Bits and Pieces: #11 Homefires by Pink Rabbit Productions

TITLE: Bits and Pieces #11: Home-Fires
AUTHOR:
Pink Rabbit Productions
Feedback:
the lifeblood of authors is always welcome at pinkrabbit@altfic.com
Archive:
The Pink Rabbit Consortium ( www.altfic.com )
Linking:
Singularity-SG-1 -- all others ask
SEASON:
One
SPOILERS:
Singularity, Tin Man (very minor)
DISCLAIMER:
It all belongs to assorted other folks (MGM, Gekko, Double Secret, Showtime, and possibly Santa Claus for all I know), or at least the characters, settings, situations, et al. The actual arrangement of words is mine own, though God knows, if any of those entities were to opt to sue, I'd disavow them all in a New York second. Hmmm, normally, this is where I'd include a warning about female/female romantic type activities, but since there aren't any to be found in this particular story, I guess I'll just babble for the moment.
AUTHOR'S NOTES:
This is part of an oddball little idea for a series of stories -- some short, some a little longer, but none monstrously huge. One of the things that's hard to do in any one story is build a believable relationship over time, to show the beginnings and play with how attraction begins and grows, so I'm giving it a try with a series of stories set over the course of the series, starting from the beginning (if you're just looking for sex, you're gonna have to wait awhile). Some stories will be tied into eps and some won't, but I'm trying to make each of them a standalone piece, rather than chapters. There will, however, be elements that carry through and hopefully, the relationships in each story will build on what's come before. And I figure it also gives me a chance to to incorporate little scenes and shorter ideas that have fluttered through my brain over the years. Past that, my only comment is that hopefully, it won't be awful.
SPECIAL THANKS:
to the most cheerful of caffeine driven minions around for the beta reading efforts.
Additional Author's Note:
Silly me didn't notice that the order for first season eps listed on assorted webpages doesn't quite mesh with what's on the box my DVD set came in, sooooo, though I don't think it ever matters too much, in case anyone cares, I'm using the order on the DVD set. The following link leads to an overview in outline form and contains spoilers for the first two seasons of the TV series, as well as for accompanying stories through most of the first season and will be updated as I'm writing (it also contains links to all the stories in the series currently posted on the site).
http://www.altfic.com/subtextfic/stargate/prp/bap/overviewoutline.htm

| Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 |

Part 2
Darkening Skies

"The sky is darkening like a stain:
Something is going to fall like rain,
And it won't be flowers."
W.H. Auden
--The Witnesses--

The push-pull sound of her own breathing surrounded Sam, echoing oddly inside the protective decontamination suit she wore. She looked around the pathetic sight they found as they reached the very outskirts of the Hankan village. A storm had been through in the weeks since the death of its citizens, tearing up shingles and shutters, leaving what had been a neat little village looking tattered and uncared for. A tiny shiver slid down her spine as a sense of the spirits that had once lived in this place swept through her. For a moment, she could almost believe in ghosts. Given a few years of unchecked growth, the forest would probably overgrow the place and there would be precious little sign anyone had ever lived here. Already, the once-wide paths had become so overgrown that they'd finally decided to leave the bulky MALP behind when it was slowing them too badly. It wasn't like there was anyone around to hotwire the thing and take it for a joyride. But even when there were no visible signs left, she had a feeling there would always be some sense of those who'd died at the Goa'ulds' hands. She glanced back over her shoulder, noting that Janet had paused, head tipped back on her shoulders, one hand up to push the clumsy decontamination helmet back so she could see better. She was staring at their surroundings with a wide-eyed, faintly haunted look. "You never saw it, did you?" Sam asked after a beat, her voice carrying over the microphone hanging in front of her mouth. The guys were a little ahead, hiking more quickly, though they were also feeling a bit spooked judging by the way they kept sweeping the area in search of any signs of life.

Fraiser shook her head within the confines of the decon helmet. "No," she looked back and forth, trying to imagine what the place might have been like when it was still a bustling village. "Since there was nothing we could do, the medical team bypassed the village and went straight to the observatory."

Sam looked around, remembering what it had been like. Technologically, the people had been simple and more than a little superstitious, but they'd also been kind, welcoming, and incredibly willing to help the strangers any way they could. "I'm sorry you didn't see it," she exhaled. "It was a pretty place ... and they were good people."

Janet fought a shiver that had nothing to do with the temperature as a sense of what kind of home Cassandra might have had washed over her. For the first time, she had a real feeling for where Cassie had come from and what she'd lost. "I believe it," she said after a long beat.

"Coming?" O'Neill broke in suddenly, and Sam realized the men had come to a halt and were waiting for them.

"The common house is just a little farther," Sam told Janet as they hurried to catch up with the guys.

To deal with his own nervousness, Daniel went into lecture mode, describing the holy books he'd seen, and recounting the descriptions of the demonic devourers the Sherxan was said to destroy. The description was hauntingly hideous -- and sounded like something straight out of a horror movie or a Dean Koontz novel. He was just launching into a description of their supposed method of feeding when Jack hushed him.

"Y'know, Daniel, much as I love a good ghost story," the colonel growled, his eyes darting nervously around the dark, thickly forested surroundings, "maybe this isn't the best time."

Sam and Janet both flashed their superior grateful looks, while Daniel winced, glancing around as it occurred to him that Jack had a point. "Sorry," he muttered.

Lost in their respective thoughts, the small group was silent as it hiked the final distance until they rounded a corner. The muddied street opened onto a broad, overgrown field that surrounded a two-story, octagonal building constructed of wood and thick adobe brick. The last time Sam had been there, the grass had been neatly trimmed and sweet scented smoke had trailed from the brick chimney in the center of the roof. Now the chimney was cold and quiet, the grass at least 8 inches high and overgrown with some kind of spiny weed.

O'Neill made a small, disgusted sound in the back of his throat. "Damn," he whispered almost inaudibly, more affected by the lingering sense of death than he would have liked.

"The entrance is on the other side," Daniel felt the need to explain as he gestured toward the building, using his fascination with all things anthropological to distance himself from the very real, very human horror of what had happened. "For morning sun exposure ... each of the windows is designed to mark various astronomical events during the year. There's an entry portal and waiting room, but it's a later addition to the building...." He glanced at the others, noting the lack of response and trailed off.

As she stared at the alien building, trying to imagine what Cassandra's life might have been like, it suddenly struck Janet how little the child had talked about her past. She knew something of Hankan culture from the reports, but precious little from the girl herself. The psychiatrist had insisted she'd talk about things when she was ready, but the doctor couldn't help but wonder if maybe she should have pressed a little more firmly. She was still considering the question as they rounded the common house. A low, broad reception room fronted the main building, the rough hewn double doors standing open.

Noting the haphazard position, Janet couldn't help but wonder if dying Hankans had come here to pray and left them like that or if the cleanup crews had done it. The cleanup crews most likely, she reminded herself. Even knowing that a team had gone through things and buried the bodies in a mass grave a short distance from the village, she couldn't contain a tiny thrill of fear as they stepped inside the dark, musky room, half expecting to find someone or something waiting for them.

Flashlight beams danced over the interior of the reception room, touching on the doors that led into the common house proper, then playing over the benches that lined the walls and a staircase that led down through the floor.

"There's a library downstairs." Daniel gestured toward the stairs. "It's pretty small ... just under this section of the building. That's where the village priest showed me their records," he told the others, his voice echoing over the headsets. "There might be more information. I only had time to glance at things." He looked at Sam, knowing she was still hunting her memory for anything that might help them find what they were looking for. "Maybe I should go take a look."

O'Neill nodded his approval. "Good idea." He nodded to Teal'c. "Go with him." He didn't want anyone alone. As far as they knew, Hanka was a dead world, but he didn't want anyone traipsing off on their own, especially the Egyptologist. Daniel was a smart guy, but he often lost track of his surroundings when faced with something that tweaked his interest.

Sam glanced at the men, her brow creased in thought. "Actually, sir, maybe you should help them as well." She saw his raised eyebrow and hastily explained, "There's really not much to go through in the common house and we are in a hurry." She nodded toward Daniel. "Since the Hankan written language is very close to ours, you should be able to help search through the records." Besides, the last thing she needed was Jack's muttered asides distracting her while she was trying to reconstruct things in her head.

His look made it obvious he had a pretty good idea why she was trying to get rid of him. "I dunno, Carter..." he said uneasily. He glanced at the doctor. She was armed, but not exactly his idea of the ideal soldier if things went wrong. Not that she wasn't loyal, brave, stalwart, and all those good things, but she didn't have nearly as much combat experience as the rest of them.

"There's nothing moving here, sir," Sam pointed out logically. "And we can't afford to ignore anything that might offer a solution. Janet and I can handle things upstairs."

Jack's mouth compressed into a thin line. He started to refuse, but Daniel spoke before he had a chance.

"It ... uh ... would help to have some extra hands going through things. There are quite a few books and some of them are huge and hard to handle." And he sensed that Sam wanted to get rid of them. He couldn't even blame her. Jack wasn't exactly conducive to concentration.

The colonel was still uneasy with the decision, but after a moment, he nodded. "Okay, but you keep your eyes open and call us if you see anything out of the ordinary."

"Yes, sir," Sam said quickly, knowing he wasn't thrilled with the idea. "We'll be careful and call you immediately if there's any kind of problem."

"You do that," O'Neill advised firmly. Carter was better than Daniel about not losing track of her surroundings, but she was far from perfect when faced with something sufficiently interesting. He pinned a look on Fraiser, silently reminding her that she was Carter's backup. "Keep an eye out. As far as we know there's no one here, but don't assume anything."

"Yes, sir," the two women chorused.

"And keep your radios set to receive. That way we won't overlap each other, but if anybody has a problem, they can signal the others quickly."

Everyone quickly reset their radios, then the men disappeared down the stairs and Sam turned back to face Janet, gesturing toward the doors. "Let's go."

Stepping through the wide, double doors, the women found the main room of the common house every bit as dark, dusty, and dead as everything else they'd seen, the only sound the creak of the wooden floorboards beneath their boots.

