Consciousness returned with the awareness that she was warm and safe ... and something very obnoxious was beeping in her ear. Janet Fraiser flopped her arm away from her face just as her watch alarm decided to cease the electronic torment. It took her another moment to register the warm solidity of the pillow beneath her cheek. A pillow that was rising and subsiding gently. After a beat, she slowly pushed up one elbow, eyes lifting to meet an affectionate smile.
"Sleeping Beauty wakes," her lover whispered and ruffled Janet's sleep tousled hair.
Janet blinked, noting that Sam -- she no longer thought of her as an alternate or duplicate -- was half sitting, her back braced against a pillow, and working on a series of calculations in a small notebook. "Watch alarm," she mumbled by way of explanation.
Sam nodded. "Yeah, I heard that." She continued rhythmically smoothing Janet's hair back with a tender hand.
"I didn't mean to sleep," Janet whispered. She'd intended to stay awake, wanting to spend every moment possible with this woman, but exhausted and held safely in her lover's arms, she'd unwillingly given way to her body's need for rest.
Sam smiled. "I'm glad you did. I enjoyed just holding you and watching you." She snapped the notebook shut and tossed it onto the nightstand, sliding down until they were eye to eye. "It was nice to have a chance to just be..." she paused, hunting for the right word before continuing, "normal ... for a little while." She kissed Janet softly.
Janet returned the kiss before pulling back a hand's breadth. She reached up to stroke her Sam's cheek tenderly. "I wish I could stay longer," she exhaled. "But that alarm was set to remind that..." she choked into silence for a second before continuing, "that the last of your test results are due in and I'm supposed to report my findings to the general." She closed her eyes tightly, not wanting to let go of the tiny world they'd been able to make for themselves for such a short time. "I don't want to go."
"I know," her lover whispered, "and I don't want you to go ... but you have to...."
"I'm afraid to leave you," Janet admitted, a profound sadness obvious in her eyes. For a little while she'd been able to forget what the other woman was up against, but now it all came crashing back.
Her Sam kissed her softly on the forehead, then tugged the blanket back and shooed her with a small hand motion. "I'm okay for the moment ... and you've got things to do ... besides, it's probably a minor miracle your guard dog hasn't already come rushing in ... and it won't do either one of us any good if that happens."
Janet shook her head as she slid from bed with a regretful sigh. "She wouldn't ... she gave me her word." Focused on retrieving her clothes, she missed the way a blond brow lifted. "Besides, I locked the door," she added as she began tugging on her clothes.
"Believe me," Sam said softly, "she'd go through it if she thought there was a problem."
Canting her head to one side, Janet looked back over her shoulder, frowning as she dissected her lover's tone. "You do understand that she and I are just friend's, don't you?" she questioned, wondering if she'd imagined the subtle note of jealousy in the other woman's voice. "It's not the same as you and I."
A single blond brow rose and a wry smile quirked Sam's mouth. "If you say so," she drawled and slipped out of bed, reaching for her rather limited wardrobe. She tugged on the scrubs, then stood, arms folded loosely across her chest, watching as Janet finished dressing. "You might want to stop by your quarters and run a comb through your hair," she advised, then leaned forward and braced her hands on the bed on either side of Janet's hips where she sat tying her shoelaces. She dropped a quick kiss on full lips. "Because in case you haven't noticed, my dear and oh-so-proper Doctor Fraiser, you are looking a little mussed." She grinned, using humor to make their parting easier on both of them. "Like a woman who's just been made very thorough love to."
Fraiser hooked a hand around the back of the taller woman's neck, pulling her head down for a slow kiss. "There's a reason for that," she drawled. After a beat, Sam straightened and pulled away.
"You'd better get going," she reminded her as she backed up several steps. It was so tempting to give way to the desire they shared, but they'd already pushed their luck dangerously far.
Janet nodded, took a deep breath and rose to her feet. She moved to stand in front of the other woman, catching her hands in a loose grip and lifting them to press soft kisses across both bare and bandaged knuckles. "I will, and I'll be back as soon as I can--"
"Janet, it may not be a wise--"
"I'll be back," Fraiser overrode her firmly before continuing, "but while I'm gone I want you to remember that you aren't alone ... there's not a lot I can do, but Sam's working on it and I've seen her do some amazing things."
A hint of a smile touched the blonde's mouth. "I know," she said with a trace of irony. She drew breath as if to say something else only to think better of it. "We'll just have to see what happens," she said at last. "Now, go on."
"I really have seen her work miracles," Janet repeated, her voice thick with hope.
"I know ... go on."
Fraiser glanced at her watch and ran a quick hand through her tousled hair, smoothing as best she could, then with a last longing look and a quiet assurance, "I'll be back as soon as I can," she slipped out.
"Oh, my love, you have too much faith by half," the alternate Sam breathed sadly. "What are you going to do when she can't work a miracle for you this time?"
* * * * * *
"Long conversation," a low voice drawled, pulling Fraiser up short in a corridor near the observation section.
Startled, the doctor pivoted to face the woman leaning against a shadowed corridor wall, arms folded around a clipboard braced against her chest, her expression unreadable. A frown creased her brow. "Sam ... you startled me."
Carter looked away momentarily, then straightened her shoulders, pushing away from the wall as she looked back at her friend. "Sorry, I was just coming to check on you ... I was getting worried ... I didn't expect you to take so long."
"Ahm ... yeah." Fraiser shrugged, hoping the sudden heat in her cheeks didn't show. She couldn't believe the risk she'd taken. Thank god she'd woken before Sam had knocked. That wouldn't have done. "She needed to talk to someone and I didn't feel I should leave her alone."
Carter continued to study Fraiser with an intense look. "I guess I can understand that," she murmured after a long beat.
Janet stared at her friend, trying to decipher the meaning in her tone. "Are you okay?"
Sam shrugged. "Just a little tired. Why do you ask?"
"You just seem a little...." Janet had a sudden thought as she trailed off and peered at Sam, trying to figure out if there was any chance that she knew something. The blue eyes that stared at her were completely expressionless, which was unusual in and of itself. "Off," she finished at last.
Another shrug. "My research has dead-ended."
Well, that explained Sam's distance. She didn't handle failure well. Struggling not to show her pain at the news, Janet nodded jerkily. "There's still time. You might find something," she said after a moment, holding on to the notion that Sam would come up with some kind of answer. She'd pulled off so many miracles in the past, it was hard to believe she wouldn't do so again.
Sam seemed about to say something only to change her mind and leave the words unspoken. "I'll do what I can," she said at last. She shrugged. "However, I didn't mean to keep you from anything."
Janet nodded, feeling oddly uncomfortable under Carter's piercing gaze. "I really do have to get down to the infirmary ... I've got a meeting with the general, and I need some time to go over any new medical reports that may have come in."
"Understood," Carter said, her tone coolly professional. "I thought I'd stop by and speak to our," Carter considered the appropriate term for a moment before deciding on, "guest. She obviously knows a lot more about the quantum mirrors than we do. She might have some ideas."
Janet was momentarily at a loss for words, instinctively uncomfortable at the notion of the two Carters spending any time together. In any event, it wasn't something she could let show. "She's awake ... and I ... uh ... I suspect she'd appreciate a chance to do something other than just sit around and ... wait."
Sam caught the tiny hesitation in Janet's words, as well the unwanted meaning implicit in the word, 'wait.' Not just waiting, but waiting to die. However she felt about her doppleganger, none of it translated to any anger at the doctor, and Sam couldn't repress a wave of sympathy for her friend. She had the urge to drop an arm across Fraiser's shoulders and offer some kind of comfort, though she knew the other woman had neither the time nor the inclination to accept such a gesture at that moment. "Go on," she said after a beat. "I'll have you paged if anything happens." It was all she could offer.
"Thank you," Janet breathed gratefully.
Sam simply nodded.
"I'll talk to you later," Fraiser added.
Another grim nod. "Yeah." Sam watched silently as her friend hesitantly turned to leave, then suddenly found herself speaking before she could think better of it. "I'll do anything I can ... I hope you know that."
Janet peered back over her shoulder at Sam, forehead creased in a frown. "Of course I do," she said instantly. "That was never in doubt," she added, sensing that Sam needed some confirmation that she had faith in her.
