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28 July 2009 @ 02:52 pm
The Road to Tartarus - Chapter Nine  
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PART TWO: The City of the Lost

Chapter Nine



With Rak'nor at his side, backed up by four others, Teal'c moved through the corridors of Dakara, heading downward. He tried to show nothing on his face, not his anger and not his worry, but from Rak'nor's sideways glance, realized it was not succeeding. But then Rak'nor was concerned and angry as well -- if what they both suspected was true, it was not only a terrible dishonor to an ally, but might break the infant Jaffa nation before it had even begun.

When Ke'lal had come to them that she had heard that Gerak was keeping a secret Goa'uld prisoner, Teal'c had felt the first stirrings of dread. The Goa'uld could not be that important, or Gerak would have displayed him. A little more investigation drew forth that the Goa'uld had been captured at the fall of Dakara to the Jaffa, more than three months ago. He was being held to force out the location of his master Baal, but the underling still refused to speak. Or did not know.

Teal'c had been nearly unable to keep his emotions in check. He suspected he knew who the prisoner was. If so, then it was a terrible thing that had happened nearly right before him.

Rak'nor suspected the same, and they had gathered up a few followers and, while the rest of council was in session, had marched down to the level.

Teal'c had not let anyone get in his way, warning anyone who dared with a dark look to step aside. The last guards had been more stubborn, but Rak'nor had dropped them with a quick shot of a zat'nik'tel before they could react.

Teal'c fired his staff weapon at the lock on the door, gave the weapon to Ar'zel to hold, and ducked beneath the low doorway.

The stench was thick and rank. But Teal'c let none of it bother him as he walked to the filthy figure seated on the floor, one wrist chained to the back wall. His head lolled forward, and his bare torso showed every bone in stark relief, and the skin was pallid, except where it was marred by injuries. The shoulder of his free arm was grotesquely swollen and seemed to be at an odd angle. Long matted hair fell across his face hiding most of it , was further covered by a growth of beard, bruised cheek, and a split lip, but Teal'c knew who it was.

"Is it… ?" Rak'nor asked in a soft, horrified voice as he stepped inside.

"It is," Teal'c answered in a calm voice, hoping not to startle the prisoner, who did not seem to hear them at all. He knelt on the ground before him and reached out to his chin and gently raise his head. "Malek of the Tok'ra, Asheron, can you hear me?"

The eyes were closed and did not flicker at either the touch or the sound of his voice. Yet he was breathing regularly, so he still lived, if barely.

"We will free him," Teal'c declared. The manacle had only a latch on it, but it was surely impossible for him to open, as several fingers on each hand looked broken.

Rak'nor helped take him from the wall, both trying to be as gentle as possible. Rak'nor hissed, on seeing the sores and scarlet gouges from a flail on his back. Teal'c wrapped him in his cloak, hoping the cloth would warm him and stave off shock. Then, he picked him up, cradling him in his arms. Asheron was tall, but he now weighed no more than Rya'c had at ten years old, so the body was little burden.

"What are we going to do?" Rak'nor asked.

Jaw clenched with anger, Teal'c answered shortly, "Confront Gerak. This dishonor cannot pass, Rak'nor. This is no enemy, but an ally. Had he not kept this a secret, we could have informed him of his error." He paused to consider and added, "If in fact it is error at all."

Because he had to wonder darkly if Gerak knew exactly who he had been torturing and didn't care. But Teal'c did. And every single Jaffa who was now free of their primm'ta and took Tretonin instead, cared.

The journey to the council chambers continued swiftly and Rak'nor opened the doors.

Gerak was, at that moment, declaiming something dramatic in the center circle, but stopped when he heard the doors open. Before he could speak, Teal'c did, raising his voice so that all could hear.

"Now we will speak of your dishonor, Gerak," he declared and was grimly satisfied by the shock on the other faces. He had chosen the words for their impact, knowing he had no better time to try to bring down Gerak's power. Looking around he met the eyes of many who were there, including Ke'lal who was attempting to look as shocked as the others, but was not. She had suspected this as well -- that was why she had told him.

"Moments ago, Rak'nor and I discovered this man, imprisoned in the sublevel. He has been captive in secret since the victory in the sky above this place, nearly four months ago." Gently, Teal'c laid the body in his arms down on the nearest council table and pulled back a fold to display the injuries and nearly skeletal body. "He has been tortured and starved."

Gerak retorted loudly, over the sound of a few whispers and indrawn breaths, "And such do all Goa'uld deserve! And more if they refuse to speak!"

Teal'c turned on him and took one step forward, allowing Gerak to see his fury. "This man is no Goa'uld. As you would know if you had informed the council of this man's capture. He is a Tok'ra."

"There are no more Tok'ra," Gerak spat. "You said so yourself, Teal'c. And if there were, what matter? He was Baal's mate, with information on Baal's location."

"He is Tok'ra," Teal'c repeated. "A spy for the Tau'ri. He sacrificed much to give us information about Baal and Anubis' plans. I know him well. As does Rak'nor. But others know of him: Master Bra'tac. Cor'zel. Ke'lal," he nodded to her once politely in acknowledgment. "Many others as well. Because this Tok'ra is Malek, who made the tretonin which allows so many of our brothers and sisters to live free of our dependence on the primm'ta!"

The last he had to almost shout to be heard over the shocked exclamations. They started to die down and he continued, "But the dishonor does not stop there. Because Malek's host is honored by all Jaffa, though for many years his identity was kept secret from everyone. This man -- " Teal'c laid a gentle hand on his forehead, which felt like hot paper, not skin, "is Asheron of Inannar, the Slayer of Ishtar."

Gerak tried, Teal'c had to grant him the effort. He saw his support crumbling before his eyes and had to shout his accusation, "It is a lie! He is a Goa'uld -- "

Rak'nor stepped forward. "He is not," he declared quietly but no less forcefully. "That he is Malek there is no doubt. Nor is there doubt that he created Jaffa tretonin."

