Insofar as one denies what is, one is possessed by what is not, the compulsions, the fantasies, the terrors that flock in to fill the void. — Ursula K. Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven
Daniel followed the sound of voices as he navigated the corridor on Level 24 that led to the storage and work bays for the various remote-controlled equipment, such as UAVs and MALPS, used by SG teams. He could hear Teal’c conversing with Sam, the Jaffa’s bass rumble in counterpoint to the captain’s clear alto.
Rounding the corner into one of the bays, he found his two teammates. Sam leaned over one of the UAVs, apparently making adjustments of some sort as Teal’c watched. “We’ll be able to see how much flooding and storm damage is in the area,” the captain was saying, “and the UAV will help us to pinpoint the location of any settlements as well. We might even be able to spot Colonel Cromwell if he’s out in the open.”
“Perhaps the Colonel will notice the UAV. That will tell him that someone is searching for him,” Teal’c replied thoughtfully.
Sam shook her head. “I don’t think so, Teal’c. These are pretty quiet, and we usually fly them pretty high so the local population doesn’t see them and become aware of the surveillance. I doubt the people on P2A-870 are familiar with aircraft, and I’d hate to spook them. But we should get good images regardless, and that’ll be a big help in knowing what to expect.”
“Hey, guys.” Both heads turned at Daniel’s greeting.
“Hey, Daniel.” Sam turned back long enough to close a panel on the UAV and wipe the small plane’s side with a cloth before turning her attention back to her colleague. “Have you seen the colonel?”
Daniel shook his head. “Not since Simmons queried the MALP again at 0700. Seriously, how much longer can these storms last?”
“They do indeed appear to have unusual longevity,” noted Teal’c. “On Chulak, such an intense and long-lasting storm system might occur only once in a century.”
“We have storms like that here on Earth sometimes. In fact, we call them ‘century storms’.” Sam folded the cloth and tucked it into the pocket of her BDUs. “It’s entirely possible that’s exactly what’s happening on P2A-870. Maybe Colonel Cromwell’s arrival and our searching for him just happened to coincide with something like a century storm.”
Daniel consulted his watch. “Let’s hope the weather has begun to clear by the time of the next MALP query in an hour. I’d really like to get back there and see if we can locate him. The locals might need some help in dealing with the aftermath of the storms, too.”
Master Sergeant Douglas sat next to the captain, listening to Reiker and Warfield across the table as they tag-teamed some story they were telling. Every couple of sentences, one of them would correct the other, and then they’d argue good-naturedly for a moment about exactly how this or that part of the story had actually happened. It was SOP for them. Both tech sergeants, the pair had been best friends since basic, and where you saw one the other generally wasn’t far behind. Watching them often reminded Cromwell of himself and Jack in years gone by, although he’d never have mentioned this aloud. Usually, the very thought caused him to seek some distraction from the memories and the pain they caused.
He looked down at the thick folder before him. Bordered in red, it had “Top Secret: Special Access” stamped across its cover. Inside, he knew, were mission reports filed by SG-1’s commander, the same man who had been his best friend for more than a dozen years before a nightmare of a mission gone wrong in Iraq had left him a prisoner, and left Cromwell wounded. He’d had thought Jack dead for two months, until his name turned up on a POW list. After that, he’d tried to organize a mission to go behind enemy lines and get him — and any other prisoners — out of captivity, but to no avail. General West, in charge of Special Operations forces in the area, had informed him in no uncertain terms that he would not risk additional men on such a mission. Now, more than eight years later, West had revealed to Cromwell and his men the Stargate program, of which Jack O’Neill was 2IC. The 121st was to serve as a backup security team in the event something went wrong, buying time for the Pentagon to come up with a solution if they couldn’t solve it themselves…
He opened the folder, intending to read again the much-redacted reports, irritated at the knowledge that information was missing from them and worried that it might prove to be crucial. It wouldn’t be the first time in his experience that what the big brass considered important or useful was at odds with what men in the field really needed to know.
Take the Tok’ra, for instance. Okay, so according to the reports they were the same species as the Goa’uld, but for some reason considered the Goa’uld their enemy. Did that make them allies of Earth? It appeared so, at least to some extent. Like the Goa’uld, they took human hosts, and one of their number had recently acquired a high-level Air Force officer in that role. A general, no less. I guess that puts them on our side, Cromwell mused. But what had led them to oppose the Goa’uld in the first place? That part was still unclear.
