The same pain that had driven her into unconsciousness would not let her stay there, forcing her confused mind back into full, agonizing awareness. Dust filled her nose and lungs, coated her parched throat; her breath sounded harsh and ragged. She forced her eyes open, but saw only darkness. What had happened? Where was she? Was she blind? She tried to move, but the searing pain dragged her back into semi-consciousness. Her mind drifted, her thoughts scattered, pain the only constant in her awareness. She tried to think of anything but the pain. Happy thoughts, of sun and love and light.
"Hey, Cassie, come look at this," Sam said, waving the girl over to the side of the trail.
"What is it?" Cassie asked, her eyes following Sam's pointing finger towards a large muddy patch between two trees.
"Bear tracks," Sam said. "Looks like an adult with two cubs."
"Oh, cool!" Cassie said, leaving the trail to examine them more closely.
Janet chuckled, looking at Sam. "You've been taking lessons from Teal'c, haven't you?"
"They're bear tracks, Janet," Sam teased her friend. "It doesn't take a genius to figure that out. This is Rocky Mountain National Park, after all, not some exotic planet."
"We aren't in any danger, are we?" Cassie asked, looking at them uncertainly.
"No, these look old," Sam said. "See how the mud is dried? It wouldn't hurt to keep an eye out, though, as we head back to the tent. We don't want to surprise a momma bear with her cubs."
Sam grinned as she and Janet exchanged a glance. Just as a momma bear would protect her two cubs, Cassie's two mothers would do anything in the world to protect her.
"Cass, why don't you tell Sam about your class trip last week," Janet said, smiling.
"Janet," Sam croaked, half-waking once again to darkness and pain, the taste of blood and the smell of dust. "Cassie..." she whispered. She tried to hold onto the sunny, gossamer images of the dream, but they spiraled out of her mind into the darkness.
She shivered, the cold surroundings draining the heat from her body. Her left arm was pinned painfully under her back, but she could shift her right hand and arm. Her searching fingers found cold, hard surfaces beneath her, beside her, only inches above her. She could barely move her legs, a heavy weight pinning them. Her mind spun in panic: she'd been buried alive, buried in a cold stone tomb... She wanted to cry out for help, but the words caught in the dryness of her mouth.
She was aware of her aching shoulder and chest before she opened her eyes, blinking against the overhead lights. Janet smiled down at her. It was all too familiar... waking up injured in the infirmary with Janet looking down at her. It was... comfortable, reassuring... knowing that Janet would always be there for her. Janet always saved her. Whatever horrible thing happened to her, Janet would be waiting there at the end of it all, prepared to put her back together again so she could resume her missions through the gate.
"What happened?" she whispered.
"A capacitor blew. You were electrocuted. Again."
Sam could see the deep concern in Janet's eyes. She remembered working with Siler when the equipment exploded. "Siler?"
"He's fine. A little singed in places."
"And here Jonas was worried about me going off-world." She tried to smile.
"Yeah," Janet said, and Sam was startled by the seriousness of her tone.
She looked at Janet questioningly.
Janet touched her uninjured shoulder briefly. "You arrested, Sam. We could have lost you."
Sam swallowed. No wonder her friend looked upset. "Guess that's why my chest hurts, huh?" she said slowly.
Janet nodded and took her hand, squeezing it gently. "You need to be more careful, Sam. We can't afford to lose you."
"Janet," Sam breathed, jolting awake for real, this time. A flood of guilt mingled with the pain - here she was, hurt again. She let her head fall back to rest on the uneven cold floor. She longed to see Janet's face, but found only darkness staring back at her. Buried alive. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust... We can't afford to lose you. She wondered who the "we" referred to. The SGC? SG-1? Janet and Cassie? She hadn't asked, alarmed, perhaps, by the fear hiding in the depths of Janet's dark eyes. Jack, Jonas, Teal'c. She wondered if they'd miss her -- like she missed Daniel.
Jonas was a good man, but she missed Daniel's passionate idealism.
But life went on. They had a job to do.
She was cold, so cold. It was so hard to breathe, and every breath hurt. She wished Daniel were here. She didn't want to die alone.
"Don't give up, Sam," Daniel said in the darkness, as if he'd heard her thoughts.
She could feel tears track down the side of her face towards her ears. There was no glow in the darkness around her, no indication that the voice was anything but her imagination.
"They're searching for you, Sam. They'll find you. Just hang on."
Daniel was dead. So maybe she was dead, too? She smiled at the darkness, dry lips cracking. No, she hurt far too much to be dead. "What happened?"
"The building collapsed. It was an earthquake, I think."
"Jack and Teal'c were outside. Jonas was near enough to the door that he made it out when he realized everything was coming down. Unfortunately, you didn't make it..."
Yes, she remembered now, desperately trying to follow Jonas when she realized the building was falling on top of her. It was good to know that the rest of her team was safe, though. That was assuming, of course, that her hallucination wasn't lying to her. She wanted to believe Daniel. His voice was warm, caring.
God, how she missed him. Strange that the sudden severance of a friendship could leave such a painful, gaping hole in her heart. They'd never been lovers, never even considered romantic involvement, yet he'd been so important to her, like family. "I love you, Daniel. I'm sorry I didn't tell you that before..."
"I've always known it, Sam. I love you, too. Just... stay with us a little longer, okay?"
"You were such a good friend," she whispered to the darkness.
"I still am. I ascended, remember?"
Yes, Daniel had ascended, not died. It was wrong of her to think of him as gone. She wished she could see him again. She wished she could see him, and Cassie, and Janet. The Colonel, Teal'c, her father. Her family. Her loved ones. She tried to picture their faces in her mind, one at a time. Her love for them gave her strength, warmed her against the icy confines of her tomb...
Like fingernails scraping across a chalkboard, the voice raked across her consciousness.
"Don't give up, Sam! Don't do this to them, do you hear me?"
Daniel! She gasped for air; filled her lungs with dust. The agony was unbelievable, like someone ripping her chest open. Stars spun relentlessly in her vision like swirling galaxies on black velvet. She was spinning into a black hole, sucked in by gravity that crushed her chest, her legs, her arm... There was no escaping, no escaping...