A hint of smile touched the blond's mouth. "Thank you," she breathed. She stayed like that for a long moment, silently watching as her friend turned away again and disappeared around a bend in the corridor. Finally, she straightened her shoulders and moved toward the entrance to the observation rooms.
The small group of reinforced observation rooms were clustered together off a narrow corridor, deep in one of the lower levels of the mountain. Far more spartan than the regular observation room, they could withstand a considerable blast if need be. Sam nodded to the guards on the main entry point as she stepped past them.
She found her alternate seated at the built-in desk that ran along one wall of the small observation quarters, her head down, attention focused on what she writing in a small notebook. The other woman looked up as Sam entered, a hint of a frown creasing her brow. "Major Carter," she murmured, her tone lifting curiously.
Carter pushed the door closed in her wake. "Major Carter," she returned, her tone wry. She held up the clipboard full of papers and printouts. "Doctor Fraiser said you were awake and I wanted to talk to you about the quantum mirrors and what's happening to you."
A blond brow lifted in silent question.
Sam yanked the chair sitting next to the bed closer, dropping into it. "I haven't had any luck coming up with anything that might negate the entropic cascade. I was hoping you'd have some ideas."
The other Carter let out a small, grim snort of laughter. "Don't waste your time. I've gone through every idea I ever had.... You'd have better luck trying to change the tides."
Sam flinched. That wasn't the news she wanted to hear. She didn't want to let her friend down, didn't want her to have to go through losing someone she obviously cared for, even if the woman in question was her own duplicate and grated on Sam's last nerve. "It seems to me that all things considered, you should be more interested in your own survival," she chastised, thinking that if she truly loved someone, she wouldn't be so eager to surrender.
The other Carter shrugged, looking down to jot a few more notes in her notebook, using it as an excuse to gain a little distance on her emotions. "Oh, believe me, I'm interested," she rasped without looking up, the fa�ade that she had accepted her fate easily, slipping for a moment. Twenty-four hours before she hadn't given a damn, but somewhere along the way that had all changed. "But I've been through this before. There isn't an idea that I've had that hasn't been tried somewhere in at least a dozen different versions of the SGC ... I've worked hand in glove with myself over and over ... and none of it has had even the slightest effect on the entropic cascade ... for good or ill." Her fingers tightened on the pen in her hand until it was in danger of snapping. "Every simulation and every practical trial comes up with the same harsh reality ... it's too big ... too endemic. I've even worked with the Tok'ra and the Tollan a couple of times ... all to naught...." She looked up then, the dark turmoil in her eyes momentarily catching Sam by surprise. "You can't solve this in a few hours ... you probably can't solve it at all ... and you have more important matters at hand." She tapped her notebook. "The entropic cascade is releasing quantum energy ... and, according to my calculations, it--"
"What about Janet?" Sam asked before she could think better of it, but she couldn't get the expression in her friend's eyes out of her mind. "Don't you care what this situation is doing to her?"
Blue eyes lifted, their expression stormy. "Oh, I care," she whispered tightly and looked away for a long moment, "but there's I can do about it--"
Sam felt her already frayed temper give way. "Then why in the hell did you...." She caught herself as it occurred to her what she'd been about to say. She swallowed hard, looking away, outrage evident in every taut line of her body.
The other Carter's head swung around, eyes narrowing. "Why the hell did I what?" she questioned sharply, then pulled up short, mentally filling in the blanks as she saw the look on Carter's face.
Sam felt her cheeks flush with the memory of what she'd seen, an effect that only got worse at the sensual knowledge reflected in a mirror of her own eyes.
The alternate Sam laughed darkly. "Couldn't resist the temptation to look, huh?" she drawled, though anger lived in her eyes. The smirk Sam so disliked curved her lips. "Enjoy what you saw?" she taunted.
Sam tensed, looking away as she bit back on a heated response. "I don't know what you're talking about," she ground out at last, deciding that denial was her best shot for getting through this confrontation without completely losing her temper.
Again the smirk, this time attached to a doubtful eyebrow lift. "Anybody ever tell you you're a lousy liar?"
Sam ignored the comment, instead struggling to focus on a professional agenda. "Look, I came here to discuss any ideas you have on the entropic cascade ... nothing else."
The other Carter rose and turned, hitching her hip against the desk. "No ... you came because of her. Don't kid yourself it's anything else."
Sam muttered a curse under her breath. "This is a waste of time," she muttered after a beat. She turned to leave, only to be held in place by a soft admission from the other woman.
"I do love her, you know."
"Then why would you make her care for you when you know you're dying?" Sam bit out before she could stop herself. "And we both know you knew it when you came here."
A long moment of silence followed. "Pure selfishness, I suppose," the alternate Carter admitted after a long beat. "A touch of insanity--"
Sam pivoted, her expression twisted with raw fury. "How about cruelty?" she snarled. "Was that part of the equation?"
"God, no," the other Carter gasped, appalled by the idea. "Why would you even--"
Carter spun, one arm flinging outward in a ragged gesture, her tone sharply accusing. "Because you should know damn well what it's going to do to her when she can't save you." Having more or less admitted she knew about them, she couldn't hold back the fury and resentment. "She doesn't take her emotions lightly and it's going to destroy her--"
"She'll survive," her doppleganger growled. "You'll help her," she added, her voice grating roughly.
"Oh yeah, she's likely want my help after this," Sam shot back acidly. She shook her head in disbelief. "Don't you get it, you've made sure that she'll be completely alone--"
"Yes!" Sam cut her off in a hard voice. "Homosexual activity is grounds for discharge from the military, so she can't go to anyone else on this base. Me, I don't give a flying fuck and she knows it, but you've made damn certain that every time she looks at me, she'll see you ... she'll be reminded ... and if I know Janet, she'll also feel like she's betrayed our friendship somehow." Sam swallowed hard, surprised by the bolt of sheer pain that went through her. "I'm the last person she'll come to for help."
"Then you'll go to her," the other Carter said softly, forcing down her own jealousy. "We both know you'll do what you have to." She folded her arms across her chest, struggling to keep the bitterness out of her voice as she continued, "You don't have any more choice than I did."
Carter pulled up short, taking a moment to dissect the words, then shook her head as she realized what the other woman was implying. "We're just friends," she instantly denied any deeper emotions.
"You can tell that story to anyone you want, including yourself, but I'm the one person it's not going to fool," her alternate responded sharply.
Snarling an angry curse, Sam backed up, reaching for the door. "Think what you like, but the fact of the matter is that my alternates have also been with Jack O'Neill in another two universes, so I don't think things are quite that predictable--"
"But she wasn't there, was she?" the other Sam demanded, her voice low and insinuating, refusing not to be heard. "Every place I've ever been, I've never seen another Sam Carter with Jack O'Neill in any universe where she was there ... and that includes one where homosexuality wasn't just an excuse for dismissal, it was grounds for execution ... face facts, O'Neill's a decent guy, but whenever we wind up with him, we're just settling."
"There is no 'we,'" Sam snarled, "just me and you ... so don't presume to know my emotions." She spun, wrenching the door open and was almost through when that low voice reached her ears.
"I wouldn't dare, especially when you don't know them yourself."
"Don't plan on any more privacy binges," Sam shot back, then slammed the door behind herself, her strides long and brisk as she fled.
* * * * * *
George Hammond stared at the downbent head of his Chief Medical Officer as she laid out her patient's condition with businesslike thoroughness. Despite the controlled professionalism of her presentation, he knew damn well she was hurting. She took it personally when she had a patient she didn't know dying on her. To be unable to help Carter -- any Carter -- had to be damn near unbearable.
"Is there anything you can do?" he questioned when she finally finished.
Fraiser shrugged. "We can treat symptoms as they come up, but her body's incapable of healing, so anything I do is strictly stopgap." She stared down at the folder laid out on the table, shuffling papers to have something to do with her hands. "Major Carter is working to try and find a way to stop the entropic cascade, but so far..." she paused for a moment, struggling to maintain the professional fa�ade before continuing, "she doesn't hold out much hope."
"Damn," Hammond exhaled as he absorbed that news, unsurprised by the bolt of pain that tightened a band around his own chest. Fraiser wasn't the only one who hated the thought of not being able to save Carter in any form. He wished he could simply worry about the woman in question. Unfortunately, he had larger concerns. "Is there any danger to the base?"