A tiny shiver slid down Sam's spine, the sense of ... something ... she wasn't even sure what rippling through her. The last time she'd been in this room, candlelight had flickered from the wall sconces and a fire had danced in the central fireplace, while women had moved comfortably, their voices cheerful and welcoming. She suddenly wished she'd paid more attention to the faces and voices. They deserved to be remembered, and she found herself slightly ashamed that she wasn't up to the task.

Janet stepped past Sam, then did a slow pivot once she was inside, trailing the beam from her flashlight around the room. The walls were painted in bright, simple murals and benches were scattered everywhere, while a low dais ran along the walls all the way around the room.

Wandering inside, Sam, studied everything, trying to pull up any details possible. She still couldn't remember what a Sherxan was and nothing she saw tweaked any memories. She continued to pace with slow strides, well aware of Janet silently watching her, though the doctor didn't say a word. Understanding the way Sam's mind worked, Fraiser opted to simply wait and let her work at her own pace.

Still moving randomly through the room, Sam paused at one point, noting a slow drip from the ceiling. Probably water pooled on the roof somewhere -- since it didn't look like it had rained in a day or two -- and trailing in through a leak where the shingles had pulled up. She stood staring up at the ceiling, a vague hint of a memory tweaking her. There was something....

Unfortunately, it proved elusive and just as she thought she might bring it to the fore, it slipped away again.

"Sam?" Janet said very softly, sensing that something was going on in the other woman's head.

Carter shook her head and continued to pace, the soft creak of the floorboards oddly comforting. "I thought I had something, but ... no...."

Fraiser sighed very softly, her breath just barely fogging the face plate of her decon helmet. Feeling almost more helpless than she could bear, she could only stay back and pray that Sam could come up with the knowledge they needed.

* * * * * *

"Jesus," Jack grunted under his breath as he helped Daniel lift one of the huge Hankan religious books onto a broad reading table clearly intended for that purpose. The small library probably had a dozen such books, all of them religious volumes, as well as at least another dozen smaller books that seemed to be mostly on more practical matters like planting, and remedies for assorted ailments. There were also several volumes containing the village records going back generations; births, deaths, marriages, property trades, all of it listed right up until a day or two before they'd all died except Cass. It had taken all three of them just to lift the final volume without risking damaging it and Daniel had assigned Teal'c to read through it, confident he wouldn't damage things. Even though there was no one left on Hanka to care, nor any archaeologist likely to ever explore the place, Daniel's native instinct was to protect anything they'd left behind. The religious book landed with a thud, drawing Teal'c's gaze up from the records he was paging through.

"Thanks, Jack," Daniel murmured, already opening the wood and leather book cover, his attention fully engaged within moments.

With an eye roll and a soft sigh, O'Neill stepped over to one of the books already lying on the table and began flipping pages. The written language was close enough to English that, while some details were pretty indecipherable, he could pick out enough to make sense of things. Nonetheless, he found his eyes threatening to glaze over almost immediately as he found himself staring at passage after passage recounting the family line of one of their great heroes in language so flowery and poetic, Jack nearly had to slap himself to stay awake. He abruptly jacknifed when boring recitation turned to utter gore as their ancient hero suddenly descended in a fathomless abyss for a bout of Devourer fighting. "Hey, Daniel--" Jack began, only to be interrupted by Teal'c.

"Captain Carter is named among their records," the Jaffa murmured suddenly, his head canting thoughtfully to one side as he studied the volume in front of him. "She is listed as becoming a member of Priam's Chegal."

Daniel hurried over, peering over Teal'c shoulder and rapidly reading through things.

"Wait a minute," Jack broke in. "This whole book is about some guy named Priam ... fighting Devourers." He met Daniel's gaze as the Egyptologist looked over. "Think maybe it's the same guy?"

"Maybe," Daniel admitted. "Could be the source of one of their clan names ... and maybe more than that." He hurried over to the book Jack was looking at and began flipping through the hand illuminated volume.

"Like?" the colonel prompted curiously.

"Like maybe there are some drawings or some clues ... if the Sherxan was a weapon he supposedly used against those creatures, maybe there are some clues about what one is...."

* * * * * *

Janet sat on one of the benches scattered around the common room, silently watching as Sam paced, apparently going back through events in her head and acting them out, her nearly inaudible comments giving precious few clues about what she was coming up with. Occasionally, the doctor closed her eyes for a moment or two, blinking away the sweat and steam gathering inside the airtight decon suit, and tracking Sam by the soft rattle and creak of the wooden flooring.

Suddenly, the blond froze and did a slow pivot, her head canting to one side as she stared at a fixed point on the opposite end of the room. "There," she said so softly Janet almost didn't hear her through the double barrier of their suits. Sam pointed at the faint indentation in the wall and Janet followed the line of her gaze.

"What?" the doctor asked, not seeing anything.

"There was something there," Carter exhaled, then her gaze trailed along the wall.

Following the direction of her gaze, Janet suddenly realized what she meant. There were identical indentations at regular intervals all the way around the room. "What?"

"I'm not ... I mean, I don't...." Sam shook her head slowly, her face clenching into an expression that bordered on pained as she struggled to bring up a mental image. She could almost see it but.... "Can't quite remember." Snarling a curse under her breath, she did a sharp turn, pacing in a tight circle. "It's there ... it's just...." She didn't finish, just continued pacing. She paused, turning to face an indentation that sat behind what appeared to be a small stage. "They were some kind of carved pieces...." She held up a hand to indicate something six to eight inches across. "...like tablets or medallions ... made of stone ... not metal... and they were...." Sam suddenly trailed to a halt, her gaze dropping to the floor as the creaking seemed to grow louder. She started to take a step, then paused uneasily, suddenly aware of something very disturbing.

Janet thrust to her feet as she felt it too; a faint tremble in the floorboards. The floor had creaked so steadily since they'd entered that they'd both begun to ignore the sound. Only suddenly, it seemed to grow in volume and take on an all new timbre.

And then the creaking turned into an ugly cracking sound.

"CLEAR THE AREA!!" Sam roared and dove for the main entrance.

But it was already too late. The floor directly beneath her gave way as though it had turned to powder, the fibrous wood shattering and crumbling to send her plummeting straight down.

"SAM!!" Janet screamed and made a panicked lunge, but she was too far away, and Carter disappeared out of view before she could even get close. Then she was doing well just to save herself as the floor began cracking and breaking down beneath her feet. Feeling herself starting to fall, Janet scrambled backwards, frantically trying to find some kind of purchase. As her feet hit something solid, she kicked off, hurling herself clear with raw desperation. By the time she had fought her way clear, she was breathing hard and drenched in sweat inside her decon suit.

"Colonel!" the doctor gasped as she tabbed the control for the two-way radio into talk mode. "We've had a collapse ... the floor just went out from under Sam's feet." She'd lost her flashlight in the mad scramble, but she could see enough in the thin streamers of light that slipped in through the cracks in the shutters to be certain that Sam was nowhere in sight. "She went down through the floor, sir--"

"We're on our way," O'Neill responded instantly, and she could hear the muffled sounds of movement.

"Hurry," the doctor gasped, already hunting for the mini-maglite she knew was holstered somewhere on her equipment belt. Her fingers made clumsy by the unaccustomed impediment of thick, plastic gloves, Janet finally found the miniature flashlight, cursing softly until she finally got it turned on. "Captain Carter," she called, hoping the other woman's headset was still working, "please respond. Let me know if you can hear me. " Her flashlight beam was narrow, but surprisingly powerful, and she ran the bright spotlight along the ragged edges of the gaping wound -- between fifteen and twenty feet across -- in the floor. Straightening away from the central, rock fireplace where she'd found cover, she half expected to make her own downward plunge as she felt the floor shudder beneath her feet, but it held firm. "Sam," she whispered as she carefully edged forward, hunting for any sign of her friend, "if you can hear me, I want you to stay perfectly still ... don't move." After testing the next floorboard with a cautious toe, she moved forward another step. "The guys are on their way." And just where the hell were they? It seemed like she'd called for help at least an hour before, even if it had only been a few seconds. "And I'm here. We're coming for you. You're gonna be okay, but you need to stay still in case you're hurt."

As she drew closer, she could see down through the hole in the floor into an abyss lined in crystal sharp cuts of inky black rock that reflected the light in prismatic hues. If Sam's suit had survived a tumble through that with the seals intact, it would be a minor miracle. Of course, depending on how far she'd fallen, it might also be a minor miracle if--

Janet cut that thought off right there. That was a possibility she couldn't face. Fighting a thick rush of terror, she continued to call to her friend. "Sam, just answer me and let me know you're okay," she pleaded with growing desperation.

"Though' I wasn' s'pose ta move," Sam's voice came back breathy and slurred just as Janet was beginning to lose hope.

"Sam," the doctor breathed gratefully. "Are you hurt?"

"Oh yeah," a low groan punctuated the mildly sarcastic reply, "but I don't think it's anything serious." Another soft groan escaped her lips, and Janet could hear the faint rustle of her suit as though she was moving ever so slightly. "The wood jus' powdered under me .... think it kinda cushioned my fall though."

Weak kneed with relief, Janet crept a little closer, paying close attention to the feel of the floor as she shined her light over the glittery black walls. "Can you see my light?"

A soft ruffling sound reached Janet's ears, and then Carter muttered, "Can't really see anythin' righ' now."

"Just sit tight then. Don't even try to move, okay?"

"Don' worry," Sam assured her, her voice ending in a slightly strangled gasp. "'M not goin' anywhere."

"Fraiser!" Jack O'Neill's shout brought the doctor's head around.

"In here, Colonel." Clicking off the two way, she called out loud enough to make herself heard through the barrier of the decon suit, so he'd have a directional sound to track. A brief second later, flashlights appeared in the double doors, then the beams flashed around the room, touching on her, then the gaping hole in the floor.

"You okay?" O'Neill demanded.

Janet clicked the two-way back on. "Yes, sir, but Carter's down."

"Yeah," O'Neill clipped, "we heard." He gestured to the floor. "Is it safe for us to come your way?" She was several feet on the other side of the central fireplace.

The doctor glanced back, nodding inside the heavy decon helmet. "I think so, but the floor seems to be getting less stable as I move toward the far wall."