"Fight it, Sam. Stay with us! Keep breathing!"
The weight on her chest did not ease, but she pushed against it at Daniel's urging.
"That's it," he encouraged her. "You can do it, Sam."
For an eternity, she did nothing but breathe, trying to ignore the pain, the giant fist squeezing her chest in half, and the numbing cold that made her shiver uncontrollably.
"You're doing great, Sam. They're searching for you. They've brought all kinds of equipment... dogs, cameras... listening devices. Why don't you talk to me? Maybe they'll hear you."
Talk? Obviously, Daniel had lost his mind. Her mouth was dry as chalk, full of grit.
"You can reach your canteen with your right hand," Daniel said.
Water. Now that was a good suggestion. Thank you, Daniel. She fumbled for the bottle attached to her belt, finally managing to free it. With a shaking hand, she popped the top and tried to lift it towards her head. It hit the hard surface above her, spilling liquid over her chest, chilling her even more. Fighting the urge to cry, she tried again, keeping it low beside her body this time, lifting it only when it was close to her face. Water sloshed out, down her neck, over her face, and finally, blessedly, into her mouth.
"That's better, huh?" Daniel asked when she finally finished drinking.
"Yeah," Sam whispered, her tongue no longer glued in place.
"Okay, so now you can talk. This is good. Ummm... er.... Why don't you explain to me again how carbon-14 dating works."
"You're kidding, right?" she said, wondering if her mind had wandered off into an episode of the Twilight Zone.
"Noooo. Actually, I'm sure it was covered in one of my college classes but I never really understood the physics behind it all. It has to do with string theory and gamma rays, doesn't it?"
String theory and gamma rays? She shook her head, winced at the pain it caused. "Where did you come up with that?"
"I'm sure that's how Professor Donahue explained it..."
"Daniel, you're ascended, aren't you supposed to know everything?"
"Well, apparently the ins and outs of carbon-14 dating weren't included in my new-found enlightenment. Nor was string theory. Do you suppose string theory might explain how the Tollans are able to walk through walls?"
"Maybe," Sam said, her mind trailing off on the possibilities.
"How so?" Daniel asked.
Sam smiled at the darkness, well aware that she was being baited. Speaking required effort, even at a whisper, but she had to breathe to speak so perhaps it would serve two functions at once. Or three, if the conversation kept her mind alert but focused on something other than the pain threatening to drive her into unconsciousness once again.
"Come on, Sam," Daniel coaxed her in his best pleading voice. "Tell me about string theory, please?"
"All right..." she croaked softly. "String theory...." she began, struggling through the same lecture she'd given at the Air Force Academy a few years ago.
At some point, she lost her train of thought, dissolving into numerical formulas and fanciful speculation about Tollan technology, and finally digressing completely into a non-scientific discussion about the sleeping habits of large, tiger-striped house cats. Her brain finally registered how far she'd strayed only after she realized that she was crying because she missed Schroedinger so much, how the house felt so empty without him...
"I'm here, Sam. Keep talking, you're doing great. You're not alone."
"I'm hallucinating you."
"No, I'm really here."
"I don't believe in ghosts, Daniel."
"I'm not a ghost."
"Oh, right, you're all glowy and everything. So why can't I see you?"
"Ummm... Well, I'm just here in your mind, actually..."
"Just in my mind, huh? Sounds a lot like a hallucination to me..."
"Daniel.... I'm so cold..."
"I know, Sam. I'm sorry. But...you were going to explain to me about carbon-14 dating..."
Sam gave a mental sigh before starting.
"Louder, Sam. They lost you."
Sam blinked. "Daniel?"
"You need to speak louder," Daniel said.
Sam wondered what she had been speaking about. Where was she? Why was it so dark? God, she hurt; the shivering only made it worse.
"Talk to me, Sam."
"Yeah, it's me, Sam. Talk to me. You were telling me about Cassie's last birthday party."
Sam fought to remain conscious, trying to remember.
"Breathe, Sam. Don't hold your breath."
Oh. Not good. That really hurt. The pain washed over her in greater force, swamping her senses. Breathe, but don't breathe deep.
"All right, Sam. There's a shopping list on your refrigerator. Tell me what's on it."
"Yeah, Sam, it's me. Tell me what's on the shopping list."
"Just... pretend it's a matter of life or death, okay?"
Sam thought that Daniel sounded very upset. It was a weird request, but she didn't want Daniel to be unhappy. She tried to concentrate, picturing the list in her mind. "Bread... lasagna noodles... diet coke... lettuce...yogurt..."
She was in the middle of reciting the periodic table when she thought she heard someone calling her name. "Janet?"
"Sam? Can you hear me?"
It did sound like Janet. So why was she expecting Daniel, instead?
"Talk to her, Sam," Daniel said.
Ah, there was Daniel.
"Sam, keep talking," Janet's voice said.
"I hear you, Sam. Keep talking!"
"You were on number thirty-eight, strontium," Daniel prompted her.
"Number thirty-nine, yttrium; number forty, zirconium; number forty-one, niobium..."
"...number fifty-two, tellurium...number fifty-three...iodine...number fifty-four, xenon...number...number what?"
"Fifty-five," Janet's voice supplied from somewhere nearby. "I'm almost to you, Sam."
"Number fifty-five, cesium... number fifty...fifty..."
"Fifty-six," Janet said.
"Fifty-six... radium... no... number eighty-eight; radium... number fifty..."
"Shit," Janet swore somewhere off to her right. "If I ever meet the aliens who built this place I swear I'm going to give them a piece of my mind. Can you see my flashlight, Sam?"
"Number fifty, tin; number fifty-one, antimony... number fifty-two...tellurium..."
"Sam, honey, you can stop counting now. Open your eyes, okay? Can you see my flashlight? I know you're close, but I still can't see you. Tell me if you can see any light!"
"Number....? Number 110, darmstadtium; number 111, roentgenium..."
Eight electrons spun around the nucleus of an atom. She wanted to catch one, to examine it, but the movements were random, unpredictable... uncertain...
"...oxygen. Sam, are you listening?"
Eight electrons, eight protons, atomic weight of eight, perfect in its even-numbered symmetry. Ah, yes. "Number eight," Sam said, "oxygen." It was so beautiful in her mind, spinning electrons forming a glowing halo around the nucleus of the atom. "Chalcogen group..."
