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 3
Crying in the Night

"So runs my dream, but what am I?
And infant crying in the night:
An infant crying for the light"
And with no language but a cry."
-- Alfred, Lord Tennyson --
In Memorium A.H.H. -- 1850

Carter and Fraiser returned to the gateroom to find the medical staff waiting, their faces worried behind the clear, plexiglass faceplates of their decontamination suits when they got a look at Carter. Their frowns only deepened as their superior calmly explained her own condition. Within moments, the team had washed the exterior of the doctor's suit down with harsh antibacterials, then loaded her -- still in the suit -- into a self-contained, transport bubble headed for an isolation room.

Sam would have preferred to stay with her friend, but a nurse caught her upper arm, tugging her out of the way when the team moved to hustle the doctor out, already discussing treatment possibilities among themselves as though there were indicators that the doctor was ill.

But Sam hadn't seen any sign of illness. Then again, vision wasn't exactly her strong point at that time. She stared after the team, peering intently through the haze of her mask, not hearing the nurse giving her orders until a strong hand curved to her upper arm, tugging her into place so she was standing in a metal drainage tub. The remaining medical staff tried several things before coming up with a solvent that cut the harsh black grit coating her suit, and soon she found herself watching the thick, grey sludge liquify and slide over the surface of her face-plate, running like wet paint on a transparent canvas. The material pooled in the tub at her feet, forming a faintly foamy ink around her boots.

Her expression distant, Sam barely noticed, running on auto pilot as she followed directions, her thoughts on a thousand other things, but mostly with Janet -- wherever she was by then -- imagining what was happening to her -- going over every scenario, both good and bad. Sam rolled her eyes ceilingward, breathing deeply to control stress. Janet had to be okay.

But the illness had killed a team before they could get back through the gate and wiped out the Hankans. If she'd been exposed....

Sheer terror tightened a band around Sam's chest, making it hard to breathe and churning her thoughts until she couldn't concentrate to save her life.

Sensing her worries, the nurse leaned into her line of sight, her tone sympathetic as she quietly said, "They're just taking all possible precautions. It doesn't necessarily mean there's a problem."

Sam nodded in understanding, then looked up toward the booth, suddenly wondering if vision was such a wonderful thing when she saw the look on General Hammond's face. Not pleased, to say the least. She swallowed hard, then glanced upward as one of the overhead fluorescent lighting fixtures flickered gently. She made a mental note to remind the maintenance crew to change out the gateroom lights, since any variation in the electrical signal moving through the lines could possibly effect gate performance. The base generator was very closely controlled and monitored for just that reason. She was still avoiding looking at General Hammond when his voice echoed over the loudspeakers, deep and tight with worry as well as something that bordered on anger.

"Captain Carter," he said firmly, his accent more prevalent than normal, "I'd like to speak to you as soon as you're released by the medical staff."

Blue eyes swung back toward the control booth. "Yes, sir," Sam said quickly, suddenly dry mouthed, comfortably certain she was due for a lecture. The fluorescent flickered again, drawing her attention back to it. "Sir, that should be fixed as quickly as possible."

"I'll make certain the maintenance crew is informed," Hammond assured her.

And then the medical team was hurrying Sam on her way, working their way through the layers of protection instituted to protect the rest of the base. She had stripped out of her decon suit and was just being misted down with an antibacterial solution to kill any surviving contaminants when she heard the familiar warning klaxons signal a returning gate crew, then Hammond's voice informed them all over the loudspeaker that the rest of SG-1 had returned safely. At least one worry was off her chest. Heaving a sigh of relief, Sam glanced upward and noted another flickering fluorescent. She made a mental note to drop a memo to the maintenance crew. Obviously, they either weren't keeping up their change-out schedule or it needed to be upgraded. Then her thoughts were drawn to more immediate matters as the medics hustled her on to the next step in the decontamination process.

* * * * * *

Four Hours Later

"You're working?" Samantha Carter's voice echoed over the tinny, Isolation Room speakers, her tone disbelieving.

Janet looked up from the computer screen she was staring at and turned toward the observation window. One eyebrow rose sharply and a wry smile played about full lips. "Warner finished treating my back, and General Hammond finished his lecture ... and I didn't have anything else to do." She shrugged one shoulder. "Couldn't sleep, so I figured I might as well get some work done to keep myself busy." She eyed Sam, noting she was wearing BDU's and had a clipboard tucked under her arm. She was obviously still working, limp and all. "Besides," she added, the arched eyebrow climbing even higher on her forehead, "I could say the same for you." She nodded to indicate Sam's leg. "Shouldn't you be off that leg and in bed?" She sounded annoyed that Carter was up and working.

"Yeah, well...." Carter shrugged. "Once they looked at it, there was no real damage ... just a little stressed ... and ... well...." She offered a tiny, embarrassed shrug. "The ... uh ... power's been a ... little...." She was battered and bruised all to hell, but nothing bad enough to keep her off her feet. Which was a good thing as far as Sam was concerned. She couldn't stand just lying around in the infirmary. That allowed her brain far too much time to come up with worst possible case scenarios. Even if the power hadn't been glitching, she'd have had to find something to occupy her attention just to stay sane.

A light flickered overhead and Fraiser's computer screen glitched at the same time. "Yeah, I've noticed," the doctor sighed.

"And I do know the system better than anyone else," Sam admitted with quiet practicality that was surprisingly free of ego. She'd personally designed or upgraded so much of it that no one else alive could possibly know it the way she did.

Janet couldn't argue with that statement. Her eyes flicked up as the disco lightshow made another brief appearance. "Any idea what's going on? It's been bad enough that I've had to save every couple of minutes to avoid losing any work." Her tone made it obvious she'd made that discovery the hard way.

"It looks like it's a little worse in here than elsewhere ... probably because of all the sensitive equipment." Sam glanced up at the lights as though she might see a solution to the problem that easily. "There was apparently a mild anomaly in the electrical signal from the gate when you and I came through," she explained as she looked back down at her friend. "I think it either caused a minor short circuit or some kind of glitch in that program that oversees the generator. Either way we're getting slight power fluctuations ... and I haven't managed to figure out the pattern yet...." She trailed off thoughtfully even as the bugzapper effect made the lights flicker again.

"Are you sure there is a pattern?" the doctor asked uncertainly. It had all looked pretty random to her.

Sam offered a small shrug. "If it's mechanical, it is," she said with utter certainty, "though it may be too subtle to actually figure it out." She nodded toward the softly glowing computer monitor. "Tests on the Sherxan?" she asked, though it was the last thing on her mind. She wanted to ask the other woman about her condition, but the risk of hearing bad news held her back even though she was certain she'd have heard if there was anything to worry about. Still, she just couldn't quite get the words out. As Janet turned to flash a glance toward the computer, Carter ran her eyes over the other woman's slender frame, hunting for any sign of weakness or disease. She looked okay, a little tired maybe, and she was moving a little stiffly, but that was no surprise considering the physical beating she'd taken. Sam felt her leg throb, protesting all the walking she'd done checking on the power problem and reminding her that she'd received a pretty good pounding of her own. But overall, Janet looked strong and there was no sign of anything that might indicate the Hankan plague was working its destructive black magic on her body.

"...just the prelims. Warner's overseeing a complete battery of tests," Janet was saying as she pointed at something on her computer monitor, and Sam suddenly realized she'd fogged out for a moment. "But so far, it looks clean ... no sign of contamination once it had gone through the whole decon process."

"That's good," Sam said with a quick nod. "Any idea when it might be released from quarantine?"

The doctor shrugged. "Probably about the same time I will, since the cultures just take a given amount of time to mature." She turned back to face Carter again, her expression worried. "Have you talked to Cass?"

"Yeah, I gave her a call and let her know you wouldn't be home for a day or two, but that I'd be there when I could."

"How's she doing?"

Sam shrugged. "She sounded okay ... a little stressed, but not too bad ... and she was worried about you when I said you'd been in an accident."

A frown ghosted across the doctor's face. "Did you tell her what happened ... where we were and what we found?" she clarified.

The blond quickly shook her head. "No, I didn't want to build her hopes up in case we can't let her have it for some reason."

The doctor nodded. They hadn't told Cass about the mission for just those reasons, so she was glad that Sam had stuck to that decision. "That's good. So you're going over there?"

"Yeah," Sam assured her. She tapped her clipboard. "As soon as I can ... though it may be a little while....." She rolled her eyes as the lights danced again. "If we can't get a handle on this in the next few hours, I'll set up a work order ... get the team started, then go on and at least spend a few hours with her."

"Hopefully, that'll help her get through," the doctor said softly, this time without a trace of the jealousy that sometimes bothered her. "At least until we can figure the rest of it out."

Sam nodded, her gaze momentarily distant as she let her eyes slide around the cluttered environs of the Isolation Room. Scientific equipment filled every spare inch of space along with a wide variety of video cameras, microphones and other monitoring equipment. It was designed for maximum flexibility in testing and monitoring subjects while keeping them safely quarantined. She'd been on the other side of the glass a couple of times and it hadn't bothered her that much, but it was different when she was on this side of the glass and a friend on the other one ... particularly since she'd gotten there saving Sam....

"I'm doing okay, Sam," Janet said as if reading her mind.

Blue eyes swung back to the woman in the Isolation Room, taking in the cuts and bruises that marred soft flesh, and the stiff way she stood. Emotion tightened Sam's throat, and she didn't speak for a moment as it occurred to her that she'd been too frightened of the answers to actually ask the questions. "You're sure?" she questioned at last, her voice creaking painfully.

Janet offered a slightly watery smile and a tiny shrug. "Well, the complete battery of cultures isn't finished yet ... but I feel okay, and there was no sign of any infection in the tests they've already run." Another small shrug. "Considering what we know about the disease, I think the probability is high that I wasn't infected."

It wasn't exactly the absolute reassurance Sam would have preferred, but she heaved a sigh of relief, grateful for any good news she could get. "I called Warner a couple of times," a couple of times an hour, actually, though she was suddenly uncomfortable admitting it, "to check and see how you were doing." She'd felt hopelessly foolish worrying about a few flickering lights when the other woman might be fighting for her life, but the job had needed doing, and she knew she wouldn't be helping Janet any by just sitting around worrying. "Been pretty worried actually," she admitted, leaning more firmly against the counter. She lifted a hand, resting her palm lightly against the glass barricade of the observation window, spreading her fingers as if to increase the contact denied them by the quarantine.

Hidden by the camouflaging darkness of surrounding irises, the doctor's pupils expanded, her body responding as if touched by the nonexistent caress. "Well, it looks like I'm going to be fine, so don't worry," she exhaled, her voice coming out oddly breathy. The moment lasted no more than a second or two, but for that time, both women were completely absorbed in one another.

Finally, Sam cleared her throat. "I ... uh ... I hope you know that's all I want," she said, her voice husky with emotion. "For you to be all right, I mean." She leaned a little closer to the window, staring down at the other woman, her expression intent, wanting Janet to understand just how seriously she took what she was about to say. "And I don't want you to worry about Cass while you're in there." She glanced away for the briefest second to concentrate on what she was saying. "She's my responsibility too. I know I didn't do so well at first, but I want you to know that I'm aware of things and I won't let either of you down...."

Janet could only stare up at Sam for a moment, suddenly dry-mouthed under the impact of intense emotion. She couldn't help but wonder if Sam had any idea just what effect avowals like that had on her.

No, of course she didn't, the doctor reminded herself. Sam was utterly and completely oblivious to the impact of her own words. Would that you could be too, Janet mused wryly as she fought to gain a little emotional distance. Even a simple physical response would have been easier to deal with than the complex array of emotions and sensations the other woman's tenderness caused. "Thank you," she said at last, the gratitude as much about the reassurance offered as the practicalities of looking after Cassandra.

"I'd do anything possible to help," Sam stumbled over her own words, thinking she should have something more to say, but feeling painfully tongue tied as she lost herself in the depths of rich, brown eyes. "I hope you know that." Her fingers curled faintly against the glass, the cool, slick texture a stark contrast to the sensory memory her brain insisted on dredging up of warm, velvety-soft skin overlaying firm muscle. She was so shaken to realize just how badly she wanted to feel that tactile reassurance of life and health once again that she almost couldn't cover her response.

Sam was still working on decoding her own thoughts when the door to the observation room swung open.

"Have no fear," Jack O'Neill crowed as he preceded Teal'c into the room, completely oblivious to the less-than-ecstatic response his entrance received from the two women, "help is here."

Sam had the urge to echo Janet's nearly inaudible, "Oh God."

Jack suddenly noticed Sam, and he canted his head to one side, offering a teasingly chiding look. "Carter, aren't you supposed to be working?"

Raising an eyebrow at the thick stack of magazines tucked under his arms, she offered a small shrug. "I just stopped by to check on Doctor Fraiser, sir," she explained, then glanced back at her friend, startled to realize she was almost equally annoyed with, and relieved by, the interruption. Which was just the sort of thought she was eager to avoid contemplating for as long as possible. "But I should probably be getting back now." She turned back toward the observation window, her gaze locking with Janet's. "Don't worry about anything, okay?" She lifted her hand back to the cool barrier of the glass. "I'll make sure Cass is okay. You just take care of yourself." She retrieved her clipboard from the counter and tucked it back under her arm. She glanced back at O'Neill, noting that the magazines he was carrying had names like Nintendo Power and Gamer's Monthly. Clearly, he was about to take advantage of the doctor's status as a captive audience to push for his favorite pet cause -- adding a gaming system to the Isolation and Observation Rooms. Since he spent so much time there, he figured it was only fair that he get to make some decisions about the scientific equipment needed.... Which meant it was time to flee. When an unstoppable force is about to meet an immovable object, the worst thing a body can do is get in the middle. "I'll stop by again later."