O'Neill snorted indelicately. "Then don't move that direction," he ordered impatiently. He glanced back at the other two men. "Daniel, Teal'c, head back to the MALP, and get the ropes and climbing gear. I'll go down after her--"

"Actually, sir, I should probably be the one to go," Fraiser interrupted.

"Go," Jack ordered the two men when they still hadn't moved. Once they were moving, he started cautiously forward, and redirected his attention back to the doctor. "Doc, I know you and Carter are friends, but somehow, I don't think this is really up your alley."

"Actually, sir, it's exactly up my alley," Fraiser corrected him as she stared worriedly into the pit, mentally calculating the probability of serious injury and the best options for getting Sam out with the least additional damage, "since I'm the only one who can assess Captain Carter's condition in order to move her most safely." Jack drew breath to argue, only to realize she had a fair point. He paused and Fraiser used the opportunity to continue, her tone calm and logical. "I've also had far more rescue training than you have, sir ... and when it comes to pulling people out, you have a lot more muscle to lend to the task than I do."

He sighed very softly, annoyed by her clear logic, but also well aware that he was out of his depth when it came to deciding whether or not a patient could be moved. On the other hand, he doubted she had the muscle that might be needed to manhandle Carter out of the pit, even on ropes. "In which case, I guess we'll both be going down."

A look of surprise crossed the doctor's face. That would leave only Teal'c and Daniel on the other end of the ropes. Not a comforting thought if there were three people on the ropes. "Sir, I'm not sure--" she started to point that out when Sam broke in, making the final determination with quiet practicality.

"Not that I'm not enjoying listening to the two of you fight over me," she murmured, sounding better, though her speech was still slightly slurred, "but things are pretty unstable down here. I can hear the rocks moving on all sides." She paused momentarily, her rough exhalations a pained sound that made both officers safely on the floor above wince in sympathy. "I think we'd better limit it to just one person -- hell, if I could see anything, I'd say just throw a rope."

"I guess that means I'll be going down." Janet couldn't quite contain a wry smirk for reasons she couldn't entirely explain. She noted Jack's worried expression ... a perfect mirror of her own as it happened. Actually, she could explain them, and considering the situation, it really wasn't the time to let herself go there.

Neither Fraiser nor O'Neill could miss Carter's tiny hiss of surprise. "Actually, I think it might be better if it's Colonel O'Neill," Sam disagreed, not wanting to put her friend in danger, and well aware that the colonel had considerable experience on a climbing rope.

It was O'Neill's turn to smirk.

Right up until Fraiser tabbed off her two-way and signaled for him to do the same. Once he had, she leaned close, making herself heard through the muffling double thickness of their decon suits. "Sir, considering the fall she's had, a spinal injury is a very real possibility ... and you're in no way qualified to assess that kind of damage. Try to move Captain Carter if there is a serious injury, and you could put her in a wheelchair ... or even kill her," she reminded him bluntly. "And that's not even taking the equally real possibility of internal injuries into consideration."

A frown creased his brow, and he looked at the shattered remains of the floor that edged the pit. She was right and they both knew it. A beat passed and then he nodded, flicking his two-way back on. "Actually, Carter, Fraiser's the one who'll be pulling you out," he informed her.

A brief moment passed, then Sam quietly argued, "There's no need, sir. I'm not that badly hurt...." And there was no reason to put Janet in danger.

"Yeah, I know, Carter, but if things are unstable down there, she's a hell of a lot lighter footed than I am ... and besides, gotta have all the muscle we can to pull the two of you out." Which was utter B.S. Teal'c could probably have yanked both women up alone, but it was all he could think of ... other than the truth ... which he didn't really want to go into while Carter was lying -- maybe hurt -- in some kind of pit. She had to be scared enough as it was. No reason to make things worse for her.

Another beat and a soft rustle of movement could be heard in the background on Sam's connection, followed by a few clattering stones. Carter bit back on a curse, and Jack was certain she was just aching to argue with his decision. Sensing she'd lose, she didn't bother. "In which case, Doc, don't get off your harness ... for anything. And, Colonel, keep her rope taut."

"You in immediate danger?" Jack demanded, already trying to find a way to get down to her without the ropes if he had to.

More soft sounds, then Sam answered. "I don't think so. I can't see anything, but the ledge I'm on seems pretty stable ... but I hear and feel stuff moving all around me."

Fraiser and O'Neill shared a worried look.

"All right, Doc," Jack exhaled after a beat, looking up as Daniel and Teal'c entered, ropes and climbing harnesses slung over their shoulders. "It looks like you're going visiting. You've been on a harness before?" he demanded as he retrieved one from Teal'c and began buckling her into it.

"A few times, sir," she responded, helping as best she could, only to have him bat her hands aside when it was obvious he could do it more quickly.

"Jack?" Daniel said by way of question. He'd figured Jack had thoroughly slammed down any thought Fraiser had that she would be the one who went down for Sam.

O'Neill looked over at the younger man. "Fraiser's going after Carter," the colonel said simply.

"Ah," Daniel said a little uncertainly. "What about--" he started to ask, but O'Neill cut him off sharply.

"We'll worry about anything else after we've got Carter out of there."

Both men forgot that Carter could hear the entire conversation. "Sir?" she broke in, "did you find something?"

"Maybe," O'Neill admitted, "but we'll worry about it after you're clear."

"But, sir, as limited for time as we are--"

"Your life is still more important," he cut her off impatiently as he finished latching Janet into the harness, and attaching the harness to the rope. He glanced back over his shoulder. "Teal'c, I want you on the anchor position."

The Jaffa nodded, taking up the opposite end of the rope and wrapping it around his waist as he braced himself in preparation.

Jack made short work of hooking the second harness to the second rope, then clipped it to Fraiser's harness where it was easily accessible. "That's for Carter. Get her into it asap." He held up two ends. "Just get these around her first, and then worry about the rest of it." Once those clips were latched, they could probably pull her up without any of the others if need be.

"Yes, sir," the doctor exhaled, breathing deeply to control any nervousness.

"You sure about this?" O'Neill questioned as he latched a pair of lights to her shoulder and flipped them on, then slipped his flashlight into the holster on her belt to replace the one she'd lost.

Fraiser nodded. She was the only one who could properly assess Sam's condition and decide if she could safely be moved, or if they needed to bring more personnel. She had to be the one who went down for her.

"Janet, you don't have to do it," Sam's voice echoed in her ear. "I'm not hurt ... at least nothing serious...." Her words trailed off into a low groan.

"Right," the doctor sighed. "That was a moan of happiness and joy." Glancing at the colonel, she waited while he checked the positions on both ropes and pulled them taut. Finally, he nodded to clear her, and she started forward. "Can you feel your feet, Sam?" Janet asked when her friend didn't immediately respond to the sarcasm.

"Yeah," Carter responded breathily. "Kinda wish I couldn't actually," she admitted. "My left leg's twisted under me. Can't risk moving to try and straighten it though." Too much chance of sending herself over the edge -- or the edge out from under her.

"But you can feel it?" Janet clarified, pausing as she felt a board shift beneath her feet. She waited a moment or two to be certain it was going to hold, then carefully continued forward.

"Yeah ... definitely feeling it," Sam ground out, not wanting to admit just how glad she was that her friend was the one coming for her. "But I think it's going to sleep."

As she neared the edge of the hole in the floor, Janet could feel the floor shifting and creaking with every step, while her lights touched on the crystalline black walls. She spared a glance back at the men. O'Neill was feeding both ropes, while Daniel stood behind him, a second bulwark if she started to fall, then Teal'c braced and ready to hold them all up if he had to. "Can you see my lights?" the doctor asked.

"Maybe," Carter responded. "I'm not sure. I think there's something on my faceplate ... can't really see much of anything."

With only another foot until she hit the edge of the hole in the floor, Janet dropped to a crouch, gripping the remains of the wood tightly only to have it pulverize in her grip. For a brief second, she thought she was going to do a header as she started to spill forward, then her knuckles hit solid rock flooring under the section she was standing on. Braced again, she steadied herself and regained her balance, then leaned a little farther forward, searching the area she could see under the bright illumination of the lights on her shoulders. Ignoring a faint shudder of horror at the way the black rock seemed to devour the light, she hunted for any clues that would help her save her friend. Most of the floor was over solid rock from what she could see, but Sam had been pacing directly over some kind of open shaft. By the look of it, the fibrous wood, wet from the leaking ceiling, had simply powdered. As she got a better look, it occurred to the doctor that it was a wonder it hadn't given way the moment they'd stepped on it. "I'm ready, sir," she informed O'Neill as she shifted her grip on the rough wood edge, holding onto a part of the floor that still seemed relatively stable, and carefully turned to lower herself into the pit. She felt the ropes pull a little tighter, helping her keep her balance on the unsteady floor as she lowered one foot into the brackish hole, ignoring an instinctive impulse to get the hell out of there. There was no such thing as a bottomless pit, and now wasn't the time to contemplate childhood fears of the dark or Daniel's stories about demons hiding in the shadows. She slid her other foot over, bracing on her hands with the intention of lowering herself slowly.

Fate had other ideas as wood and rock both gave way to send her plummeting straight down. Unable to contain a tiny screech of surprise as she suddenly dropped several feet, Janet's cry turned into a pained grunt when the rope suddenly pulled taut and she hit the wall of the shaft hard, the sharp edged rocks denting her knees and palms.

"Doc!" "Janet!" The simultaneous shouts from O'Neill and Carter echoed in her ears as she gripped an edge of rock tightly to stop herself from spinning.

"I'm okay," Fraiser assured them breathlessly. Well, okay, aside from the pain radiating through one knee and the fact that it was hard to tell which way was up and which was down when all she could see was pitch black rock. She frowned, leaning closer to peer at her gloved hand where it was wrapped tightly around a stone outcrop. No, not black rock, black gunk all over grey and brown rock, she realized as she rubbed her thumb against the rough surface, dislodging some of the thick, black coating to reveal some kind of brownish stone beneath. Her frown deepened as she noted the way the surface coating stuck to the glove as though glued there. She rubbed it between her thumb and forefinger. It was almost impossibly finely ground -- like ash or talcum -- though there were a few bits of sandy grit in the mix, as well as something almost oily that left it halfway between a solid and a paste.

