressed with, so it caught the doctor off-guard when Sam sighed heavily and muttered, "I let my insecurities get the best of me and he used them against me...he used my feelings for y..."

The blonde broke off with a strangled yelp, as if she hadn't realized she was going to say that, and yanked her hands out of Janet's grasp, turning bodily away.

Janet sat very, very still for a moment, her brain trying to catch up with what the hell had just happened. Tentatively, she reached out and put her hand against Sam's shoulder, massaging gently. Her voice soft, she asked, "Your feelings for me? The same feelings I have for you?"

It was a risk and she knew it, but she'd already resolved to have this conversation and she wasn't going to back away from it. She just hadn't predicted that this was how the topic would come up. For a long moment, she held her breath, waiting. She could feel the tension quivering in the muscles under her hand and wasn't entirely sure what Sam was going to do.

At long last, the blonde took a deep breath and turned around to face Janet, her blue eyes glassy. Sam's voice was shaky. "He used that damned memory recall device on me, and he realized he was on to something when he used you in the hallucination for the first time. I hadn't really realized how deeply I cared about you until he...dug it up. I mean, I knew we'd gotten really close and I knew I loved you...I just didn't realize what it meant until...he conjured up a nightmare and..."

Her words choked off there and Janet shuddered. She had an active enough imagination to get the idea of what kind of scene Apophis might have set to bring Sam's feelings to the fore. Her heart ached for her friend having to go through such a horror, even if it did turn out to be just an illusion.

She wanted to pull Sam into her arms, to hold her and soothe away the terror and the pain, but she didn't move, just kept gently massaging Sam's shoulder. She knew her friend; she could tell that the woman was finally on the verge of opening up and starting to purge some of her demons. That was never an easy step for Sam to take, living in her own head as much as she did, and Janet knew the quickest way to stop it would be to soothe and comfort. Still, knowing that didn't make it any easier to just sit there and do nothing.

Sam turned her gaze away, eyes dropping back down to her lap, and Janet noted the way she was once again absently rubbing her scars. The blonde's voice was soft. "I lost track of how many nightmares he conjured up, how many different ways he found to hurt me. It's like he was playing with me. Not just with the memory device – you know some of the other things that he did...physically...that he had his Jaffa do..."

Even knowing her friend wasn't looking at her, Janet nodded, tears stinging her eyes for a moment. As Sam's doctor, she was all too aware of what had been done to the woman. She heard Sam draw in a deep breath, clearly trying to regain her composure, and then the blonde continued, "I mean, I know it wasn't just me – he hurt Daniel and Teal'c too...badly. But even though he and Daniel have history because of Sha're, and he's still angry with Teal'c for turning on him, they weren't on his radar screen the way they have been in the past."

Janet felt the shudder that shook Sam, before her friend whispered, "I don't know why, but for some reason, I was his focus this time and the torture was...personal..."

Janet swallowed hard at hearing the words stated so baldly, but couldn't disagree. On the trip back to the Tok'ra base camp, she'd quickly figured out that Sam had borne the brunt of the abuse, simply based on the severity of the injuries each of the three had. When Teal'c had recovered enough to debrief her on what he could, she learned that while Daniel had been placed in the sarcophagus once during their ordeal, Sam had been dragged there three times.

Even now, recalling the tremor in his voice when he told her that was enough to send chills down her spine.

Shoving her own reactions away, she continued her gentle massage of Sam's shoulder, feeling the tension in the muscles under her hand. Sam sat nearly as still as a statue, her only movement the obsessive rubbing of her scars and her shaky breathing.

Silence reigned for several minutes. Janet wanted to say something, but could read her friend's reactions well enough to know there was something else Sam still wanted – needed – to say. So she bit her tongue and remained silent, letting the other woman battle herself.

When Sam finally did speak again, it was in a low monotone. "Finally, when he got bored with the memory device, he started taunting me, using what he'd dredged up from my mind. He told me what a coward I was for not telling you how I felt, how stupid I was for not knowing how I felt until he discovered it. Then he told me that I didn't deserve love from someone like you – that he knew from his time in the infirmary that you were a woman of compassion and integrity, and that a hateful, destructive soldier like me wasn't worthy of you."

Janet couldn't help it. Heart in her throat, she murmured, "Oh, Sam."