Dark eyes lifted, widening in surprise at the question. She hadn't really considered that aspect, though as she thought about it, she remembered Carter mentioning an energy discharge during the periods of entropic cascade. "I don't know, sir," she admitted after a beat. "I'm afraid you'll need to speak to Major Carter. She'd have a far better idea than I do." She was amazed that she managed to sound so calm about the whole issue, when she could feel her stomach tying up in knots at the very thought.
"Understood," the general said quietly. "I'll be speaking to her as soon as I've finished with an incoming team." Despite the insanity going on with the alternate Carter, he still had a thousand different demands on his time.
Fraiser began gathering the papers and charts together. "If that's all, sir, I'd like to get back and check on my patient."
He nodded and was about to speak when the phone on the wall buzzed for attention. Hammond grabbed it, "Hammond here," then handed it to her, frowning as he watched her lose all color.
"I have to go, sir," she clipped, barely getting the phone hung up before she literally ran out of the room.
He considered calling to her that he'd see the paperwork was delivered to her office, but she was already gone.
* * * * * *
Hard hands caught Janet by the shoulders as she burst through the door of the observation room, holding her back when she would have rushed to the woman writhing in a pool of golden, flashing lights on the cement floor.
"You can't!" Sam Carter hissed near her ear, yanking Janet backwards until her shoulderblades hit the wall, and putting herself between the doctor and her alternate. "The energy release'll burn you."
At that point, Janet would have gladly suffered the pain if she could have helped her tormented lover, but Sam's grip was too strong and she couldn't break loose. Warner and a med tech were off to one side, and she caught a glimpse of the young tech's hands and forearms, considerably pinker than normal.
And then it was over, the heat radiating from Carter's alternate leeching away in moments, while the woman lay in a tight fetal curl, hands gripping her chest, expression twisted in pain, her breath coming in ragged gasps. The latest attack had lasted far longer and done more damage than anything that had come before.
"Oh God, Sam," Janet exhaled in shock, and broke away from Carter. Rushing forward, she fell to her knees beside her patient, her hands quick and amazingly competent under the circumstances. She used the stethoscope dangling around her neck to listen to her lover's chest, then started giving orders as she heard Warner draw close. She glanced back at the medic. "Is he all right?"
"He'll be okay," Warner assured her, while the tech hurried to call for more backup.
Sam stayed back out of their way as she watched the doctors work, only stepping forward when they needed help lifting her alternate back up onto the bed. She was no doctor, but she knew more than enough to realize the situation was serious. Minutes passed as they worked, stabilizing the woman on the bed. Finally, a large tank of oxygen and a drip were brought in, and Sam had to step forward. She touched Fraiser's shoulder lightly, braced for the resistance that was certain to come. "No oxygen," Sam said softly, wincing as the doctor's eyes turned her way, flashing angrily. "If there's another cascade, the heat generated could burst the tank and set off an explosion."
She saw Fraiser draw breath to argue, her full attention focused on her patient's needs, then the woman on the bed spoke up, her voice weak and raspy, "She's right. It's too dangerous."
Janet leaned close to her patient, her voice carrying a note of desperation for anyone who knew her well enough to hear it. "Your cardiac and lung functions are off ... you need the supplemental oxyg--"
"It's too dangerous," her lover whispered firmly, already gaining some strength back, though she still looked like death warmed over. Her eyes slid past Janet's shoulder to where Sam stood stiffly a short distance back, her expression forbidding. "I need to speak to you, Major Carter...alone."
Janet tensed, glancing back over her shoulder at her friend, her expression questioning. "There really should be a doctor monitoring you at all times, right now," she said as she looked back at the alternate Carter.
The woman on the bed glanced at the monitor beeping unsteadily at her bedside. "I'll be okay for a couple of minutes...please...there are technical details we need to discuss." She didn't want her lover to hear what had to be said.
The doctor visibly wanted to argue, but short of mentioning their relationship, there wasn't much she could say, so she just stood stiffly until warm hands landed lightly on her shoulders.
"I'll call you instantly if there's any change," Sam assured her.
"Go," the woman on the bed said softly and reached up to squeeze Janet's hand comfortingly. "I'll be all right."
Janet glanced back and forth between the two Carters, surprised to see the same implacable determination on both of their faces. "Everybody out," she instructed the rest of the medical team after a beat, then followed them after a last look at the two women who'd become so twined with her life, one as friend, the other as lover.
The woman on the bed waited until the door had slammed shut behind Fraiser, then pointed toward the desk that ran along the opposite wall. "The notebook there...it's for you."
Sam retrieved the spiral bound book and began thumbing through the contents, a frown marring her brow as she noted the copious lines of neat handwriting that was a perfect mirror of her own and the accompanying technical sketches drawn with her familiar tendency to flare the lines ever slightly at intersection points.
"It's everything I could come up with that I think might help you against the Goa'uld ... everything I've seen in several dozen different universes ... I tried to make the notes as complete as possible." The alternate Carter tipped her head back, eyes sliding closed as she struggled to draw air into lungs that no longer wanted to work. Ready or not, her body was breaking down on her. "The notebook and the pen were both from your universe, so you don't have to worry that they'll explode on you at some point."
Sam nodded silently, not knowing what to say or do and lacking the cruelty to expose the obviously dying woman to any of her personal resentments. "Thank you," she said with some degree of real sincerity. The notes might well make the difference down the road and she honestly appreciated the effort.
"Don't thank me," the other Carter rasped. "I didn't do it for you." She was more comfortable dealing with the other woman's anger. The pity in her eyes was just grating on her nerves. She straightened her shoulders with effort, resisting the urge to curl into a ball as her heart hammered unsteadily in her chest. "I've done the calculations on the cascade...I've got a little more data than you do, even if it's not as precise." She pointed at the book. "I worked out the probable schedule and energy release...it's the last couple of pages ... the cascade is moving faster than I thought it would when I...." She trailed off and shook her head sharply.
Sam flipped to the back, frowning as she digested the figures in front of her. "You're sure about these numbers?" she whispered at last.
Her alternate nodded sharply. "You can probably refine the figures with your data, but that's close enough."
Sam snapped the notebook shut, a sick kind of dread welling up in the pit of her stomach. "This will have to be contained."
"I'm guessing you have some kind of munitions bunker in the area. That should be sufficient." They were enough alike in those moments, that few words were needed.
Carter nodded distantly. "There's an abandoned missile silo near here that'll do." She winced, remembering taking Cassie there when they'd thought the Goa'uld bomb in her chest was going to explode with nuclear force. "I'll make the arrangements as quickly as I can."
"There's still time," the woman on the bed whispered, her eyes falling down to where her clasped hands were resting lightly in her lap. "Five hours by my calculations ... with one more episode before the final one. You should also take care of the gear I brought with me, since it's likely to become unstable at some point."
"That can just go back through the gate. There are a couple of dead worlds with active gates that we can dial up and throw it through."
"That'll work," the alternate Carter said simply.
Sam nodded silently and turned to leave only to pause as her hand touched the doorknob. She did a slow pivot back. "Why?" she whispered the single word in hopes of understanding. The science and the numbers were easy for her, but none of the rest of it made any damn sense.
The other Carter frowned, studying the woman who would live on after she was gone, seeing herself as she must have been before. Funny how her recent experiences had given her the objectivity to see the physical beauty in her own face and body that she would have once denied. And also the naivete and genuine confusion. Her alternate really didn't get it. She could only hope the emotional lessons came cheaper for the other woman. "Have you ever wanted anything so badly you'd risk everything for it?" she whispered, knowingly echoing the question she'd asked Janet when her lover still thought she was someone else. "Even the hatred of the one person who means more to you than anything else ever could?"
Sam frowned, struggling to understand. "She doesn't have it in her to hate you," she said at last, holding out the only peace of mind she could offer. "No matter how much you deserve it." And then she was yanking on the doorknob, desperate to get out of there and moving.
* * * * * *
"What the hell do you mean, we're moving her?!" Janet demanded as she burst into the observation booth, eyes flashing with raw fury.