"Oh God, Sam, please, please try to focus on what I'm saying."
The frustration and tears in Janet's voice finally caught her attention.
"I need you to move your right hand towards my voice," Janet begged. "There's an opening about even with your head. I can't reach you from here, but if you just reach out..."
"Janet?" Sam asked, forcing her eyes open. There was light in her tomb now, playing off the block of blue cement-like material angled inches above her face, casting weird shadows in the wider space to her right.
"Sam! Yes! Reach towards my voice, okay, Sam?"
Obediently, she moved, knocking over her canteen, fumbling to right it, feeling more cold water soaking into her clothes, her back already numb from contact with the cold floor.
"I'm over here, Sam, please reach towards me, all right?" Janet encouraged.
"Janet," Sam said, picturing her friend's face in her mind, smiling down at her in the infirmary. Janet would help her, heal her, make everything all right. She forced her hand towards Janet's voice. Her fumbling fingers found the small opening near her head, and she forced her hand through it. Sharp edges tore at her skin, but she hardly noticed. All that mattered was that Janet was here; Janet would help her; Janet would take the pain away.
"That's right, Sam, I can almost reach you. Just a little farther."
Loose debris gave way, allowing her to straighten her elbow, then warm fingers grasped her hand. Sam's eyes filled with tears at the contact. Not alone, not a dream... Janet was really here...
"Gotcha!" Janet said triumphantly. "Okay, Sam, you're going to feel a prick. I'm putting you on an IV, and I'm going to attach it to the back of your hand. Do you understand?"
Sam was exhausted by her efforts, felt darkness swallowing her again. She tried to nod, forgetting that Janet couldn't see her.
"Squeeze my hand if you understand me, Sam," Janet instructed. "Talk to me! Sam?"
As if from a distance, she felt a slight prick on the back of her hand; heard Janet swearing under her breath.
Daniel was in her brain. "Wake up, Sam," he kept repeating. "Janet needs you to do something for her."
"Dammit, Major, I need you conscious!" Janet sounded pissed.
"I'm here," Sam finally whispered, responding to the tone of command.
"Thank God," Janet said, relief evident in her voice. "I need a status report, Sam. Where are you hurt?"
The pain was everywhere, blanketing her, suffocating her. She forced her mind to do the necessary inventory, to separate the sources. "Left arm... broken..." she said, falling into the same rhythm she'd used to recite her shopping list and the periodic table. She could do this, give Janet what she needed. She tried to keep her teeth from chattering. "Legs...pinned."
"Can you move them at all?" Janet asked.
"Can you wiggle your toes on both feet?"
"That's a good sign," Janet said. "Go on."
Sam swallowed. Now that there was light playing off the surfaces around her, she could see why it hurt so badly to breathe -- see why she would never get out of here alive. Never see Cassie again... never joke with the Colonel... never...
"Don't think like that!" Daniel chastised her. "They'll get you out, Sam. You know they will. You just have to hang on."
"How's your head, Sam?" Janet asked at the same time. "Do you have any head injuries?"
Sam didn't answer. Was Janet's light fading, or was she? She fought to stay awake -- but why bother? Daniel was delusional. No, she was delusional for dreaming Daniel up. In either case, she was going to die.
"Sam! Talk to me!" Janet said. Fingers tapped her wrist, stroked her arm. "Stay with me, Major. How's your head?"
Sam tried to focus on Janet, blinking back tears. Never see Cassie again... never have dinner with Janet again... never sip wine in candlelight, talking about the day's events... working together to solve the latest alien threat... The sense of loss constricted her throat, sent tears spilling.
"Do you have any head injuries, Sam? I need to know," Janet said.
Sam thought for a moment. She could feel sticky tracks of blood on her face when she grimaced. It was hard to think... She was foggy and dazed, frozen...but she was lacking the pounding headache that usually accompanied a concussion or serious head injury. Or attack from a "ribbon device... shock grenade... heat stress...dehydration...flu... migraine..."
"Sam?" Janet interrupted her, and she realized she'd been speaking out loud. "Do you have a head injury?"
Oh, right. It was so hard to concentrate. "Cuts...bruises," she said.
"You're doing great, Sam," Janet said. "What else?"
"Hurts," Sam whispered, "Oh god, Janet." She really didn't want to die.
"Where does it hurt, Sam?" Janet asked. "Why are you having so much trouble breathing?"
"Rebar?" Janet repeated, confused.
"Impaled..." Sam choked on the word.
Janet was silent as Sam's world spun lazily. She was the sun, and the solar system was in orbit around her. Gradually she slipped into her own gravity well. Sinking, sinking... which was much better than thinking... thinking...
"Tell her, Sam!" Daniel's voice pulled at her, roughly. "Janet needs to know so she can help you."
Sam smiled. No one could help her. She was stuck like a bug on a pin. Like Colonel O'Neill against the wall of the embarkation room. Only she'd had an entire building dropped on top of her, too. So why wasn't Janet saying anything? Oh, yeah, probably because she was starting to realize that her best friend wasn't going to get out of this alive.
"Tell her, Sam," Daniel insisted.
"There's nothing she can do."
"She can, Sam. They're going to get you out of here."
"There's no way."
"This isn't like you, Sam. Tell her!"
"Okay, okay," Sam said, irritated, trying to wave him away, but Janet held her arm firmly in place. "I'm impaled on a piece of rebar," she told Janet, surprised by how coherent it came out.
"Tell her where," Daniel ordered.
"Jesus, were you this annoying when you were alive?" Sam grunted.
"If making you angry will keep you awake long enough to follow Janet's instructions, you can expect a lot worse," Daniel said, amused.
His amusement annoyed her. "Go away, Daniel."
"I'm not leaving, Sam. I know you're scared, but you have to tell Janet your situation."
"Not scared," she said.
"Liar," Daniel said gently. "But it's nothing to be ashamed of."
"Sam?" Janet interrupted.
"Janet's scared too, you know," Daniel said.
Sam swallowed a sob.
"Tell her you're impaled through your left shoulder, Sam."