Unfortunately, that was the least of her worries, she reminded herself, and quickly shifted into a more braced position, gripping the rope well above her head to stabilize herself better. "Go ahead and start lowering me, sir," she told O'Neill.

"Tell us if we're going too fast," the colonel said as they began feeding the rope.

Actually, they were moving at a snail's pace, Janet thought as she climbed hand over hand downward, using the rocks to steady herself and rapidly becoming covered in the sludgy, black residue that coated every surface she touched. "Sam," she called as she continued climbing, wishing she could just pull the clumsy helmet off and hear her friend's voice without the barrier of distortion-causing layers of plastic between them, so she could get some feel for direction, "any sign of my lights."

"Maybe," Carter responded. "I'm not sure."

Then any conversation trailed off as Janet was forced to concentrate on making the climb without tearing her decon suit on any sharp edged stones. As she climbed, she occasionally paused to shine her borrowed flashlight on the neighboring walls and then down into the pit, hunting for some sign of her friend without success. She'd dropped roughly twenty feet into the abyss when her left foot hit loose rock, sending a scattering of small stones plunging downward and momentarily throwing her against the wall.

Janet was still scrambling to regain her balance when she heard Sam's muttered, "I felt that...."

"Sorry," the doctor panted, "some rocks slipped--"

"No, I mean, some of those rocks hit my foot. You aren't directly above me, but you're close ... five maybe ten feet up...." She had her 'figuring it out' voice on. "The wall's to my right, so I must be to your right ... felt like the rocks fell straight, so you're probably almost directly above my feet."

"Colonel, hold up for a moment," Janet said suddenly, and felt the rope freeze in place.

"Doc?" O'Neill's voice echoed worriedly in her ear.

"I'm okay," she assured him as she retrieved the flashlight off her belt, "but if Sam's right, I should be able to see her, and I'd like to get a look at the situation if she really is that close."

"Understood," the colonel clipped. "Just let us know when you're ready to get moving again."

Bracing her feet as firmly as possible and gripping an edge of rock tightly with one hand, the doctor leaned out, twisting to shine the light onto the surrounding walls. The pit was roughly fifteen feet across, the walls sheer, but pitted and broken by frequent narrow ledges and sharp jags. The sheer india ink blackness of the substance covering everything made it hard to get a sense of depth or to make out individual details. Janet had already found she had to be extremely careful in placing her hands and feet, since it was dangerously easy to miss small details that could easily lay her suit open or break loose a rock support and send her plummeting. Though she was roped and couldn't fall far, she wasn't eager to take another spill and go slamming into the cavern wall. That just hurt too much.

She trailed the light down, following Sam's guess only to see nothing but more oily, black residue. "Sam, can you see my light?" she questioned, beginning to wonder if maybe her friend's vision had been damaged in the fall when Carter responded.

"I don't think so...." Sam hesitated. "Maybe a little bit of shadow." It would have been hard to miss the worry in her voice as the same thought struck her as had already occurred to the doctor.

"I can't see you," Janet admitted, still straining to make out some sign of the other woman through the faintly foggy faceplate of her decon suit. Then she frowned, her head canting to one side, and ran her light back over a section of rock, struggling to make out details against the reality muddling layers of black on black. There was a ledge directly below and to her right, she realized in a rush. She suddenly looked down at her gloved hand, noting the way the yellow plastic had turned black with a thick coating of the stuff from the rocks. "Sam, can you move a hand or a foot safely?" she questioned suddenly certain what had happened.

"My hand," Carter responded, her tone questioning. "Why?"

"Just wave or something," the doctor answered without explaining. "And keep doing it until I tell you to stop."

Still sounding mystified, Sam quietly said, "Okay."

Holding her position, Janet ran the light back and forth, hunting the shattered onyx landscape for some sign....

And then she saw it; a flicker of movement amid the shale. Actually, it was as though the rocks themselves were taking on a life of their own, so thoroughly steeped in ebony was Sam's hand. But now that Janet had found that detail, she managed to pluck others out of the dark; a hand, the length of arm and shoulder, her decon helmet -- the face-plate lost behind a thick, sooty layer. The doctor trailed her light down, finding the faint shape of Sam's torso, and the line of her hip, spotting the outstretched leg and the one folded beneath her. A sigh of profound relief escaped her parted lips, momentarily fogging her own face plate. "I can see her, sir," she exhaled, amazed to find the hand holding the flashlight trembling ever so slightly. "It looks like she's on a ledge ... two ... maybe two and a half feet across by the look of it." Janet trailed the beam of her light to the side, barely resisting the urge to flinch as she noted the way the pit dropped away again less than a foot from Sam's shoulder, and the light just continued unabated into the depths of the abyss. God only knew how deep it was; could be no more than another ten feet; it could be forever. Forcing down a shudder of horror, Janet flashed her light back to Sam's prone figure, trying to find the safest route to get to her. The ledge looked solid enough, but considering how many times she'd already had rocks give way, she didn't want to chance having it happen again when that was all keeping the other woman from tumbling an unknown -- possibly fatal -- distance.

"Doc?" O'Neill's worried voice interrupted her calculations.

"Just trying to decide the best way to get to her, sir," she said by way of answer. He was apparently content with that response because he didn't say anything else. "Sam," Janet said at last, "I'm not very far above you ... about five feet by the look of it. The reason you can't see is because your face mask ... and the rest of you ... is coated in some kind of black residue that's all over everything down here...." She heard Sam's sigh of relief, and gave her a tiny moment to quell some of her fears before continuing, "I'm going to climb down as close as I can. I'll have the harness in hand so I can get it around you as quickly as possible." She took a deep breath to calm any nerves, suddenly wondering if maybe she should have let O'Neill do this. "If the ledge starts to go, I'm going to grab for you and hold on ... you just do the same."

"Are you gonna be okay?" Carter asked, ironically sounding more worried for Janet than herself.

"I'll be fine," Janet assured her, "once I know you're safe." She braced herself then, shutting the flashlight off and tucking it back in her belt. From now on, she'd have to rely on the lights attached at the shoulders, and they wouldn't be focused on Carter. Keeping a mental image of Sam's placement and the angle of the ledge on file, she unhooked Sam's harness, looping the two harness clips around her wrist before quietly telling O'Neill, "Colonel, start lowering me again."

Using every possible fingerhold and toehold, Janet carefully made her way lower, testing each rock before putting any weight on it for fear of dislodging something that might either rain down on Carter or send her tumbling. Finally, her foot brushed something with a little give, and she heard a soft rustle of plastic.

"That's my calf," Sam told her, keeping her tone low as if she was afraid any distraction might topple them both.

"Okay," Janet exhaled tersely, and shifted, angling across the rock as she ordered the colonel. "Feed the rope slower ... and get ready to stop on my signal."

"Got it, Doc" Jack assured her.

A moment later, her voice little more than a breath, Janet ordered the men, "Hold up, Colonel," and felt them stop feeding the rope almost instantly. With her knee and one foot braced on the wall above Sam and the other hanging in space, she shifted, reaching out with the hand holding the harness to check Sam's position and finding her hip and upper thigh. The shoulder lights cast too much illumination, all of it in the wrong direction, and her face plate was rapidly becoming coated in pitch black dust, so she was working more by feel than sight. "Okay, Sam, I'm going to try and slide one end of the harness under you ... any chance you can catch the ends and clip it for yourself?" Otherwise, she'd have to remove the stabilizing hand from the wall, and she didn't think that was a good idea.

"I think so," Carter exhaled.

If they could just get Sam locked into the harness -- even loosely -- Janet would feel a lot better about the operation, though she was edgy about moving her even that much. Unfortunately, it wasn't like she had much choice. "Okay, here we go." Ignoring the way sharp edged rocks pressed into her wrist and forearm, she eased her hand under Sam's body at the small of her back, surprised to find it easier than she expected. A thick layer of what felt like wood chips and more of the black sludge had made an unexpectedly thick, cushioned bed under the other woman.

"Careful," Carter warned, shifting as much as she dared to make the maneuver easier. "Don't risk tearing your suit." If she lost suit integrity, it could mean her life. God only knew how long the Goa'uld engineered infection would last on Hanka.

"I'm okay," Janet assured her, covering a wince as a rock pressed into her wrist with bruising force. In short order, she had her arm wrapped all the way around Sam's waist, the other woman's weight resting heavily on her forearm. At least she'd have a chance of holding on to her if the ledge gave way in that position. "I've got the harness wrapped around you ... do you think you can fasten it?"

Sam couldn't quite contain a tiny groan as she gingerly lifted one hand. "I think so," she whispered, then Janet heard a soft rustling sound and felt Sam shift.

The doctor's teeth dug into her lower lip as her friend's every move pressed an edge of rock more deeply into her forearm and wrist, then a hand brushed against hers and graceful fingers tugged the end of the harness free of her hold. As Sam took hold of the clip, Janet turned her hand, fitting it to the curve of her waist, well aware of the shape of her body through the layers of plastic protecting them from the environment. Tightening her grip so she could hold on just in case something gave way, she informed Sam, "The other end of the harness is lying on my arm on your other side." Another wince as Sam shifted again to reach for the other end of the harness. Janet barely felt the pain, her tension giving way to relief when she heard the click as the ends of the harness locked together.

"Okay, it's in place," Carter assured her.

Feeling some of the awful tension drain from her muscles, Janet braced herself a little more firmly, then eased her arm out from under Sam, careful not to jar the other woman any more than necessary. That done, she risked letting go of the wall long enough to latch any loose straps she could easily reach, locking Carter more securely to the rope just in case. "I got most of 'em at least," she exhaled when she was certain Sam was safe, then paused for a moment, giving herself time to catch her breath.

"You okay?" Sam questioned, sounding worried.