Sam held out a hand in silent command for quiet, as she continued calmly into the base phone held against her ear. "Yes, sir, that's right. It should be safe once she's moved. Yes, sir, I know. I just informed the medical staff...we should be on the road within the half hour. Yes, sir, I've already given orders for that to be taken care of. PRS-23R4 should work fine." She glanced at her watch, checking the time. She'd hurried straight to a phone to inform the general of the situation, then found Warner and given him the orders while Fraiser was still with her patient. If she was honest, she'd been avoiding this confrontation as long as she could, knowing full well that Fraiser would fight her on her decision. "Thank you, sir. I'll keep you apprized as soon as I know anything." With Hammond updated, she hung up the phone and pivoted to face the woman glaring at her from a short distance away, her hands braced on her hips, ready for a fight. "It has to be done, Janet," she spoke before Fraiser could lash into her. "The next energy releases could endanger the base."
"So...what...we just drop her in a hole and close the trap door?" Janet demanded furiously.
"No," Sam said carefully, handling her friend as gently as she dared. "We make her as comfortable as possible...while keeping this base safe," she added in a voice that brooked no argument. "And for your information, she understands...she'd already done the calculations and suggested the move." She saw the softly spoken words hit the other woman like blows.
"But...we can't--" Janet started to argue, the words sounding weak and uncertain even to her own ears as the practical professional warred with the woman who was far too emotionally involved. She knew Sam was right, but she hated it to her very core.
"Janet," Sam kept her voice steady and calming, "the last thing she wants is for anyone on this base to get hurt ... you know that." She saw the doctor's posture wilt as she shaded her face with one hand. "It's the only way."
"I want to come." The knowledge that Sam was right drained the fight out of her.
Sam nodded. She couldn't deny her that much even if Janet was too emotionally involved. Realistically, there was nothing to be done medically anyway. "Of course."
Janet took a deep breath, getting control over her emotions with effort. Finally, after a beat, she straightened her shoulders. "How quickly does she need to be ready to be moved?"
"The transport vehicle will be ready in fifteen minutes."
Fraiser nodded, the professional mask, or at least a close proximity, firmly in place once again. She wanted to fight. Oh god, how she wanted to fight, but she was smart enough to know it wouldn't make a whit of difference, except get her left behind. They couldn't afford to have someone along who wasn't thinking clearly, and Carter would never allow it. "I'll make sure she's ready." She turned to leave, holding on to her self-control by the thinnest of threads.
Sam's soft voice held her in place. "Janet...I'm sorry. If there were any other way...."
"I know," Fraiser admitted after a long, uncomfortable moment, offering her friend what absolution she could before slipping out.
"Oh, damn," Sam breathed when she was alone again. She allowed herself that one small moment to release the tension, then reached for her laptop, snapping it shut, before tossing it in the soft-sided briefcase that sat nearby, the notebook her alternate had given her sticking out of a side pocket. She hadn't had time to check the calculations yet. That would have to wait until they had the other Carter in the silo, where no one could be hurt. She grabbed a few more things and shoved them into the bag, then zipped it closed, slung the strap over her shoulder and hurried out.
* * * * * *
The drive to the missile silo had a perversely familiar feel for Sam Carter, but then she'd done much the same thing once before when she'd gone with Cass. Then, she'd been increasingly certain there would be a happy ending if they could just get far enough from the gate. This time, she couldn't see any scenario that was anything but tragic. As she glanced around the interior of the transport truck, her eyes met Jack O'Neill's and she saw the worried, sympathetic look on his face. She'd been surprised to find her teammates with the truck, but their presence was a comfort now; a much needed anchor at a time when it was hard to know which direction was up. Despite her best intentions, her gaze slid on to the figure of her alternate where she sat in one corner of the truck, braced between the back of the cab and the slender figure of the doctor, pale with pain, her eyes tightly closed. Janet had a hand loosely curled around her patient's wrist and was monitoring the unsteady throb of her heartbeat. Though the small mobile monitor resting on the bench near Carter's hip broadcast a far more accurate version of events than the soft touch, Sam sensed the need to maintain some kind of physical contact, even in the forbidding confines of the truck, where any untoward gesture might be noticed and paid for later.
God, what a mess.Sam pinched the bridge of her nose, fighting a vicious headache that throbbed directly behind her eyes.
"Sam? You okay?" Daniel Jackson's voice was gentle and she opened her eyes and turned a tired gaze on her teammate where he sat next to her.
"I'm fine," she answered, though she suspected she didn't particularly look or sound the part.
He frowned slightly, not quite believing her. "Are you sure?" he questioned, sensing an undercurrent he didn't understand. He kept his voice low, so no one else could hear their conversation. "Because I'd think it would be awfully weird to be watching yourself," he flashed a glance at the other Carter, "in that condition."
Sam shrugged. "It's not so much that," she whispered, "as everything else." Her eyes touched on Fraiser again, unwillingly remembering the things she'd seen and heard.
"I don't understand."
"Which is for the best," Sam said quietly and didn't elaborate, grateful to feel the truck grind to a halt before Daniel could come up with any more questions. For a little while at least, she could lose herself in organizing things, briskly taking command of the small group of soldiers and medics on the team. She was still ordering a gurney be brought around when she caught sight of her alternate as she started to rise only to falter and start to stumble. Janet instantly caught the taller woman around the waist, but wasn't strong enough to keep her upright alone. Sam vaulted back into the truck, catching the sagging woman on the other side. "Gurney!" she shouted to the med techs, while Fraiser braced a hand on her patient's chest and dragged an arm across her shoulders.
"Just lean against us. Don't even try to use your strength."
Carter's doppleganger tensed, expression screwing into a look of concentration as she got her legs under her and took most of her own weight, though she didn't resist moments later, when the medics hefted a gurney into the back of the truck and helped settle her onto it.
Janet crouched down beside her lover, brushing sweat-damp bangs back from her brow. "Just try to relax," she soothed, "and breathe as slowly and deeply as you can." With her pulse weak and erratic her heart was having a hard time simply pumping enough blood to supply much needed oxygen to the rest of her body. Without the ability to safely use supplemental oxygen, she was in danger of essentially slowly asphyxiating. The doctor glanced up, pinning a medic in place with a look. "Make sure you bring that kit," she ordered briefly and pointed at a hard-sided case.
The small team moved their strange patient into the deepest level of the missile silo, counting on the reinforced concrete once intended to protect those inside from an attack from above to protect the outside world from any explosions from within. Under the doctor's direction, the medics dropped the gurney into its lower, more secure position, locked the wheels so they couldn't roll, then moved out of the way as Fraiser moved in, arranging things and doing what little she could to see to her patient's health. She was fully concentrated on the woman lying pale and wan on the gurney, but at the same time, very much aware of her universe's Sam Carter ordering the medics out, then shooing O'Neill, Teal'c, and Daniel on their way as well.
"Carter, you sure about this?" O'Neill questioned. There were undercurrents of turmoil that he didn't understand, and he was uncomfortable leaving under the circumstances.
"Yes, sir," Carter assured him firmly. "I don't want any more people down here than absolutely necessary. Carter ... the other one, I mean ... came up with a rough schedule, but I'm still checking the numbers ... and ... well, sir, I'm still not entirely certain what's going to happen...." She trailed off, while Fraiser had to fight to cover a flinch at her friend's softly spoken words. Sam glanced back, tensing ever so slightly as she saw her alternate surreptitiously cover Janet's hand, squeezing gently. Sam was glad to see the other woman offering Janet whatever comfort she could even if it still infuriated her that she had initiated this situation in the first place. "But I think it's best we don't take any chances."
"Are you sure?" Daniel questioned, also sensing the strange underlying mood. "Because none of us would mind staying."
"I know," Carter assured her friends, thinking of the irony that they seemed to feel she needed comfort when the other Carter was the one dying, and Janet was the one hurting over it. "But I think it's best if you go. I'll use the intercom system to update you on what's happening."
"You do that, Carter," O'Neill clipped, his expression drawn and worried, though he quietly led the others out as requested.
Sam waited a beat after they'd left, then pivoted to watch Fraiser where she was leaning over her patient. "Is there anything I can do to help?" she asked quietly.
Janet glanced back, emotion roiling in her eyes, though she kept her tone calm and professional. "No ... at least not at the moment."
Sam considered pressing harder, but something held her back. Finally, she just nodded, readjusting the weight of her laptop where the carrying strap was braced on her shoulder. "There's an old command center just a couple of doors down the hall. I'll be there if you need me. I should be able to hear you if you shout."