"I'm impaled through my left shoulder..." she finally said, no longer having the energy to argue. "Right through my radio." Her irritation with Daniel -- and the adrenaline that came with it -- dissolved as suddenly as it had come.
"I see," Janet said, her voice unnaturally steady. "I'm going to give you something for the pain, Sam, but I need you to do one thing for me first, all right?"
She felt something pressed into her hand.
"I need you to put this oxygen mask over your face, okay?"
Sam nodded, pulling her arm back towards her body. She felt the IV needle pull against the skin on the back of her hand, but Janet had wrapped it securely in place with gauze and tape. She placed the mask over her mouth and nose, fumbling to pull the strap over her head to keep it in place.
"Okay," she said through the mask when she finished.
"That's great, Sam. Now give me your hand back, okay? Reach for me," Janet said.
Sam did as she was asked, already feeling the pain receding. Thank you, Janet.
"You can rest now, Sam," Daniel said.
She felt a pulse oximeter clipped to her finger, then Janet's warm hand enveloped her own, and gentle fingers pressed against her wrist as she slipped into unconsciousness.
She was aware of the voices long before she began to understand them, a source of comfort amidst troubling dreams. Lights spun in her mind, galaxies colliding, the forces of gravity tearing them apart...blazing trails of dislocated suns left in their wake...
The voices coalesced, snippets of conversation coming into focus, slowly making sense.
"Pulse and BP's still good... hypothermic... O2 saturation isn't what I'd like...labored breathing... Is that heater set up yet?"
Sam wondered who Janet was treating this time. And a heater sounded nice. She was freezing, so cold. But then, the infirmary was always chilly.
"...still working on the shoring..." a male voice said, "...may not be reaching her from here yet..."
"Dammit," Janet swore. "You don't have a smaller unit I can fit in here? I've got enough room for a small space heater... even that would be better than nothing. I could warm her IVs."
"Ten-four, Major," the man answered. "I'll send somebody back to the gate to get one."
"Thanks, Joe, Janet out," Janet said, and Sam realized she must be talking on the radio.
Sam blinked her eyes open, seeing broken blue rock inches from her face. She groaned as memory returned with the dull ache of drug-reduced pain. No, not the infirmary.
"Sam?" Janet asked.
Her mouth was dry, but she managed to work up enough moisture to speak. "Here," she said, her voice sounding odd, muffled by the mask over her face.
"Glad to hear that," Janet said. "Can you tell me your name, rank, and serial number?"
Knowing that Janet was testing her level of consciousness, Sam provided her with the information.
"You're doing great, Sam," Janet said. "Do you remember what happened?"
"Earthquake... building collapsed."
"That's right," Janet said. "General Hammond called in one of the best urban search and rescue teams on Earth, and they're here working to get you out of there, okay?"
Sam knew Janet was trying to keep her spirits up, but the metal bar impaling her disappeared into what was probably a several hundred pound block of rubble. They couldn't pull her out from under it, and if they tried to lift it off of her, the bar stuck through her shoulder was going to be pulled out, too. Even with Janet on hand, she wasn't likely to survive the resulting trauma.
"Sam, honey, your heart just started racing. Try to calm down, all right?" Janet said.
"Hey, Carter," a voice said near her ear, startling her.
"Colonel?" she asked, confused.
"Yeah, it's me. I'm talking to you through this nifty little toy."
Sam looked for the source and saw what she realized must be a tiny video camera equipped with a two-way microphone perched on her right shoulder. The attached cable snaked through the same hole she was using to reach Janet with her arm.
"Pretty cool gizmo, huh?" he said.
"Yes, sir," she said automatically. Under different circumstances, she would probably agree with him wholeheartedly, fascinated by the technology, but she wasn't sure she liked the idea of him seeing her so helpless. Watching her die.
"Relax, Carter. We're going to get you out of there."
"No, sir," she said, swallowing. "You shouldn't risk yourselves..."
He made an irritated sound. "Dying is not an option, Carter, and that's an order. Come up with Plan B."
"Yeah. Help us get you out of there alive, Sam," he said gently. "Pretend Teal'c is trapped instead of you. He's trapped in a void beneath two tons of alien construction material, with a metal rod pinning him in place. How do you get him out?"
Sam took as deep a breath as the pain would allow, trying to distance herself from the situation, to view it objectively, scientifically. If Teal'c were trapped... Her mind began to sort through the possibilities. Alien construction materials...on an alien world... maybe alien technology could help him. "Thor could beam him out..."
"That's more like it," the Colonel said. "We're trying to contact the Asgard even as we speak."
"Tollan phase technology..."
"Teal'c thought of that, too. Great idea if we knew how to reach any of the survivors."
"Tok'ra crystals... tunnel up... tunnel through..." But that might not work, either, if the crystals couldn't penetrate the building materials or the floor, and there was still the issue of the metal rod impaling her. Tunnel here, and tunnel there.
"Ah, see, we hadn't thought of that," the Colonel said approvingly. "Hammond sent a message to your Dad, but I'll have him ask for somebody to bring some crystals, too. Keeping thinking like that, Sam; I'll be back in a minute. In the meantime, I'm going to turn you over to Captain Smith here. He's in charge of the USAR team helping us out."
"Hello, Major Carter," a new voice said. "My name's Joe, and I just wanted to explain what we're doing to get you out of there."
"Thanks, Joe," Sam said, trying to keep her teeth from chattering from the cold.
Joe chuckled. "From what we were told in our pre-mission briefing, I believe we're the ones who should be thanking you, Major," he said. "I understand that you've saved Earth from total destruction a couple of times."
Sam smiled despite herself. "Just doing my job..."
"Well, our job is to get you out of there alive so you can keep saving our butts from space invaders. Now, as you know, you were caught in a structural collapse caused by an earthquake. The building is of alien construction and architecture, but generally speaking, it seems to have followed a pretty standard pattern of collapse, what we call a V-shaped collapse. You're caught in a void beside one of the interior walls."
Sam nodded. "I'd almost made it to a doorway."
"That's exactly right," Joe said. "Major Fraiser is actually in a similar void on the other side of the wall, on the other side of the doorway. Unfortunately, debris is currently blocking our access to you on your side, and Major Fraiser is the only person small enough to get through to you on the other side. However, my boys are working on it, and we hope to be able to access the section of void towards your feet fairly soon. From there, we'll evaluate the situation and see how best to get you out."