"Nor is there doubt that he is Asheron the Last King of Naritania. Go to Inannar," Teal'c challenged. "I have. Speak to the people there, who revere him as their savior. See his image graven on their coins and his portrait in the inns and shops. That is," he added with a deliberate glance at Asheron on the table, "if you can recognize him beneath the horror he has endured these past fourteen weeks."

With slow care, he folded his cloak again to cover Asheron, pausing briefly when he noticed that the dark eyes were half-open. The gaze held no awareness and soon drifted closed, but it gave Teal'c some small measure of hope.

Teal'c picked him up again, careful of the damaged shoulder. "I will take him through the Stargate to the Tau'ri for medical assistance." He fixed Gerak with a glare. "I will return."

* * *

Daniel was just in time to watch Teal'c come through the gate. He wondered what had happened with the council meeting to bring Teal'c back so early.

Teal'c was carrying a body wrapped in his outer cloak in his arms and wasted no time calling out for a medical team to the gateroom. Daniel rushed forward, wondering who it was and hoping it wasn't Rya'c or Ishta.

"Teal'c."

"Daniel Jackson." Teal'c stopped at the bottom of the ramp, in front of Daniel, and he nodded downward. "I have found Asheron. Alive."

Daniel blinked, taken back by the declaration. For the past months, ever since receiving that threat from Baal, they had all assumed that Asheron and Malek had been killed aboard one of Baal's ships.

Then Daniel got a good look at his face. "Oh my God," he whispered. It was hard to see that it was Asheron under the injuries and generally awful physical condition. Worse, Daniel could see that it had to be deliberate -- someone had hurt him. Daniel swallowed hard and glanced up at Teal'c face, noting the clenched jaw and glaring eyes of fury, contrasting with how gently he seemed to cradle the fallen Tok'ra against him. "Where did you find him?"

A muscle jumped in Teal'c's jaw and it took him a moment to answer. "Dakara," he answered unexpectedly, but Daniel had no time to ask about it as the medical team entered in a rush, followed by Landry.

"What happened?" Doctor Lam asked, as she gestured Teal'c to put him down on the gurney. Then she got a good look and her eyes widened. "Oh," she whispered.

"He has been tortured, Doctor Lam," Teal'c told her simply.

She swallowed hard and squared her shoulders, calling up every last gram of medical training. "Right, I can see that." She ordered the med techs, "Come on, let's get him upstairs."

Before she left, Daniel caught her shoulder. She rounded on him, dislodging his hand. He spoke, "Doctor, you should know, he's a Tok'ra."

She blinked in surprise and then frowned, looking at her patient again. Then she just nodded and escorted the gurney out.

"Teal'c?" Landry asked, inviting explanation.

"That is Malek of the Tok'ra," Teal'c said. "Gerak has had him captive since the battle at Dakara. He claims he believed Malek was a Goa'uld."

Teal'c clearly did not believe the claim, Daniel saw. "But why?" Daniel asked in confusion and disbelief. "I mean, even if that was true, what information could he possibly have that would be worth that?"

"Gerak believed that Asheron would know where Baal has fled, after the defeat of Anubis."

"Why would he -- " Landry started and then stopped. His mouth compressed in a tight line of distaste or disapproval as he obviously recalled why this particular Tok'ra would know anything about Baal. "Right. Well, he obviously resisted."

"Or just didn't know." Daniel sighed. He knew as well as anyone that interrogators rarely believed "I don't know" as an answer, even if it was true. "In any case, he looked bad."

Teal'c nodded his agreement but said nothing more. No doubt Doctor Lam would tell them his condition. But Daniel knew there was another task to do. He shared a glance with Teal'c. "We have to tell Sam."

The news would hit her hard. His apparent death, on top of her father's, had hit too hard, and she'd left, taking a post at Area 51, to get closer to Cassie at UNLV, but mostly Daniel thought, to get away from the SGC. She would be overjoyed to learn Asheron and Malek were still alive, but she would definitely be upset by his condition. She might even feel guilty for presuming him dead, without looking for him.

Not for the first time, Daniel wished that Jack hadn't hit that "never leave people behind" maxim quite so often. Because sometimes people got left behind anyway, and blaming oneself never made anyone feel better.

Teal'c agreed with another nod. "I must return to Dakara," he said with some regret. "Gerak must not escape this action. But I will return as soon as I am able."

* * *

About two hours later, Daniel and Landry were waiting in the general's office for Doctor Lam to report. She entered and closed the door behind her, taking the seat next to Daniel at the general's wave.

She sat pin-straight, her hands loosely clasping the file folder on her lap. Glancing around as if she expected to see Teal'c, she accepted his absence without question and got to the point immediately. "He's unconscious, nearly comatose. His overall condition I would characterize as critical. He is very weak, undernourished and dehydrated. He had very little food or water the entire time of his captivity and this has strained his whole body. His blood panels came back with just about everything too low. I've got him on an i.v. to try to straighten that out and with any luck he'll rouse to eat before I have to put in a feeding tube."

Daniel frowned. "I thought you'd put one in right away?"

She gave him a glance that was half-impatience, but bit back whatever was her first response, and explained, "If you give a person who's starved too many calories too quickly their digestive system will automatically process it, depleting the body's minerals, including vital electrolytes and phosphorus that the heart and circulation system need to function. This can cause arrhythmia and cardiac arrest. That's why the rule is to rehydrate and re-feed slowly, with constant supervision."

After she saw that he understood, she continued, reporting to Landry, "But on top of all that, he has injuries, too: his left shoulder's the worst. It's dislocated and was left that way, probably for weeks. This caused extensive soft tissue damage. I can't --" she paused and bit her lip, in one of the few expressions of distress she allowed herself, "imagine how painful that must have been. Additionally," she glanced down at the paper clipped to the top of the folder, "five fingers were dislocated and fractured, and at least two of the fingers on his left hand have significant nerve damage. His cheekbone and two ribs were fractured as well. There are many half-healed cuts, burns and other contusions. Basically, as Teal'c said," she summarized, "he was tortured. Extensively, over a long period of time."