Janet silently watched Sam leave, correctly reading her grim emotions before turning back to the woman lying on the narrow gurney. "I'm sorry this isn't more comfortable," she whispered raggedly as she crouched down and tenderly brushed pale blond bangs out of her lover's face.
Sam's alternate waved the apology aside. "I'm fine," she dismissed, her voice hoarse with exhaustion. She reached up, catching Janet's hand in a loose hold, paling as she used her other hand to push into a sitting position.
Janet made a small, abortive lunge as if to stop the other woman. "You shouldn't--" but her patient held a hand to stop her and hushed her gently.
"Shhh." Sam's alternate lifted Janet's hand to press a soft kiss across the back of her knuckles. "It feels good to stretch a little. Don't worry about it," she assured the doctor. She folded her legs under her, making room on the narrow gurney. "Now, sit down. We need to talk."
Janet frowned, instinctively sensing a discussion she didn't want to have lying ahead of her. "I don't think--"
"Sit," Sam snapped in her best command voice.
Janet sat, the well-trained instinct the obey a senior officer's orders kicking in before she could think better of it.
Her lover flashed a small triumphant grin at the mutinous look that flashed almost instantly in dark brown eyes. "You are so beautiful," Sam's alternate breathed as though struck anew by the realization, the quiet proclamation chasing away Janet's resentment before it could become more than a fleeting impression. She reached out to stroke a gently rounded cheek, her touch incredibly gentle, while her expression turned serious. She could feel her body threatening to fail her with every passing moment and knew there was a very real chance that she wouldn't even survive long enough for the entropic cascade to kill her. Under the circumstances, there were things that needed to be said.
"Shh," the alien Carter breathed again and rubbed her thumb lightly over Janet's lips. "I need to say some things ... and some day, you'll need to know I said them...." She took a deep breath, visibly straining under the effort it cost her. Her eyes fell to their still twined hands where they rested on her lap. "I can't lie and say that I'm sorry I came here ... or that I found you...." Her eyes lifted, finding Janet's dark gaze with searching intensity. "But what I've done is selfish as hell ... I shouldn't have done it ... because you're the one who's going to be hurt ... and that's my fault--"
Janet started to protest, "Sam, please, we've already gone over this and I--"
"Please...I need to say this ... and I need for you to hear it," her lover interrupted in a quiet, but firm voice, stroking Janet's cheek again. "The last few months I've been a little crazy." She let out a small grim laugh. "Maybe a lot crazy ... and when I came here, I was caught up in that ... I lied to you ... thought I had a right to something because I'd already lost so much...." She trailed off, struggling to formulate the words to express herself. After so many months mostly spent alone, she felt like she was fumbling in the dark. Pretending to be her old self in Janet's home had been easy enough ... just a matter of sinking back into old patterns and forgetting what had happened since. Even their dealings since had been simple enough in a sense, just a matter of reacting without thinking things through, but during the drive over, she'd had time to consider the harsh reality of her own mortality, and the guilt of what she'd done and the mess she'd be leaving behind was crushing. "You should hate me for what I've done ... God knows I should be taken out and horse whipped ... and my only defense is that I...." She trailed off into a dark laugh as she accepted the harsh reality that there was no excuse. If she'd been the other Carter, she'd have gladly pounded herself into a pulp. "I have no defense," she admitted after a beat. "But I want you to know that I do love you ... and I am sorry." She pressed another kiss to the back of Janet's hand, clinging tightly for a long moment as she nerved herself for what had to be done next.
Janet stared at her lover's downbent and reached out to toy with silky blond hair. "Sam, I'm a big girl ... yes, you lied ... but I made the choice not to walk away when I could have." Fraiser flashed a glance at the monitor blinking her patient's condition across the front panel, automatically tracking her condition, her heart sinking with awareness that none of what she was looking at boded well for the woman sitting so close. Even if Sam could come up with something to alter the reality of the entropic cascade, the damage that had already been done was most likely too serious for anything to save her. She clenched her jaw tightly against the threat of tears. "And I don't regret the choice I made." She tucked a finger under her lover's chin to draw her head up. "Not at all."
"You should hate me--"
Janet shook her head. "No ... never ... whatever happens, I couldn't." She flashed another glance at the monitor, but knew it was pointless. She'd already done everything medically possible. Now, it was just a waiting game.
The alternate Sam took a deep breath visibly struggling to draw air into her lungs. "I want you to make me a promise."
"Anything I can."
"When the time is right ... and I believe in my heart, it will be ... don't run away from your Sam--"
Janet shook her head. "I told you before, you're my Sam," she insisted doggedly. A gentle hand lifted to brush dark auburn hair from her brow.
"No ... not really ... just for a little while. She's the real one ... and she's going to be stubborn, and angry. Rightfully so, because she loves you and I've hurt you ... and she is going to run so scared. Believe me, I know ... but she's yours and you're stuck with her."
Janet's eyes dropped and she shook her head again, not ready to hear what the other woman was telling her. "I-I told you, we're just friends."
"Just promise me you'll remember what I've said ... and when the time comes, don't run." She tucked a finger under Janet's chin, drawing her head up until their eyes met.
"If that were to happen," Janet offered the only promise she could, "I promise, I wouldn't run...."
Involved in the quiet conversation, neither woman heard the soft click as the door was carefully pulled shut.
Sam Carter leaned against the wall just outside the small, cement and lead lined room, eyes tightly shut as she struggled with her own emotions. She hadn't meant to eavesdrop, hadn't intended to listen in on their conversation. She'd only stepped back to ask her alternate a question about her calculations, but she'd barely opened the door when she overheard their soft conversation and froze. Sam sighed heavily and rubbed her eyes as she struggled to dissect why she'd had such a violent response to the promise her alternate had extracted. She had no idea what she was feeling, hadn't allowed herself to stop and think about anything too much, half afraid her brain would implode from sheer overwork because every time she let herself consider the implications of the relationship between Janet and her alternate, she could feel the confusion and uncertainty start to wash over her like a tidal wave. What the hell was she supposed to do with all of this? Sam sighed softly. What the hell was she supposed to feel? The whole situation -- her emotions included -- was all tied up in some kind of Gordian knot that she hadn't the vaguest idea how to untie, and somehow Alexander's solution of just cutting through the damn thing was more terrifying than anything else because she honestly wasn't sure what lay under all of the intricately bound strands. And that scared the hell out of Sam Carter. She was used to living a life of quiet predictability on the emotional front -- in stark contrast to her professional life where all hell could and did break loose on a regular basis. Suddenly any predictability had been blown straight to hell.
After a beat, she straightened her shoulders and pushed away from the wall, clamping a hard lock on emotions she couldn't afford to consider. Not now, maybe not ever. Someone needed to keep a clear head in this whole mess and she was the only one up to the task. Janet was her friend and she already felt guilty as hell because it was her double that had seduced her and set this situation in motion, virtually guaranteeing the doctor more pain than Sam cared to contemplate. The least she could do was guard her back and offer what little protection was possible.
Sam glanced at her watch, noting the time, a frisson running down her spine as she glanced down at the notebook still clenched tightly in her hand, remembering the calculations inside. According to those, there was still time before the next incident, so why could she suddenly feel her skin crawling with instinctive tension? Experience had taught Carter to listen to her intuition. It was often more accurate than all of the theorems in the world. Sam flipped the notebook open, frowning as she followed the neatly written theorems with automatic understanding. On the surface, they looked right, but there was something.... She shook her head, frown deepening as she backed up a page and began going through them again.
* * * * * * *
Out of place and space, Samantha Carter, former major in the SGC reached out to catch a single tear on the tip of her finger, amazed by the pure velvet of her lover's cheek as she made contact. Her heart breaking at the hurt she saw in dark eyes before it was hidden behind a mask of control. "I'm sorry," she whispered again, though she knew the words were scant comfort. She swallowed hard, struggling against her failing body as the tightness in her throat made the already challenging task of breathing almost impossible. She closed her eyes against her own tears, hooking a hand behind Janet's neck and drawing her lover near enough that their foreheads almost touched. She allowed herself that last moment of closeness, drawing strength from the warm contact before kissing velvet soft lips a final time. "It's time now," she husked raggedly. She straightened away from Janet, gently stroking her cheek as she pulled back. "You need to go."