The doctor nodded, her expression grateful and raised one hand in a tiny wave. "Thanks."

An uncertain nod, and then Sam glanced back at her superior as if remembering his presence. She looked past the colonel and noted Teal'c watching her closely. "I...uh...I'll be going now," she murmured.

O'Neill stepped up to the observation window, lifting the top magazine so the doctor could see. "What I was thinking, Doc, is we could...."

Sam was on her way out as she heard the doctor's voice sounding wryly annoyed as she just kept repeating the word, "No," over and over. A hint of a smile touched Carter's mouth. At least Janet wouldn't be worrying about whether or not she had the plague with the colonel around, though her blood pressure could become a problem.

Several hours later, Sam grumbled several disgusted invectives under her breath as she glanced at her watch, then stared at the latest computer printout showing the status of the base's power grid. She'd hoped to have the problem fixed and be headed offbase a lot earlier. A wave of guilt settled on her shoulders for not getting over to Janet's place to look after Cass sooner. Unfortunately, the latest readout was more or less identical to the previous one -- at least in terms of the number of non-standard fluctuations, though the locations were apparently more or less random -- and until she had at least some kind of handle on the situation, she didn't feel she could leave since there were teams still on the other side of the gate. The power fluctuations had to be straightened out to make certain they could return safely. Unfortunately, if anything, the frequency of events seemed to be accelerating. Clearly, nothing the team had tried so far had done a thing to fix the problem. Frowning, she stared at the numbers, trying to find some kind of pattern without success. She reached out, trailing her fingers over the figures as if that might help clear her thoughts. There was something there, but....

She shook her head in frustration, unable to put it together the way she thought she should.

"Captain?" One of the crewmembers broke in on her thoughts, waiting for some kind of orders.

Sam sighed softly, noting a few drops of blood on her knuckles. Cursing her own stupidity -- obviously she'd cut it while working on one of the banks of equipment -- she absently rubbed the back of her hand on her pants leg as she ran a mental check list, hunting for anything they hadn't already tried before finally coming up with a couple of options. "Okay," she said at last, "what we need to do is...."

* * * * * *

Cursing the eye-strain-inducing flickering of the lights, Janet glared at the latest test results Warner had delivered, then glanced at the surgeon where he stood off to one side, looking bulky and uncomfortable in the bright yellow decon suit as he checked the results on the monitors tracking her condition. "So it's just a hunk of carved rock," she murmured, still flipping through the papers.

He turned back and nodded. "Looks like it. The high lead content in the rocks made the X-Rays unreliable, but everything else was pretty conclusive."

 

"Which means once we're sure it's not contaminated, we can take it out of quarantine." She heaved a sigh of relief. Then maybe Cass would finally feel safe.

"Don't see why not," Warner agreed as he finished jotting the necessary information on her chart and laid it aside. He turned to face her and suddenly stiffened.

"What?" Janet murmured just as a drop of blood hit the paper on her lap. "What the...."

"It's the wound on your forehead," he said as he hurried over. He tucked a gentle finger under her chin, tipping her head up and leaning down to check the injury at her hairline. He peeled the bandage back carefully, startled when it came away in pieces. "Damn," he cursed softly and tossed it aside, "the nurse must have nicked the gauze with a scalpel when she was preparing it," he muttered unhappily as he noted the razor perfect slice in the dressing. He leaned closer, peering down at the exposed injury, a frown creasing his forehead. "Or maybe I did it when I was applying things ... since it looks like a couple of the stitches were nicked too." His frown deepened. Normally, he wasn't one to make stupid mistakes, but things had been pretty crazy and there'd been so many things going on at once. "I'm surprised they didn't break loose sooner. Must not have sliced quite all the way through." He leaned a little closer, frowning as he tried to see more, but was prevented from getting a better look by the blood welling up. "Did you feel any pulling around the stitches?" he questioned, thinking it shouldn't have been bleeding like that after that many hours if there hadn't been some pressure. He used the damaged gauze to mop up the worst of the blood only to have it quickly well up again.

Janet shook her head uncertainly and started to reach up only to check the gesture. "I don't think so." She paused for a moment, frowning up at Warner, then added, "I didn't feel any twinges." She thought about it for a moment, then amended her comments. "Well ... maybe a really small one."

"It probably pulled a little when the stitches finally snapped ... opened things up." He frowned behind the protective mask. "It's bleeding too heavily. I'm going to have to restitch it." Muttering a disgusted curse under his breath, he turned away and began gathering things from the medical supplies standardly kept on hand. "Sorry about the screwup. Let me just grab a few things and I'll clean it up."

Janet nodded. "Don't worry about it," she said as he turned away and began grabbing supplies. "Things were pretty crazy." She reached up, fingers just barely brushing the injury and coming away wet with blood, a little surprised it hadn't opened up sooner considering how heavily it seemed to be bleeding now. "This was the least of everyone's worries at the time." They'd all been far more focused on getting the black gunk off her back ... preferably without having to resort to something that ran the risk of getting toxins into her bloodstream.

"Well, I'm sorry," he muttered as he returned to her bedside and laid things out on a rolling surgical table. "It's a stupid mistake ... and I should be shot for making it," he muttered, still trying to remember how he could have done it and coming up blank. Then he pushed that thought aside as he focused on repairing the damage, working quickly and competently to seal the wound.

* * * * * *

Her hair still damp from a recent shower, Sam paused in front of the observation window that overlooked Isolation Room Two, a hint of a smile curving her lips as she stared down at the woman sitting cross-legged on the hospital bed, her head down as she read from papers clipped to the board resting on her lap. Wearing oversized surgical scrubs, her hair loose around her shoulders, she looked younger and more relaxed than normal, which was ironic, all things considered. She also looked healthy, something that was confirmed by the lack of panicky doctors worrying over their superior's imminent demise. Sam felt a tiny shudder of profound relief slide down her spine. It wasn't a guarantee that the other woman was okay by any means, since they didn't know precisely how long it took for the disease to manifest itself under normal conditions, but it was definitely a good sign. She was going to be all right, she thought as she continued to watch the other woman, drinking in the reassuring sight of her sitting there. She had to be.

As if sensing the close perusal, Janet's chin rose, a genuine smile curving her lips. "Sam," she said, clearly happy for the company. She pointed ceilingward with her pen. "Doesn't seem to be flickering anymore," she said hopefully.

Sam nodded, slim shoulders dipping in a diffident shrug as she responded. "The third time we restored the generator software seemed to do the trick." A hint of a frown touched her brow. "At least, I think that's what did it." She noted Janet's head had canted to one side and one eyebrow was neatly arched in a wry expression and offered another shrug. "Or maybe it just decided it felt like working right again." She couldn't quite get over the feeling that nothing she and the repair team had done had fixed the problem. She shook the momentary bemusement off, refocusing on her friend. "You're looking good," she commented, thinking that despite the bruises and bandages, the other woman had never looked better.

A russet eyebrow arched in silent sarcasm. Janet knew perfectly well that she looked like ten miles of bad road. "Well, alive anyway," she drawled after a beat.

Sam winced at the reminder of just how easily things could have gone the other way. "Seems to me that's the best look you could possibly have," she said after a beat.

Janet's head tipped to one side. "Good point." She ran a hand over her hair, wincing as her fingers encountered the bandage taped to her forehead at the hairline. "And it definitely beats the alternatives."

"It certainly does," Sam agreed with heartfelt sincerity, not letting herself contemplate what she would have done if she'd lost her friend. "So, any idea how much longer you're going to be stuck in here?" she asked to distract her brain from its tendency to wander down scary pathways.

"Not too much longer. The current guess is sometime tomorrow," Janet sighed, tapping a random beat on the surface of the clipboard with her pen. "The most recent round of tests all look good, but not all of the cultures have matured." She reached up to rub the back of her neck, wincing as she encountered sore muscles.

"That looked like it hurt," Sam whispered sympathetically, her voice barely carrying over the microphone.

"Must admit," the doctor responded through a flinch, "I'd kill for a backrub right now."

"Sorry I can't help you," Carter apologized, "but I'm available the moment you're out," she offered, trying to convince herself that it was just because she wanted to give her friend any comfort she could, and had nothing to do with the guilty pleasure she took from the contact.

"Thanks," Janet murmured with a smile, thinking she really shouldn't allow herself to be so eager about the idea. To change the subject, she nodded to indicate Sam's damp hair and civvies. "So, you out of here now?"

The blond nodded. "Yeah, I've spoken to Cass a couple of times, and she seems to be doing okay, but since we got the power problems straightened out, I figured I'd get over there ... just wanted to check in with you first."

A grateful smile curved full lips. "I'm glad you'll be there. I know it helps her to have you close when things get rough." She glanced at her watch -- and since Cass's bedtime was fast approaching, things would probably be getting rough soon.

"Not much lately," Carter muttered disgustedly, "but I try."

Dark eyes filled with understanding. Janet knew that painful frustration all too well. "Well, hopefully, once the Sherxan is out of quarantine and she has it in hand, things'll get better."

Sam nodded, a small sigh escaping her lips."So, would you like me to come back and pick you up when you're released?" she asked after a beat.

Fraiser shook her head. "No, my car's here, and I'm okay to drive." She stared up at Sam, noting the way she was still favoring one leg. No surprise about that. It was undoubtedly hurting more than she was letting on ... and Janet would have bet real money other parts of her body were too. Carter gave all new meaning to the word 'workaholic' some days. "Besides, you should be taking it easy."

"I'm fine," Sam waved any worries about herself aside, her expression doubtful as her gaze went to the pale bandage that marred Janet's forehead. "And I really don't mind coming back. You took a couple of pretty hard hits to the head...."

"Yeah, and I've got the goose eggs to show for it, not to mention a few stitches," the doctor admitted without commenting that they'd had to be redone, then added with an ironic smile, "but luckily, no concussion. I should be fine."

"Okay," Sam allowed, though she didn't like the idea. She stuffed her hands in her jacket pockets to have something to do with them. "But if you change your mind or don't feel up to it when you're released, just call me on my cell. I'd be more than happy to come back and pick you up." Actually, she'd feel better about it if she did.

"Don't worry, I'll be fine," Janet waved the idea aside. "I think it's more important that you stay with Cass." Besides, if things got particularly bad, Sam might not be in great shape to drive by morning.

"If you change your mind or have any doubts, just call," Carter reiterated firmly.

"I will," Janet assured her, "I promise."

"Okay," Sam murmured, wise enough to recognize the determination in her friend's eyes. "Just so you know it's an option...." She trailed off into silence, not knowing what else to say and not quite ready to leave.

Janet sat equally silently, knowing she should urge Sam on her way -- Cass needed her -- but her presence was a comforting distraction after the hours of waiting and wondering. "Well, you should probably be going," she said at last.

Sam nodded, knowing Janet was right, but didn't move. "Yeah, I guess I should," she exhaled at last, then leaned closer to the microphone. "But before I go, I just want to tell you how grateful I am for what you did ... and how truly ... truly glad I am that it looks like you're going to be okay." She swallowed hard, fighting the tightness in her throat as she continued. "I don't know what I would have done if anything had happened ... especially since...." She trailed off, unable to finish the guilt ridden sentence, '...especially since you got hurt saving my life.' She shook her head. "You shouldn't have taken the risk," she croaked a second later.

"I couldn't let you die," Janet said simply. That just hadn't been an option. She'd have gladly suffered through anything necessary in order to prevent that. Her emotions might be confused on any number of points, but not on that one. When it came to Sam's survival, she was crystal clear.

Carter looked faintly taken aback, and she swallowed again, not knowing what to say. "I hope you know," she said at last, "that I'd do anything if I could trade places with you."

Knowing Sam as well as she did, there'd never been any doubt of that in Janet's mind. A tender smile curved her lips. "I know." That utter selflessness often amazed her, but it was such an integral part of the other woman's personality that there was never any doubt in her mind how Sam would react. The blond's discomfort with Janet's absolute faith was evident in the way she shuffled uncertainly, and she offered her an escape route with the quiet reminder, "You should probably go ahead and get going. Cass'll be waiting."

Sam nodded. "Yeah," she sighed regretfully, feeling torn between her sense of responsibility toward the child and her desire to stay close to the woman in the Isolation Chamber. She stuffed her hands back in her jacket pockets. "But remember, just call me if you need a ride back."

"I will," Janet promised. "Tell Cass I ... I'm thinking of her."

"I will," Sam assured her.

A moment later, they'd said their final goodbyes and Sam slipped out, leaving Janet staring longingly after her. Flopping back onto the mattress and folding an arm over her face, she wondered if the other woman had any idea how hard it had been to send her on her way. If she hadn't been so poignantly aware of just how badly Cassandra needed Sam's support, she wasn't sure she could have done it.