She paused, inhaled a deep breath, and spoke again, "I've put him on a morphine drip for now. The shoulder and the hands will need an orthopedic consult and probably surgery to be fixed, but not until he's stronger."

Again she stopped, and after a moment, Landry prompted gently, "Is that everything?"

She shook her head and straightened up again, as if bracing herself against his sympathy. "No. His shoulder has signs of infection, even though his endocrine system is depressed so there's hardly any immune response. I have him on strong antibiotics, just in case the infection has become systemic. I won't know that until his cultures come back. But he's definitely at risk for septic shock. Given his condition, I doubt he would survive it."

Daniel listened to her litany and felt his heart sink with pity for his friend. Three months of utter hell, in supposedly friendly hands. How was he going to come out of this?

There was only one way -- with the support of his symbiote and everyone else who cared for him. Which brought up that Lam hadn't mentioned the symbiote in her catalog of horrors. "What about Malek?" Daniel asked, "The symbiote?"

Dr. Lam seemed less certain of her ground, glancing at the folder as if to refresh her memory. "Well, he's there. Alive, but unresponsive. His low EEG readings indicate that he's probably just as weak. There appear to be abnormal contusions of some kind on the CT scan, but I'm not sure yet what they indicate."

Landry leaned back, mulled over what she said, and folded his hands. "So, your prognosis?"

She shook her head. "Without that symbiote he probably would have died of renal failure some time ago. But as it is," she gave a small shrug and a look at Landry that Daniel read as challenging, "I don't have any experience with how well Tok'ra recover, so I can't predict anything. I'll do what I can. In fact, I'm going to go find Doctor Fraiser's notes right now." She rose to her feet.

"Doctor," Daniel spoke up, biting his lip. "Check her files on the time when Apophis was here. If I remember right, she saw something similar on the symbiote then." He hoped he was wrong, since Apophis had died of it. Malek had no sarcophagus, even supposing he'd use it.

She nodded her thanks and glanced at Landry. "If that's all, general?"

"Of course," he answered. "Keep me posted."

She slipped out. Landry let out a soft sigh when she was gone, and then looked at Daniel. "And there's no one to ask is there? Malek is the last of the Tok'ra."

Daniel nodded soberly. It wasn't precisely true, since Turan was still alive, but she was an infant symbiote. Of the mature offspring of Egeria, Malek was the last.

As he was walking back to his office, Daniel realized that Sam was probably the only chance Asheron and Malek had to survive, since she was the only person on Earth who could use the healing device.

Daniel was quite sure Baal would also be willing to help, but no one knew where he was, except maybe Asheron himself. Even if Asheron woke enough to answer, Daniel couldn't imagine the cruelty of asking him the same question that the Jaffa had probably asked him over and over again.

So Sam was his main hope. But Daniel was not looking forward to telling her.

It didn't take long to set up the secure vid link to her office at Area 51. She smiled brightly at him, pleased to hear from him. "Hey, Daniel! What's happening?"

"Hi, Sam. I have some news for you. Are you alone?"

She glanced around to check and turned back to the camera, nodding. "Yes. Why? What's going on?"

He bit his lip, unsure of how to say it. Then he took a deep breath before she guessed and said, "Teal'c found Asheron, Sam."

She stared at him for so long, he wondered if the video feed had frozen. But then she blinked rapidly and moved her lips trying to frame her question. "Found him?" she repeated. "His… his body?" she asked faintly.

Realizing what she misunderstood, he shook his head and reassured her, "No, no, Sam. I'm sorry. I should've been clearer. Teal'c found Asheron alive. He and Malek are alive. And they're here right now, at the SGC. Teal'c brought him through the gate a few hours ago."

Her expression lit with joy and she put a hand to her chest as though she couldn't breathe or her heart was pounding so hard, she was trying to calm it. "He's there? How is he? Where's he been? Why did he disappear?"

He let her anxious questions dwindle, until she realized that something was wrong. "Daniel?" she asked, her gaze suddenly darkening with fear.

"Sam, it's not good," he admitted. "Teal'c found him on Dakara. Gerak took him prisoner at Baal's defeat and has been holding him ever since in some secret dungeon. Gerak tortured him, apparently to find out where Baal's hiding."

She mouthed "torture", and her eyes were wide with shock and horror. "How… how bad is it?" she made herself ask.

"Bad. He needs you to come use the healing device," he said simply. "He's hurt and unconscious. Malek's very weak too."

She didn't ask for more details.


* * *


Sam got off the first elevator on eleven and found Daniel there, waiting for her. "I got here as soon as I could," she said. She had wanted to use the Prometheus to beam her here, but it had been out of reach. So she'd been forced to take conventional transportation, cursing every second she'd been going too slowly through the air.

She hurriedly signed in, and went to meet him at the second elevator. "How is he?"

Daniel shook his head a little. "No change. Still hanging in there, which Doctor Lam seems to think is a good sign."

In the elevator she leaned back against the wall and drew in a deep breath, trying to steady her nerves. "So, it's bad?" she asked Daniel, trying to prepare herself.

He nodded slowly, gaze sympathetic on her. "Yeah. He looks a little better now, since the staff cleaned him up, but it's still terrible."

She nodded, swallowing hard. "We can fix it," she said, with as much confidence as she could find.

"I'm sure you can, Sam," Daniel said, and there was not a shred of doubt in his face, which she appreciated.

"I can't believe he's still alive. I was so sure..." she trailed off, realizing how wrong she'd been. "God, Daniel, we didn't even look."

Daniel's hand clasped her shoulder and squeezed. "Sam, we wouldn't have found him, even if we'd looked. Remember Teal'c and Bra'tac asked after Dakara whether any of the Jaffa had seen Asheron, and no one said anything. Gerak kept it such a tight secret it took this long just for word to filter to the Ke'lal that he had a prisoner."