Janet frowned in confusion, shaking her head as the words sank in. "No ... y-you might need a doctor." There was a part of her still praying for a miracle -- though logically she knew it wasn't going to happen -- and she was terrified of leaving her lover alone in case her presence was somehow the deciding factor.
"There's nothing more you can do here." Her mind tumbling with thoughts, guilts, and memories, Sam shook her head. There were no more apologies she could make and no explanations that would excuse what she'd done other than a kind of madness and desperation that left her raw with shame. "I love you ... and I don't want you here for what's coming--"
"I've already put you through too much," the blond insisted and pushed to her feet with the last of her strength.
Janet scrambled after her, embracing her lover when she wavered unsteadily. "I saw your calculations ... it's not time yet," she choked as she buried her face in a warm shoulder.
Sam's alternate lifted a hand to stroke silky hair and pressed a kiss to Janet's temple. "You have to go. I don't..." she choked off, unable to finish, took a deep breath to regain control over her emotions and began again, "I don't want to put you through any more ... God knows, I've already hurt you too much...." She tipped Janet's chin up. "I don't want you to be here for what's coming ... and I need to be absolutely certain you're safe."
Janet could feel her already tenuous self-control slipping. "I'm not ready for this," she husked. She was exhausted, personally tangled in the situation, her emotions unbelievably raw. She couldn't even begin to summon her normal professional objectivity.
Sam pressed another kiss to the top of her lover's head, breathing in the sweet scent of her hair and storing the sensory impression away along with a thousand other details. "You'll be all right," she whispered desperately. "You're strong and you'll get through ... Let her help you ... please."
"I told you, we're just friends," Janet said with extra emphasis on the word 'just.'
Sam shook her head as she considered the woman who belonged in this universe. "She's in love with you ... she hasn't quite figured it out yet ... and she's going to fight it ... but she is in love with you--"
"Yes," Sam overrode her firmly, her tone poignant as she continued, "And, what's more, you're in love with her--" She didn't have time for subtleties. All she could do was lay her cards on the table and hope for the best.
Janet shook her head, her already confused emotions too torqued to take yet another monkey wrench in the works. "No, I--"
"Yes," Sam insisted a little desperately as she cupped Janet's face in her hands. "Janet, listen to me, if you hadn't already had deep feelings -- admitted or not -- the first time I kissed you -- when you still thought I was her -- you'd have slapped my face and sent me on my way." Dark eyes slid away, but Janet didn't argue, while her lover pushed her point. "You know I'm right. You don't take bullshit from anyone ... and you certainly wouldn't have allowed any intimacy you didn't want ... wouldn't have made love with someone you didn't already have very deep feelings for."
Janet swallowed hard and shook her head in denial. "I can't deal with this right now," she admitted raggedly.
"I'm sorry," her lover breathed, wrapping her arms around the smaller woman and hugging her fiercely. She pressed the softest of kisses to her temple. "But I don't want you to make the same mistakes we did. I don't want you to be alone ... not when I know how much she cares for you."
Burying her face in her lover's shoulder, Janet struggled to control her shredded emotions, clinging tightly as she memorized the smell and feel of the woman pressed so close. "Not now," she begged, not wanting to look at anything past the immediate moment.
Sam blinked back her own tears, ignoring her failing body's demands to rest as she clung to the woman in her arms, offering what little support she could. "Okay ... shhhh...." They still had a little time. "I'm here ... you'll be okay...." She could allow another moment before she sent her away.
* * * * * * * *
Sam felt every last bit of color drain from her face as she finished double checking the figures from the notebook. She flashed a glance at her open laptop where it was running on the nearby desk -- a countdown steadily ticking off the seconds until her alternate's final moments -- and mentally calculated the difference in the time she'd thought they had and how much they actually had.
"Shit." Sam shoved the notebook inside her jacket and spun on her heel, barely pausing to activate the intercom on the wall. "Colonel O'Neill, this is Carter."
"Yes, Major?" O'Neill's voice came back almost instantly. He had to have been sitting on top of the comm system, waiting to hear from her.
"Get everyone out of the building and back as far as possible. The calculations were off. It looks like we've only got minutes before the situation hits critical instead of a couple of hours."
"I'll send a team down."
"No, sir," Sam snapped instantly. "Just send the elevators and clear out. I'm getting Fraiser and we're on our way up asap."
"I mean it, sir. The calculations were off ... this thing is happening and I don't have time to figure out how violent it's going to be." There was no more time to check calculations or run numbers. They just had to play it as it fell and pray that the explosion wasn't a whole lot worse than predicted. "Now, clear out!" She snapped off before he had a chance to say any more. She snapped the comm off and twisted, bursting into the corridor and breaking into a hard run for the few feet to the room where Fraiser waited with the other Sam, a dark suspicion hanging over her heart that maybe the mistake hadn't been such a mistake because it wasn't the sort of error she could see herself making easily. She burst into the room, an angry flush suffusing her skin as her eyes fell on the two women standing together several feet away. The blond had her hands locked Janet's upper arms, while the doctor's hands were pressed against the other Sam's chest, her cheeks glossy with angry tears.
"No!" the doctor hissed, while the blond kept a firm grip on her arms.
"Janet, it's time--"
"You get your hands off of her!" Sam snarled, clamping a hand on the back of Janet's collar and yanking her out of her alternate's grip. She thrust the small woman behind herself as she glared at her mirror image, braced for a fight.
"Sam-- What the hell?" Janet gasped in surprise, while Carter continued to glare at the unsteady figure of her doppleganger.
"We're leaving here," Sam growled at her alternate, "and I strongly suggest you not try to stop us."
"Sam, I don't what you think you're doing, but stop it," Janet snapped and would have stepped around her friend, but Sam locked a hard grip on her arm and wouldn't allow it.
"We're leaving now, Janet," the major bit out, struggling to put some kind of professional fa�ade back in place when she was dangerously angry. Seeing her alternate with her hands on a resisting Fraiser and remembering the bruises on she'd seen on her friend had set any questions she had in cement. As far as she was concerned her alternate had fudged the computations on purpose in some sick kind of attempt to take Janet with her and no way in hell was she going to allow that to happen.
The other Sam frowned darkly. "Actually, I was just trying to get Doctor Fraiser to leave ... since there's nothing more she can do here," she said softly as she met Carter's fury with a look of quiet determination tinged with confusion.
"Of course you were," Sam jeered doubtfully.
The frown lines marring the other Carter's forehead deepened in response to Sam's tone, while Janet gasped in surprise and stepped around her friend, her expression sharp, eyes blazing at the accusing tone of voice. "What the hell are you trying to say, Sam?" She tried to pull her arm free, but Sam wasn't letting go.
Carter's gaze swung to meet her friend's dark gaze, expression shifting to a silent plea for understanding as she explained in quick, pointed words, "Those calculations she did ... they're wrong." She threw an accusing look at her alternate, barely restraining the urge to growl as she saw the other woman's look of aggrieved innocence. She wasn't buying a bit of it. Teeth gritted against her anger, Carter looked back to Janet, expression softening as she remembered the hurt that had already been inflicted on her friend, but Fraiser spoke before Sam could draw breath to say something conciliatory that might get her to leave.
"That sounds like an accusation."
Sam's eyes swung back to meet the pale mirror of her own gaze as she answered Fraiser's question. "It's not a mistake I'd be likely to make," she countered, her tone flat and grim.
Carter's alternate shook her head, falling back a half step under the impact of Sam's angry gaze. "You think I'm not ready to die alone," she realized between rough breaths.
"Amazing how you figured that out so quickly," Sam snapped, her temper momentarily gaining control. "Guilty conscience?"
The other Carter shrugged, her tone ironic. "No ... I know how you think." Dark eyes swung her way, reflecting a moment of uncertainty. "It's not true," she breathed, relieved when Janet nodded her belief. She snapped her gaze back to the stiff-backed, furious mirror of herself standing a few feet away, her tone as businesslike as she could make it. "Are you certain about the calculations?"
Sam nodded jerkily. "I didn't have a chance to refine them, but I can tell you there's not much time. The energy output will hit critical with the next incident." She felt as much as heard Janet gasp as if struck. "It may be as much as fifteen or twenty minutes from now ... maybe as little as five or six."