Because right at that point, she could have used some of that same company and gentle understanding, if only to relieve the boredom and the fears that tended to play havoc with her thoughts when there was nothing to distract them from unwanted pathways. Janet pushed up on her elbows with a soft sigh, glaring at the lights overhead, wishing she could shut them off and get some sleep.

She said as much to Warner several minutes later when he appeared in the observation room, quickly scanning the monitors that were tracking all of her vitals. He smiled faintly and shook his head. "Sorry, Fraiser, you know the rules. Lights on whenever there's a subject in quarantine." He offered a sympathetic look that did nothing to ease her exhaustion.

Muttering a few choice curses, Janet flopped back down on the narrow, hospital issue, cement mattress and folded her arm back over her face. "Thanks," she muttered acidly. "Remind me to say bad things about you on your next review."

Warner didn't sound the least bit intimidated as he responded agreeably, "Yes, Ma'am." He nodded to indicate her head injury. "How's the head?"

She reached up without making contact. It had bled like hell when he was repairing the damage -- the joy of head wounds -- but aside from a touch of wooziness -- undoubtedly a result of exhaustion and shock -- it hadn't bothered her. "It's fine."

A few minutes later, he was finished and she was left alone again, which wasn't quite the relief she thought it would be. Normally, she handled this sort of thing remarkably well, but for some reason, this time was different. Janet shook her head and muttered another curse behind the protection of her forearm. It was just that she'd been edgy since arriving in quarantine ... as though someone or something was watching....

Something other than the myriad of technological and human resources constantly tracking her condition....

Something--

No, that was silly. She quelled that thought through sheer determination. Undoubtedly it was just a product of subconscious suggestion left over from Cass' fears, Daniel's stories, and her own fear of disease ... and of course the steadily flickering lights hadn't exactly helped. She shivered as she suddenly remembered the demon's face she'd seen in the rocks.

Oh yeah, her imagination was definitely having a heyday; gone to town and determined to party, until every little thing seemed to trigger it to all new heights.

Finally, Janet threw any dark suspicions off with a growled curse and pushed upright, retrieving her clipboard as she started going back over the test results that were already in on the Sherxan. Her head down, she carefully studied the battery of tests, hunting for anything unusual, then suddenly, her chin snapped up and she frowned. She stared suspiciously at the lights overhead, trying to decide if she'd seen it flicker. Then she swung her head around, frowning as she stared at a shadowed corner of the room. For a second she thought she'd seen a hint of something out of the corner of one eye, but as she sat staring at her surroundings, that idea seemed patently ridiculous.

"You're losing it, Fraiser," she chastised herself and went back to studying the reports with determined concentration, ignoring any temptation to look up when she thought she caught another hint of fluttering in the light overhead. Now was not the time to let silly fears get the best of her. She cursed a moment later as a blood droplet hit the paper she was studying, and she realized the head wound had opened again. "Dammit." This time she'd just tell Warner to glue it and bandage the hell out of it. Damn head wounds and their tendency to bleed, she thought as she hit the call button to summon her colleague, all thoughts of unsteady lights and shadowed glimpses completely forgotten.

* * * * * *

Having gotten to Fraiser's place in time to spend a pleasant evening teaching Cass the basics of chess, Sam had finally gotten the child to bed -- and to sleep -- and was an unmoving lump in the middle of Janet's bed -- she'd finally grown comfortable with eschewing the couch in favor of the more comfortable environs whenever she stayed over while Janet was away -- when the scream came. She was up and moving in an instant, her pulse racing, heart in her throat, going into disaster mode without even thinking about it. Only later would it occur to her how surprising it was that she hadn't gotten even remotely used to the nightly event. Sweeping a sobbing Cassie into her arms, she enfolded the child protectively, her voice low and soothing as she murmured whatever words of comfort ran through her head even as she prayed it was the last time she'd ever have to go through the agonizing ritual.

* * * * * *

The door between the kitchen and the garage was already swinging open by the time Janet grabbed the small duffel sitting on the passenger seat. Dragging the heavy canvas satchel along, she climbed out, her movements still a little stiff, though a lighthearted grin curved her mouth upward. "Hey there, you two," she said cheerfully to the woman and child hurrying in her direction.

Sam offered a weary smile and ran a hand over her hair. "You look good." She nodded to indicate the satchel, one eyebrow raising in silent question.

Janet glanced down, then back up and nodded before reaching out to brush a light caress over Cass's hair, then tugging the child into a slightly stiff hug. It wasn't the absolute adoration Cassandra showed Sam, but when she wrapped her arms around Janet and hugged her back, there was genuine relief in the gesture.

"Sam said you had an accident," the girl murmured, still holding on surprisingly tightly. After a beat, she stepped back a pace and peered up at Janet. "You're okay though?" she asked hesitantly.

Janet nodded, smiling gently. "Yeah, a little stiff and sore, but otherwise I'm fine. And," she held up the satchel for Cass to see, "I have something for you."

Cassandra looked uncertain. "For me?" she questioned and glanced over at Sam, who nodded and offered a reassuring smile.

"Uh huh," Janet responded, resting a hand lightly on the girl's shoulder. "Why don't you go on inside. We'll be with you in just a minute."

The girl was clearly curious -- if a little reticent -- and hurried back into the house, letting the door between the kitchen and garage slam behind her.

Once they were alone Sam slanted a look at Janet. "So everything came out okay?"

The doctor nodded. "Yeah ... they finished all of the tests and concluded it's safe. It's basically just compressed sandstone with a very high lead content. No sign of any contamination. No unusual radiation levels or anything else worth noting." She shrugged. "It's basically a hunk of carved rock ... a heavy hunk of carved rock," she added, glancing down and hefting the bag to indicate the weight.

"So, how are you doing?" Sam asked pointedly, since that had been the real point of the question. She studied Janet carefully, needing to reassure herself that the other woman really was all right.

Slim shoulder dipped in a weary shrug. "Dead tired ... and praying to god this works." She peered up at Sam, noting there were dark circles under her eyes despite the cheerful mien she'd managed while Cass was there. "How bad was last night?" Instinct told her the answer wasn't a pleasant one.

A very small, exhausted, and frightened sigh escaped Sam's lips. "Roughest yet," she said simply.

Janet winced sympathetically. "Well, hopefully, this'll help."

"God, I hope so." Blue eyes slid closed for a moment. "I'm not sure I could handle another night like last night." She shook her head. "I can't stand seeing her so scared and not being able to help."

"I know," Janet exhaled and patted Sam lightly on the upper arm, the gesture a comfort for both of them. She understood all too well what Sam had gone through and just how terrifying it was. "But we'll get through it ... and ... if this doesn't work ... we'll find something else," she said haltingly, not wanting to even contemplate the possibility that the Sherxan wouldn't fix the problem, but also needing to make her determination to see things through absolutely clear.

Staring down into impossibly deep eyes, Sam found herself believing it; a stark contrast to the worst part of the night when she'd seriously wondered if she could keep doing this. She reached out, fingers finding the warmth of her friend's hand and squeezing tightly. "We should get inside. Cass'll be waiting," she said at last, her voice hoarse with exhaustion and emotion.

They found Cass already ensconced on the living room couch, a small, silent figure scrunched in one corner, one hand playing idly with the fringe on the corner pillow. She looked decidedly nervous to Janet's eyes. Hardly surprising, she supposed. The poor kid hadn't exactly had a lot of good surprises lately. She offered what she hoped was a reassuring smile and settled the duffle on the coffee table between them.

"What is it?" the girl asked uncertainly as Janet knelt down and unzipped the satchel.

"I think you'll like it," Sam said to ease any worries as she stepped up behind Janet. Without planning to, she settled a hand on the kneeling woman's shoulder and felt a ripple of tension slide through the muscles under her fingers. Rubbing the pad of her thumb very lightly against spring steel taut sinews, she watched curiously as the doctor reached into the bag.

"I just hope it's what you're looking for," Fraiser said softly as she lifted a heavy, cloth-wrapped package out of the bag and held it out to Cass.

Blue eyes dropped to the item in Janet's hand, then rose to search both women's faces, then dropped again, staring very uncertainly at the package. Finally, she reached out gingerly, visibly startled by the weight when she accepted it from Janet. Delicate fingers carefully folded the soft cloth back, their movements becoming faster as she revealed first one corner, and then most of the stone medallion. Her eyes round, she stared at it for a long moment, almost perfectly still, as though she was afraid of moving and waking from the first pleasant dream she'd had since her world's death. "The Sherxan," she exhaled at last and looked up, tears welling up in her eyes. "You brought it." Apparently, saying the word was okay now that it was in hand.

Sam nodded, her hand still on Janet's shoulder, consciously presenting a united front in hopes that Cassandra would understand that they'd both been instrumental in bringing it back. "That's the mission we were on," she told the child.

Cass swallowed hard, looking back down at the stone tablet resting on her palm and taking up most of her hand. After a moment, she reached out with her other hand, tracing the low relief of the letters with a single finger. Her chin quivered, cupid's bow lips compressing tightly as she fought tears. "My mom..." she spoke at last, her voice little more than a strained whisper, "she was the keeper for our ch�gal ... the other houses all had copies inside ... carved from the same stone and blessed by the priests ... but this ... this is original ... carved by Priam himself." She rubbed her thumb lightly against the smooth stone. "I-it would have been mine one day ... my responsibility ...t-to care for...." Her voice choked off and she couldn't finish.

Janet glanced over her shoulder to share a hopeful look with Sam. It looked like maybe their plan was working.

Watery blue eyes slid open again and Cass looked up at Sam. "Y-you went to Hanka?" she said a little uncertainly as though it had just occurred to her what would have to happen to bring the Sherxan back.

Sam nodded. "Yeah, we did," she said, trying to make the point that Janet had been as much a part of bringing it back as she had. "And Teal'c, Daniel, and the colonel were there as well," she added, without explaining that O'Neill and Daniel had actually been the ones who found the thing.

The child suddenly looked scared, her eyes wide as they touched on Janet. "That's how you were hurt," she whispered as she put everything together. She paled another shade. "The Devourers--"

"There was nothing ... no creatures," Janet broke in to reassure the child. "I just took a little fall ... and my suit had a bad day as a result."

Cass looked doubtful. "Really?"

"Really," the doctor confirmed, though she had to contain a tiny flinch as she remembered the brief moment when she'd actually thought there was a demon in the pit. She had to hold back a self-mocking laugh at her own expense for her silliness. Now wasn't the time for laughter. "I promise, no ... Devourers." She shared a look with Sam. "Just a bit of bad luck."

Reassured, the child heaved a sigh of relief and visibly relaxed. She looked back down at the carved stone in her hand. "We'll be okay now," she whispered as much to herself as the two women. "It'll keep us safe when they come."

Janet reached out, curving one hand over the top of one of Cass' smaller ones. "Hopefully you can relax a little now," she said very softly.

The child frowned, blue eyes searching Janet's face until she suddenly reared back ever so slightly. "You don't believe it," she whispered, sounding hurt and appalled by the discovery.

Caught by surprise, Janet's mouth hung open for a brief second as she hunted for an answer that would ease the note of accusation in the child's voice without being a bald-faced lie. "I think that you believe, so it's very important--"

"But you don't believe," Cass interrupted, her voice taking on a tinge of anger.

Sam firmed her grip on Janet's shoulder as she felt a tiny tremor slide through the woman's muscles. "I think what Janet meant--" she began, but Cass cut her off.

"You don't believe either," she said, her angry tone melting into one of hurt betrayal.

"It's not that we don't--" Janet began, desperate to retrieve a situation that suddenly felt like it was spinning out of control.

Cass didn't let her finish. "You don't understand!" Close to tears, she stared up at Sam, her expression pleading. "You can't use it if you don't believe--"

"Cass--" Sam began again, but the girl shook her head, her tone desperate.

"You're bound to every other soul in the ch�gal.... Y-you have to feel that ... to believe. How are they supposed to protect you if you don't...." She couldn't finish and trailed off into a choked whisper. Staring up at Sam with heartbreaking intensity, she husked, "We're family ... don't you see?"

Her chest suddenly tight with helpless emotion, Sam nodded. "I know that--"

"No! You don't!" the girl exploded, shaking her head, her small body trembling under the impact of emotions the women had no way of comprehending. "You don't understand at all." She looked back and forth between the two women who had become her only family on this strange new world, the momentary burst of anger draining away. Skinny shoulders slumped. "I know you're trying," she admitted at last, suddenly feeling bad about the hurt she saw reflected in their expressions. "But you don't understand at all." She stood a little unsteadily, overwhelmed by the immensity of responsibility that settled on her shoulders. Sam wouldn't be able to wield the Sherxan to protect them ... which meant....

Cassandra shrank before the enormity of it all, on the verge of dissolving into tears as a fierce desire for the comfort of her mother's presence washed over her. She looked back up at the two women staring so worriedly at her. But she had to do it. If she didn't....

A tiny shudder trembled through the child. If she didn't, they were all dead....