"I am now," Janet admitted, unable to deny just how frightened she'd been, if only to herself. She hadn't thought about it -- hadn't let herself think about it for fear of freezing in place -- but she'd been terrified of failing the other woman and losing her forever. Blinking rapidly to clear a steady stream of sweat from her eyes, she brought her head up at last. The black dust gathering on her own faceplate made it hard to see, but she could still make out the line of Sam's body beneath the sooty layer of grit. She swallowed hard, forcing down the brief wave of emotion and snapping her professional mask firmly in place. "Now, let's see how you're really doing." One knee braced on the wall, hanging from the climbing harness, she used her other knee to occasionally stabilize herself, but tried to avoid putting any real weight on the ledge as she meticulously checked Sam's condition. To say the least, it was not the easiest or most ideal of situations, but as she gently ran her hands over the other woman's body, carefully probing and testing, the occasional whispered question or command escaping her lips, Janet couldn't regret that she was the one there. Thankfully, there didn't appear to be any tears in the decon suit. The tough plastic had done its job and held under trying conditions. Even better, there appeared to be no indications of spinal damage or internal injuries. She'd have felt better if she could have backboarded the other woman back to the infirmary, but she was fairly certain they could move her safely. She felt a rock she was braced against give way and tumble ... the sound as it clattered away from them finally fading into nothingness. "There's no such thing as bottomless pits," she whispered to herself in an effort to banish the childhood fear.

"Janet?" Sam questioned, her voice an odd combination of tinny speaker and muffled reality, and the doctor realized she'd spoken out loud without meaning to.

"Sorry," Fraiser apologized, forcing down a momentary flustered response. "Just something my older brother used to scare me with when we were kids ... I'll explain some time when we're in slightly more comfortable circumstances...." She ran her hand down Sam's outer leg -- the one not twisted under her -- then carefully hooked her fingers under the back of her friend's knee. A softly spoken order had Sam moving her leg under Janet's gentle ministrations. She asked a question or two, smiling behind her mask at Sam's wry answers. "Okay," she said at last and rested a profoundly light hand on Sam's other thigh, well aware of the way it was folded beneath her. She couldn't see or feel well enough to know whether it was likely a break or possibly no more than a bad sprain. She'd delayed checking that leg, hating to leave it to last, but wanting to be certain Sam's back was okay and that she could support her weight on her other leg as needed. "Now comes the hard part." She felt a tiny flinch ripple through her friend.

"Not gonna be fun I'll bet," Carter exhaled on a nervous note. The leg had gone to sleep, but she knew what angle it was at and her thigh muscles were still wide awake and protesting the situation any time she tried to move them at all.

"Probably not," Fraiser admitted, curving her fingers to Sam's inner thigh and trailing her fingers down to the forced bend in her knee. "But I want to straighten the leg now ... before we pull up ... so I can do it in as controlled a fashion as possible ... so we don't risk doing even more damage if possible."

"Right," Sam allowed. She took a deep breath, the sound echoing in Janet's ear through her earpiece. "Let's do this," the blond continued after a beat.

"Okay," the doctor breathed. She was as gentle and careful as she knew how to be, but she felt Sam's every flinch and heard her every pained gasp as though amplified by a factor of ten. More than once she apologized, and many more times she wanted to. Hooking a hand under Sam's knee, she finally drew her leg up, then used her other hand to drag her calf free.

Sam's sharp, agonized gasp froze the doctor in place.

"No, finish it," Carter hissed. "My calf's still asleep, and once it starts to wake up, it'll only get worse."

Ignoring the guilt over the pain she was causing -- albeit unintentionally -- Janet gritted her teeth and straightened the badly torqued joint. "So sorry," she exhaled, Sam's whimper driving home her guilt.

"S'okay," Sam exhaled drunkenly. "Had to be done." Her voice trailed off into another whimper. "And the good news ... or the bad news -- depending on your point of view -- is that my leg's already waking up." Her tone made it obvious that wasn't the good news from her point of view.

"Doc', can we pull you two up yet?" O'Neill broke in, his worry audible in his voice.

"Not yet," Fraiser responded, pushing off until she was nearly even with Sam. She took a moment and latched any remaining clips and buckles, securing the other woman into the harness as best possible. Then, with one hand resting very lightly on the ledge alongside her friend's upper arm, putting just enough weight on it to steady herself, she reached out, rubbing her other hand against Carter's faceplate, trying to clear away some of the grit and succeeding more in smearing it around than brushing it aside. Nonetheless, she cleared just enough that she could make out the dim outline of familiar features through the plexiglass. "Sam?" she murmured, her own faceplate nearly touching Carter's as she peered past the india ink haze.

"Hey," Carter murmured, sounding almost cheerful, "I can see ... a little at least." Janet made out the faint hint of a smile on shadowy features.

"There's still a lot of stuff on your mask," Janet told her and saw Sam nod inside her helmet.

"Yeah, I figured," Carter admitted, "but it's enough to be certain I can see." She heaved a soft sigh of relief that trailed off into a pained sound, while a thin trickle of rocks from her ledge scattered away, bouncing off the walls below them. "I think maybe it's time we get out of here," she murmured after a long moment. They'd been lucky so far, but she had doubts about how much longer that luck would hold.

"You sure you're ready?" Janet asked.

Sam nodded. "As I'll ever be."

"Okay," Janet said, then turned her head fractionally to speak more directly into the microphone hanging alongside her cheek. "Colonel, I'll let you know when we're ready for you to pull us up."

"Anytime, Doc," O'Neill responded instantly, managing to keep most of the impatience out of his voice.

Leaning forward, Janet eased her hand back under Sam's waist. "I want you to let me worry about keeping us away from the wall." She didn't want to risk Sam banging around, and both injured and blind, she was afraid that was exactly what would happen if she wasn't careful. "Just hook an arm around my shoulders and let me do the work, okay?"

"My leg's already feeling better," Sam insisted. "I can help."

Janet shook her head. "I don't want you to even try," she said. "Just worry about protecting yourself and not making any of your injuries worse. Understood?" She adopted her doctor-in-command tone; the one that brooked no argument.

Sam exhaled an annoyed snort, the sound tinny in Janet's ear. She hated letting go of her normal role as protector, but she knew her friend well enough to be certain it was pointless to argue. She'd heard that tone enough times to know what it meant. "All right," she surrendered at last, grimacing at the note of satisfaction in Janet's voice.

"Good girl," the doctor praised dryly and tightened her grip on Sam's waist fractionally. "Think you can sit up?"

Carter nodded inside her helmet, then realized the other woman couldn't see the gesture. "Yeah," she assured her, pushing up on one hand with a low groan, her battered body protesting even that slight movement. The change in position put them chest to chest -- albeit somewhat awkwardly -- making it easy for Sam to slide an arm up around Janet's shoulder.

"That's it," Fraiser said as she tightened her hold another notch, pulling her friend's body firmly against her own, knowing she'd need to control the situation carefully to keep from sending them both crashing into the wall. Even as that practical reason for her choice ran through her mind, some hidden part of her brain couldn't help but note the warmth of Sam's body emanating through the double layers of plastic, that very human reality a stark reminder of what she'd nearly lost. "Okay," she breathed at last, "if you're ready, let's do this."

"I'm more than ready to get the hell out of here," Sam said instantly, and tightened her grip on Janet's shoulders.

"You heard her, Colonel." Janet gripped the wall tightly with her free hand, steadying them both as she felt the rope shift ever so slightly.

"All right, Doc, we're moving."

And then she felt the ropes start to take them both up even as small stones and black dust broke away from the wall of the pit.

"Colonel, we've got debris coming down on us," Fraiser hissed nervously as she fought the instinct to throw up a protective arm or turn her face away from the dusty hailstorm.

"Sorry about that, Doc, but we can't get close enough to glide the rope over the rocks. It probably shifted while you were working on Sam, but hopefully once the loose stuff is free, it'll let up."

Or maybe turn into something even bigger. Janet barely squelched the urge to curse, a trick Sam didn't quite manage, though her utterance was so low the doctor doubted O'Neill had heard it without the double impact of both the amplified microphone and muffled reality.

"At least there doesn't seem to be anything large enough to be dangerous," Carter said as they continued to climb.

Bracing her free hand and her feet, Janet felt every muscle pull taut as she fought to keep them both from knocking into the wall. Even with the men pulling slowly, it wasn't an easy task. Her feet tended to start to slide on the thick, gritty residue coating the rocks at the worst times, while rocks gave way under pressure, and the stones raining down on their heads had a tendency to act like marbles underfoot.

"You two okay?" O'Neill asked after several minutes of torturous progress.

"Been better, but surviving," Fraiser grunted by way of answer.

"What she said," Sam panted. Almost completely blinded by the coating of grit on her faceplate, she had scant idea what was coming or where they were, her only real tie to her surroundings the arm wrapped around her waist and the body pressed so firmly against her own. Despite the doctor's initial warnings, she used her free hand to clutch the wall and help steady their progress, but it was strictly a catch as catch can effort since she couldn't see enough to know what she was doing.

They moved another few feet, then Fraiser jerked on the ropes and grunted a curse.

"Janet?" "Doc?" Sam and Jack spoke at the same time.

"Rock hit me on the head. Don't think it did any damage," Janet hissed as she threw off the pain, "but, unless I'm vastly mistaken, they're getting bigger." She shook her head back and forth, forcing the momentary daze down. It was a luxury she simply couldn't afford.

"You sure, Doc?" O'Neill questioned hesitantly.

Another stone clipped Sam on the shoulder, then bounced off, hammering Janet's thigh with a bruising impact. "She's sure," the blond hissed, confirming the doctor's words.

Then suddenly a burst of almost preternatural awareness drew Janet's head up. She couldn't see well -- the lights on her shoulders aimed directly ahead -- so the mouth of the pit was little more than a shadowy silhouette backed by the illumination from the men's lights. A moment passed and suddenly she could see all too well. Her rope wasn't the problem; Sam's was. During the climb down, it had slipped into a groove in the wall of the pit and, with Sam's weight added to it, had worked its way steadily deeper, acting like a saw on dirt and stones as they were dragged upward. As she stared helplessly, she saw a jagged piece of rock -- closer to a small boulder really -- at least three feet across, start to angle outward from the groove cut by Sam's rope. "Oh God." She only vaguely heard the colonel and Sam demand to know what was happening at the same time. No time to explain. No time to do much of anything but move. She twisted, purposely swinging her shoulders -- and the lights attached to them -- around as much as possible even as she heard the rock start to break free, the sound ragged and terrifying. A fresh wave of dust and stones filled the air even as she saw what she was looking for -- a faint depression in the cave wall; not much protection, but all there was.