Which she knew, but didn't really help. "But why?" she burst out. "What did he hope to gain by keeping it a secret?"

"I gather he thought Asheron was his route to Baal - the little fish he could keep secret and use to capture the big fish."

Her lips twisted in disgust. "And parade Baal in front of the council. Everyone would be so pleased they'd never ask where the intel came from. Is Gerak really that much like Kinsey?"

"Well, Teal'c and Rak'nor are dealing with him," Daniel said, and she felt a bit of vindictive pleasure at the thought.

But then the elevators opened and she felt apprehensive about stepping out. Taking a deep breath, she walked toward the infirmary, thankful for Daniel at her side.

"Do you want me to come in with you?" he asked softly at the door.

She shook her head, hands clutching each other. "I'll be fine. I just want to see. By myself."

"Okay," he squeezed her shoulder warmly. "Just remember, he's not awake. Even if he opens his eyes, Doctor Lam's got him on some strong stuff, and she said it's not likely he's able to respond. I'll be right outside."

She nodded once, swallowed and went into the ICU. At first all she saw was the equipment, the monitors and tubes and wires, and the white sheets of the bed.

Then somehow her gaze finally decided to find Asheron, as she moved two unwilling steps toward the bed. Her hand went to her mouth to hold in a cry of dismay. She could only stand there and look.

Daniel had told her, but she hadn't imagined it right.

He'd always had strong facial bones, but now looked emaciated. One cheek was yellowish and swollen from an old bruise, but the other was sunken deeply like his eyes, just skin over his skull. His lips had been split several times. But worse, the sheet was drawn halfway up his chest, allowing her unobstructed view of prominent collar bones, ribs, and his shoulder, which looked badly inflamed and was so puffy, it seemed like it should belong to someone else. There was livid bruising on his chest from multiple beatings, and long welts from whippings.

His hands were on top of the sheet, one of them held across his chest in a sling for the shoulder. Both hands were bandaged and splinted, except for one finger that had another monitor attached.

He had an oxygen cannula in his nose, a subclavian i.v inserted into the hollow of his good shoulder, and EKG monitoring pads stuck to his chest. There were smaller pads and wires attached to the back of his neck that wound their way to another monitor, showing Malek's activity.

She glanced at the monitors, able to read most of their readouts after so many trips to the infirmary. Slow but steady pulse. His blood pressure seemed low, but his temperature was a little high, signs that he wasn't that well. Still, he was hanging in there.

But, she reminded herself, he was Tok'ra. If Malek was able, he should be able to heal his host, and he hadn't.

Her eyes settled on his hair, which had been cleaned and cut short. There were silver strands all through it that had not been there before.

Aged as a Tok'ra shouldn't be. Hurt, again and again. He'd been held in a dark place, tortured by those who were supposed to be his allies. Even if she managed to help him physically with the healing device, how was he going to recover from the rest?

"You're going to be okay," she whispered to him, wanting so badly to hold his hand but caressing his cheek instead. "You're going to be all right," she promised, as her eyes felt hot with unshed tears and she had to struggle to get the breath through the lump in her throat.

She touched his hair gently, thinking that might be the only part of him that didn't hurt and several strands came off on her fingers. Somehow that was too much and the tears sprang free, rolling down her cheeks. She bent down, hiding her face in the corner of his neck and good shoulder, her cheek against his skin. She wanted so much for him to sit up and reassure her that everything was going to be fine, that he was okay, and to take her in his arms and hold her.

But he lay there, utterly still, while she let out all the grief that had been festering inside her for so long, not just for Asheron but for Janet and her father, too.

When she finally stopped, she wiped her eyes with her hands and looked around for a tissue to blow her nose. An unfamiliar, pretty Asian woman in a white coat was standing nearby, holding a box of tissues.

She saw she had Sam's attention and stepped forward, holding out the box. "Doctor Carolyn Lam. I presume you're Colonel Carter?"

Sam nodded and took two tissues. "Thank you. That's right. Sam Carter." She wiped her eyes again and her nose, rising on shaky legs to deposit the tissues in the trash.

The doctor scanned Asheron's monitors, making a few notations in his chart. When she'd finished, she suggested, "If you'll follow me to my office, colonel? I think we should talk there."

Sam agreed, gave Asheron a kiss on the forehead. "I'll be back," she whispered.

The CMO's office was plain and government issue, except for a single photo of the doctor with an older Asian woman, presumably the Lam's mother. She took her seat and gestured for Sam to sit in the chair across from her. "I understand you're planning to use the Goa'uld healing device."

"If I need to," Sam answered with a glance at Asheron's chart, which the doctor put on the desk.

"Unfortunately I don't think you have much choice," Doctor Lam answered. She paused and elaborated, "His symbiote is dying."

The words were like a punch to the chest. Sam just shook her head in wordless denial. Malek couldn't die. Couldn't. Not like Selmak.

"My understanding is that it's not necessarily fatal to the host," Lam said, maybe in some attempt at reassurance though her tone was cool and factual. "You're proof of that. But I've also read that dying symbiotes release a toxin into the blood, unless they specifically choose not to. Malek may not be well enough to choose."

Sam shook her head and answered, "It doesn't matter." She had to clear her throat to get her voice up above a whisper. "I don't think Asheron could survive Malek's death. Maybe not before this happened, if he was well, but definitely not now. Not after this." Weakly she gestured toward the chart.

"No, probably not," Lam agreed. "So I've had the healing device brought here for you. But it would be best if you could focus on the most important problems first."

Sam, remembering her own ill-fated attempt to heal Daniel's radiation sickness, nodded her understanding. That was the error she'd made then, trying to make him all better all at once.

Lam went on, "I'm not sure how specific you can be...?" she trailed off and looked inquiringly at Sam, who had to lick her lips.