Blue eyes snapped closed and the other Carter let out a small, pained sound, amazed by how much the thought of her impending death hurt. She'd thought she was ready for it, thought she had dealt with the pain and fear, but for a moment she was ready to trade body and soul for just another few seconds of life. Then she regained control. "Get out of here," she hissed.
Sam had been ready for a fight, some kind of resistance, not the hollow agony she saw in her doppleganger's eyes. For a moment, she stood frozen, suddenly not so certain about her accusations and struck silent by an instinctive guilt that maybe her suspicions had less to do with her alternate's calculations than they did her behavior with regard to Janet. "I'm sorry," she breathed.
"Just go," Carter's double hissed in a voice thick with impending agony.
Sam pivoted on one foot, intending to press Fraiser ahead of her and leave, but Janet dug her feet in, finally succeeding in yanking her arm free of Sam's hold as she neatly sidestepped her friend. She'd heard it all, her mind still processing -- or more correctly refusing to process -- the traded barbs and suddenly it all came crashing down on her. "No," the doctor gasped, lunging back to her patient and lover. Normally-strong hands caught her at the shoulders, and she could feel the weakness that had invaded the other woman's touch. "Not yet," she whispered, barely feeling it as her universe's Sam landed on her shoulders from behind. Janet only shook her head, while her lover lifted a gentle hand to dark auburn hair, threading long fingers into the fine strands. "I'm not ready for this."
"No one ever is." The dying woman pressed a soft kiss to Janet's forehead. "But it's time."
"Janet, we have to go," Sam reminded her as gently as she could without backing down.
The doctor swallowed hard on the tightness in her throat, struggling against the threat of tears. "I'm not sure I can."
Sam saw pain flit over her alternate's face, saw the hurt and loss in her expression, then she leaned close to Janet's ear, whispering too softly for Sam to hear.
"I love you," Janet's lover breathed in her ear, then whispered as she straightened, "Remember your promise." She pressed firmly on the smaller woman's shoulders and felt her stiffen in unreasoning resistance to what was happening. Normally, Fraiser wasn't one to lead with her emotions, but she was too tired and too rattled to be functioning rationally. And there was no time for gentle reasoning. Sam's alternate lifted her other hand from the smaller woman's shoulder, fingers coiling into a tight fist. The blow was a fast uppercut that clipped the underside of Janet's jaw. Sam knew exactly how to hit and how much pressure to apply to take someone down quickly and as painlessly as possible. The doctor's head rocked back, eyes rolling back in her sockets as she went limp. Her lover caught her as she collapsed. "She always did have a glass jaw," Sam's doppleganger muttered dryly and locked a hard gaze on the Carter who belonged in this universe. "You can carry her," she said sharply, her tone making the words somewhere between a question and a command.
Sam nodded, shaking out of a brief moment of startled paralysis. She ducked down, dragging the doctor's diminutive frame across her shoulders in a fireman's carry with her alternate's help.
The Carter who was out of place and time abruptly fell back a step, expression twisting in sudden pain. "Go!" she hissed as Sam straightened. Her shoulders were suddenly heaving with the effort required to draw every breath. The energy was starting to build in the very matter that made up her body. "You don't have much time."
Sam's eyes widened as she realized what the other woman was saying. Adjusting the added weight draped across her shoulders, she backed away, her eyes still locked on the other Sam Carter. "Was the mistake in the calculations really an accident?" she questioned as she moved. She had to know if she might be capable of something like that.
"I've made plenty of mistakes," the dying Carter breathed, staggering under the harsh energies gaining momentum inside her body. She shook her head desperately. "But I'd never intentionally hurt her ... no more than you would or even could. I love her."
Sam flushed as the other woman's obvious inference sunk in, but she didn't bother with denials there was no time for, just reached for the door, while her alternate fell back another step, instinctively struggling for life even where it was hopeless.
"Take care of her," the dying woman cried out as the agony began to grow.
Sam used the weight of her body to shove the door open. "I will," she promised, straining under the additional hundred or so pounds of weight across her shoulders.
Sam's last sight of her doppleganger would long remain with her. The lean woman's face was twisted in pain, her skin just barely beginning to glow a dull golden color, arms wrapped tightly around her midsection as she spilled to her knees. And then Sam kicked the door shut as best she could without losing precious seconds. No time to debate the problem now. She broke into a hard run, adrenaline adding strength to her legs, and reached the elevator doors quickly. The elevator wasn't waiting for her, and she hammered the control buttons as though that would make it arrive more quickly. "Come on," Sam hissed, staring up at the readout above the double doors. She flashed a glance over her shoulder, losing any remaining color as she noted the thin glow that slipped through the open crack in the door to the room where her alternate remained. She spun back, hammering the call button again, then glancing up at the readout above the elevator doors. "Oh God." It wasn't moving. The number was stuck on the fourteenth floor. The silo dated from the fifties and had been decommissioned in the eighties. Nothing had been kept up in any more than a very cursory fashion since. It wasn't inconceivable that there would be power or electronics problems, or it could be that the electromagnetic bleed from the entropic cascade was affecting the electrical system. Either way, there wasn't anything she could do about it without tools or access. Sam glanced back over her shoulder again, noting the increasing glow even as the fine hairs on the backs of her hands stood on end and she felt the beginnings of a heated breeze.
Janet stirred gently, letting out a low groan as she began to regain consciousness.
Sam swallowed hard. She had only the vaguest idea what was coming ... nothing but guesswork and numbers really ... and she'd spent enough time on the Stargate Project to learn that her neat calculations seldom had much to do with practical realities. She cursed softly, wondering if the coming event was survivable in close proximity because there was no time left to worry about the elevator and no time to try for the stairs ... even if she could find them. Her gaze ran down the line of doors on either side of the corridor, picking out the nearest one with what looked like some kind of heavy shielding. The glow quickly brightened until that she had to squint against it, the heat roaring more swiftly, drawing sweat and fear across her skin. It took all of Sam's willpower to turn and break into a run toward the glow when every instinct was telling her to get the hell as far away as possible. She hit the door she'd spotted, straight-arming it open and diving inside even as she felt the explosion of energy begin in earnest, the harsh weight of it slamming the slender blond forward in a gust of expanding hot air. Sam scrambled desperately even as a tornado seemed to swirl around her, blinding her and reducing reality to whatever she was touching, or more correctly slamming into, at any given moment. She tumbled hard, momentarily losing her grip on the woman slung across her shoulders as they both went sprawling.
"Sam?" Janet's groan was a confused rasp as the heat raced through the air. She shook her head, still dazed from the professionally delivered blow, and pushed up on one hand.
"It's happening," Sam gasped, kicking a booted foot hard into the door to slam it shut. For a moment, the temperature dropped fractionally. She threw herself forward, sprawling protectively across her friend as the few remaining lights overhead sparked and exploded, sending glass shards raining down on their heads. No more than a second passed while the last of the bulbs blew, leaving them in total darkness. Sam lay braced over Janet's smaller frame, muscles tense, not knowing what to expect, but certain it was going to be bad.
The strangest part of it all was that it was suddenly totally silent, the only sound, the harsh rhythm of their breathing.
One of Janet's hands had come to a rest on Sam's shoulder and she tightened slender fingers into rough fabric as she searched the darkness helplessly, unable to make out even the slightest shadow. "Is it over?"
"I don't think so." The stripping under the door blocked the light, but Sam could sense the energy wave at an almost instinctive level; feel it humming through the steel and concrete that made up the base; a perfectly silent explosion building around them. And then she heard the door creak, felt the shift in the air pressure as it bowed inward. "Hold on!" Sam shouted even the door blew, the lock and hinges screaming with metal fatigue as they gave way under a sudden blast of pressure. Sam curved a hand to the back of Janet's head, hiding her face in the smaller woman's shoulder even as she felt Janet do the same with her and they suddenly became very small bits of flotsam in a universal tidal wave.
* * * * * * * * *
She wasn't in the light. She was the light. A silent human star of exploding energy tumbling into oblivion.
Then someone was there with her, a familiar presence that she recognized almost instantly.