Sam didn't seem to hear her, clearly lost in her memories. "He tied me down, and then took a knife and deliberately carved up my wrists and hands. He took his time with it, took pleasure from it, and just kept telling me how ugly I'd be with the scars, how no one would be able to bear my touch...how you wouldn't want me to touch you."

The distinct lack of emotion in Sam's tone as she described the horrific scene made it clear to Janet just how traumatic the experience had been for her friend. She kept up her gentle massage of Sam's shoulder, hoping the touch could provide some small sense of comfort in the midst of remembering such cruelty.

Sam's next words were still in that same flat monotone, but were barely a whisper. "He laughed at me and said when he was finally done with me, my hands would be completely destroyed, useless. He told me that I wouldn't be able to use a computer or hold tools or fix things – that I'd be weak and worthless and would no longer have a place at the SGC."

To Janet's surprise, her friend looked up then, meeting her gaze, tears finally spilling out of blue eyes to stream down her face. Sam's voice cracked as she admitted, "He got to me, Janet. I knew he was going to keep hurting me...and that that time he wasn't going to heal the damage he did. I believed what he said about me being worthless when he was done with me...about me not being worth someone like you. That's what I mean when I say I let him...I let him break me."

Janet didn't even try to stop her own tears from falling as she heard the last piece of Sam's heartbreaking confession. She wanted to say something in response to such pain and self-condemnation, but didn't even know where to start. Instead, knowing that her friend had just taken a major step by revealing what she had, she did the only thing that made sense to her in that moment: she leaned over and stretched up and gently kissed Sam's forehead, then her cheeks, then her lips.

She could taste the salt of the blonde's tears, and see the swirl of emotions in glassy blue eyes. She let her hands drop down to find one of Sam's hands, lifting it up and pressing kisses along the mess of scar tissue, then finding the inside of Sam's wrist and gently kissing the faint pulse point there.

She looked up into blue eyes again, seeing the odd mix of fear and hope on her friend's face. Finding her bearings, Janet spoke firmly. "He didn't break you, Sam. He didn't. You were drugged, you were hurt – and even if you were willing to believe the worst about yourself because of his taunting, that's not the same thing as being broken. It didn't lead you to betray Earth or give up on a rescue or turn away from Teal'c and Daniel, did it?"

There was a note of surprise in Sam's voice as she slowly answered, "Well, no."

Sensing she was on the right path, Janet pressed the advantage, her tone brooking no argument. "He didn't create insecurities out of whole cloth, and he didn't make you think something about yourself that hadn't been there subconsciously before, did he?"

She didn't need Sam's ashamed head shake to know the answer. Janet knew full well that while the woman sitting next to her was generally confident in her professional skills, she had battled self-doubt for years on the personal front, which sometimes bled over into the professional realm as well.

Looking down to drop another kiss on Sam's wrist, Janet continued, "All he did was make you feel bad about yourself, which you can already do quite nicely on your own, without his help. You already worry that some day you'll run out of miraculous fixes and let your team and the SGC down. You already feel like you're too flawed to be worthy of love."

She paused there to let those thoughts sink in, not surprised to find that Sam was now staring down at the bed sheets, unable to meet her eyes.

After a minute or so, Janet softened her voice and said, "So he got under your skin. But let me tell you something, Samantha Carter: even if he had destroyed your hands, you'd never be worthless to the SGC. You're a brilliant scientist and Apophis could never take that away from you. And you're still one of the strongest people I know. Your strength comes from the fact that you keep going, even when you are full of doubts and fears about your own worth."

The blush that graced fair features didn't surprise Janet in the least, and actually made her smile. With another kiss to Sam's wrist, she whispered, "You are the most conscientious solider I know – there's nothing hateful about you. And you're still beautiful, and you're no more flawed than anyone else, and you deserve to be loved."

Sam looked up at her then. The expression on the blonde's face was a kind of surprised wonder, even as her blush deepened and the tears started again. Janet pulled her friend into a hug and held her gently while pent-up emotions found their way to the surface. She felt her own emotions sweeping through her and cried as well – for the fear she'd carried while Sam was missing, for the pain Sam had endured, for her hopes for the future.

After a while, Janet heard a hiccup and felt her friend pull away. Wordlessly, the doctor reached over and grabbed a handful of Kleenex from the bedside table – handing some to Sam. She blew her nose and wiped away the the remnants of her tears, knowing the other woman was doing the same thing.