"Sounds good," Sam said. "Just... don't get hurt, okay?"
"We're taking plenty of precautions. I need to ask you to help us out, though, all right?"
"Let us know if you feel any rubble shifting around you. We're having to move things to get at you, but we don't want to affect anything directly around you. At least not yet."
"Gotcha," Sam said. "Squished Major not good..."
Joe chuckled softly. "Yeah, that about sums it up. I also need to know if your left arm is pinned by debris. We can't see it on the camera, but Major Fraiser said you thought it was broken?"
"Yeah," Sam said. "It's under me... under my back... hurts too much to pull it out..."
"That's okay, you don't need to move it." Garbled voices sounded in the background, and she heard Joe answering a question away from the microphone. "All right, Major, I've got to get back to work. If you need anything, let Major Fraiser know. We're trying to get a blower in position to send some warm air your way. I know you must be freezing. Hang in there, okay? Colonel O'Neill will be back shortly to monitor this video feed."
"Okay," Sam said, closing her eyes, the long conversation having exhausted her. She hoped the warm air would reach her soon. The hand being held by Janet was definitely the warmest part of her body at this point.
"Sam?" Janet asked.
"Are you in pain?"
"All right, I'm going to give you some more medicine."
"Thanks," she said weakly, unsure if Janet would hear it through the mask. She just didn't have the strength or breath for anything louder.
The shaking woke her, a cacophony of falling rubble, shattering stone, and twisting metal, followed by distant shouts and Janet cursing.
"Nothing to worry about. Just a mild earthquake."
"See," Janet said when the shaking stopped. "Already over."
Something wasn't right, but Sam's sluggish mind was unable to identify what.
"Relax, Sam, it's all right," Janet said, sounding calm and collected.
She blinked, realizing that the oxygen mask had slid off her face. "Mask," she said. "Thirsty..."
"Her O2 mask slipped off, doc," she heard the Colonel say over Janet's radio.
"Ten-four," Janet said. "Everyone okay out there, sir?"
"That's affirmative, all the noise was the last wall of the building next door coming down. No harm done. Joe's sending Bud in with a couple MREs for you and another bottle of O2 for Sam. Need anything else?"
"Two more IVs and a backup power source for the heater in case something happens to the generator out there. It probably wouldn't hurt to have a couple more batteries for my flashlight, too."
"No problem. I'll let Joe know. O'Neill out."
"Okay, Sam," Janet said, turning her attention back to her patient. "I'm putting a bottle of warm water in your hand. It has a straw in it, so you won't have to worry about spilling it while you drink. And try not to drink too much. Just sip it, okay? When you're done, just set it in your armpit in case you need it again."
"'Kay," Sam said, closing her fingers around the warm plastic pressed into her hand. Her arm felt stiff and sore as she maneuvered through the hole, trying not to tangle her IV line or the video cable.
Despite Janet's warning, she sucked deeply from the bottle. The water tasted heavenly, and she could feel the warmth trace the length of her esophagus. Although she could feel warm air circulating the dust around her, and despite warmed IV fluids, she was still cold, but at least she wasn't shivering any longer.
As she settled the warm bottle against her body and replaced the oxygen mask over her face, she thought about the number of damaged buildings in the abandoned city they had been investigating, and the wide, paved roads leading to the gate. She and Jonas had elected to explore one of the few buildings left in relatively good shape. Most had been in various states of collapse.
As Janet took her hand once again, she realized the obvious danger. "Janet, you've got to get out of here..."
"What are you talking about, Sam?"
"Earthquakes. It wasn't a war. The city was destroyed by earthquakes..."
"Calm down, Sam. Yes, we figured that out. It's built on a seismic fault. You couldn't see it when you arrived, but apparently the planet has a moon that's in a slowly decaying orbit. The increasing gravity causes frequent earthquakes. Jonas thinks the residents of the planet must have evacuated before things got too bad."
While making perfect sense, Janet's words only increased her panic. "Janet, you have to get out of here! If there's another quake, the rubble could shift!"
"I'll be fine, Sam," Janet assured her.
"No! You have to leave!"
"I'm not going anywhere."
"Dammit, Janet, it isn't safe, and you know it!" Sam was overwhelmed by the thought of Janet risking her life for her, for putting herself in such terrible jeopardy. The SGC needed Janet Fraiser. Cassie needed her!
"I'm not leaving you, Sam," Janet said quietly. "I'm surrounded by shores and cribbing. I'm very safe."
Sam knew that shoring would only go so far in protecting her friend if there were a major quake. "Think of Cassie..." she whispered. "She can't lose both of us."
"She isn't going to lose either of us."
"I'm dying, Janet. It isn't worth the risk."
"Don't say that!" Janet said harshly. "Don't even think it, Samantha Carter. We are going to get you out of here, and don't you dare doubt it. You are my best friend, Sam, and I am not going to leave you here alone."
"I can't do it, Sam. Don't ask me to." Janet's voice caught in what sounded suspiciously like a sob. For a moment, there was silence, then Janet finally spoke, her voice low and hoarse. "I'm not going to leave you. I love you too much, Sam."
For a moment Sam was completely unable to breathe, the fear and grief tearing at her soul more painful than the metal bar piercing her body. While Janet's confession could have been perfectly innocent, she knew in her heart that it was more than that. I love you too much, Sam. She recognized it for what it was, a deathbed confession, words uttered under duress... a last, fleeting attempt to relieve a soul burdened with a secret so painful it could only be healed with final honesty.
The irony was not lost on her, that only in life and death situations did soldiers seem to find the courage needed to speak out loud of love, like it was some kind of weakness or sin absolved only in death. Had she not done the same with Daniel, telling him how much he meant to her only on his deathbed? And the Colonel to her...his unwillingness to leave Apophis's new ship when she was trapped behind the forcefield.
And now Janet.
Except, she loved Janet, too, much more than she should, she knew. Far deeper than simple friendship.
"Sam?" Janet asked quietly, squeezing her hand gently.