...because she'd first sensed the Devourers looking for her -- tracking her -- only days after arriving on this new world. Still lost in her own agony, miserable, frightened, and confused, she'd ignored those first tiny twitches of their presence, hiding inside herself from the harsh reality of the things chasing her, unable to deal with any more trauma in her life. She'd tried telling herself it was just her imagination, or maybe just stress, like the counselor Sam and Janet sent her to insisted when she'd tried to broach the subject with him. She'd told herself over and over that it was nothing -- after all, her father had said they were just superstition and blind fear -- but they kept coming, stalking her when she slept, giving her no peace whenever she closed her eyes. Her father hadn't believed in them, but her father was dead now and if he was right, he was just gone. She couldn't accept that. He had to be a part of the Sherxan, because that meant he would always be with her ... that he -- and the rest of her family -- would always be there to protect her. And her mother had believed. She'd told Cass the old stories dozens of times ... always with the utmost seriousness, wanting her to understand and learn. She'd tried to forget those lessons, tried to pretend they couldn't be real, but she'd glimpsed enough of the shifting shadows to know everything the village priests had said about the Devourers was true. They had come -- just as they had when Priam had first led her people centuries before -- and if something wasn't done, they would destroy her new world.

She suddenly realized that Sam and Janet were still staring expectantly at her. Whatever else, they were trying, they just didn't understand. And her parents had always taught her to make allowances for ignorance and to forgive those who didn't know any better. She took a deep breath, then spoke softly. "Thank you. I do appreciate what you've done." She shook her head, momentarily losing herself in her own thoughts. Clutching the Sherxan tightly, she pushed to her feet. "But ... but I-I need to figure this out." She saw their blank looks and considered saying more, but there was no way to explain it to someone who didn't understand or believe. She waved a hand in the direction of the room that had become her bedroom. "I'll just ... uh ... be in my room." Then she slipped out, leaving the two shell-shocked adults in her wake.

Sam craned her neck, staring after Cassandra until the girl pulled her bedroom door shut behind her. "Okay," she exhaled at last, releasing her tight grip on Janet's shoulder to run a hand over her hair. She abruptly realized how tightly she'd been holding on during when she saw the doctor reach up and massage her shoulder stiffly. "Wasn't this supposed to help?"

"That was the plan." Using the coffee table as a brace, Janet pushed to her feet with a tired sigh. Her gaze distant, she went over everything, replaying the scene in her head.

"Didn't come out quite that way." Sam just stood there, shaking her head dazedly.

"No," Janet sighed. "But I think maybe we gained some ground." Sam's raised eyebrow broadcast her opinion of that comment every bit as eloquently as words, leading the doctor to explain herself, "She was upset but I don't think she was as scared." She combed her bangs back from her forehead.

"Maybe," Sam allowed uncertainly. "But it's still daylight out." And Cass' problems invariably came with the waning of the day.

"I know," Janet murmured thoughtfully, then shrugged. "It just seemed like something had changed...." She trailed off, struggling to dissect the emotions she'd seen on the child's eyes without success. Finally, she shook her head in frustration. "I'm just not sure what."

"I hope you're right," Sam finally murmured, staring after Cassandra for a long moment before she swung her attention back to the woman. "Any idea what we do now?"

"None," Janet admitted. "Give her some time, I guess. We'll know more tomorrow." After they knew whether or not Cass had another round of nightmares. She drew a deep breath and let it out slowly, consciously relaxing taut muscles. She needed a break from it all and to release a little stress, which meant it was time to either laugh or cry. She opted for laughter -- of the ironic variety. She offered Sam a wry smile. "Past that ... I don't know about you, but I'm going to swallow a handful of Advil, then have a seat on the couch, and try not to move any more than is absolutely necessary until it takes effect."

Reminded of the aches and pains throbbing through her own body, Sam accepted the subject change. "How pathetic is it that that sounds as good as it does?" she mused out loud.

"Pretty damn pathetic," Janet admitted, then stepped into the kitchen, digging through a cabinet for a moment before coming up with a large bottle of Advil. She peered at it for a moment, then glanced back as Sam trailed in behind her. "But not as pathetic as the rate at which I go through this stuff." She shook several out, then replaced the lid and tossed the bottle to Sam.

"You'n me both," the blonde drawled in a voice full of understanding, and they shared a knowing grin. Then Sam limped after Janet as the doctor wandered back into the livingroom and plopped onto the couch with a tired sigh. Sam sank down next to her and stretched out long legs, hooking one ankle over the other as she rested her feet on the coffee table. They shared several companionable minutes of silently staring at nothing in particular. "Yep," she sighed at last, "we've really gotta stop leading such exciting lives."

"Sam," Janet pleaded, slanting a gaze at her friend, "don't even say that in jest. It's like washing the car to make it rain. No good can come of it."

Carter peered at her friend, one eyebrow climbing high on her forehead. "I can't believe this," she said at last, her voice thick with barely submerged laughter. "You're superstitious."

Fraiser shook her head in denial. "No," she insisted none-too-convincingly. "I just think you shouldn't dare fate some days ... and all things considered, I think our lives are more than exciting enough, thank you very much."

"You're no fun," Sam pouted, though she made no move to actually get off the couch. That would have involved stressing already exhausted muscles, and -- any jokes aside -- she had zero interest in that concept.

"Hrmph," Janet pouted right back at her, "I'll have you know I'm a great deal of fun. It's not my fault if I keep getting beat up and shot by passing aliens, falling down deep holes on distant worlds, and generally pounded into submission on a regular basis."

A dark blond eyebrow climbed a little higher on Sam's forehead, and she had no idea what demon pressed her to tease, "Into submission are you then?"

The doctor's jaw dropped and, for a moment, she couldn't think of a single thing to say, which only made the blonde's grin widen. Beating Janet Fraiser to a one-liner was nearly unheard of in Sam's experience ... and striking her dumb.... Well, this was definitely a first on that score. Janet sputtered for a moment, while Sam's smile just kept getting wider and wider, then the doctor drew a deep breath. "No," she drawled at last, one eyebrow mimicking Sam's as she regained control, "I'm much more into domination ... and," she added on a sharp note while she gave Sam the evil eye, "I will get you for that one." And try to ignore any and all images burning themselves into her brain while she was at it.

It was Sam's turn to be struck dumb. A tiny shiver slid down her spine even as she kept telling herself it was just a joke; the kind of teasing she would have done with any number of people she worked with. Except, if she had stopped to think about it too hard, she would have recognized the clear-cut self-deception. Sam made her own fair share of jokes on any given day, but much of the time they were so scientifically based that she was the only one who understood them, and they were never sexual in nature. Which was why she didn't let herself think about it too closely. "Promises, promises," she croaked at last when she realized she was in danger of taking far too long to respond.

The two women stared at each other for a long moment, and then suddenly Janet stood ungracefully. "I ... uh ... should probably go check on my ... uh ... my answering machine messages.... May have some calls I ... uh ... have to return." It was possibly the lamest excuse anyone had given ... ever.

Suddenly self-conscious, Sam, however, had no desire to make note of that fact. Much more comfortable to just ignore the entire exchange. "Sure, you check on that." She reached down to grab a magazine off the coffee table. "I'll just check out this week's Newsweek."

Another uncomfortable nod or two, and then the doctor fled, leaving Sam staring at her magazine. Several minutes had passed before it occurred to her that she'd read the same paragraph at least a half a dozen times. Muttering several choice invectives under her breath, she flipped the page, refocusing on the magazine with grim determination. She was just too tired, that was all. The distraction had nothing to do with anything else.

* * * * * *

Built during the height of the cold war, Cheyenne Mountain was designed to withstand a direct nuclear attack. As a result, contrary to what most visitors thought, it wasn't simply a hollowed out, neatly finished cave. Instead, it was a series of reinforced cement boxes sitting on large, shock-absorbing springs tucked inside a cave dug into the mountain. The whole complex was designed to rock and roll with the shockwaves and ride them out if and when the explosions came. As a result, it was possible to step out of the boxes within a hole, into the cavernous and rough carved interior of the mountain itself. In fact, it was required on a regular basis. Non-coms did so daily, moving from the comfortable confines into jagged earth to check the structural integrity of the complex and tighten each of the giant bolts that attached it to the surrounding rock.

Staff Sergeant Mark Malloy was thinking about none of that as he moved through the dusty, rock access corridor. He'd had the rather mindless job of tightening the screws for just over a year, and it wasn't exactly a task that generally required a lot of thought in his experience. He paid just enough attention to do it right, but mostly his mind was on Andrea Galvez, one of the civilian scientists who'd recently been brought aboard the project. She was gorgeous, smart, funny ... and didn't look down her nose at a non-com ... and he found himself wondering if maybe she'd consider dinner and a movie. After ten years of marriage and almost two as a divorced dad, he was feeling distinctly ready to dip his toes in the water and consider dating again and she was the first woman he thought might just be worth the effort and emotional trauma of trying to remember how to ask a woman out again. He was still lost in thought when he noted the too-deep shadows that sank away where a fluorescent light should have glowed white.

Cursing softly, Mark stepped forward, reaching for the flashlight on his belt, only to pause as another light some distance down the corridor flickered and went out. He muttered another curse. Well, he'd just go ahead and get the job done, then report the outages. Probably a side effect from the power problems they'd been handling. The starters on the fluorescent were vulnerable to those sorts of things. There were probably lights out all up and down the line. He paused uncertainly as he considered that thought. The lack of light was likely to slow him down considerably. He reached for his flashlight again, drawing it from the leather holster on his belt, tapping it lightly against the knuckles of his opposite hand as he considered his options for a moment. He was still thinking when he suddenly realized there was blood smeared on the flashlight handle, then looked at his left hand and saw crimson sliding from a gash across his knuckles. "Must've done it on the rocks." There were rough edges everywhere and he'd bashed his hands on them before, though he usually felt the injury when it happened. An ironic smile twisted his lips as he tried to remember if he'd been that distracted by women when he was younger. Remembering an incident involving a set of hedge trimmers, he concluded he had. However, he couldn't finish the bolts until he'd had the injury cleaned and dressed. He fisted his hand tightly, surprised at the weakness that slid through is hand and forearm -- probably hit a nerve -- then turned back, oddly relieved as he stepped back into more well-lit environs. Hurrying now, he never saw the faint glimmer of bluish silver that momentarily hovered in the deepest shadowed part of the corridor behind him before it faded away as though it had never been.

* * * * * *

Cassandra remained holed up in her room the rest of the day, but when dinner time finally rolled around, it was like a completely different child made an appearance. She was amazingly lighthearted, without the underlying current of stress that had been a constant companion for days -- especially as night-time neared. While trading jokes and one-liners with Sam, she even managed to work up a gentle bit of teasing for Janet -- a nearly unheard of event. It was the most pleasant meal the three had shared since her arrival.

With dinner finished, Sam leaned forward on her elbows. "Cass," she began, offering an easy smile, "I've got my telescope in the trunk. Wanna help set it up in the backyard and do a little stargazing?" She'd brought the smaller of her scopes over -- an 8' reflector that, unlike the computer controlled, personally modified, customized, and upgraded one she set up in her own backyard, actually cost less than her car -- the week before and discovered that Cass was utterly fascinated by what she could see through the eyepiece.

Which was why Sam was so surprised when the girl shook her head, her expression regretful. "No ... not tonight. I ... uh ... I've got some stuff I've got to do ... a book I'm reading...." She'd picked up written English quickly since it was so similar to her own language, and become fascinated by the myriad of books available, but it was the first time she'd turned down a chance at time with Sam in favor of reading. Sam was still staring at her in surprise when Cass flashed a wide-eyed look at Janet. "Can I go now?" she asked. Her eyes darted back and forth between the two adults as though she thought Sam might argue.

"Go on," Janet said with a nod.

Cassandra bolted from the room almost instantly, disappearing through the swinging door so fast it continued to rattle back and forth gently in her wake.

Sam stared after the girl, her expression a little hurt.

"She needs time to process it all, Sam," Janet said softly.

Carter looked over at her friend, a pained shadow still visible in her eyes. Amazing how being brushed off by one small child could make her chest ache, and even more amazing how the understanding look in the other woman's eyes could ease so much of the hurt. "I just thought..." she exhaled, then shook her head. "But you're right. She's got so much to deal with...." Which was one of the reasons she'd thought the child might enjoy something to distract her from her worries.

"Yeah," the doctor sighed, "she does ... and tonight ... well ... even more. We went to her home and brought a piece back. That's a lot to take in."

Sam nodded. "Yeah," she said, her expression thoughtful. "D'you think we should go ... I dunno ... talk to her?" She was edgy with just leaving the girl alone.

Fraiser shrugged. "I don't know," she admitted. "But she seems to want to be alone right now ... sooo, maybe we should just go along with her wishes for the moment. Give her some time...." She didn't know what was going on in Cassandra's head any better than Sam, but as a doctor, she knew there were times when it was best to just wait and give the patient some healing time. "Keep track ... but give her a little room."

A tiny sigh escaped Sam's lips, seeing the wisdom behind Janet's comments even though a part of her resisted the idea. She kept thinking there should be a solution that would simply fix things. It went against her basic instincts not to try.

"So, what were you going to look at?" the softly spoken question broke in on Sam's thoughts.

Carter blinked, suddenly realized she'd momentarily sunk into her own thoughts. She looked blankly at the other woman, taking a moment to decode the question, then frowning when she couldn't quite make sense of it. "Look at?" she repeated uncertainly.