Janet collected their used tissues and tossed them into the garbage can beside the table, then turned back to study her friend. The blonde's cheeks were red and blotchy from crying, and her eyes were bloodshot, but there was a peace on Sam's face that hadn't been there in a long, long time.

Sam spoke, her words soft and hesitant. "You really have feelings for me?"

Janet nodded, unable to speak for a moment. Then she mustered her courage and said, "It wasn't until you were missing that I realized just how deep my feelings went. Up until then, I guess I just thought that it was what best friends felt for each other, since I'd never had such a close friend in my life before. But then we were caught up in the whirlwind of the rescue, and nursing the three of you back to health, and I just didn't have time and space to really acknowledge – even to myself – that something had changed, that I loved you as more than a friend."

Sam sniffled, but Janet could tell it was a reaction to the crying spell, not a fresh bout of tears. She felt a little twinge of fear when the blonde eyed her carefully, as if weighing whether or not she should say whatever was on her mind. Then Sam took a steadying breath and said, "I need you to believe that my feelings are real...that they aren't just something conjured up by the memory device. I've been drawn to you since I first met you; I just wasn't able to admit it to myself."

Janet opened her mouth, to say that she did believe that, but was silenced by a slender finger on her lips. The finger dropped away and Sam continued quietly, "I've known since high school that I was bisexual and that I leaned towards women more strongly than towards men. But I stuffed that knowledge away – hid that part of myself completely. I'd grown up in an old-school military family, I knew how my father felt about that kind of...immoral behavior."

Sam made a wry face, then sobered again. "I'd already lost one parent and I couldn't bear to lose the other. I was already enough of an oddity because I liked science and math; I didn't want to stand out any more than I already did. I basically buried that side of myself, gave all my attention and passion to work, and even when I was dating Jonas, it was more because it was expected than because I loved him."

Sam paused there, pain written in blue eyes. Janet again wanted to say something, but knew her friend wasn't finished yet. She waited patiently and soon enough Sam picked up where she'd left off.

"I guess what I'm trying to say is that even though it took the memory device for me to recognize the things that I'd hidden away, they were there all along. Like you said, Apophis didn't create any of these things out of whole cloth. The device can warp memories to some extent, though the warped memories never feel quite real. But it can't invent them, any more than it can invent feelings. If my feelings for you weren't there already, he couldn't have found them."

Janet reached up to wipe a stray tear from Sam's face as the blonde took a deep breath and finished, "I'm done hiding how I feel and pretending to be something I'm not. I almost didn't make it back this time. It brought home the point that life is too short to miss out on any chance of love and happiness."

Janet was touched by that declaration and smiled at Sam. She said, "I do believe you. I hope you know that. I...I know what it's like to be in denial." Not surprisingly, she heard a tremor in her own voice with those last words, given that she'd abruptly switched the focus from her friend to herself. She felt Sam reach out to hold her hand, fingers caressing gently, and the touch soothed her more than she'd expected.

She took a deep breath and continued, "You aren't the only one who hid that part of herself and for similar reasons. My parents are more liberal than your dad, but I grew up deep in the heart of traditional values country. Believe me, I know what it's like. The only difference for me was that I've always been more attracted to men, so it wasn't too hard to just focus all my attentions on them and forget about women as anything more than friends."

Janet paused there, thinking over the last few months – the fear that she'd never see the other woman again, the shock of seeing what had been done to her dearest friend, the soul-deep relief that came when she finally knew Sam was going to live and be okay. Her next words were quiet. "I can't imagine my life without you, Sam. I feel like we've gotten a second chance, and I don't want to waste it."

She felt like she should say more, even though nothing specific came to mind, but was interrupted by a yawn from Sam. Her doctor's instincts took over. "I know this is a big thing and we probably need to talk more about it. But right now, we need sleep."

Sam yawned again, blushing as she did so. "I'm sorry."

Janet waved off the apology. "Don't even worry about it." Sam had already been plenty tired before they started this conversation, so it was no surprise that the emotional storm had left her completely exhausted.

Sam squeezed her hand, then let go. The blonde cocked her head to the side and said thoughtfully, "You're right. We do need to talk more, especially because this does have implications for our careers."