Sam didn't answer, weeping silently for opportunities lost, for words never spoken, for Janet's beautiful eyes that she might never see again.
Was she blessed or cursed to have so many people in her life who were willing to die for her? What a terrible, terrible responsibility... Maybe if she let herself go, stopped fighting the inevitable, Janet would leave before the next quake... before she, too, was buried under alien rubble, leaving Cassie an orphan once again.
"Love is not a curse, Sam," Daniel said. "It's a blessing, always a blessing, even when it hurts."
"Make her leave, Daniel," Sam pleaded. "She shouldn't risk herself... I...I won't be alone if you're here. I'd rather die than let her be hurt because of me..."
"Um... Well, I don't think that's going to happen, Sam. You know how stubborn Janet can be."
"Sam," Janet said, fear evident in her voice. "Stay with me, now. I swear to God, I'll never, ever forgive you if you die on me right now!"
"Go, Janet...just go... please!" she said trying to pull her arm away from Janet's grasp.
"Hey, Carter," Colonel O'Neill's voice said from the tiny video camera. "Leave the doc alone. She's pretty safe where she is, and none of us are going to abandon you. Everyone on this mission is strictly volunteer, so get over it. You're stuck with us. Just do your part and don't let it be for nothing, okay?"
Sam recognized an order when she heard it. For a long moment she fought the tears that streamed down her face, unable to speak. "Yes, sir," she finally answered.
"Listen, Carter," the Colonel said. "We're not taking stupid risks...dammit, if we were we'd have you out by now, or we'd have died trying. We're not leaving you. And don't try to tell me you wouldn't do the same if our roles were reversed."
Sam knew he was right. If any member of her team were trapped... if anyone from the SGC was trapped, she'd be there for them, come hell or high water. "Thank you, sir," she whispered.
"That's more like it," the Colonel said. "Now, I gotta go take a leak, so I'm going to turn the video feed off for a minute while the doc gives you another pep talk. No more of this dying stuff, got it?"
Sam struggled with her breathing, torn between laughter and tears. She knew he was just giving her a moment alone with Janet, to say whatever needed to be said between them without any witnesses. Don't ask, don't tell...don't eavesdrop. It was a compassionate gift from the person who possibly stood to lose the most from the conversation that might follow, and it made Sam finally realize the depth of his unconditional love for her.
"That man is about as subtle as a freight train," Janet said, sounding more than a touch chagrinned.
"I love him..." Sam said, closing her eyes against the pain, both physical and emotional.
"I know," Janet said, softly. "Sam...about what I said..."
"No, no," Sam interrupted, knowing that Janet was about to back out of her confession. "I love you, too, Janet," she said, hoping that her voice conveyed the truth of her feeling.
In the silence that followed, Sam became aware of the sounds of activity near her, the hum of what was probably the fan blowing warm air, the buzz of a concrete saw... the distant murmur of voices.
When Janet still didn't say anything, Sam plunged ahead. "I love the Colonel. I respect and admire him so much... I owe him my life a dozen times over...We've been through so much together; we know each other so well. And God knows he's an attractive man. But you're family, Janet, my family... you, me, Cassie..."
"SG-1 is your family, too," Janet said.
"Yes, but not the same..." Sam whispered as galaxies started to spin in her vision again. "I love you, Janet. More than anything... more than... ten-thousand suns..."
She felt Janet's hand tremble, then gently squeeze her own, grounding her as the universe started to spin along with the galaxies. Janet had long been her anchor, the proton to her electron, the nucleus of her chaotic, unpredictable world...
"Promise me then, Sam," Janet finally said. "Promise me you won't give up... that you're going to fight this with everything you've got. We have some serious talking to do once you're back on your feet, Samantha Carter.... A future to discuss... and..."
Janet's radio crackled to life. "Albertson to Major Fraiser, come in."
Sam smiled, thinking that, Colonel O'Neill aside, the military machine didn't stop for intimate conversations.
"Dammit," Janet cursed. "Cassie and I need you, Sam."
"I promise, Janet. Everything I have... it's yours..."
Janet squeezed her hand again, understanding the greater meaning behind the words. "Major Fraiser here," she said, finally keying her radio.
"Hi Major, I'm at the block point with your dinner and supplies."
"Thanks, Tim, I'll be there in a minute. Colonel O'Neill, do you copy?"
"Affirmative, Doc," the Colonel said over the radio. "Video cam coming on... Hello, campers." His voice switched from Janet's radio to the device on Sam's shoulder. "Can you hear me, Carter?"
"Loud and clear, sir," she said.
"Good. Make it quick, Doc."
"Thank you, Colonel," Janet said. "I'll be back as fast as I can, Sam."
"Be careful," Sam said.
"Hey, Carter," the Colonel said before she could grieve the loss of warmth and contact with Janet as the other woman released her hand and began crawling away from her. "There's someone here who wants to talk to you."
"Major Carter," Teal'c's voice said, "It is I, Teal'c."
"Hey, Teal'c," she said, glad to hear his voice, glad he was with the Colonel, hopefully someplace far away from falling buildings.
"I know that your situation must seem dire to you, but I expect you to fight this battle with the same courage and determination I have witnessed on many other occasions. You must not give up hope," Teal'c said.
"All right, Teal'c, I promise," Sam said. "Is Jonas there, too?"
"Right here, Sam," Jonas said. "I've been running errands and messages back and forth between here and the gate. Captain Smith calls me his gopher... I guess you'll have to explain that one to me sometime because I thought gophers were small, burrowing rodents, and I don't really see the connection."
Sam grinned. "I'll tell you when I get out of here, okay?" she said.
"You bet," Jonas said. "I'll hold you to that!"
"I like that attitude, Carter," the Colonel said. "Keep it up!"
"I will, sir. Dying is a bad plan, sir. Any word on Plan B?"
"Not yet, but you know how it is. We could get a hold of your dad any minute, and he could gate directly here."
"Yes, sir," she said, trying to hide the disappointment from her voice.
"Attitude, Sam," the Colonel reminded her. "We don't need the bloody Tok'ra to get you out."
"Yes, sir," she said, another wave of dizziness washing over her. She looked at the video camera, but it was close enough to cause a headache when she tried to focus on it.