He supposed it would have to be good enough. It wasn’t as if he was terribly likely to ever meet any Tok’ra, after all. Probably a good thing, too. The whole idea creeped him out a little. No, not just a little; a lot. To have an alien creature living within you, with the ability to control your body and having access to your thoughts… He suppressed a shudder. Whatever that general had known, secret or otherwise, the Tok’ra probably knew now, too. The risk to security was mind-boggling. Cromwell had spent virtually his entire career dealing with Top Secret information, and his was the almost visceral reaction of someone steeped in the need for secrecy and security. I damn well hope the Tok’ra really have our best interests at heart.
He reached for the cup of coffee that rested on the table beside the folder and swallowed a large mouthful. The hot liquid nearly scalded his throat, but its flavor was satisfying. Not that Air Force coffee was anything special, but he hadn’t had coffee of any description in so long that…
What made him think that? Here he was at Peterson, where he and his team had been stationed since early March, and he drank base coffee by the quart, like most of his men. They ran SERE training exercises for Academy cadets and spent the rest of their time speculating on what they might encounter if they ever were called into Cheyenne Mountain to do the job that was their real assignment. Alternating between boredom and worry, he’d spent the past five months chafing, waiting for something to happen, certain it was only a matter of time before it did.
Christ, that coffee must have been even hotter than he’d thought. Either that, or the internal burning that had started in his gut was a world-class case of acid indigestion. Maybe the beginnings of an ulcer. Not that the thought really surprised him, but just the same, he knew he’d better not let any of the docs find out. No way was he going to be anyplace else but in charge of this team when — not if, but when, he was sure of it — when they got the call that something was wrong and the folks running the Stargate needed backup.
No way in hell.
His stomach churned now, and he pushed the coffee mug away with a scowl, beginning to fish in the pockets of his BDUs with his other hand. Dammit, where’d I put those antacids? He’d taken to carrying the roll around with him lately, just in case. He patted pocket after pocket, to no avail. The pain was increasing, and he thought for a moment of asking Douglas if he had any antacid tablets on him. The big master sergeant was the team’s medic, so it wouldn’t be out of the question. Yet Cromwell wasn’t sure he wanted to let on to Douglas about the pain in his gut. The medic was nothing if not discreet, but still…
Damn, that really hurt. The pain was spreading, at the same time becoming more intense. His gut and the lower part of his chest both felt like they were on fire, and there was a gurgling that was almost a sense of motion within him. Jesus, what the hell did I eat for lunch? He couldn’t remember. Whatever it was, it felt like it was trying to return the favor. He leaned back, trying to ease the discomfort, but it was no use. The feeling of internal motion gave way to pressure, and a sensation he could only describe as slithering. Terror-stricken now and suddenly unable to speak, he looked up and down the table at his men, all of whom seemed completely unaware of his situation.
His gut clenched, and a ripping pain convulsed him as something sought exit from his body. In utter horror, he felt his back arch and looked down to see a scaly head emerge, glistening red with his own blood, from just below his sternum like something from that movie — what had it been called? — he’d once dragged Jack out to see. He opened his mouth to scream, but no sound came —
Cromwell woke with an audible gasp, sweating and shaking. It still felt as though something were moving inside him, but it was only his heart, hammering in his chest. He took several deep breaths, willing its rate to slow. The third breath caught like a sob, and he felt Tesni turn in the darkness beside him. A moment later a soft hand stroked his shoulder, and a sleepy voice whispered, “Annwylaf? Is something wrong?”
With a groan, he sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed. Still tangled in the covers, he unintentionally pulled them with him, and fought to free his legs, shoving the sheet and blanket back into the middle of the bed. Resting his elbows on his knees, he lowered his head into his hands, still waiting for his heart to slow to a normal pace. His breathing rasped loudly, even to his own ears.
“Nye?” Not a whisper this time, his wife’s voice was gentle and filled with concern.
He drew a shuddering breath, held it for a moment, then let it out as slowly as he could. With the next, he answered, “Go back to sleep, cariad. I’ll be all right.”
There was a rustling sound as she sat up, reaching out to lay a hand gently on his back. Her touch on his bare skin sent shockwaves through his system. He’d grown used to the nightmares over the years, but tended to wake from them with what felt like every nerve ending he owned dialed up to unbelievable levels of sensitivity. He took another deep breath, willing himself to stillness.
Tesni rose to her knees behind him, resting her hands on his shoulders. “You had another dream, didn’t you?”
He nodded. “I’m sorry I woke you.”
“No need to apologize.” The hands slipped briefly down his chest as she embraced him from behind, nuzzling his neck. Her hair fell softly across his shoulder, and the warmth of her body seeped through her nightdress as she pressed against him. “Do you want to tell me about it?” she asked.
He grasped one of her hands, twining his fingers in hers, and brushed it with his lips. “Talking about it isn’t going to make any difference. I’ll be all right.”
“Come lie back down beside me, then.”