"I don't know. I may be a host myself now, but I don’t think that's going to help much. I don't have a lot of practice."

"Well, obviously all you can do is your best. I'll tell you what's priority and if you can concentrate on that first, then that would be better. The first thing you need to do is help Malek, since if we lose him, it's over. Next is the infection in his shoulder. If it's not already in his lungs, it will be, and pneumonia in someone this weakened is going to be fatal."

Sam tried to listen to the doctor, but the words kept bouncing around in her mind, not settling. Malek was dying. If she didn't save him, Asheron was going to die. If she didn't cure the infection, they were both going to die. She had believed him dead before, and now he might die anyway, right in front of her.

Doctor Lam stopped and her face softened. "I'm sorry. That's probably enough. Just don't try to fix it all. His condition is very critical, I won't lie to you, but he's hung on this long. That's a good indicator of a strong will to live and sometimes that can work near miracles."

Sam nodded. She rubbed her face with both hands. "And mentally?" she lifted it to ask, dreading the answer.

The doctor hesitated. "Frankly, the psychological aspect is far outside my expertise," she admitted. "He's going to need a doctor with training in post-trauma treatment. In general, though, recovery won't be easy and it won't be quick, that much I can tell you. But how much Malek can help, I can't guess."

Sam thought of Asheron's frequent nightmares of Ishtar and was pretty sure the answer was not much.

* * *

Sam slid the healing device over her hand so it fit snugly into her palm and put the other hand on top to steady it. Then staring at Asheron's pale, bruised face, she took deep breaths to focus. She kept thinking about what Doctor Lam had said, about how he and Malek were dying, and remembering how she'd tried to heal Daniel and failed miserably.

Malek and Asheron needed her, she had to calm down. She shut her eyes and tried to think of the device. It started to feel warm in her hand.

Malek. Asheron's shoulder. His hands. Infection. All those bruises and cuts and burns. He looked so terrible; he'd suffered so much, she wanted to help him... The energy flowed through her, rising in her body and down her arm to pass through the device and into him.

He made a sound and her eyes flew open, to see that his lips had parted to draw deeper breaths. Excited, she drew more energy and sent it to him, healing.

Then abruptly someone was shaking her, breaking her concentration. She tried to shrug off the interruption and keep going, but then she was shoved away. Someone ordered, "Colonel Carter, stop!"

The energy snapped back into her with a jolt and she was dazed. "What?"

Lam grabbed her shoulder and turned her forcibly from the bed. "He's crashing. You need to move. Someone take her out of here!"

One of the nurses pushed Sam back as the doctor and the rest of the med team gathered around Asheron's body on the bed. She heard someone say 'no pulse', and then Lam called for CPR. Then the doors closed in front of her face, shutting out the sight and sound of the horror inside.

She stared at the doors for a long time, until Daniel appeared at her side and gently urged her away with a hand on her shoulder. "What happened?" he asked.

"It was working," she answered, in a voice that she could barely push out of her throat. She waved the healing device, and it felt so, so heavy at the end of her arm. "I could feel it. But it must have been too much, too fast. He arrested."

Daniel's hand tightened on her shoulder. She swallowed and her fingers restlessly traced the ridges on the bottom of the healing device. "I think I killed him," she whispered.

Daniel pulled her close. "Just wait, Sam. It might be okay."

She put her head on Daniel's shoulder and clutched at the back of his jacket with both hands. His arms went around her, and she tried to breathe. Just breathe.

* * *

The doors swung open finally and Sam jumped to her feet from the hard, plastic chair. Her lungs seemed tight and small in her chest, as she saw Lam come through.

But the doctor gave her a quick smile that relieved Sam immediately. The doctor wouldn't smile at all if there was bad news. "He gave us a scare but he's stable again. We'll watch closely overnight, just in case."

Suddenly Sam could breathe again. He was alive. "Did I help at all, or make it worse?" she asked.

"Oh, helped," she confirmed, to Sam's surprise. "His shoulder is visibly better. Assuming the night passes without a problem, I'm going to have Teal'c reset it, now that the swelling's down. Then you can try again."

"Try again?" Sam repeated, incredulous, and shook her head. "But he almost died."

"We'll just take it more slowly. I had no idea that it would deplete his electrolytes so quickly. So you'll need to restrain yourself to a minute or two. But I still think it would help."

"All right. Can I see him?"

Lam gave her permission, so Sam followed her back into the infirmary. Daniel went with her, and he was a comforting presence at her shoulder as she stood next to the bed. "You did help, Sam. He looks much better."

Asheron did look better, she had to agree with that. The bruise on his cheek was gone, and some of the redness in the injuries on his chest had faded. The swelling was less in his shoulder, which emphasized the way that it drooped wrongly.

But he was still attached to too many wires and tubes - things no Tok'ra should need. He looked paler and more deeply asleep, and she wasn't surprised when he didn't respond to her touch on his face at all.

Lam checked his monitors and small medicine bottle emptying into the i.v. pump before wandering off, and Daniel murmured, "It occurs to me that Gerak should consider himself lucky after Teal'c gets through with him." She glanced at him curiously and he gave a wry little smile. "Baal was pissed when he thought Asheron was with us. I hate to think what he'd do to enemy Jaffa for doing this."

She couldn't help a small smile at the thought. "I know I shouldn't, since they're our allies, but right at this moment? I hope Baal finds him. Because this is... so wrong, Daniel." She let out a breath and twined her fingers through a curling piece of his hair next to his ear. "After all Asheron and Malek did for the Jaffa, he should've been the last person they could do this to."

"They didn't know," Daniel pointed out. "And he was Baal's second in command. Not that I'm saying it was right, because obviously this is way past excessive, but it's not as if Gerak had no reason to believe he was a Goa'uld."

She nodded after a moment, since Daniel was right, but she kept to herself, looking at the battered body in front of her, that she didn't care. Someone should avenge this. Since it couldn't be other Jaffa, Tau'ri or the Tok'ra, it was going to have to be Baal. And she found, she was okay with that.