A single, tapered finger pointed ceilingward. "Telescope ... sky ... stargazing."

Sam blinked again, then exhaled a tiny snort of self-conscious laughter as it occurred to her just how mentally blitzed she was. "Right ... stargazing...." She shook her head, taking a second to change mental gears. "There's a new moon, so the planets should be really bright ... and there are a couple of meteors that should be visible too." Slim shoulders dipped in a shrug, and Sam stared at the table top, oddly shy about her love of astronomy. More than a few people had teased her for the hobby over the course of her life, and even though she knew Janet wouldn't, she was still hesitant out of long ingrained habit.

"Well, why don't you go ahead and set up the scope ... kick back and enjoy yourself." Janet's voice was soft and soothing, easing some of Sam's embarrassment.

Sam started to shake her head. There was no question of her leaving -- if Cass had another round of nightmares, she needed to be there -- but somehow the thought of digging out the scope suddenly seemed--

"Sam," Janet murmured, interrupting the thought while it was still half-formed, "it's something you enjoy ... and I think it would be good for you." She smiled gently. "And, who knows, Cass may decide to join you."

A long moment of silence passed, and then Sam nodded. "Probably would be good for me, huh?" She ran a hand over her hair, ruffling her bangs. Stargazing always soothed a part of her soul ... and, after everything that had happened, she could definitely use some soothing.

"Yeah, I think so," Janet agreed, knowing just how much her friend enjoyed such things. "Why don't you go ahead while I clean up here."

Carter instantly shook her head. "I'll help clean up--"

"Sam, I'm just going to throw things in the dishwasher. It's not really a two person job."

"Are you sure, because--"

"Go," the doctor said in her best command-voice and pointed at the door, though an affectionate smile softened the order.

"Yeth, Mommy." Sam offered a smile that was half sweet, half sarcastic, but she rose to leave, pausing only momentarily. "Thanks," she said softly, not giving the other woman a chance to respond before she slipped out.

Janet stared after her for a long moment, her gaze distant, then finally shook off the brief daze and rose to clear the dishes.

Finished in the kitchen, she did a few more minor chores, then paused in front of Cass' bedroom. Leaning closer, she listened for a long moment, but there was nothing to hear. The child was being as quiet the proverbial churchmouse. Worried, Janet considered her options for a long moment, then knocked softly, her other hand already on the knob and turning, in a maneuver known to parents worldwide. She already had the door open a crack when Cassie's soft, "Come in," reached her ears.

The girl was coiled into the desk chair, her legs folded beneath her to form a platform for the spiral notebook she was writing in. As she Janet entered, she was reaching out to drag a discarded shirt across something on the desk, but not before the doctor caught a glimpse of the Sherxan. "What is it?" the girl asked uneasily, as though she expected to get into some kind of trouble.

Janet offered a gentle smile to ease Cassandra's obvious uncertainty as she stepped just inside the doorway. "I just wanted to make sure you're okay ... and see if there's anything I can do for you." She didn't want to push too hard, but she also didn't want the child to feel any more isolated than she already did.

Cass stared at her for a long moment, then shook her head. "No, I'm just...." She trailed off, staring down at whatever she was writing, then looked back up at Janet with liquid, blue eyes. She sniffed back on the threat of unwanted tears. "I-I'm okay," she insisted none-too-believably.

Watching the child closely, Janet leaned against the doorjamb, her arms folded loosely across her chest. "Y'know," she said after a beat, using the same gentle tone she used with sick and frightened patients, "whatever you're feeling ... it's okay."

A muscle pulsed in the girl's jaw, but she looked away from the woman in the doorway without responding.

"All I want -- or Sam wants," Janet continued in that same tone meant to invoke trust and coax confidences out of a person, "is to help you any way we can."

Cassandra stared down at her notebook and nodded stiffly. "I know that," she admitted, her voice small and husky.

Janet stared at the child's downbent head, unbelievably touched by the sincerity in her voice. They'd had so few moments of genuine connection that when it happened, it meant more to her than she knew how to express. "I'm glad," she whispered after a moment, "because we'd both do anything in our power for you ... anything."

The child's gaze rose again, something pleading in her eyes. She looked like she wanted to ask for something, but all she said was, "I know ... and I know you've ... you've both been trying really hard." She looked back down. "And I know it-it hasn't been easy," she stammered, the quiet admission startling Janet since it was the first time the child had willingly touched on her nightmares even obliquely.

"We only want to help," Janet told her, her voice low and measured. "Any way we can."

A tiny nod and then the girl stammered, "It's just that...." She didn't finish, instead trailing off and shaking her head. She looked up at Janet again, her expression changing and leaving the doctor with the distinct impression she'd made a decision of some kind, though she didn't have a clue what it could be. The child looked back down at the notebook for a long moment. "I really n-need to finish this."

A frown touched the doctor's forehead, and she tried to get a look at what Cass was working on so intently, but she had it tipped at an angle so that Janet couldn't see without making a point of it. Clearly, Cass wanted to be alone and short of putting real pressure on the girl, she couldn't see any way of staying. "Okay," she said after a beat, offering another gentle smile, "but we're here if you need us, okay? And if you just need to take a break, Sam went ahead and set up her telescope. I'm sure she'd love it if you'd join her ... even if it's only for a few minutes."

"Maybe later," Cassie hedged, visibly eager for Janet to leave.

"Okay." Janet considered stepping closer and ruffling the girl's hair, even started to, only to conclude that was pushing. "Well, you know where we are." She canted her head to one side. "I'll leave you alone now."

Cassandra just nodded, leaving the doctor with little choice but to step out and pull the door shut in her wake.

* * * * * *

Her attention focused on the collection of telescope parts spread out on a tarp laid across the wooden picnic table on Fraiser's back porch, Sam didn't bother to look up as she heard the back door open. Easily recognizing Janet's light tread, she knew the other woman was alone without looking, just like she sensed her presence as she stepped up behind her left shoulder.

"Is it supposed to be in pieces like that?" Fraiser asked after a moment.

Sam made a small, frustrated sound in her throat. "No," she answered. "Some grit got into things the last time I was out. I noticed it when I started setting up. Seemed like a good time to clean things."

Sam twisted to look back up at the other woman, noting how tired she looked, or maybe it was just letdown and depression. "Sit," she ordered, indicating the bench next to her hip.

Fraiser looked like she might argue for a moment, but Sam pursed her lips and raised an eyebrow in disapproval. Her back to the table where Sam's scope was laid out, Janet sat. They were both silent for a long time; Janet stared at her backyard, while Sam polished the eyepiece.

"I checked in on Cass," Janet said after several minutes of companionable silence.

Sam glanced over at the other woman, unsurprised by the news. Considering how closely she tracked her patients, it was no surprise she'd been able to follow her own advice and leave the child alone. And, truthfully, she was relieved to hear it. She hadn't liked that plan anyway. "So, how's she doing?" A long moment of silence followed the question, until Sam finally turned to stare at her friend, her expression questioning. "Janet?"

"I'm not sure," the doctor admitted at last. Bracing her hands on the bench on either side of her hips, she leaned forward, her expression distant.

Sam carefully laid the eyepiece aside, a frown creasing her forehead. "Meaning?" she asked, sensing there was more her friend wanted to say.

"She was...." Janet trailed off into thoughtful silence, still pondering the change that had come over the child while they were talking. She sensed Sam's desire to keep pressing for more answers, but for once the other woman contained her curiosity, allowing her to continue in her own time. After a long moment, the doctor pushed to her feet, striding to the edge of the porch to stare up at the night sky. Hitching her shoulder against one of the support posts, she contemplated the stars overhead, seeing their beauty, though to her they were simply a clutter of random points of light. A hint of a smile touched her mouth as she envisioned Sam's look of horror if she confessed that not only could she not recognize more than one or two constellations, she couldn't even reliably find the North Star.

"Janet?" Sam's breath ruffled her hair as a warm hand landed on her shoulder.

Reminded of more serious issues, Janet couldn't contain a tiny sigh as she went back over the scene in Cass' bedroom.

"What are you thinking?" the blond asked after a long moment of continuing silence.

Janet shook her head, not knowing what to say. "It's like she was...." She trailed off again, a frustrated curse escaping her lips on a breath. And then it struck her ... what Cass' expression had reminded her of. She realized Sam must have felt the ripple of tension that slid through her when the hand on her shoulder automatically began massaging it away.

"Janet?" Sam whispered again, picking up on the change in her friend's mood.

Fraiser flashed a quick look back at the other woman, then explained, "I just realized what her expression reminded me of...." She trailed off, going back over it all mentally and coming up with the same answer. A moment passed while she turned back to stare skyward, her view blunted by the porchlight, but still enough to trigger a sense of awe. She could feel Sam's patience stretching spiderweb thin as she tried to find a way to explain what she was thinking. "The first time I was alone with a patient," she began, then clarified herself, "I don't mean any patient, but the first time it was a matter of life and death ... and I was the one making the decisions ... the one responsible for whether someone lived or died...." She trailed off again, refining her thoughts and trying to pull them into something coherent that she could share with someone else.

"I don't understand," Sam said when Janet didn't immediately continue.

Janet folded her arms loosely across her chest, still staring skyward, thought she was pleasantly aware of the woman at her back; the warmth of her touch and the sense of caring and support. "I remember feeling the weight of responsibility settle on my shoulders ... the knowledge that if I made a mistake, someone would die." She shook her head as the enormity of it all struck her. It didn't make any sense, but.... "That's what Cass looked like ... like she had that same weight on her shoulders."

"You sure?" Sam asked, her tone doubtful. It didn't make any sense to her either.

"Of course I'm not," Janet shot back more sharply than she intended, her ongoing frustration with the situation coming out in a rush. She took a breath, her tone apologetic as she continued, "Sorry. I'm just not sure of anything when it comes to Cassandra...." Closing her eyes tightly, she shook her head and leaned more firmly against the support post. "I don't know what I'm doing. I'm just...."

"You're doing fine," Sam whispered when she didn't continue. "If anyone doesn't know what they're doing, it's me. I wasn't there when she needed me, and I never know what's the best thing to do even though...." She trailed to a startled halt as Janet reached up, twining her fingers with the hand resting so comfortably on her shoulder.

"I think we've both struck gold in the Clueless-About-Kids Sweepstakes, Sam," she drawled, a note of arch humor trickling into her voice. "What say we call it even." The last thing either of them needed was more self-flagellation.

Despite the urge to argue that she was by far the more clueless one, Sam nodded. Drawn a little closer by the weight of Janet's hand where it was bound to her own, she nudged her own shoulder up against the wooden pillar next to her friend's. "Sounds like a good deal to me," she murmured, noting the way her breath toyed with a few strands of auburn hair, fascinated by the rainbow hue of colors that danced over the complex twining of glossy threads.

"I just pray this works," Janet sighed, interrupting Sam's silent musing.

"I know," the blonde breathed with heartfelt sincerity. It felt completely natural to slide the hand twined with Janet's across narrow shoulders to tug her into a warm hug. The silky hair she'd been admiring brushed Sam's cheek as she leaned a little closer, the fluttery ends cool and soft as they danced against her skin.

It occurred to Janet that she should probably pull away, if only to spare herself the wash of confusion and worry that always came with any kind of shared intimacies. Not that they were exactly intimate, but.... It was just too complex to seriously consider while she was so safely ensconced in Sam's hold. And like every attempt -- real or simply intended -- that she'd made to put some distance between herself and the other woman, it was steam-rollered by reality. She needed the comfort and support Sam offered too much to walk away that easily. She felt the warmth of her friend's breath on her shoulder while desperately trying not to be so aware of shape of the body pressed against her back. "So, how do you do it?" she asked a minute or two of companionable silence to distract herself from her own thoughts.

"Umm," Sam exhaled in confusion. "Do what?"

"Keep it all straight in your head," the doctor murmured as she continued staring at the myriad of twinkling stars overhead. "It all just looks so random to me ... beautiful, but totally disorganized ... and yet you make sense of it."

Sam's eyes swept upward, following the line of Janet's gaze. A hint of a smile touched her mouth as it occurred to her that it was the first time she could ever recall hearing someone admiring, almost envying, her abilities in that regard. "I dunno," she admitted, warmed by her friend's admiration. "It just all makes sense to me." Blue eyes slid shut, and she summoned the mental image of the heavens she always carried in her head, struggling to describe it to the other woman. "It's like I can see a 3D model of it if I just close my eyes ... it's like those foam ball and wire models of the solar system everybody built in junior high, but a lot bigger and more complex." She wondered if that sounded slightly nuts or incredibly arrogant and was rather relieved by the genuine curiosity in Janet's voice when she spoke a moment later.

"Really?" The doctor appeared fascinated by the idea.

Sam's head tipped back, looking back up at the familiar array of stars. "Yeah ... it's just there ... and I can tweak it as needed ... then it all makes sense." Not that she hadn't worked for the skills she had, but there was something instinctive there too ... and in many ways, she relied on that as much as pure the pure knowledge.

Staring up at her friend, Janet was once again struck by the startling genius that lay behind her deceptively easygoing manner. "That's amazing," she breathed in awe.

Sam instantly dismissed the praise. "It's not that big a deal," she muttered, a faint blush heating her cheeks. She didn't consider it anything special. It was just how she thought.