"Sam." The voice, low and full of love wrapped around Sam, wiping away any remaining fear. And then she was wrapped in Janet Fraiser's soothing embrace; held and kept safe from the agony, the only reality the protective warmth of her arms and the subtle familiarity of her scent and body. Not the woman she'd held and made love to only hours before -- or was that days ... months ... years ... she no longer knew -- but another one ... so similar and so different at the same time. She buried her face in a warm shoulder, fighting ragged tears as she clung tightly. "I thought I'd never see you again."
A gentle whisper near her ear. "I'm here."
Sam felt a clench of fear in her chest, ashamed of facing her lover after everything she'd done and failed to do. She tried to pull away, but the arms wrapped around her had an inescapable, tender strength. "I'm sorry...." She shook her head slowly, fighting tears, uncertain whether any of this was real or just a last hallucination.
"I know...." Janet's voice was soft and sad, her touch comforting as she simply held Sam until finally she caressed her cheek and brought her head up until their eyes met. "It's time to let go...."a q`
Staring into velvet brown eyes, Sam could feel the truth of the words, feel a few last delicate strands binding her to something -- she wasn't even sure what anymore -- and, at their gentle urging, she felt the need to stop fighting to hold on. "What happens now?"
"We go home."
Sam frowned, struggling to make sense of the soft words, dying synapses still holding some small sway over her soul. "Where?"
"Wherever we both are...."
And then the last gossamer strands unraveled and gave way and Samantha Carter was finally free....
* * * * * * * * * *
Major Samantha Carter blinked in the darkness, gradually becoming aware of the warm body pressed against her own. A beat later, the myriad of aches and pains rattling through every nerve ending caught up with her and she had to bite back on a low groan. Her arms were still wrapped tightly around the slender figure of Janet Fraiser -- her muscles cramping with the desperate strength of the hold -- while one of the doctor's arms was latched around her waist, the other caught between their bodies, her tapered fingers clenched into the front of Sam's shirt.
No light marred the perfect darkness and no sound beyond the uneven timbre of her own breathing assailed her ears. Clearly, they were still alive, but beyond that, she had no way of knowing the circumstances. The only real clue she had was the feel of dust on her throat and the scent of fried insulation in the air. The silent explosion of the entropic cascade had clearly cooked the electrical system and possibly powdered concrete for all she knew. She tried to activate the light on her watch, but it didn't respond and it felt like the crystal was broken.
Sam cautiously stretched a foot out, only to run into some kind of barricade within inches, the waffle tread on her boots scraping lightly against grit and debris. A second later, she carefully disengaged one hand from where it was wrapped tightly around Janet and reached upward, testing the confines of the space they occupied. Her fingers brushed against rough concrete to one side and something heavy and metallic angled directly over their heads. The door? She was still exploring the limits of their immediate area when she felt Janet stir weakly.
"Sam?" the doctor's voice was low and raspy.
"I'm here," Sam breathed, fractionally tightening the arm still wrapped around her friend's body. "Are you all right?"
A moment passed and Sam could feel Janet shift against her as she checked to see that she could still move and feel her extremities. "I think so ... some bruises, but it doesn't feel like there's anything serious," she responded at last. "You?"
Sam automatically nodded, then remembered that Janet couldn't see her. "I think I'm okay ... a little worse for the wear, but nothing too bad."
Another moment passed while Janet processed what little she knew from the moment just before being knocked unconscious to finding herself on a debris strewn floor in the dark with Sam. Carter felt the moment it all hit her as a shudder rattled through her narrow frame. "It's over," she breathed at last, "isn't it?"
Sam knew exactly what Janet was asking and didn't know what to say or how to answer. All she could do was drop the hand braced over her head to curl it back around her friend as she responded tightly, "Yes." Carter held on tightly, absorbing the hard tremor that shook the smaller woman. "I'm sorry," she whispered near Janet's ear though she knew she probably wasn't hearing her at that point. The hand pressed against Sam's back spread and tightened, digging in as she clenched the fingers of her other hand more tightly into the rough jacket. "I'm sorry," Carter whispered over and over against silky hair as she felt rough sobs shake the doctor and hot tears flood her shirt front. It occurred to her that she should probably be worrying about escape, but Janet was in no condition and as far as she could tell, they were in no immediate danger. Jack would have rescue teams after them as soon as he was sure it was safe. Hell, they might actually be better off if they stayed put. That way there was no chance of accidentally knocking something down on themselves while scrabbling blindly amid an unknown amount of debris and structural damage.
Carter had no sense of time as she held her friend until she quieted and sagged against her chest.
"I'm sorry," Janet apologized at last, her voice very small and muffled against Sam's shirt until the words were almost indecipherable. "I-I didn't mean to fall apart like that...." She sniffled softly, struggling to regain control in the aftermath of the emotion storm. Her training was kicking in again, reminding her that her problems needed to come second to their survival.
"Shhh," Sam soothed and petted silky hair tenderly. "It's okay ... stretched as thin as you have been, it's no surprise." She sighed softly, her breath ruffling a few strands of hair. She felt more than heard Janet's tiny sob.
"I just..." the doctor choked raggedly, then tried again, "I thought...." She couldn't finish and trailed off helplessly.
"I know," Sam sighed sadly. They'd pulled out so many miracles in the past that even she'd half expected some kind of last minute reprieve.
"How bad's the situation?" Janet whispered after another long moment, her voice still rough with emotion, but more controlled than it had been.
Sam shrugged. "I don't know ... I lost track of everything when all hell blew." She looked upward, instinctively trying to see the barrier overhead in spite of the fact that there was no way she could. "We seem to be blocked in ... but the rescue crews will be working to get to us ... and it doesn't sound like things are too unstable." She was reasonably certain that if the base was on the verge of falling in on their heads she'd be able to hear the creaking and groaning of cement and rebar threatening to give way. Instead, the air was silent, leaving her comfortably certain they were safe for the moment. "We'll be okay."
More uncomfortable silence passed before Janet spoke again. "She's gone ... isn't she?" Maybe if she heard the words, she could believe them. She wasn't crying anymore -- didn't have any tears left -- but Sam knew her friend well enough to hear the hurt threaded through her low voice.
Sam's throat tightened with the threat of her own tears. "Yes." She didn't need to consider calculations or energy levels. Nothing could have survived at ground zero of the energy pulse they'd experienced, especially not a body made up of the very matter propelling it.
Janet drew a hard, shuddery breath. "It would have been quick ... wouldn't it?"
Sam nodded. "I think so." She wasn't as sure as she would have liked, but it couldn't have taken long and Janet didn't need to know anything past that. The last thing she needed was to sit and wonder.
Another few moments passed, then Janet started to gingerly pull back from Sam only to discover that it was almost impossible in the close confines.
"Easy," Sam breathed, suddenly tense and listening carefully to see if anything had been dislodged. "Don't try to move. I'm not sure how secure our position is."
Janet stilled, her breathing turning to quick pants with the fight or flight response as adrenaline flooded her bloodstream. "Should we do something ... try to escape somehow?"
Sam shook her head. "I don't think so ... I considered it, but I'm afraid of making things worse if we fumble around in the dark and the colonel will have a rescue team after us as soon as they feel it's safe."
"So, in the meantime, we just sit here?" Janet questioned, her tone low and uncertain, like a child asked to sleep alone in the dark after too many ghost stories.
"For the moment." Sam massaged her friend's shoulders the way she had so many times before, the gesture automatic and unthinking. They'd worked through hundreds of late nights together and she'd learned just which cords in the other woman's neck and shoulders were most prone to turn to cement when she was under too much stress. For once, they didn't warm and become pliant as they always had in the past; instead pulling even tighter with a fresh wave of tension. Sam had to shut down her emotions on a wave of hurt, unable to consider how much she'd always enjoyed that small bit of comfort and sharing in the past. With a tiny sigh, she stilled her hand, simply spreading it against Janet's shoulder in an innocently supportive pose. "Try and get some rest," she whispered after a long beat. "There's nothing you can do for the moment. We're safe enough ... and help should be on the way by now." She resisted the urge to rest her cheek against silky soft hair. "It's just a matter of time and we'll be out of here."
"Time," Janet exhaled very softly, sagging against her friend as her battered body protested its exhaustion. "I guess we do." The hand clawed into Carter's uniform loosened fractionally and her breathing gradually slowed as, despite herself, her body relaxed into a rough kind of slumber that was far safer and more comfortable than the real world at that point.
And through it all, Sam simply held her friend, determined to stand guard as long as needed.