Janet wasn't too surprised when the other woman paused there, as if mentally running through various scenarios. She shook her head, but before she could start mock-scolding her friend, Sam chuckled, saying, "But I clearly don't have the energy to have that conversation tonight. It's enough for me, right now, to know that we both feel the same way."

Janet smiled at Sam, amused that even exhaustion couldn't stop her friend's brain from trying to analyze things. She agreed, "Yeah. We don't have to get it all figured out tonight. And really, it's probably not nearly as complicated as it might seem – the career stuff aside, that is. It's just a matter of figuring out how to move from being best friends to being, well, more than best friends. We've already seen each other at our worst and stayed close, and we already know we can talk to each other about anything."

She paused, then admitted, "In a weird way that I can't put my finger on, it feels like we've already laid the groundwork for this relationship, y'know?"

She was glad when Sam nodded and said, "I know exactly what you mean, even if I can't explain it. There's a definite sense of déjà vu here."

That's one word for it, Janet mused. Caught up in trying to identify what felt so achingly familiar, it took her a moment to realize that Sam had glanced away, her expression anxious. She asked gently, "Sam?"

The blonde cleared her throat and looked back at Janet, her words tentative and soft. "I just might need some time to adapt to the change in our relationship. I want it...don't get me wrong...but..."

Janet wasn't surprised when the other woman stopped there. Given what Sam had just told her about Apophis and his tortures, she knew her friend was likely to be skittish for a while as she worked through her demons. Resting her hand just above Sam's knee, she massaged lightly, and said, "I understand, sweetie, I really do. I'm not going anywhere. We have all the time in the world."

She felt Sam's hands come up to gently cup her face, and was drawn close for a soft, sweet kiss. Sam whispered, "Thank you for being so patient with me. I love you, Janet Fraiser."

Janet reached up to cover one of Sam's hands with her own, caressing gently, as she kissed Sam tenderly. "And I love you, Samantha Carter."

The kiss broke when she yawned, followed moments later by Sam yawning yet again. Janet couldn't help it; she laughed, and was relieved when the blonde followed suit. Shaking her head, she said, "I guess that's our cue that it really is time to get some sleep."

Obediently, Sam pulled back the covers and slipped her long legs underneath, sliding down the length of the bed, then rolling over onto her side with her back towards the doctor. The familiarity of the motion made Janet relax a little after the intensity of the conversation. She turned and stretched until she could reach the lamp on the table beside the bed, then switched off the light. Blinking against the sudden darkness, she slipped under the covers herself and stretched out on her back, expecting sleep to come quickly, as tired as she was. But after several minutes, she found herself feeling fidgety, unable to get comfortable.

Without really thinking about it, she rolled over on to her side and lightly spooned up against Sam's back. Janet felt the woman freeze at the contact and froze in place herself, abruptly reminded that her friend was still easily spooked after the ordeal she'd endured. But then the blonde shifted slightly, snuggling back against her, and she found she could breathe again. Moving slowly, cautiously, Janet draped her arm around the curve of the woman's hip, letting her hand rest on Sam's stomach. She could feel the tension in the body next to her, but Sam didn't pull away.

After a few moments, the blonde's arm moved, coming to rest on top of Janet's arm, her hand warm against the back of Janet's hand. Sam whispered, "Sweet dreams."

"You, too," Janet whispered back, her eyes welling with tears again at the reminder that the other woman's sleep had been anything but peaceful in recent weeks. But Sam was beginning to relax in her arms, the tension leaving her, and the blonde's breathing was already starting to deepen. She could tell her friend was beginning to doze off, even if she wasn't fully asleep just yet.

Sam gave a soft sigh and shifted slightly towards her, snuggling incrementally closer, her fingers caressing Janet's hand where it rested on her stomach. At such an obvious sign that Sam was truly feeling comfortable with the intimacy, Janet finally relaxed fully into the embrace, holding her friend tightly, grateful beyond words for such a gift.

The warmth of Sam's body against hers and the motion of Sam's fingers against the back of her hand was lulling and she felt herself beginning to drift into sleep, a smile on her face. She didn't know what their future held, but she had faith that they'd figure it out and that everything would work out fine.

She had a sense that together they could survive anything – hormonal teenagers, sarcastic colonels, hostile aliens, sadistic Goa'uld...even something as far-fetched as zombies.

The End

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