Sensing Sam's sudden attack of embarrassment, Janet backed off, turning things on their ear as she murmured, "Well, almost anything is amazing to me when it comes to remembering this stuff. My dad tried to teach me the constellations for years. He loved to stargaze ... used to drive him nuts that I just couldn't get it...."

The note of melancholy in the other woman's voice was as unavoidable as the way she'd used the past tense in referring to her father. "Janet?" she whispered her name on a questioning note, her tone tenderly curious.

"He died a few years ago ... cancer."

There was a wealth of hurt in the answer, and Sam felt a band of sympathetic pain tighten in her chest. She knew that ache all too well. "I'm sorry," she whispered and hugged the smaller woman a little tighter, wanting to soothe away some of the old pain.

"I still miss him," the doctor whispered after a moment, her voice a little strained.

Sam closed her eyes tightly, surprised to feel the threat of tears burning behind her eyelids. "I understand," she whispered, her voice suddenly ragged. She missed her mother all the time. Swallowing past the tightness in her throat, she took a deep breath. "So," she said when she could speak again, purposely lightening her tone, "how would you like an astronomy lesson?"

Janet laughed softly, accepting the cheering-up efforts gratefully. "What part of, 'I was a really lousy astronomy student,' did I not make clear?" she answered with a watery smile.

"Well, the good news is you won't be tested," Sam murmured, "and you just have to lean back and listen."

Her throat tight with emotion, Janet found herself nodding, the notion of an astronomy lecture oddly comforting, reminding her of another time -- when she'd felt safe and protected. "Sounds ... nice."

Sam slipped her hand loose from Janet's to point past the smaller woman's shoulder. "In which case, let's start with Orion...."

* * * * * *

Clutching the Sherxan and her notebook tightly to her chest, Cassie peered out through a narrow space in the curtains, careful to stay where she couldn't be seen, watching silently as the two women on the back porch studied the stars. One of the side windows was open a crack, so she could just hear their voices, though she couldn't make out more than an occasional word. Still, the comfortable intimacy of their voices as they talked was a consolation, reminding her of all the nights when she'd lain in her bed in the loft, listening to the adults talk in the kitchen below. Usually it had just been her parents, their voices soft and affectionate, but sometimes there had been any number of aunts, uncles, or neighbors. She sighed very softly, clinging even more tightly to the little bit of home in her arms, then looked down as she felt one of Simon's oversize feet land on her own. She grinned at the sad-eyed puppy, who eyed her hopefully, clearly angling for a treat, pure adoration glowing in big, brown eyes. Standing there like that, she felt more secure than she had since her parents' deaths. She could almost believe that her father had been right and the tales of the Devourers were nothing more than myth and superstition.

And then she saw them out of the corner of her eye -- just like she'd glimpsed before -- boiling shadows in pale blue and silver, and out of them flowed a ghostly haze, floating well above the floor, the dim outlines of a long body and arching wings just barely visible as the other shadows faded away.

There was only one difference.

This time, when she looked at it fully, it didn't disappear.

* * * * * *

Cassie's panicked scream shattered the comfortable closeness, ending Sam's impromptu lecture and knocking the two women apart in their haste to dash to the child's side. Sam was just reaching for the back door when a second scream tore through the night, and she realized the sound had come from somewhere far closer than the child's bedroom. She tore the door open, nearly ripping it off the hinges, Janet one small pace behind her.

"There," the doctor said, pointing at a far corner of the room where Cassie sat huddled, a struggling Simon held tightly in her arms, her eyes wide with terror.

"Cass?" Sam exhaled as she hurried over, dropping to one knee in front of the girl.

Cassie showed no sign of hearing her. She was frozen, the only sign of movement the tiny tremors that rattled her small frame.

"Cassie?" Janet said as she dropped to her knees on the child's other side, reaching out with a gentle hand to smooth fine hair back from her forehead. She shared a worried glance with Sam, then looked back at the girl. She ran her hand down the side of Cass's face, checking her temperature, and then her pulse at the carotid artery in her throat, then on down, hunting for any sign of injury. "What happened? What's got you so scared?" she asked as she checked the child.

When no answer was forthcoming, Sam tried. "Talk to us ... what happened?"

"There's no sign of injury," the doctor whispered as much to reassure herself as Sam.

"Cassie, what happened?" Sam demanded more firmly, purposely repeating her name in an effort to break through whatever held her in its thrall.

At last the child blinked, finally focusing on the adults, though she still didn't speak.

Sam dropped a hand to the collar of the puppy clutched tightly in the child's arms. "You're hurting him, Cass. Why don't you let go."

The girl shook her head desperately, still staring at the opposite side of the room with raw horror. "No, they'll get him."

Both women checked over their shoulders uneasily, the child's terror sending an instinctive thrill of fear through them, but there was nothing there. As they looked back, they shared another worried look, their mutual fear all too obvious. Had nightmares now spilled over into waking hallucinations?

"There's nothing there," Sam said very gently as she firmed her grip on Simon's collar, tugging gently. The puppy whimpered softly, struggling and twisting in Cassie's arms. "And you're hurting Simon. I'll keep a hand on his collar so he won't go anywhere."

She looked uncertainly down at the writhing animal.

"It's okay, Sam won't let him go anywhere," Janet soothed. After Sam, Cassie was closest to the dog. It was no wonder if she was terrified if she thought something was somehow threatening it.

"I promise," Sam added sincerely, "but you really need to let go, okay?"

Finally, the child released the puppy, trusting Sam to keep a firm grip on his collar. "We have to get out of here," she said suddenly, shaking off the worst of the terror-driven paralysis.

"Cassie--" Sam began, but Cassandra interrupted her.

"No, you don't understand! We have to go ... they're here!"

Startled by the terrified child, Simon yelped and jerked free of Sam's loose hold, drawing a terrified scream from Cassie. She started to push to her feet, but Sam braced a hand on her shoulder. "Cass--"

"No! They'll--"

"I'll get him," Janet broke in when Cassie started to struggle even more desperately, hoping to calm things by showing the girl the dog was just fine. She made a calming motion with one hand as she rose and backed up a step, making certain Sam had a solid grip on the girl's shoulder before she released her own hold. She didn't want her getting away from them when she was so unstable. Turning away to look for the puppy, she fought a burn of frightened tears. She'd been so certain they'd found the answer, but now things were even worse. Simon was hiding behind the far end of the entertainment center and Janet nearly tripped over the Sherxan where Cassie had apparently dropped it as she moved to reach for the pup. "C'mon, boy," she whispered even as Cassie continued to sob desperately.

"We've gotta go, Sam. Please. I thought I could use it, but I can't figure out how, and we're not safe."

"Nothing's going to hurt us in Janet's house." Sam patted the girl's shoulder, uncertain how to help her.

"No, you're wrong," the girl insisted. "They're here. I saw them." Terrified blue eyes swung toward the doctor where she was scrambling after the frightened puppy. "Simon," she whimpered.

Janet finally got a hand under the dog's belly and scooped him up. Better than half grown, he was an armful at the best of times, but half panicked and wanting nothing more than to hide, he twisted and writhed so hard she could barely keep a hold of him. "I've got him," she grunted as she stepped out from behind the heavy furniture. "And he's fine." She held the squirming animal up for the girl to see.

Cassie lurched to her feet with a sudden push, grabbing for Sam's sleeves as the woman rose, braced to catch her if need be. "Then let's go. Please ... just go."

Sam settled a hand on the girl's shoulder, holding loosely, but ready to clamp down if Cass tried to bolt. She glanced back, sharing a scared gaze with Janet. Instead of helping, they'd apparently managed to make things even worse. "What about the Sherxan? I thought--"

"I thought I could use it," the girl broke in, shaking her head, "but I don't know how ... and they're real, Sam. They're real!"

Afraid for the child's physical as well as mental health, Janet made a fast decision. "Okay, Cass, we'll go," she said softly.

Sam twisted, staring over her shoulder in shock. She'd just been drawing breath to try and make the child see sense when the doctor spoke. "Janet?"

"I think we should take her to the base hospital," Fraiser said very softly, her voice creaking so painfully that Sam couldn't miss how upset the decision had her.

"There'll be soldiers there?" Cassandra asked worriedly, oblivious to the subtle undercurrents arcing between the two adults.

Janet's voice broke ever so slightly as she answered, "Yeah, hon. There are always M.P.s on duty." She met Sam's gaze, shaking her head at the denial the other woman obviously wanted to give. The child's condition was slipping. They had to do something.

Before Cass could say anything else, Simon suddenly went wild in Janet's arms, twisting furiously and yelping until she had to let him down or risk hurting him. "Dammit, Simon!" she snapped, well aware of Cassie's panicked whimper and the way Sam scooped the girl up when she started to lunge forward. Nothing was going the way it was supposed to. She would have preferred to leave the animal comfortably in his own bed, but it was obvious that Cassie wouldn't be able to deal with that. Cursing under her breath, Janet dove after the puppy, so focused on the task at hand that she barely noticed the way the light fluttered as though a moth had gotten trapped in the overhead light fixture.

Only there was no moth.

And if there had been, it would have been instantly incinerated when shadows pooled and bubbled around the overhead light fixture and the lightbulb suddenly exploded in an shower of arcing sparks and flying glass. Janet threw up an arm, while Sam spun away and pulled Cass' head into the protection of her shoulder, reacting instinctively to shield her from the flying glass.

Focused on safeguarding the child in her arms, Sam missed the way Janet straightened, staring at the destroyed light fixture with a deepening frown.

Janet blinked, momentarily thinking she was just seeing the after-image burned onto her retinas as darkness seemed to billow and swirl. Then the shifting haze began to coalesce and solidify into some semblance of reality -- though it was a tentative reality at best -- as though the thing were sliding in and out of existence on a steady basis. The long snout was aimed her way while the willowy body seemed to float as though it didn't need the support of the gossamer arch of wings that sprayed away from its back, or the balance of the whipping, horned tail that played behind it.

She had less than a second to process a total paradigm shift. It was real, she realized in that horrifying moment. Everything Cass had feared had some basis in reality, and the thing she'd seen on Hanka hadn't been some trick of the imagination. The shape was unmistakable. It had been the desiccated, ancient remains of what she was looking at now.

Then she saw it start to turn, the long, spiked tail sweeping in graceful counterbalance to the lighter-than-air body, while the long, arched head twisted toward Sam and Cass where they stood facing the opposite direction, totally unaware of the danger.

"Sam! Down!" Janet screamed and leapt in the same instant, agonizingly aware of the creature's movement out of the corner of her eye. Suddenly it pointed its nose, accelerating into a dive.

Janet shouldn't have been able to outrace the thing, but with two things so precious to her on the line, she somehow found the strength and speed to get there first, slamming into Sam's back while she was still mid-turn. The impact threw the taller woman forward to her knees even as something hit Janet's upper back, sending a blaze of pain through her shoulder. She toppled to one knee behind Sam, an arm thrown protectively around the woman and child.

"Janet?" Sam gasped in confusion, twisting to stare back at her friend. "What the hell--"

"I saw it," Janet hissed as she scrambled back from Sam, startled to find herself less coordinated than usual. Thankfully, the pain in her back quickly dulled, leaving her to decide she must not have been hit as hard as she'd thought. "Like the thing in the pit ... only it was real." She shook her head a little dazedly and was surprised to feel a surge of warmth slide through her back and shoulder.

Blue eyes slid past Janet, searching the room and finding nothing. "Janet, there's nothing there."

But Cassie understood instantly. "She saw one," the girl breathed and pushed to her knees behind Sam. She would have moved forward, but the blonde snapped a hand back, wrapping her fingers around the girl's upper arm and keeping her in place.

Janet stared over her shoulder at the dark room in search of the thing she'd seen, only to find nothing but still and silent shadows, the only illumination the thin light that bled over from the small fixture in the foyer. "I saw it," she exhaled on a faint breath. She blinked uncertainly, suddenly wondering if maybe she had imagined the creature. Had Cassie's nightmares managed to infect her as well, until she was panicking in response to nothing more than an exploding lightbulb? Her back was feeling even warmer, like there was a heating pad back there ... which didn't make sense. She frowned, struggling to understand when it felt like her brain was suddenly made of cold road tar.

"Janet?" Sam said sharply, and the doctor abruptly realized she'd lost track of things for a second or two. The world wavered again, and she heard Sam repeating her name, then felt a hand curve to her shoulder.

"Janet," Sam said again, her tone sharper this time, and then she whispered her friend's name again, but this time her tone melted into one of confusion and was followed by a shocked, "What the hell?" She pulled her hand back from Janet's shoulder, staring at the dark liquid staining her fingers, the slick warmth all too familiar. Blood. "You're bleeding." She looked up, eyes widening as the truth sank in.

Janet twisted drunkenly as if to look at her own back. "Doesn't hurt," she mumbled, thinking the heat flowing through her back and along her spine was actually rather pleasant. Then she toppled forward into Sam's hold, felt a hand pet her hair, brushing it away from her shoulder, heard a gasp of horror ... it all flowed together into one, oddly relaxing, stream of sensations.