* * *

The next day, Sam stayed out of the way but watched while the doctor showed Teal'c the x-rays and demonstrated what to do, first on her tabletop model skeleton, and then shedding her coat and letting her take hold of her arm and mime the motion.

Then she nodded in approval. "All right. I think you've got it. I'm going to put him under, and we'll be ready to go in fifteen minutes."

Sam stirred. "But he's already unconscious." She'd been in there earlier, and he was out and unresponsive, and it didn't seem as if he'd need more anesthetic.

Lam shook her head, pressing her lips together. "For this kind of pain, morphine isn't enough. He might wake up, or worse. But after the joint's back in place and the general clears his system, his pain level should be much more tolerable. I'm hoping he'll wake up."

She left them in her office, and for a moment there was silence between them. Then Sam looked to Teal'c. "Thank you for rescuing him," she said. "And for doing this."

He nodded to her, formal, but with his dark eyes deeply kind. "It is my honor."

"What happened to Gerak?"

The sympathy turned harder, and his lips flattened in satisfaction. "He and his most ardent supports have left Dakara. Which divides us at a time we wished to be most unified, but we had no choice. Beginning with such deceit and dishonor cannot be our way."

"I'm sorry," she offered.

"Master Bra'tac and I knew it would not be easy. The Jaffa have learned too well from the Goa'uld." He nodded his head toward the x-rays still hanging on the light box. "As Gerak proved."

* * *

Doctor Lam's prediction turned out correct. By mid-afternoon, as the general anesthetic cleared out of his system, his eyes flickered open.

"Asheron?" she murmured. He didn't react to her voice, though she wasn't sure if it was because he wasn't really awake, his heavy duty medication, or his mind still saw his prison cell. "Asheron, can you hear me? Malek, are you in there? It's Sam. You're on Earth. You're safe." She brushed his cheek with her fingertips and she smiled when he turned his head toward her touch. "I'm here. You're safe," she repeated. "You're rescued and you're on Earth."

His eyelids drifted shut again and didn't reopen, with no sign he had known he was even awake, but Sam hoped the message had gotten through on some level.

An hour later, Lam let her use the healing device again, for a short time, and this time, Sam felt more able to direct the power, focusing the energy on the torn tissues of his shoulder and his right hand. It felt as if she'd barely started when Lam was shaking her shoulder. "Colonel, that's enough."

Sam stirred and stepped back, lowering the device, and feeling the exhaustion rise up through her, as an enervating wave.

She was about to leave, to find some food and maybe crash in one of the VIP suites, when Lam said, "Colonel. Wait."

Curious, Sam followed the doctor's gaze, which was watching his heart and respiration rate, and she saw that both had speeded up. She looked down at his face, in time to see his eyes open again. This time the blankness was gone, and he saw her. Confused recognition flickered in his face, and he looked away, shutting his eyes with a frown as if he was afraid he was hallucinating.

"Hey," she said and touched the back of his hand and then up his arm to lay her fingers on his stubbled cheek. "You're at the SGC, Asheron. On Earth. You're safe, and everything's going to be okay now. We found you and rescued you, and you're home."

He looked at her again, and his lips parted and he whispered something hoarsely, cleared his throat, and whispered her name. "Sam?" The amount of pain and desperate hope in that one whispered word made her heart clench up tightly in her chest.

"It's me," she confirmed, nodding her head and smiling, even when her eyes grew hot. "It's me. Welcome home."

Lam moved in closer to her side. "I'm Doctor Lam," she introduced herself. "Do you feel any pain?"

He had to think about that for a moment, and she could see the haze of the drugs keeping him from true alertness, but he shook his head a little.

"Good," she answered. "I'm glad to see you're awake. You've got a morphine drip right now, so it's going to make you feel cottony and hazy. But as your injuries heal, I'll lower it and you'll feel more yourself. Let's try a little water, that'll help your throat feel better."

Sam wasn't sure he heard anything she said, as his gaze drifted back to look at Sam. She smiled at him encouragingly, and he stared back.

Nurse Evans lifted the head of the bed a few degrees so Asheron wasn't lying flat, and Lam gave him the straw for a cup of ice water. He lifted a hand trying to help her, but it never made it to the cup, falling limply back down to the bed. His eyes closed while he was sipping at the water, and Lam tugged the cup away. "He's asleep. At least for tonight, keep the main lights on - we've got no other patients, and I don't think he should wake in the dark."

Evans nodded. "Yes, doctor."

Sam followed Lam out of the ward into the hall. "He seems very weak," Sam said.

Lam nodded. "Taking food will help with that, but we'll have to do it slowly. It's a good sign he woke up. But..."

"But?" Sam repeated, not liking the sound of that.

"I'm troubled by the symbiote's low EEG. It... " she paused for a moment before going on, "it matches the EEG your father's symbiote had in the days before they passed away."

Sam knew what that meant, and swallowed hard. "You think Malek's in a coma."

Lam nodded. "I'm afraid so. Your attempts at healing haven't changed the readings at all. Hopefully, as Asheron improves physically, he'll be able to tell us something else we can try to help. I know Selmak's coma lasted a few weeks from what you reported, but this is a different situation, so I have no idea how long this might go on. But I'm afraid their long-term prospects are poor, if Malek doesn't recover."

"Oh." Sam leaned against the wall, feeling the grey paint flake off under the pressure of her fingers.

Lam added, "It's early days yet. And that's the worst case scenario right now. I just thought you should know."

"Thank you," Sam managed.

"Get some rest, Colonel. We have to take this hour by hour, and day by day." With a little pat of Sam's shoulder, the doctor headed into her office.

Sam stayed in place for a little while, breathing, then headed for the mess to get something to eat.

She was making herself finish a yogurt when someone plopped down across from her. Expecting Daniel, she got a surprise, when she looked up and instead it was Mitchell. She smiled for the first time in what felt like days. "Cam! You made it!"