"Janet, what's happen--" Sam's question turned into a startled shout as the doctor pushed off hard, dragging her along for the ride.

Janet leapt hard, thigh muscles compressing painfully with the force behind her effort. She caught hold of a jut of rock at almost the same moment the jag overhead swung loose and started to fall, then slung Sam around into the depression, hooking a foot over the edge and heaving herself after the other woman less than a heartbeat ahead of a flood of debris. For a second she thought they were safe as she heard the large rock she'd dove to avoid tumble on past.

Then something hit Sam's rope hard, yanking her forward into Janet, the momentum sending them both hurtling back out into space. A sound that was half roar, half scream escaped the doctor's lips as she grabbed desperately for the other woman, hooking both arms under her arms, barely hanging on when Sam was slammed downward with so much force she momentarily feared her shoulders might be dislocated by the pressure. The worst of it didn't even last a second, then just as quickly they were both swinging free. The rock wall they'd been climbing only moments before was now a concave depression below a sharp overhang, while Sam's rope dangled from her harness, the end disappearing into the pit below them. Realizing she was all that stood between her friend and plunging straight down -- until she hit bottom this time -- Janet clung desperately, a breathless cry torn from her throat as agony throbbed through every muscle in her body.

"Fraiser, whatever the hell that was, it sliced through Carter's rope!" O'Neill shouted in warning.

Lost in her own problems, Janet barely heard him as a secondary fall of dust and stones swirled around them, blinding her to everything but what she could feel and hear. Something hit her rope and sent them both spinning, drawing a pained cry from the doctor as the world turned into a whirling dervish of confusion. A moment later her shoulder hit the wall hard, stopping the wild spin and throwing her head forward with enough momentum to slam it against the inside of her own helmet. Stars exploded behind her closed eyelids, but Janet somehow held onto the woman in her arms.

"JANET?!" Sam shouted, desperate to know what was going on.

"HOLD ON!!" the doctor screamed above the sound of falling debris. More small rocks bounced off her head and shoulders and dust flooded over her like a dry waterfall. The light clipped to her left shoulder shattered and went dark with a tiny hiss, while the remaining light swung back and forth in a crazy light show that only worsened the confusion.

Time passed: Janet never knew how much; a few seconds most likely, though it seemed more like centuries, then almost as suddenly as all hell had exploded, a weird sort of quiet settled over things. It was mostly an internal sense of silence, Janet realized as she located the sounds of her own breathing; Sam's breathing; O'Neill shouting their names through her headset; a few last tiny rocks trickling down the walls of the abyss. "We're okay, Colonel," she managed to say at last.

"Carter ... what about Carter?! Her rope--"

"I've got her, sir," Janet hissed through teeth gritted against the effort required to hold onto her friend. "But you've got to get us out of here."

Sam's arms were wrapped around Janet's hips, but her grip was precarious at best, the slide of plastic on plastic making it almost impossible to hold on tightly enough to guarantee she wouldn't slip and fall. "Janet?" she exhaled uncertainly.

Fraiser just dug in that much harder, her breath coming in rough gasps. "We're okay," she panted, the words coming out between harsh breaths, "just need to get out of here."

"Fraiser," O'Neill's voice echoed over the two-way radio, "if we try to pull you up, we could wind up with the exact same situation all over.... That rope was never meant to hold two people ... and if it starts sawing on the rocks..." He didn't bother to finish. They all knew what it meant. Whole and in good shape, the rope should hold both of them with ease, but if it started fraying -- losing integrity a strand at a time -- it could give way and send both of them plummeting to their deaths.

Janet tipped her head back, ignoring the warm trickle of what she was sure was blood that slid back into the fine hair at her temple. She and Sam were hanging in open air, the rope dragging over a precipice just above them. The rocks were jagged, and the gentle swaying motion of the rope back and forth was rubbing it against sharp looking edges. Just staying there was likely to fray the ropes as quickly as being pulled up ... and she couldn't hold onto Sam forever. She looked down, spotting the top of Carter's helmet, an image of the other woman appearing in her mind's eye. Or maybe she could if she had to, but she didn't want to find out. "No choice, sir," she told O'Neill. "The rope's already sawing on the rocks ... and I'm not sure how long I can hold onto Sam."

"Janet," Sam's voice came out muffled, her position pressing her cheek into her shoulder, pinning her mic where it was hard to be understood. "How bad is it?"

"Not bad enough for whatever you're about to suggest," Janet hissed, sensing the way Carter was putting on her self-sacrificing voice.

"But if you could get me back to the ledge and then get out ... I could wait until you guys drop the rope again."

Fraiser glanced down, noting the way the walls had been sheared away. "Not an option," she growled. "No more ledge." She looked back up, her voice taking on a hard note that bordered on panic. "Colonel, start pulling," she ordered to forestall her friend's next suggestion.

Everyone in the building heard the dangerous creak as the men started to pull, dragging the rope over rough ground.

"Janet--" Sam hissed, terrified her friend was dooming herself.

"Shut up!" Fraiser shouted, using anger and adrenaline to add strength to her arms.

"But--"

"Just shut up and hang on!"

"Pull harder," O'Neill ordered.

Suddenly they were rising faster, momentum making them spin. Janet's shoulder bumped the wall, the impact shattering away several stones that crumpled and disappeared into the pit. Startled, she twisted another half turn, nearly screaming when she suddenly found herself face to face with obsidian hell. A long, slender gargoyle's face stared back at her -- seemingly made of coal black dust -- the willowy body and flaring batwings instantly imprinting themselves on her memory. The impression lasted no more than a second and then she slammed into the phantom demon, exploding it into ebony dust. It disappeared in an instant, the powder coating her in a fresh layer of black grit.

Not real. It wasn't real.

Just an arrangement of rocks and dust that happened to look like something out of a child's nightmares. She again silently cursed Daniel and his need to tell horror stories when they were on a ghost planet. The damned image wasn't real. The power of suggestion coupled with her own fears had turned a random grouping of shapes into a terrifying monster. The whole place was probably a Rorschach test for anyone with the willingness to stay and look at it.

Then she forgot about any games the senses could play on the mind as they hit the precipice -- or more correctly her back hit the precipice. She was terrified for her suit integrity, but there was nothing she could do but take the punishing ride for fear of losing her precarious grip on Sam. If not for the oxygen cannister strapped to the belt at her waist acting like a skid, she probably would have looked like someone had gone after her with a cat-o-nine-tails. As it was, the back of her suit was shredded, and there were more than a few scratches left on her upper back and shoulderblades. Janet just tried not to think about what would happen if she lost the battered oxygen cannister and she experienced the full effect of the drag. As rough as the rocks were, she'd be lucky if there was any flesh left on her back.

Suddenly something bumped her helmet and an arm reached past her shoulder. Jack O'Neill's yellow gloved hand grabbed for the shoulder strap on Sam's safety harness. Despite muscle fatigue that threatened to turn her arms to jelly, Janet managed to dig a little deeper into her physical reserves and help him lift Carter clear even as the blond reached past her to grab for any handholds on the wall. And then suddenly Sam was safe as Jack hauled her up over the lip of the pit. Janet felt like she'd been hit with an overdose of Prozac, so intense was her relief.

It didn't last long as it occurred to her that she was still in considerable danger. The rope holding her up was creaking steadily more loudly and she was suddenly aware of the cool breeze that played over her bared back where the decon suit had torn. Not a good combination -- particularly not while hanging over an apparently bottomless pit on a planet that had been engulfed by a Goa'uld plague only a few weeks before.

"Carter--" Jack's voice was clear and worried as it played in Fraiser's earpiece.

"I'm okay, sir." Sam sounded surprisingly strong. Janet wasn't the only one digging deep.

Janet heard a rustle of movement above her as she pushed off and worked her way around so she was facing the wall. She just wanted out of this obsidian hell as quickly as possible, even if she had to finish the climb on her own. Gripping an outcropping of rock tightly, she hunted for any solid toeholds she could find with her feet.

"Janet," Sam gasped, reminding O'Neill that the other woman was still in danger. "We've gotta get her outa there."

"Carter, you shouldn't--" O'Neill started to protest, but before he could finish, Janet saw Sam's soot encrusted helmet appear above the edge of the shaft.. Reaching blindly, the blonde somehow managed to grab hold of the shoulder strap on her harness even as a rock gave way under the doctor's boot. The abrupt dropoff threatened to send her crashing into the wall, but Sam's tight grip added just enough stability to give Fraiser time to catch herself. And then O'Neill was there as well, grabbing for her other shoulder strap.

"Dammit, Carter," the colonel hissed angrily. "Get back. The floor's not stable this close to the shaft. I'll get her out."

Janet didn't waste any energy getting into the argument, just reached for the edge of the pit only to wind up cursing as rotted wood turned to dust in her grip and she slipped back down a few inches.

"Janet!" Sam yelped, tightening her grip, half afraid the rope had given way.

Afraid of the same thing, O'Neill made a grab for the back of Fraiser's suit with his other hand, and she felt the brush of plastic through the tears in her suit and shirt.

"What the..." the colonel gasped as he realized he was grabbing at shredded plastic. "Fraiser ... your suit...." He sounded like he'd been punched in the gut.

"I know," the doctor panted, relieved when he got a grip on her harness in the back and began pulling her up. "The rocks...."

"What?" Sam questioned, not knowing what was wrong.

But O'Neill's mind was already elsewhere, his voice hard as he barked an order into the microphone hanging in front of his face. "Daniel, get back to the M.A.L.P. and get the spare space suit back here asap--"

"Jack," the Egyptologist sounded confused by the order.

"Teal'c can handle the rope alone. Now move!"

"I'll get back as fast as I can," Daniel said almost instantly as he realized something was very wrong.

"Oh God," Sam exhaled as she realized what that meant. "Janet, you've lost suit integrity?"