Struggling to comprehend what she was looking at, Sam stared at her friend's back. Fraiser was wearing a leather jacket, the suede soft as butter but remarkably tough. Something had razored right through the leather, the lining, and her blouse to leave a shallow gash in pale flesh underneath. Sam probed the injury gently. It wasn't much more than a minor flesh wound, but it was bleeding as though something had opened a vein.

Cassie pushed to her feet, staring past Sam's shoulder at the doctor's back with a look of horror. "Death rapture," she breathed.

Sam glanced back at the child. "What?" she hissed.

"That's what happens when the Devourers strike ... the p-person gets weak, can't fight...." the girl whispered, her eyes darting nervously around the room. "M-makes it easier for the Devourers to ... to ... get them."

"Mus' ... be ... a ... toxin of ... some kind," Janet said with effort, her words slurred and muffled against Sam's thigh.

Sam didn't know what to believe. Nervous glances flashed around the room revealed nothing worth noting, and yet.... She looked back down at her friend where she lay sprawled, struggling weakly as if to rise, but apparently unable to summon the strength. That wasn't the result of an exploding lightbulb.

"Sam, we've gotta get out of here," Cassie insisted, tugging on her jacket.

Normally, Carter was faster to react, but real trouble was so unexpected that it took her a moment to completely grasp the reality of the attack and reconcile the seeming conundrum of what should be and what was. Janet was bleeding and damn near unconscious, and she said she'd seen it. She wasn't one to panic and lose control. If she said she'd seen something, she'd seen it. "Yeah ... I think you're right," she murmured after a beat and hooked her hands under Janet's armpits, trying not to think about the phrasing Cassie had used to describe what was happening to her. "C'mon, Janet," she growled, using one hand to lift the other woman's chin up. She was conscious and even seemed to be struggling up out of the daze, but she was definitely punch-drunk. "I need you to help me out here." She used her best command tone in hopes of cutting through whatever was burning in the other woman's bloodstream. "We've got to go now, and I can't carry you alone." She leaned down, pulling Janet's arm up over her shoulder. "Now come on." Fraiser was a small woman, but more than Sam could easily manage as a total deadweight. Using the wall as a brace, the blonde pushed upright, thigh muscles flexing with the effort required to pull the other woman to her feet.

And then Janet shook her head, throwing off some of the haze as she struggled to get her feet under her.

"That's it," Sam praised and slid a hand around her friend's waist, fishing for her car keys in her front pocket as they staggered toward the front door.

"Wait," Cassie said suddenly and started to spin back. "Simon." She would have gone back but a surprisingly strong hand clamped down on her shoulder, holding her in place.

"You can't," Janet hissed, fighting the waves of dizziness and weakness to hold onto the squirming child. If there were more of those things, they'd be doing well to get themselves out alive. Much as she might have wished otherwise, the pup was on his own.

"But--"

"She's right," Sam bit out as they reached the hallway. Even if they could catch the dog, Cassie wouldn't be able to carry him alone as panicked as he was, and she couldn't carry Janet and help fight with a struggling animal at the same time. Like it or not, she had to prioritize. An overhead light fixture glowed dully in the foyer several yards away, the thin light somehow offering a tiny promise of safety, as though it might chase away whatever demons were chasing them.

It wasn't to be.

They had only just entered the narrow corridor when the light in the foyer suddenly flickered and fluttered. As Sam watched in horror, transparent clouds bubbled around it, then it exploded, the three, tiny, fifteen watt bulbs winking out in a succession of quick pops, throwing their surroundings into near darkness.

And then Sam saw it; the thing that had scared Cass and Janet so badly. It ghosted into existence, seeming almost to glow in the faint light, as it appeared out of the bubbling haze where it hadn't been an instant before. Floating just above eye-level, the body was roughly two feet long from the tip of its snout to the bottom of its feet, with another foot or so of tail and gossamer wings that flared a couple of feet in either direction. She felt her pulserate pick up as she realized she was looking through it ... just like a ghost. Except she could feel warm blood sliding down Janet's back and dripping onto her forearm. No ghost had done that.

It was just hovering, watching them as though undecided what to do next.

"It's not doing anything," Sam said uneasily. They hadn't attacked since hitting Janet and weren't making any obviously aggressive moves. Was there any chance the seeming attack was just some kind of misunderstanding? "Maybe we can just walk past it."

"It won't let us," Cassie insisted.

"It's worth a try," Janet agreed over the child's protest. She was mostly likely useless if there was any kind of fight. In fact, she was worse than useless, since Sam would try and carry her out if she couldn't make it on her own. If they could just walk out, it would be best for all involved. Shaking off as much of the dizziness as possible, she tightened her grip on Cassie's collar and firmly thrust the child to the rear. "Stay behind us," she ordered. If the creature attacked, it might buy the child time.

"Okay," Sam murmured, tightening her hold on Janet's waist and releasing her death grip on the arm draped around her shoulders. Key ring looped over one finger, she held her hand up, ready to hit back if the creature attacked. "Here we go." Heart hammering against her ribcage, she edged forward, moving slowly, careful to make no moves that could be interpreted as aggressive or threatening, her eyes locked on the thing in front of them.

It continued to simply float and watch. Or at least Sam thought it was watching. She couldn't see anything that looked like eyes, so she wasn't entirely certain, but it did seem to be tracking them, whether visually or by some other means. They had nearly reached the foyer, and she was beginning to think they were going to make it, when the creature suddenly twitched and flicked its wings, banking to the left and blending into the shadows so thoroughly that she lost sight until it was almost on top of them, only inches from her out-thrust arm.

The slash came so fast that Sam didn't really even see it, just felt the sharp blaze of pain, then the warm flow of blood as it ran down her forearm. Gasping a curse, she stumbled backwards even as the thing twisted away, its body and wings arching gracefully as it resumed its hovering position, all without making even a hint of a sound; not even a whoosh of wings as it dove.

Sam swallowed hard, ignoring the blaze of pain throbbing through her arm as she stood perfectly still, her eyes locked on their attacker. Obviously, they weren't going out that way. It was probably waiting for them to pass out so it wouldn't face any real resistance. "Janet, can you move fast?" she demanded. Her friend had gone down quickly after being hit, so it was reasonable to guess she didn't have a lot of time before she started feeling pretty out of it. Maybe a few more moments than Janet had since she'd been hit on an extremity, where the doctor's strike had been to the body.

"I don't know," Fraiser admitted as the floor tilted dizzily beneath her feet, more than a little afraid the answer was, 'Probably not.'

The creature continued to hover silently, weaving gently, floating in and out of existence, its body a silvery ghost amid churning shadows.

"The Sherxan," Cassie whispered. "It's the only thing that can stop them."

"Janet?" Sam said by way of question. One thing she'd learned on the Stargate Project was that myth often had some basis in reality. She should have remembered that in regard to Cassie's fears. The girl had been right about the danger. Was she also right about the solution?

"We try for it," the doctor agreed. It was better than staying where they were and just waiting to be picked off. It scared the hell out of her ... but she was also wise enough to know it was the right thing to do. "There's an end table just around the corner," she told Sam. It was an antique, the wood solid and well-aged. "It might give Cass a little extra protection."

"You stay with her," Sam said and Janet nodded, knowing it wasn't quite the protective gesture some might have thought, since it would mean putting her own body between the child and any attacks while Sam worried about the Sherxan.

After such total stillness, Carter's sudden burst of movement was a shock. She spun in place, already kicking off as she hooked an arm around Cassie's waist, hauling Janet along as she dove for the other end of the short hallway. She registered the creature's movement as it dove at them a beat late and somehow managed to duck its wild path, thrusting the woman and child around the corner and toward the scant protection of the small table as she kept moving, using momentum to carry her toward the heavy stone medallion where it sat on the floor near the opposite end of the entertainment center.

Even dazed as she was, Janet possessed the presence of mind to press the child into the wall and floor under the table, using her own body as a shield in hopes of protecting her if the creature attacked. As she watched helplessly, she saw Sam scramble across the room and come up with the Sherxan, then caught the flicker of mind-twisting reality as the creature silently seemed to ripple into and out of, then back into their reality as it pursued the blond. "SAM!!" she shouted in warning, afraid the other woman hadn't seen the creature's latest position just above and behind her left shoulder.

A quick glance confirmed Janet's warning shout and Sam dove forward, doing a shoulder-roll and somehow managing to avoid teeth and talons on their first pass. She saw the thing sweep up and was already calculating a path to avoid its next dive when she heard Janet's gasp.

The second one struck her shoulder from the other side, catching her mid-leap. Sent sprawling by the slashing assault, she hit the floor hard. The world was spinning around her as she pushed up on her elbows, mentally calculating that she couldn't be more than a few feet from Janet and Cassie's hiding place. She was definitely feeling the side-effects of the first strike even as her efforts to move pulled at the second injury. A moment of agony, and then a soothing kind of warmth flooded the injured area. What had Cass called it? 'Death Rapture?' It was surprisingly peaceful and tempting to just let go. She was still musing on the idea when she felt a hard hand dig into her collar, dragging her forward.

"Goddamn you, fight it!" Janet bit out furiously, still weak and shaky as hell, though the dizzying warmth seemed to be draining away. She'd never thought she could be so glad to hurt so bad.

The creatures swung around, moving in tandem now, their hauntingly smooth movements perfectly silent and perversely beautiful as they toyed with their prey. Then the larger one flicked its tail, spread its wings and dove straight at them. Janet reached across Sam's back in an effort to knock the creature away, swinging her fist only to have it pass right through the thing's nose. It struck Sam, flickering out of reality in a boiling trail of transparent vapor before she could try and hit it on the backswing. It left a bloody swath across Sam's upper back, then reversed as Janet kept clawing at it, trying to drive it off without success. Still moving as if through a cloud of black, boiling water, it struck her shoulder, tearing through flesh and leather. Fresh blood drawn, it banked and climbed out of reach.

A flood of blood and heat, and then the -- by now familiar -- rush of pleasant dizziness accompanied the blow, but Janet gritted her teeth, fighting the sensation more successfully now that she was getting used to it. She saw the creature roll and do a lazy turn, seeming to fly for the joy of it -- or maybe performing to impress the other one -- and then it came back around. Her swing had gone right through it the first time, but it was capable of drawing blood, so it had to become solid at some point. And if it was solid, maybe she could hurt it. Dark eyes tracked the faint outline as the creature arched its head, tucking its wings back against its body to begin its dive straight for Sam's back. Janet consciously slowed her breathing, her entire focus on the shimmering death headed for them.

And at the very last moment, she lashed out with her tightly closed fist. The answering bolt of pain that rattled through her knuckles was the most satisfying sensation she'd felt in ages. The creature spun off, momentum sending it tumbling like a stoping eagle pelted in flight by a rock. For a moment, it seemed to struggle to regain its balance and then it winked out of existence as suddenly as it had appeared. Janet looked up, half expecting to find the other one diving at them, but it too was suddenly gone.

Dizzy and uncoordinated, Janet tightened her hold on Sam's collar, pulling her friend to her with every last ounce of strength. "Sam, please," she gasped, struggling not to slur the words together despite the way her tongue seemed to be made of thick clay. "You can hit them.... at the last second before they strike ... they're solid."

Mumbling softly, Carter pushed up on one hand, muscles quivering with the effort required. "Hi' 'em jus' b'fore they hit you," she repeated drunkenly, then collapsed again. "M'k's sense," she groaned, "s'mhow makin' th'r own gates." As stoned as she was, it actually made sense, though she never would have believed it possible under normal conditions.

Uncertain what Sam had said, and realizing her friend didn't have the strength to fight, Janet just struggled to haul her closer, not relaxing until the blonde's cheek was resting against her hip. "Gonna be okay," she breathed and heard a soft incoherent mumble as she petted silky hair tenderly. Her breath heaving painfully, she leaned forward, her forehead resting against Sam's shoulder. She couldn't have moved if her life depended on it. Or maybe she could she realized when a small hand tugged on her shirt and she managed to straighten and wrap one arm protectively around the child behind her.

"One of them's back," Cassie whispered as she peered over Janet's shoulder.

Dark eyes swept upward as the doctor's chin rose.

There it was all right; floating in mid air, bobbing gently like a cork on calm seas.

Her eyes fell as the floor seemed to ripple and pulse, the shadows churning wildly to eyes deprived of light. Janet blinked, not understanding what she was seeing at all. Then creatures started rising up out of the floor, somehow eradicating large chunks of it as they moved.

Which made no sense at all; to the point she was seriously wondering if she was hallucinating.

Their strange assailants floated toward the ceiling as they rose away from the floor, while still more fluttered into existence in their wake, their entrance zapping away sections of floor, until they had an open hole deep enough that Janet couldn't see the bottom anymore from her angle. Then she realized what Sam had been telling her. They were gating ... and using the event horizon to tear a hole in her floor.

No, not a hole, a pit,

Janet realized in a rush. Just like the one on Hanka. This was what had created it. The Hankans had defeated them somehow -- their mythology proved that much -- then they must have built their common house over the remains of their enemy. Maybe they'd thought it would seal the creatures out of their world, or perhaps they'd considered it some kind of sign of victory. Maybe they hadn't had any reason. But they'd done it.

There were more than a dozen of the creatures floating with the first, and still more flowing up through the gaping wound in her livingroom floor.