"You look like hell, Sam," he said in concern. "You okay?"

"Just tired," she answered, waving it off. "But you look good. All cleared for duty and here you are."

He grinned at her. "Here I am. Checked in with General Landry and I'm all ready to go," then his smile faltered, "only to find there isn't any SG-1 for me to be on."

She felt a faint stirring of guilt. She'd known about this assignment for Mitchell, but hadn't expected to be present when he found out. "I know," she answered. "I'm sorry, Cam. I'm still assigned to Area 51. I'm just here to help Asheron and Malek get better, then I'll go back."

His shoulders drooped and he got a kicked-puppy look. "C'mon, Sam. It's not SG-1 without you. Come back. Just think, you can go through the gate again, have adventures again..." he wheedled. "Save the galaxy again..."

But it didn't sound tempting at all. "I can't. Malek and I are the last Tok'ra in the galaxy. I can't go throw myself on the front lines as casually as I used to, especially--" she hesitated, and forced herself to continue in a voice that wanted to choke her, "especially if he dies. I have a responsibility to Turan, not to be reckless with her safety. But I'll still be around, y'know, at least for awhile, if you need me."

"That's not the same," he pouted, but after a moment he gave up with a sigh. "Can you help me convince Daniel not to go off to Atlantis at least?"

She had to chuckle at his face. "I can try."

* * *

That wasn't the last time she got dragged back into SGC affairs, either. Vala arrived and proved that Daniel's story about her was absolutely true, attaching herself to him in an effort to blackmail the SGC into finding her treasure. Sam and Bill found no way to remove the bracelets, without harming them.

But Sam remembered that in addition to her mercenary nature, Vala had also been a host to a Goa'uld. Sam waited until they were alone and she perched on the edge of the table. "You know what Tok'ra are?" she asked.

"Of course," she answered. "One nearly got me killed. Why?"

That didn't sound too promising, but Sam forged ahead. "Because we have one in the infirmary. The symbiote is very sick. Do you know - can you think of a way to heal it, besides the hand device and a sarcophagus?"

Vala frowned curiously. "A sick Tok'ra? How strange, I didn't know that could happen."

Thinking of her father and Selmak, Sam answered, "It happens more often than you might think."

"Ordinarily I'd want some form of payment for information," Vala said. When Sam started to straighten in offense, Vala added hastily, "but in this case, I don't know anything. Qetesh wasn't exactly the most... interested in healing anyone but herself in the sarcophagus." She grimaced, for a moment glancing away.

"I'd imagine not," Sam murmured, "but I had to ask. Thanks." She stood up and headed for the door.

"If you like, I could ... I could try to use the hand device?" Vala offered tentatively. "I've done it before." When Sam turned around to look at her, curious that she was actually offering something, Vala shrugged. "The Tok'ra did free me. I owe them for that."

"I've already tried," Sam answered. "It didn't work."

"You tried?" Vala asked in surprise.

Sam felt a little satisfaction, as she told the mercenary, "Didn't anyone tell you? I'm a Tok'ra." She was smiling as she slipped through the door. The smile stayed until she set foot inside the door of the infirmary ward.

She sat in the chair next to Asheron's bed. He was sleeping, and looked the same as earlier in the day, which she tried to tell herself was a good thing because he didn't look worse. In the hope that her voice would remind him that he was free, even in the depths of his dreams, and also to settle her own anxiety, she picked up the book from the little table, found the place she'd left off yesterday, and started to read aloud, "Chapter Two. Mr. Bennet was among the earliest of those who waited on Mr. Bingley...."

* * *

The next day when Mitchell and the others went with Prometheus to England to look for treasure, she stayed to use the healing device on Asheron again, this time trying to focus on Malek.

Lam was watching the EEG carefully, when Sam stepped away and lowered the hand device. She shook her head slowly. "There was a spike in activity briefly, but it settled again." She frowned at the monitor. "There were those contusions on the symbiote's body, and I think they're very similar to those on Apophis' when he died here years back. They're undoubtedly causing some of its weakness. But I wonder..." She trailed off and checked the i.v. pump and the skin around the shunt, still looking thoughtful.

"What?" Sam asked.

Lam pulled down the sheet to get a good look at the healing injuries on his torso. Luckily the bruising was fading, and even the lash marks were healing, though some remained raised and reddish, and Sam knew they were going to scar. The doctor explained, as she looked, "As bad as Asheron's blood panels were, I think he should have slipped into renal failure long before he got here. So I wonder if the symbiote had taken on some of the renal and liver functions, and has now basically poisoned itself, trying so hard to keep its host alive. And that may be why the hand device won't work - it can't pull those toxins from the symbiote's body."

Sam nodded. She was no doctor of medicine, but she'd certainly picked up enough in her time here and in her field medic training to understand. "Presuming that's true, what could we do to help?"

"The symbiote is connected to his circulatory system. So I hope that as Asheron's organ function improves, his body will start filtering them out again. Of course, I have no idea if the damage is permanent," she admitted. "It would be... helpful to have someone with more expertise. I'm fumbling around in an area of medicine I knew nothing about until a few weeks ago."

What they needed was a fully mature symbiote; which was the one thing not left in the galaxy, except for a few Goa'uld at large. Sam wondered where Baal had gone after Anubis' defeat.

Asheron murmured, recalling her attention, and she watched him wake up, hopeful that this time he'd be a little more alert. Lam had lowered the morphine now that his shoulder was healing so nicely, and his eyes were, in fact, more clear as he looked around.

"Hey there," she murmured and leaned closer, smiling softly at him.

"Hey," he returned hoarsely and frowned. "Where am I?"

"SGC, on Earth," she answered, and with Lam's approving nod, Sam lifted the head of the bed again so he could see more of the infirmary.

"What happened?" he asked, looking confused. She gave him the straw and he drank while she countered with another question.

"What's the last thing you remember?"