"So..." the Colonel said conversationally. "Daniel still there with you?"
"Well... you have been talking to him, you know..."
Sam was mortified. They must think she was really out of it. Well, okay, she was really out of it, but she would have liked it to be less obvious ...
"Tell him 'Hi' for me," the Colonel said.
"Hi, Jack," Daniel said.
"Did you hear that?" Sam asked.
"Hear what?" the Colonel asked.
"Daniel... he... uh, said 'Hi, Jack,'" Sam said, wondering if any of the USAR team members were listening to this bizarre exchange.
"Thanks for being there for her, buddy," the Colonel said, and it took a moment for Sam to realize that he must be talking directly to Daniel. Which was okay, really, because it was getting harder and harder for her to focus on what anyone was saying.
She wished Janet would get back. Her hand felt so cold and empty. Dimly she was aware of her CO asking her a question, but the words refused to make sense.
"Sweet dreams, Sam," Daniel said clearly in her mind.
Yes, that would be nice, she thought. Dreams of Janet, and love, and peaceful dinners in Janet's small kitchen, and never, ever feeling so alone again...
Pain, throbbing and persistent, finally woke her. Janet's touch on her wrist was light, distinguishable only by its warmth. After a moment, Sam realized why. Janet was asleep, her soft snores barely audible.
For a while Sam did nothing but concentrate on breathing, trying to ignore the pain and the cold. She heard noises from the direction of her feet, voices and hammering. They sounded close, but not near enough to free her. She wished Thor would come and beam her out of there. She wished her dad were there to give her a hug. She tried to shift her legs, but the terrible weight pinning them in place remained. She opened her eyes, but the alien blue concrete danced sickeningly before her eyes. She closed them again quickly, unable to stifle the moan that escaped her lips. She felt so nauseous and weak... completely, utterly helpless.
Janet's radio crackled to life. "Doc?" the Colonel's voice said. "I think she may be coming around." She felt Janet's hand jump. "Sam?"
Sam tried to answer, managed only another soft groan. She felt so sick, so cold. Spinning, spinning, galaxies and comets...
She woke screaming in pain as her left ankle was torn in half. In reaction she tried to sit up, hitting her forehead on something hard as fire shot through her shoulder and chest. The ground tilted and spun beneath her.
"Shit! She's waking up!"
"Back off, back off!"
Excited voices shouted around her as unconsciousness claimed her again.
The voices had been talking to her for a while, she realized.
"Sam, wake up." Janet.
"Carter, we need you." The Colonel.
"Major Carter, can you feel this?"
She struggled to focus on something, anything. Someone touched her left foot, sending lances of pain from her toes to her hip. With a muffled cry, she reflexively kicked out with her right foot, bare toes connecting painfully with something soft, yet solid.
"Oooofff! Whoa, Major Carter, don't kick! I'm trying to help you!"
"The patient is alive and kicking," the Colonel announced smugly.
"Sam? Sam, calm down, honey," Janet said at the same time. "Joe's a friend. He's just trying to help you."
"Joe?" Sam gasped, trying to make sense of her situation.
"That's me," the strange voice said, as someone patted her right leg. "I was just trying to assess the circulation in your feet... I guess I don't need to ask you if you can feel them all right, huh?"
"Hurts..." Sam tried to explain, still confused.
"You left ankle is broken, Sam," Janet said. "You got lucky, though...the steel shank in your boot prevented your foot from being completely crushed."
Memories started to click into place. Earthquake... trapped... Janet... Joe... USAR team trying to rescue her. Her legs were free now, though... she could move them. The relief at that freedom almost made her dizzy.
"Sorry, Joe," she said, hoping she hadn't kicked him too hard.
"That's all right, Major," Joe said. "Just don't try to kick me with your left foot, okay? You'll mess up Peter's splint job."
"Okay," she smiled.
"Sam, I know you're in pain, but I had to back off the meds so we could talk to you," Janet said. "Do you know where you are?"
"Earthquake, rubble... you're trying to get me out."
"That's right," Janet said.
"About that, Carter," the Colonel said slowly. "I'm afraid that Plan B has fallen through. We haven't heard back from any of our allies yet, so we're moving on to Plan C."
Something in his voice told her she wasn't going to like Plan C. "Plan C, sir?"
"Yeah. That's the plan where you get to save yourself."
"Sir?" she asked, hoping that she didn't sound as dismayed as she felt.
"Forgive the expression, Major, but we're sort of caught between a rock and a hard place," Joe said. "Major Fraiser can't reach you from where she is, and while me and my men have access to your legs and feet, we don't have enough room to reach your upper torso. Now, since all of our assessments indicate that it's not likely you have a spinal injury, if we could just shift you a few inches into the void to your right we could probably pull you free. But..."
"But I'm impaled in place," Sam finished for him.
"Yeah. Unfortunately we can't lift the block off you. Even if we could, when the rebar came out, you'd most likely bleed to death before the doc there could save you."
Sam was silent. What was he saying? That they couldn't rescue her after all?
"We want you to cut through the rebar," Janet said. "This alien metal... Apparently it's pretty resistant to bending, but it can be cut. I'm going to give you a Dremel tool equipped with a jigsaw blade. It's small enough that you should be able to use it in the space you've got. You cut through the bar, and then Joe and his men will pull you free."
Oh God, Sam thought. It was a beautifully simple plan, she had to give them that. She was almost surprised she hadn't thought of it herself. Of course, the one problem with it was that she didn't know if she could actually do it.
"Sam?" Janet asked.
"Breathe, Sam," Daniel's voice brushed her consciousness like a caress. "Don't hold your breath."
"Oh God, Daniel," she finally whispered. It would be so much easier to just give up. No more pain, no more effort...
"You're at a crossroads, Sam," Daniel agreed sadly. "You can close your eyes now, and... well...um, die, or you can try to free yourself, to live another day. But Sam, you can do this."
"It's going to hurt," she whispered, dreading it.
"I know," Daniel said.
"I'm sorry, Sam," Janet said at the same time. "I can give you analgesics, but they won't do much more than take the edge off."
"You can do this, Major Carter," Teal'c said after a moment of silence.
"Yeah, Sam," Jonas agreed.