Janet could only stare in raw horror. There was no way she could fight them all. Just two had left them both bleeding and barely conscious in just a couple of passes. She continued petting Sam's hair gently, suddenly glad the other woman couldn't see them. She just wished she could have spared Cass the same way fate had spared Sam. The only sound was the soft thud the Sherxan made as it fell from Sam's limp hand and hit the floor. Janet shook her head dazedly. She'd forgotten, in her drugged haze, that Cassie'd said it could kill the creatures. She picked it up, muscles trembling gently, but it was just a hunk of cool rock in her hand. She stared at it, turning it this way and that, then looked up at the creatures stalking them. There were more of them now, and they stilled as she picked up the Sherxan as though waiting to see what happened. "How do I use it, Cass?" she whispered desperately.

"I don't know," the girl admitted in very small voice. "The stories ... they never said. Priam just used it ... and it worked."

Dark eyes slid shut and Janet fought the urge to dissolve into tears. They were dead. It was that simple. The moment those things decided to attack, they were dead, and there wasn't a damn thing she could do about it. "I want you to get down and stay down no matter what happens," she ordered the child. Maybe there was a chance for Cassie's survival if she was hidden underneath them.

"J'net," Sam groaned, fighting her way up through the cottony haze in response to the fear she heard in the other woman's voice. "Wha's happ'nin'?" Muscles quivering violently, she pushed up on her elbows, her head hanging from her shoulders. She didn't have the strength to lift it.

The doctor didn't know what to do or how to answer, uncertain whether to lie and try to get Sam to lie back down, so at least death would be as painless as possible, or tell her and give her a chance to offer whatever fight she could ... as little as that might be. She felt Cassie's hand on her shoulder as the girl peered around her arm at Sam. "Cass, I said, get down."

"It's not gonna make any difference," the girl breathed in a voice thick with dread. She'd heard the old stories about how the Devourers killed around the hearth-fire. There was no hiding from them. They'd find her anyway.

Growling a curse, Janet twisted just enough to grab Cass' shirtfront and force her down against the floor, the only thought she had that maybe if she and Sam could cover the child, she'd have a chance to survive, no matter how small it was. "Stay down," she hissed furiously as she watched the creatures, desperately trying to come up with some path that might at least lead the child to survival.

"Janet," Sam breathed her name again, the tension unavoidable even in her dazed state. She pushed up on her hands again, then found the strength to roll onto her back, so shaky she instantly collapsed again. A steadying arm wrapped around her from behind as her chin rose and a shocked gasp escaped her lips. "Oh God," she exhaled almost inaudibly.

"I'm sorry," Janet whispered and leaned her forehead against the back of Sam's head, though she had no idea exactly what she was apologizing for.

Sam could only stare at the mind-bending reality of the flock as it floated in and out of existence in billowing shadows of unreality, the graceful figures seeming to pulse gently, solidifying, then fading gently, then solidifying again. She reached up and back with one hand, hooking long fingers into Janet's hair and pulling her even closer, careless of the blood that dripped from her forearm and marked them both. "I'm the one who's sorry," she panted, her head falling back against the support of Janet's shoulder as the world spun dizzily around her. "Should've been able to save you both."

"You did everything you could," Janet murmured, muscles working to drag Sam even closer as though that would offer some kind of magic solution to the problem.

Then the largest of the creatures yet flowed up out of the newly made abyss -- Janet was certain it was the first one that had attacked them -- floating at the forefront of the gathering. Though it made not even the tiniest sound, she had the distinct impression it was laughing at them. Or maybe she was just imagining things. Then it threw its head and one of them broke away from the group, gaining altitude until its wings were no more than an inch below the ceiling. A sweep of its dramatic tail and it dove, stoping straight at them.

Janet tightened her hold on Sam. Last second, last second, last second, she told herself over and over, but it was moving too fast and the maneuver had to be too perfectly timed. Her hand slid right through the sharp beak, this time leaving an icy burn that left her entire forearm numb. Then it struck, tearing through Sam's jacket and drawing a thin bead of blood on her upper chest, reversing when it was about to break contact and head away, striking Janet's upper shoulder and spraying a fine spatter of blood. As it turned and rose, she stared down at the blood pouring from her upper arm in streamers. It couldn't be a good sign, she decided, that it didn't even hurt this time. She flexed her bicep to study the depth of the wound, noting with an increasing sense of objectivity, that it was actually very shallow -- she'd had worse preparing lab samples. Judging by the amount and color of the blood, they didn't just inject some kind of narcotic into the wound, but probably an anti-coagulant as well. She suddenly realized Cassie was shaking her shoulder and screaming at her.

"Janet! JANET!!"

Fraiser blinked, frowning as she realized there was a gash in her thigh that hadn't been there before. She'd been so out of it she hadn't even noticed the most recent attack. Sam was a dead weight in her arms, either unconscious or so drugged she couldn't move, and there was a fresh bloody swath on her knee and forearm. Janet experienced a sick moment as she realized it had happened while she was out of it; that she hadn't even tried to protect Sam. Her chin rose. There were even more of the creatures now, all watching; an army of semi-visible, miniature, Chinese dragon creatures, she thought as she realized what they reminded her of. "Ge' down, Cass," she mumbled, fighting the encroaching loss of consciousness threatening to spill her over sideways. A small arm wrapped around her shoulders from behind.

"Please, Janet," Cassie begged breathlessly, completely ignoring the command. It wouldn't make any difference anyway.

"'M sorry," the doctor groaned. She tried to lift the hand hanging limp at her side, but it wouldn't obey her mind's dictates. Then she saw one of the creatures break from the rest, circling preparatory to a dive. Cass was sobbing and shaking her, trying to get her to respond, but she just didn't have anything left. She didn't even hurt anymore. In fact she was warm and surprisingly comfortable. She watched it dive for them and somehow possessed just enough sense and strength to kick at it just before it would have hit Sam. It tore through her jeans, drew blood at the knee, then sheered a line up her thigh as she watched, amazingly divorced from the whole thing. It was going for her throat she realized in an instant. She wondered if this would be the fatal strike.

Maybe it was the narcotic in her system, Janet mused wryly, as time seemed to slow -- not so much slow actually, she decided -- as change, turning from a running movie into a series of disjointed stills. She saw the thing diving toward her, its face getting larger in her range of vision, distantly heard Cassie's scream, then suddenly the child's hand hanging over her shoulder, the Sherxan gripped tightly by small fingers. It wasn't the narcotic ... or at least not just the narcotic, Janet realized in a beat, it was the silence; complete and total utter silence from the hunters that left her feeling so disjointed.

Then a new photograph filled her senses, blasting reality to smithereens without making a sound.

It was like pictures she'd seen of atomic tests. Not movies, which were all sound and motion, but stills taken at the exact moment of the blast itself. Nothing but light and perfect silence. Janet suspected she screamed, though she was never entirely certain. If she did, the sound was sucked away along with everything else in the universe as reality ceased to be even the slightest bit real. Her livingroom melted away in the silent burst of light, while the creatures seemed to solidify, white on white, yet somehow still visible in three dimensions, then they sparked from the inside, soundlessly screaming as newly real flesh crisped and burned.

She definitely screamed then, even if she couldn't hear it. Or if she didn't scream, she really wanted to and the lack was only due to a total reality shifting, paradoxical loss of anything approaching reality.

Then it was like she was looking at a negative of the same image as the whole world flipped, turning black on black in an instant.

By the time she started to fall, it was kind of a relief.

Thudding face first into the carpet was a scratchy and oddly banal reintroduction to reality. It occurred to Janet that she needed to vacuum -- desperately -- as oily black ash began settling on the floor within her line of sight. Wonderful, a black tar snowfall in her livingroom. Just what she needed. Damn stuff'd probably never come out. A low groan reached her ears, and she felt a hint of movement against her legs as she realized one hand was tangled in short hair.

"Janet?" Cassie coughed, sounding scared, as a small hand landed on her shoulder.

"M'okay," Fraiser groaned, forcing herself to move, the effort taking supreme willpower even though it was only to tilt her head so that she was looking down at her hand where her fingers were coiled into pale hair that was rapidly growing black under the cover of the oily snowfall.

Groaning softly, Sam tilted her head back until their eyes met, the first clue that Janet had had in some time that she wasn't unconscious. "Helluva ride," she moaned softly.

Her movements shaky and less graceful than normal, Janet rubbed her fingers against silky hair. "How much you see?"

She got the faintest headshake in return. "Not sure ... kinda confusing."

Which was an understatement to say the least. Suddenly remembering their strange assailants, she looked up, hunting what she could see of the room. It was dark again, just enough ambient light slipping through the shattered picture window to keep it from being pitch black, though every available surface was rapidly being coated in what looked like coal dust. No sign of any floating attack lizards anywhere. She frowned, peering into the deepening shadows and seeing what looked like a black crystal version of one of the things ... just like she'd seen in the pit. It was perfectly still. A corpse? "Cass?" she groaned uncertainly.

"The Sherxan," the child said breathlessly, "it worked."

Hard to argue with that

, Janet thought, fighting to make her brain function. She spotted a couple of other black ash monster sculptures. Like the first one, they were utterly still.

"Need to call the base," Sam groaned, still lying perfectly still where she was pressed against Janet.

"Uh huh," Fraiser agreed without moving a muscle. She continued watching the outlines of the creatures she'd spotted, but they remained unmoving. Good thing they weren't moving because she certainly wasn't up to it.

"You're both bleeding all over the place," Cassie broke in, sounding sick and terrified.

Janet turned her head just enough to peer up at the child leaning over her. "I think it's okay," she murmured. "The cuts are ... superficial ... shallow ... just a way to inject the poisons...." She thought about it for a moment, struggling to make her grey matter function normally without a great deal of success. "Something narcotic...." She opened her eyes again, peering down at a wound on her upper arm, noting the amount of blood. "And an anticoagulant, I think...."

"Stops clotting ... so their prey bleeds out?" Sam questioned, fighting to make sense of the words, her thought processes still dulled.

Janet nodded. "I think so."

"We in danger?"

Peering down at her slashed arm again, the doctor noted that the bleeding was slowing to a trickle. "Don't think so. Seems to be slowing already ... they probably normally keep hitting ... drawing more blood and injecting more of both substances."

Sam nodded, absorbing the explanation silently. Made sense to her, she supposed, though it was hard to be certain how good her judgement was at that point. Then she noticed something else. "Is it just me," she murmured after a moment, "or does whatever this is kinda sap your will to move?"

A thoughtful pause and then Janet nodded. "I was just thinking that," she admitted.

They were still lying there like that a moment later when Cassie climbed over Janet and out from under the table, muttering softly under her breath. She disappeared for a moment, then reappeared and crouched down on the adults' level. "The phone's aren't working...."

"My cell," Janet mumbled, "it's in my briefcase." She made a vague gesture in the general direction of her formerly white couch. As if to punctuate the comment, an inky black lump on the couch began ringing softly.

"How'd you do that?" Sam asked dazedly, thinking that was one hell of a magic trick, while Cassie scrambled after it.

"Hell if I know," the doctor admitted, then shook her head to clear it, which only made the world spin.

"I can't get it open," Cassie muttered as she reappeared with the briefcase -- sticky with oily black ash -- and tossed it onto the floor next to Janet.

It was still ringing rhythmically, and Janet reached out, sliding one of the numbers on the combination lock on the front -- her fingers a little clumsy, but more controlled than she expected -- to pop it open. She grabbed the tiny phone tucked in the portfolio, clicking it on as she lifted it to her ear. "Fraiser here, I--"

"Jesus, Doc, I was beginning to think you were never gonna answer. Too busy arguing intergalactic belly button lint with Carter to pick up?"

Jack O'Neill's sarcasm was literally the last thing she expected and she found herself startled into paralyzed silence. No doubt the fault of the damned alien narcotic in her system, she assured herself, resolving to hit Jack with one hell of a zinger when she could think straight again. Typically, O'Neill never noticed the unusual silence, just continued impatiently, "And do you know that your regular phone is out? Tried it a couple of times, and got one of those lame out of service messages."

"Yeah, I--" she began, but he didn't give her a chance to finish, just broke in.

"Look, Doc', you need to get back to base, Carter too, if she's with you -- tried her place and her cell, but just got voice mail on both of 'em -- we had some kind of incursion onto the base. Nasty little beasties too. They got into the access corridors around the springs and were carving out some kind of cave. Found 'em by accident after a non-com spotted some lights out. Coupla flash bang grenades seem to have taken care of 'em, but we gotta coupla people hurt ... cut up and seems to be some kind of toxic reaction too. General Hammond wants you here to check 'em out and also analyze the ... remains."

She could almost hear his lip curling with grossed out disgust as he babbled with the post-excitement adrenaline rush. "Really nasty black ash ... the flash bangs were just meant to startle 'em so we could attack, but, man, they just crisped and burned. The ash was like that stuff you and Carter got all over you on Hanka, so Teal'c and I figure that's where they came from"

She wondered if he was going to notice she hadn't said much anytime soon, because she really wasn't up to trying to talk over his rapid-fire delivery.

"You just cannot believe what these things were like,"

he continued, still oblivious to her silence, though he paused as he finished the sentence, just long enough for her to get out.

"Actually, sir, you might be surprised...."

* * * * * *

Continue to Part 4

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