"I..." his gaze drifted sideways, and his frown deepened, growing distressed, until his eyes snapped to hers, horrified panic naked in his face. "Malek isn't answering me. I can't feel him at all. Is he dead?"

"Shush. It's okay. He's not dead," she reassured him, stroking her hand along his arm. "He's very sick, I won't lie, but he's still there inside you. He's sleeping."

"Sick from what?" he asked in such blank puzzlement she didn't know what to answer and threw a helpless look at Lam. He didn't remember, and she didn't know if she should tell him or leave it.

Lam stepped to the other side of the bed. "You were a prisoner," she answered. "Do you remember that?"

He frowned at the doctor as if he had a vague memory of her from somewhere, but then answered her question, "I remember ... there were Replicators. There was a battle. Then you and Jacob got the weapon to work and destroyed them all. And... Tel'nor was killed. And... that's all..." His voice fell to a whisper, his eyes closed, as if he were falling asleep again, but his right hand was trembling against the sheets. Sam couldn't hold his hand, but she clasped his forearm in her fingers.

"It's okay," she murmured. "Your mind's hiding it from you while the rest of you recovers. Don't push yet; you're not ready to remember."

She hoped she was lying, and he wouldn't remember it at all, but she didn't think they'd be that lucky.

"How are you feeling physically?" Lam asked.

He tried to lift a hand, discovering the splints keeping his fingers straight on his right hand, and the bandages on his left, where the fingers had started to heal in captivity, but wrongly, so they wouldn't straighten.

Asheron blanched, and the beep of his heart rate suddenly increased. "Hurts," he whispered. "Oh gods, it hurts..." His breathing grew harsh and ragged, and Sam tried to calm him, with soft words and touching his arm, but he didn't seem to realize she was there any more.

Lam took out a syringe from her coat pocket, checked it, and injected his i.v. with it. It felt like an eternity, watching him whimper, not soothed by anything. "Why isn't it helping?" Sam demanded. "Morphine should work faster than this."

"It's not morphine," Lam told her, but didn't take her eyes off her patient. "He's not in pain - it's memory. I gave him diazepam for anxiety." Finally, his panting calmed and his heart rate slowed, right before he passed out. Lam bit her lip and her dark eyes were soft, as she gently laid her fingers on his forehead. "So now we know it's all in there. Self-induced amnesia is keeping it from his conscious mind."

Sam sat down on the chair again, looking from him to the doctor. "What do we do?" she asked, feeling stunned and overwhelmed. She'd known it wasn't going to be easy and he was going to be hurt, but seeing the reality, laid it out for her how it was more than she knew to fix.

"We find a doctor for him, for one thing," Lam said and sighed. "It might be worth considering sending him with Daedalus."

"To Atlantis?" Sam asked, surprised. "Really?"

"Doctor Heightmeyer has far more training in trauma and stress treatment than anyone on base here," Lam said. "But I don't think anyone there has any experience with symbiotes either, so perhaps that would be an idea for their next trip."

If Malek and Asheron survived long enough for the ship's next round trip, was what she meant, Sam realized as the doctor moved away. She leaned down and whispered in his ear, with her hand lightly on his chest. "Malek, please wake up. You have to wake up."

There was not a twitch in the EEG to suggest the symbiote had heard her.

* * *

The team returned with the Ancient terminal artifact, and Sam divided her time between that and Asheron, who was improving slowly. When Daniel and Vala fell unconscious, their minds transported elsewhere, she worked to try to get them back without success, and watched in horror, as Vala's life signs stopped. She waited, dread filling her, feeling certain that Daniel's would, too.

But Vala recovered, for no obvious reason. They still didn't wake up, though, and she and Bill started to try to disable the power source without killing either of them.

"Damn Ancients," she muttered under their breath. "Sucker me in every time."

Bill snickered. "They do that, don't they? I used to think they were so awesome with all their tech secrets. Now they're just ... annoying."

"Go off and Ascend and leave us mortals down here to deal with all the stuff they couldn't be bothered with anymore," she grumped, and then the terminal zapped her. She shook her hand trying to get the tingles out. "Ow! Damn it!"

"I still say C4 would work wonders," Cam said, from behind them.

"You would," she retorted. "But let's try it our way first."

"Mitchell to General Landry's office," came over the PA and he gave a shrug and a little wave. "Later."

It felt strange, she realized, to have her friends so scattered. Teal'c was at Dakara, Daniel was unconscious, she was in the lab, and Cam left with another SG team following up a strange report from Doctor Lindsay.

But they came back together in the briefing room two days later, as Mitchell brought through the priest of the next false gods to try to replace the Goa'uld.

As she listened to the Prior talk about enlightenment and believers and the Ori, she began to feel very cold. They'd mentioned Daniel, which meant Daniel was in contact with these people -- and these people had done something to Vala where her life-signs had stopped briefly. Teal'c, as befit a Jaffa, was dismissive of more false gods, Landry was more polite, and Cam was argumentative - but she stayed quiet, wishing Asheron was next to her, both for the comfort of his presence and to listen to him challenge the Prior.

Then things went from bad to worse when the Prior went up in flames, leaving only his book; and Daniel and Vala started to die. She tried to rip out the power core, but Cam took the terminal from her and lifted it, Teal'c helping him. "Sam, no time. We gotta get rid of it."

"What are you doing? You can't blow it up."

"I'm not. Gonna pitch it at the gate. Tell Walter to dial."

"They're connected through subspace. It won't matter if you send the terminal to another planet!" She ran after him.

"Not through, IN," Mitchell shouted. "Tell Walter to dial!"

Then she got it, feeling slow and stupid, and picked up the phone. "Dial the gate, sergeant. Alpha Site will do. But don't punch the seventh until Mitchell gets there."

She ran back to the infirmary in time to see Daniel and Vala wake up, panicked and panting as if they'd been underwater, but very much alive and themselves again.

She smiled at Daniel, glad and relieved he was back.





CHAPTER TEN

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