"Yeah," the doctor answered as they got her upper body up over the edge of the pit. She braced her hands flat on the floor, and gave another push, getting a foot up and kicking hard to throw herself clear. Sam's hand was still tangled in the shoulder strap on her safety harness and momentum dragged the blond along so they both wound up in a tangled sprawl a few feet from the edge of the dropoff. Janet lay limp on her stomach, her breath coming in ragged gasps, suddenly aware of a myriad of aches -- large and small -- that she'd either ignored or been too busy to notice during the climb. She felt an incredibly gentle hand brush her back, finding the tears in the thick plastic.

"God, Janet," Sam exhaled, sounding ill as she realized just how bad it was. If any bacteria had gotten in through the gaping holes in the plastic.... She shook her head back and forth in horror. "You shouldn't have--" she began haltingly.

"I'll be okay," the doctor cut her off as she pushed up on her elbows. Well aware of the danger she was in, she didn't need Sam to reiterate. "But I think you'll need to look after Cass for a few days while I'm in quarantine." She purposely made the assumption she'd live that long, fighting the panic they were all feeling, then couldn't resist a black joke. "At least I'll be able to get some sleep."

"We need to get back from the edge," Jack interrupted sharply and curved a hand under Fraiser's arm.

The doctor looked up, realizing that he'd been safe to hang over the pit the way he had because he had the remains of Carter's rope tied around his waist -- which explained why Daniel had hung back during their rescue. The colonel had to have been terrified the entire floor would collapse.

"It's not safe here," O'Neill continued, rising to pull both women along with him. Once they were safely in the entryway, he unclipped Fraiser from her rope and Carter from the partial line trailing after her like a dropped leash, then let them both sink back down. He turned toward the Jaffa. "Teal'c, go after Daniel. There should be a disinfectant sprayer on the M.A.L.P. Bring it."

The Jaffa nodded in understanding. If they could spray the doctor, her suit, and immediate environs down while she was changing, it would lower her chances of contracting something considerably. "I will return as quickly as possible." He disappeared out the doors almost instantly, running at top speed, while O'Neill turned back and began gathering up their equipment, working quickly to ready things in case they needed them again.

"Let me have your flashlight," Carter requested as she scraped at the thick layer of oily dust coating her faceplate. Going into crisis management mode, she held out a hand, closing her fingers around the heavy maglite Janet handed back to her. She flipped it on and found she could just barely see if she aimed the bright light directly at something and leaned close. She knelt behind her friend, paling as she got a look at the damage. She'd known it was bad by feel, but now that she saw the situation, she realized it was even worse than she'd feared. Gaping rips in the suit left much of the doctor's upper back open to the world. Her black t-shirt was torn, and the flesh revealed sported several scratches deep enough to have drawn a few drops of blood. The suit was designed so that reverse pressure from the air tanks would force air out through any small tears in the fabric, but there was no way it could do so against a loss of integrity that severe. Meanwhile the wounds, minor though they were, could easily allow bacteria into her bloodstream. "Damn." Still staring at what she could see of shredded plastic and scratched flesh, she dug into the equipment pouch on her belt, retrieving a handful of prepackaged disinfectant pads and a pair of sealed gloves designed to fit over the bulky ones on the suit to add another layer of protection. Ripping the gloves open first, she yanked them on, grateful to find that the gauntlet like design ran nearly halfway up her forearms. Lightweight and designed for a single use, they adhered to the black gunk as though glued there, and probably wouldn't hold up for long, but they'd at least allow her to clean her friend's back without risking getting more of the stuff on her skin. "This is probably gonna hurt," she warned Janet as she ripped the first of the pads open and began swabbing the area. The pads were intended to be used if something like this happened, though Sam was comfortably certain no one had expected anything this grave.

Janet gasped and Sam would have slowed, but the doctor held up a hand. "No, don't stop," she hissed through clenched teeth. "It's a good idea." Despite the pain, she was well aware it was the best thing that could be done for the situation ... at least until she could get into a fresh suit.

"Sorry," Sam whispered sympathetically, working as gently as she could.

"Don't worry about it. It's not that bad," Janet assured her, though a hard flinch belied the words. She leaned forward and twisted to peer back over her shoulder until she could see Sam. "Besides, it was worth it."

Sam couldn't see Janet's face, but her quiet sincerity warmed her to the core. "I don't know about that," she demurred, thinking that her own life couldn't possibly be a fair trade for the risk to the other woman's.

"I do," Janet said very softly as she stared up at Sam, studying what little she could see of soft features through the ebony coating on her suit.

Struck dumb for a moment, Sam couldn't think of a single thing to say. She just kept carefully cleaning the doctor's back. "The ... uh ... black stuff," she said at last, forcing herself to concentrate on something other than her own guilt over the other woman's predicament, "it's not coming off your skin."

"Don't worry about it for the moment," the doctor sighed in exhaustion. "They can get it off in the infirmary." Hopefully it was inert and the delay wouldn't matter. If not ... well, it was probably already too late considering how quickly the plague had killed the research team as well as the Hankans. In any event, she didn't seem to have much choice. What was done was done. She looked to look back over her shoulder again, twisting uncomfortably to see despite the awkward suit, until her gaze found her friend's downbent head. She couldn't make out Sam's features at all from that angle, but her body language was comfortingly familiar.

"Good thing we got you up when we did, Doc'," O'Neill said as he rejoined them, tossing the rope he'd gathered down with a disgusted snort.

Both women looked up, while Sam continued her methodical cleansing of the doctor's back. "Sir?" they spoke in tandem.

The colonel crouched down, holding up the end of the rope that had been clipped to Fraiser's harness. He shined his mini-mag on it the line, allowing the doctor to see what he was talking about. The rope started fraying roughly a foot above where she'd been clipped on and quickly shaved down to little more than a couple of threads.

Janet swallowed hard. That was all that had been keeping her -- both of them -- from plunging to a very ugly death. "I think I'm gonna need a drink when this is all over with," she whispered a little dazedly.

"You 'n' me both," O'Neill agreed, then looked up from the rope. "You two got lucky." He shook his head and looked back down at the rope. "Good thing you went down there insteada me," he mused ironically. "Another few pounds and the rope woulda snapped for sure." To prove his point, he wrapped the rope around either hand on each side of the worst part of the fray and yanked hard.

They all heard the snapping sound and even Sam could see enough to realize what had happened. "I think I'll join you in that drink," she said and swallowed hard, then went back to methodically swabbing the other woman's back, not wanting to think about what could have happened if the rope had given way while she was still in the pit. She just continued running the pads over her friend's back, opening a fresh one whenever she felt the one she was using was getting worn or old, hoping that by continuously disinfecting the area she could ward off any remaining Goa'uld bacteria. When Daniel and Teal'c returned minutes later, she wasn't sure whether to be relieved or more worried. A fresh suit would protect the doctor, but she'd be even more vulnerable during the time required to change.

"I brought both spare suits," Daniel panted, flashing a look at Carter. "Just in case Sam...."

The blond shook her head. "I can't find any tears."

"Doc'?" O'Neill said, his tone questioning.

"Let's do this outside," Fraiser decided out loud. "I don't trust the floor in here ... and we don't know enough about the bacteria to know whether it's more likely to be present in here or out there." She offered a small, tired shrug. "I'll be able to see what I'm doing ... should help things move faster." And moving fast would be very important once she started. She still had some protection from her suit -- minimal though it was -- since she could feel the rush of air still pumping from the dented tank at her waist, but once she started to strip down, she'd be on her own. And it was imperative to change, since she'd need to go straight into quarantine to protect the base. The suit was no longer about protecting her from the Hankan atmosphere. Now it was about protecting the base from any possible contaminants ... and she was now officially a possible contaminant.

With Sam limping badly and leaning on O'Neill's arm, the small group moved outside and selected a sandy patch of ground which Teal'c sprayed down with the antibacterial spray. He misted the doctor, then the two men, since they needed to be ready to help her in any way possible.

Sam could only watch from the sidelines, unable to see enough to help, and so covered in black muck that she didn't want to come near the other woman once she had no protection.

Her body stiff from the beating it had taken, Janet couldn't move as quickly as she would have liked, but she moved fast, stripping off the old suit. She was wearing camo pants and a black undershirt beneath the suit, and Teal'c soaked them down thoroughly with disinfectant, leaving her damp and clammy inside the fresh plastic suit she pulled into place. The cut on her forehead was still oozing and the disinfectant thinned it enough to send pale red streamers down her face and into her hair.

"Doc?" O'Neill questioned as he noted the blood. "That cut...."

"It's nothing," she assured him as she yanked on a clean pair of gloves, then held her arms out so O'Neill could tape them to the sleeves. When she pulled the helmet on, he was ready to finish sealing it up as well. Another beat and then the new oxygen tank was hooked up, and she heard the soft hiss and felt a gentle breeze on her face as a fresh flow of air began filling the suit. She suddenly realized just how shallowly she'd been breathing as she instinctively dragged air into her lungs in great gulps and felt the slightly dizzying effects of the oxygen flooding her bloodstream.

"Fraiser?" O'Neill said by way of question when she seemed to waver on her feet. He held a steadying hand, ready to catch her if she went down.

"I'm okay," she assured him, shaking off a momentary daze. "Just got a little bit of a head rush."

The colonel looked back and forth between the two women. "Okay, let's get you two back to the SGC." With Fraiser possibly exposed, and Carter sporting a nasty limp and god only knew what else, it was time to scrub the mission and get them to medical care.

"Jack," Daniel broke in, his mind already back on their reasons for returning to Hanka. "What about the Sherxan?"

Both women turned toward the Egyptologist. Janet looked back toward Jack after a short beat. "Colonel?" she said, her eyes wide. "You found something then?"

"Maybe," Jack admitted, "but right now, my first worry is getting you to back to--"

"If there's something that can help Cass," Fraiser interrupted him a little desperately, "we need to get it. That's what we came here for."

"Yeah, and you two are already beat to hell--" The colonel started to argue, but Daniel broke in.