"It's just your own ass on the line, this time, Carter, but I know you can do it," the Colonel said.
She swallowed hard, searching for some source of strength in her exhausted body.
"You promised me, Sam," Janet said quietly.
There it was. The promise of a life shared with Cassie and Janet, of a life filled with love and companionship... Yes, that was worth fighting for. So she had to save her own ass. What else was new? So cold... her mind drifted to Antarctica... No, she'd failed there... Figure this out, Sam. She'd saved the earth... how many times? She could do this.
She took a breath, shuddering at the pain. No, don't breathe deep. Figure this out. Figure that out. Fix this. Fix that. Save the world. Save yourself. She could work a Dremel tool. Better than trying to do it with a hacksaw, right? Piece of cake. Nobody could help her now, but that was nothing new. As Nike would say, just do it.
Just do it.
"Give me the damn saw," she finally said, holding her hand open.
Janet removed the pulse oximeter from her finger, then pressed the tool into her palm. Sam maneuvered her arm back through the opening, not caring if her IV line got twisted or the video camera shifted. She didn't really want her team to see this, anyway.
Her hand was shaking so badly that she had trouble holding the tool while she tried to find the on-off switch, but eventually she managed to turn the thing on, the drum of the motor sounding loud and dangerous in the confined space. Desperately trying to hold her hand steady -- and fighting the urge to close her eyes -- she finally pressed the saw against the metal bar.
The force of the saw teeth catching the metal sent the handle flying from her weakened grasp, the tool landing on her chest. She cried out as the blade sank into the exposed skin at the base of her neck, sending a shower of blood spraying over the blue concrete. She grabbed the handle quickly, resting her fist against her chest, the blade still whirring centimeters from her body.
"Jesus, Carter, are you okay?" the Colonel asked.
Sam didn't answer, closing her eyes, not wanting to know if the liquid she felt running down her face was blood or tears or some mixture of both.
"Sorry, stupid question," he said a moment later.
"Major Carter," Teal'c's voice spoke to her, calm and rational. "You must focus all of your concentration upon your grip. You must hold the tool as if it were a great weight."
She knew that already, of course, but hearing it helped her center her mind. She took several shallow breaths, swallowed, tightened her grip upon the Dremel, and tried again, keeping her hand braced against her chest to ease the shaking. This time the tool bit into the metal, but the vibration was carried into her body, and she pulled back with a gasp of pain.
For a minute she did nothing but try to control her breathing, desperately fighting tears of bitter frustration and fear.
"C'mon, Major, it's not going to get any easier five minutes from now," the Colonel said in his best drill sergeant tone.
Sam felt an irrational surge of anger. Dammit. Just do it. Just do it.
"You can do this, Sam," Jonas said.
"They believe in you, Sam," Daniel said.
"I love you, Sam." Janet's voice drifted to her from the right, soft, almost inaudible.
Janet. Do it for Janet. With a groan Sam screwed up her last bit of courage and forced the saw blade to the metal with all her strength. She cried out as the pain ripped through her shoulder and chest, but she refused to let go. Hot slivers of metal flew, their sharp sting barely noticeable, but steadily marking her progress. She felt the metal bar heat from the friction, melting the plastic remains of her radio casing and burning her flesh, but it wasn't until her voice began to give out that she realized she was still screaming. Her vision began to fade with her voice, darkness pushing at the edges, folding her world into a wormhole-like tunnel, but still she held on, driving the saw forward.
She couldn't fail Janet.
She couldn't fail Cassie.
She couldn't fail her team.
Darkness swallowed her vision, and she could no longer tell if her eyes were open or closed. All that mattered was her grip on the tool, the push of her hand and arm against the source of resistance. She gripped with everything she had, pushed with every last ounce she had to give.
"You are doing well, Major Carter," Teal'c's voice said, buoying her efforts.
"You're almost there, Sam," Daniel said. "Just a little more!"
She held onto their voices like a lifeline.
"Come on, Sam," the Colonel said.
"You can do it!" Jonas said.
"Keep going, Sam!" Daniel said, his voice loud as the others faded.
She was starting to lose all sensation in her hand when it suddenly flew forward, all resistance gone. Her knuckles slammed into concrete, and the saw fell from her grip. Pain stabbed through her left hip, but she couldn't move.
Voices came to her through a haze of pain.
"Yes!" That was the Colonel, her mind identified distantly... so proud of her. "I told you she could do it, Joe!"
"Way to go, Sam!" That was Jonas, no doubt smiling.
"You did it, Sam," Daniel whispered, his voice warm and golden against the blackness in her mind.
"You must turn off the saw, now, Major Carter." There was Teal'c, ever practical.
Her family. Her friends. Her team. Somehow she rallied enough to push the saw off of her hip to the left, away from her.
"Saw is clear!" someone said.
"One last dose and I'm disconnecting her O2 and IV lines," Janet said. "Get her the hell out of there, Joe! I'll meet you outside."
Two pairs of hands shifted her legs and thighs to the right, and she knew it was going to hurt like hell when they finally moved her body off her broken arm. "I love you guys," she whispered.
"We love you, too, Sam," Daniel smiled before Janet's meds took her away.
Awareness returned in confusing bits and pieces. A brilliant moon against a black sky, looking far too bright, far too close, the light playing off the faces of the men walking beside her, behind her.... carrying her stokes litter. She was wrapped tightly in blankets, and she felt almost warm for the first time in... forever. The man squeezing the bag-valve unit above her face looked down and saw her eyes open. He smiled.
"Hey, Major, you're not supposed to be awake."
"Damn. I was afraid of this," Janet's voice said. "She's incredibly resistant to sedatives." Janet's face appeared in her field of vision. "Hey there," she smiled gently.
Sam's heart leapt, and she tried to answer, but couldn't, gagging on the feeling of something in her mouth and throat.
Janet saw her confusion. "Don't try to speak, Sam. We've got an endotracheal tube in your mouth. We're on our way back to the gate. Keep hanging in there, okay? We're almost home."
Home. Sam closed her eyes, picturing Janet's smiling face, brightly lit by the silver moonlight. She knew she would be all right in Janet's good care. Better than all right. Better than ten-thousand suns. She was going home with Janet.
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