He snorted, shaking his head. “I doubt I can sleep right now, Tesni. I’m usually awake for the rest of the night after one of these, and I don’t want you losing sleep. I should probably just go in the other room and read, so I don’t keep you awake with me.”
“Stay. I don’t mind being awake.” Tesni held him for a moment, before gently freeing her captive hand, placing both on his shoulders again and flexing her fingers against his taut muscles. “You’re tense.” She began to massage his shoulders. Cromwell wasn’t sure how much good it would do, but he had to admit that it felt pleasant. She had strong hands and an impressive amount of skill. For several minutes she simply kneaded his shoulders and back, before swinging her own legs over the edge of the bed and standing.
“Lie down and let me do this properly,” she said, drawing aside the curtain from the single high window, paned with glass like those at Bennaeth Bod. Pale moonlight washed the room, pushing back the shadows — at least the physical ones.
He humored her, turning to stretch face-down on the bed and listening as she rummaged in a basket. The rustling stopped, followed by the sound of a cork being removed from a flask. A second later, the scent of lavender and rosemary reached his nostrils. She touched him again, her hands warm and now slick, continuing to massage away the tension caused by the nightmare and the stressful week. After several moments, he felt himself begin to drift off as he relaxed under her touch, despite having been certain he would get no more sleep this night.
He stirred muzzily as she slipped back into bed beside him, shifting to make room for her. Tesni pulled the covers over them both, pausing to kiss him gently on the scarred shoulder before placing another kiss on his brow, then stroked his hair with gentle fingers that still smelled of herbs.
He knew no more until daylight woke him.
Over their usual breakfast of tea, bread and cheese, Cromwell recalled the essentials of the nightmare, far less frightening now in the light of day than when he’d been gripped in its clutches or freshly-awakened from its terror. It didn’t take a shrink to figure out why he’d had that particular dream, either. He’d been thinking about Tok’ra in it, just as he’d been doing in real life lately. And he’d dragged Jack to see Alien with him at the base cinema back in ’79, after Lisa opted out, saying that horror wasn’t really her thing, despite the film’s billing as sci-fi. Jack hadn’t wanted to see it, but he hadn’t been about to go by himself. That would be boring. Jack had finally agreed to go with him. “But you owe me,” he’d warned. Cromwell had wound up polishing Jack’s boots for two weeks afterward. “What a turkey of a film,” Jack remarked on the walk back.
Cromwell had pretended not to notice his friend’s reaction when the film’s titular alien burst from one character’s chest, just as he’d ignored an earlier grunt of discomfort when another had attached itself to the same character’s face. He’d been too busy reacting on both occasions himself to say much anyway. The idea of two grown men, especially trained Special Tactics operators, both flinching at the sight of a special-effects creature in a sci-fi movie was a bit over the top, but there it was.
The Goa’uld were no movie effect, though. They were real, as were the Tok’ra, and while Cromwell thought he’d finally managed to get past most of his discomfort with the latter and even begun to make friends with one or two, clearly there was still some portion of his psyche that hadn’t quite made the transition.
He felt guilty at the thought. Cadogan had become his closest friend here, and his symbiote Sabar was certainly a decent person — even if the colonel didn’t know him anywhere near as well as he knew Sabar’s host. He was aware that Sabar had gone out of his way to accommodate him and avoid causing him unnecessary discomfort during those first eight months of his sojourn here, and he’d begun to interact directly with Sabar at Cadogan’s personal request. No, the Tok’bel leader was definitely friendly, and so were Kaldin and the other Tok’bel of Cromwell’s acquaintance.
He didn’t like to think of himself as a man who had hang-ups, but the dream said otherwise. The colonel knew he would have to find a way to deal with that, and to get past them. From all appearances he was going to be stuck here, dealing with the Tok’bel on a regular basis, for what might be the rest of his life.
He looked up from his breakfast to find Tesni regarding him over the rim of her cup. “Is something on your mind, cariad?” she asked.
Cromwell shook his head. “Not really. Well, nothing you can help with, at any rate.”
“Are you certain? Considering last night…” She trailed off, watching his eyes. He’d had nightmares a handful of times since they’d begun sharing a bed, and Tesni assured him she understood that this was just part of his life, and the life of a lot of people who shared his career. Even Eogen had occasionally suffered nightmares, she’d told him, so she was not unaccustomed to dealing with the phenomenon.
“I’ve just been worrying about this big project that Sabar and Cadogan have cooked up, not to mention some smaller upcoming missions,” he explained, trying to convince himself that he spoke the truth. “I guess my mind couldn’t quite let go of it last night, that’s all.”
Tesni set down her cup and reached across the table to take his hand, twining her fingers with his. “I understand,” she said simply.
The colonel wished he did.