"I could get to Cassandra's house, find it and meet you at the gate--" he offered eagerly, fascinated by what little he knew about the local customs and wanting to get a look at the object. Besides, like all of them, he felt partially responsible for the child and wanted to help if he could.

"Nobody's going anywhere alone after what just happened," Jack snapped impatiently. No way in hell was he letting any of them, but especially Daniel -- who could get himself hurt at a church social -- out of sight alone.

"But you know how to find the Sherxan?" Sam asked, ignoring her superior altogether.

"I think so," Daniel responded, also ignoring Jack, who growled an angry curse under his breath. "There was a picture of something in one of the books ... and a series of symbols attached to different clan names. I think we'll find one in each house, so it's just a matter of finding Cass' house ... and it was listed in one of the record's books ... so if that was right, it should be easy to find it."

"The Sherxan ... it's round, with lettering around the edge and some kind of symbol in the center, isn't it?" Sam whispered. Ironically, while she'd been lying helpless in the darkness, she'd managed to nearly reconstruct that part of her memory.

"Yeah," Daniel exhaled, a look of hope on his face. "You know what we're looking for?"

Carter nodded, hooking a thumb over her shoulder. "When I was in the common house before ... during the ceremony ... there were stone medallions of some kind in regular niches along the walls." She held up a spread hand. "About so big." Daniel started to turn back, but Sam's voice brought him back around. "They're not there now ... in fact I couldn't really remember what had been there until ... well ... I had a little time to think I after I fell." She shook her head inside the helmet. "I think one of the women called them the Sherxan."

A quick nod. "That makes sense," Daniel mused out loud. "I'm sure they usually kept them somewhere in their homes though, since they were considered protection for hearth and family--"

"No," Jack broke in at last. He could hear the two of them getting into their little discussion and see exactly where they were headed. "I mean it. No one is going off alone." He pinned a hard look on Daniel.

"Actually, sir," Fraiser broke in, using her most reasonable tone, "you could go with him." She gestured to herself and Carter, not even trying to argue that they should help. Sam was clearly in no condition, and she wasn't much better. "I can walk ... and Teal'c and I can help Sam back."

O'Neill's jaw hung open for a moment as he formulated a pithy response. After what had just happened, breaking up the team wasn't a plan he was likely to endorse.

"I agree," Teal'c broke in, offering his first opinion in some time. "Both are mobile ... and I can see to their safety while you and Daniel retrieve the Sherxan."

Jack glared at the Jaffa and barely resisted the urge to mutter. It was days like this that he wondered why he even bothered to pretend he was in command. "Look, I know everyone is--"

"Sir," Janet broke in, forcing him to look at her and really see the raw desperation in her eyes, "once he knows what happened, General Hammond will never let a team back here and you know it...." She trailed off, pausing to swallow hard, her voice painfully tight. "If we don't do this on this trip ... then we won't be able to do it at all...." Another pause, while she flashed him a look that reminded him he'd done his fair share to put her in the position of being responsible for Cass. "Please," she whispered very softly. He looked over at Carter, watching the dim outline of her face through the muddied face plate.

"She's right, sir," Carter exhaled, her voice soft and a little sad. "We have to."

Jack swallowed hard, his gaze traveling from team member to team member, seeing matching looks of determination on their faces. And, despite being in command and responsible for their safety, he felt more kinship with their position than he should have. He didn't want Cass to suffer either after all. He suddenly had more sympathy for the bind he'd put Hammond in during the meeting. "All right," he surrendered at last. "Teal'c, Carter, Fraiser, get back to the gate ... and the SGC ... I don't want you to wait for us. Daniel and I will follow as quickly as possible--"

"But, sir," Carter started to argue.

"Hopefully, we'll be right behind you," Jack cut her off. "But you two need medical care, so I don't want you waiting around."

Teal'c ducked his head. "I will see them to the gate and wait for you."

Jack nodded, his mouth pursing with annoyance, but he didn't bother arguing. "All right, Teal'c," he agreed, then clapped a hand on Daniel's shoulder. "Now, let's get moving. See you three as soon as possible." He dragged Daniel off in the direction the map had indicated for Cassandra's homestead.

"Come ... we must return to the Stargate," Teal'c said, curving a heavy hand to Carter's elbow.

Still limping heavily, the blond leaned on his supportive hold, then felt a much smaller hand curve to her other elbow, the hold somewhere between offering support and drawing comfort. Sam glanced over, the bright sunlight giving her a better view than she'd had in the dark confines of the common house. Janet's face was little more than a hazy shadow when she looked over, but she offered a reassuring smile. "It's gonna be okay," she whispered, needing the reassurance almost as much as her friend. She could just make the gentle curve of full lips as they rose in a faint smile.

"I pray you're right," the doctor exhaled very softly.

It was Teal'c who put the final mark on the conversation. "Captain Carter is seldom mistaken."

There wasn't much Janet could say to argue that point. A tiny laugh escaped her lips and she tightened her hold on Sam's elbow as she felt the blond's faint, embarrassed lurch. "Good point, Teal'c."

The Jaffa inclined his head in acknowledgment and continued the hike, his speed adjusted to his teammates'.

* * * * * * *

Jack and Daniel found what they believed to be Cassandra's house -- assuming the map they'd found in the record book was correct -- fairly easily. The simple, two storied, wood structure was already showing the lack of attention, but it was obvious that it had been built with care. As they stepped in through the front door, it seemed as though some of the warmth that had once filled the home still lingered in the air. They wandered through the interior, silently hunting for some sign of what they were looking for.

"There," Daniel said suddenly, gesturing toward the broad stone fireplace that dominated the main room of the small home. Inset in the front was a niche identical to the ones in the common house ... except this one contained a carved stone medallion. Slightly larger than Daniel's palm, the heavy greyish stone was flaked in tiny dusts of something that glittered faintly -- perhaps crystalline silver or galena. The carving wasn't delicate, but it was finely done, every line perfectly smooth, each shape flawlessly formed. The Egyptologist plucked the medallion out of the niche, startled by the weight. It was some kind of dense rock, probably with a high heavy metal content. He rubbed his thumb against the surface, noting the glittery flakes ... lead maybe.

"That it?" Jack questioned.

"Yeah, I think so." Daniel continued staring at the carving, noting the legend carved around the edge that proclaimed it, 'Bound to protect and defend those of Priam's blood and home from all the demons of earth and air.' He ran his thumb over the raised lettering with a frown. Leaning closer, he made an effort to read the rest of the legend, but it was painfully small, and time had worn the relief now to little more than a hint of what it must have once been. He could make out a word or two, but not enough to make sense of the meaning, and there were too many gaps in his knowledge of Hankan culture for him to fill in the blanks.

Squelching an uneasy shiver, Jack flashed a look around the simply hewn room as he waited for Daniel to finish making up his mind, half expecting to see something ghostly hovering in the dark corners. No more watching all night Twilight Zone Marathons the night before major missions ... particularly ones involving trips to dead worlds rumored to be haunted by ghosts and demons. Amazing how much a child's supposedly irrational fears could affect an allegedly sensible adult ... though Jack had his doubts just how much of a sensible adult he really was. Which was probably why he was thinking that if anyplace in the universe was likely to be haunted, it was Hanka. Another shiver worked its way down his spine. Of course, the local reading material probably hadn't helped much. After the first, painfully boring few pages, it had delved into the intricacies of demon fighting in extensive -- not to mention gory -- detail. Definitely not what a person should be reading before wandering through a dark, empty house in a dead village.

"This must be it," Daniel decided at last, interrupting Jack's creeped out musing. Even though he couldn't make out all of the lettering, what he could read was enough to confirm what he'd already been certain of.

O'Neill heaved a relieved sigh. "Let's get out of here then," he said on a note of heartfelt relief.

Daniel tucked the heavy stone into one of the pouches on his belt and nodded. Despite any fascination with the Hankan culture, if he stopped to think about it too much, he was no more eager than Jack to hang around the place. He was used to dealing with the dead and buried, but this was all a little too fresh for him to successfully maintain his usual objectivity.

A moment later, the men were hiking toward the gate at top speed.

* * * * * * *

Sam sighed softly as she straightened from the log where she'd taken a seat while Teal'c was opening the gate. Frequent efforts to clear her faceplate had actually managed to remove a little of the muck, though it had also smeared it everywhere. She could see a little, but she knew the gate was open mostly by sound. The event horizon wasn't a quiet happening. She heard a matching sigh in her earpiece and glanced over as Janet -- a moving yellow haze in her decon suit -- found her feet as well. "Not exactly a vacation day, huh?" Carter drawled wryly, using humor to ease some of the very real fear they were both fighting.

The doctor laughed very softly and reached out to settle one hand on Sam's shoulder while she hooked the other under her elbow supportively, guiding her toward the stairs on the front of the gate platform. "I've had better days," she admitted. "But hopefully this will make things a lot easier at home."

Reminded of the very real reasons for the mission, Sam nodded. "God, I hope so," she exhaled meaningfully as she limped forward, wincing when they hit the stairs. Her leg was loosening up with use, but it was quite tender.

As they reached the top, Teal'c joined them, his staff gripped tightly in one hand. "Please inform General Hammond that I will return with Colonel O'Neill and Daniel Jackson," he requested with formal courtesy.

"Oh yeah," Fraiser moaned, "General Hammond will be there." She'd managed to put that idea out of her mind until the Jaffa's reminder. "Somehow, I don't think he's likely to be thrilled with our performance on this one."

"Yup ... for once, you're gonna be the one to get the lecture to be more careful in the future," Sam said almost cheerfully, using bravado to cover her worries.

"Hey," the doctor yelped in annoyance. "'Scuse me, but exactly who was it who fell down the shaft and needed rescuing in the first place?"

"Picky, picky," Sam teased as they stepped up to the gate. "Besides, it's about time you got one of his lectures."

"Great," Fraiser complained. "All that and the isolation chamber too. Can my life get any better?"

"Sure, but nuclear armageddon would probably be involved," Sam teased. They stepped through together, so Teal'c never heard the doctor's response.

The Jaffa stared musingly after the two women for a moment, then shut the gate down and began readying the M.A.L.P. to return while he waited for the others.

* * * * * * *

Continue to Part Three

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