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"My thesis 'The Sentinel' is a fraud. While my paper does quote ancient source material, the documentation proving that James Ellison... actually possesses hyper-senses is fraudulent. Looking back, I can say that it's a good piece of fiction."
Why couldn't Jim have trusted him, believed that he hadn't sent his dissertation to Sid Graham? Why couldn't Jim have understood that since it had been sent to a publisher there was no way he could present the document now as a doctoral dissertation? That he would have had to do something on another topic to submit to Rainier? Sending the Sentinel manuscript to a publisher would have been totally counterproductive.
Whatever the theme of his dissertation, his mother's well-meaning interference - since dear old Sid hadn't listened to him and had been oh-so-effusive about the quality of Blair's writing and how much he wanted to publish it - had destroyed his chances of getting his PhD from it. A dissertation was meant to be submitted in the first instance to his doctoral committee, not a professional publisher, dammit!
But in a way Blair wasn't totally surprised by Jim's reaction. Their friendship had never quite recovered from the damage done to it by their encounter with Alex Barnes. Everything between them seemed fine... on the surface; but Blair, at least, knew that it was not. In a sense he had been treading a wary path between hoping that things would work out all right, and waiting for another accusation of betrayal. The wait had been quite nerve-wracking.
It was almost a relief when, despite his care, he had managed to slip off that narrow path... or might it be more accurate to say he had been pushed off it?
Of course, he should never have left Jim's name on the document. Unfortunately, he hadn't been able to think of any way to do that without compromising the documentation, because if - when - it had ever been submitted for publication, he would have needed to take his name off it too. Too many people knew that if Blair Sandburg was writing about a sentinel, riding along with a sentinel, that sentinel had to be Jim Ellison, no matter what name he put in the document.
So he had no choice but to deny it, claim he had faked the results.
The offer of a badge came as a surprise, and he gave serious thought to accepting it. Jim certainly seemed happy at the idea of having him as a 'permanent, official partner', but Blair was well aware that his claim of having 'faked his evidence' would follow him, make it very difficult for him ever to give evidence in court.
And then, two days after he destroyed his academic credibility, he received a not totally unexpected phone call, though the direction it took was unexpected.
When the phone rang, Jim, who was nearer it, answered - in any case he had been monitoring all their calls for those two days.
"Ellison... Who's speaking?... Hold on a moment." He put his hand over the mouthpiece. "Chief - you know a Daniel Jackson?"
"Is he likely to be... well, hostile?"
"No. In any case, he knows what it's like to be shafted by academia. Thanks." Jim handed the phone over to him. "Daniel?"
'Hi, Blair. I... I saw your press conference. You were protecting your sentinel, weren't you.' It wasn't a question.
Blair took a deep breath, knowing that Jim was listening, ready to snatch the phone back and snarl if he wasn't happy with what he heard.
"It wasn't even the diss I was going to submit to Rainier," Blair said.
'You think I wouldn't guess that? A doctoral dissertation, as presented, isn't the stuff a publisher like Berkshire is going to consider worth the cost of printing. What are you meaning to do now?'
"I've been offered a job with the police - "
'You sound doubtful.' Daniel's voice was very gentle.
"I'm not sure what would happen the first time I had to give evidence in court. In hindsight, I should have worded my little speech a bit differently. And if I stay here, working with Jim, people are going to start wondering... "
'Probably. Anyway, I'm in a position where I can offer you - and Jim - a job, and neither of you would have to worry about any repercussions that might arise from Jim being outed like that. It would mean reactivating his army commission - with a promotion - but you could remain a civilian just as I have.'
Blair glanced at Jim. "How much can you tell me about it?"
'Over the phone - nothing; most of what I do is classified, you know that. But it's a very valuable job and it would let you use the skills and training you have - both of you - and give you complete protection from any organization that might see your friend as a lab rat.'
That had always been one of his - and Jim's - biggest worries, and Blair could see a reluctant interest on Jim's face.
"It does sound... useful to us." He knew Daniel would be able to read between the lines of his comment.
'Be at Cascade Airport at 0900 tomorrow. I'll come for you myself so you know the transport that'll be laid on is legit. Ellison will still be covered by the non-disclosure document he signed years ago; you'll have to sign one before we can tell you anything... but Blair, I can assure you that what we're doing here doesn't go against any of our beliefs.'
"You don't need to tell me that. You'd have had to rebel pretty seriously before you got involved in anything too far removed from Naomi's teaching... and you were too grateful to her to become that much of a rebel."
'Okay. 0900 tomorrow, and come prepared to stay for two or three days.'
'Be good to see you again.'
"Yeah. It's been too long."
As Blair put the phone down, Jim said, "You trust this guy?"
"Who is he?"
"Dr. Daniel Jackson. He's my... third cousin, I think it is. My grandfather and his grandmother were first cousins. So that would make Naomi and Claire second cousins. Claire married an archaeologist, and when Daniel was about eight his parents were both killed in an accident while they were setting up an exhibition in a museum in New York."
"Tough," Jim said.
"By then our grandmothers were all dead," Blair continued. "His maternal grandfather was an archaeologist too, and Daniel knew him quite well - he'd have been the obvious person to take Daniel, who by then had been to several digs with his parents, and knew how they worked - but old man Ballard didn't want to know. Didn't want the responsibility - the tie. Naomi was out of the country when it happened, and Daniel had a couple of years in foster care before she came back to America and discovered where he was. She swept in, insisting that if his grandfather didn't want him, she - his cousin - did, and it would do both him and me - I was barely six at the time - good to grow up with a 'brother'."
He smiled a little ruefully and went on. "You think I'm smart? Rainier at sixteen, Masters before I was twenty? I'm totally intellectually challenged compared to Daniel. I know - at least well enough to get by - half a dozen languages. He knows about twenty - fluently. He chose to study archaeology, leaning towards specializing in ancient Egypt - which given that his parents were Egyptologists isn't surprising - with a minor in anthropology. When it was my turn to go to university, I decided to concentrate on anthropology, though we did cover some archaeology as well. And of course my interest was more Meso- and South American.
"I don't know all the details, but a few years ago he presented a paper that claimed the Pyramids were built by aliens - of course, Von Daniken's 'Chariots of the Gods' had come out a fair number of years earlier, and if it hadn't, Daniel's theories might have been taken more seriously. As it was, he was... well, laughed out of academia because of it. Not long after that, he dropped completely out of sight for the best part of a year, and when he surfaced again he'd taken a job as a civilian working with the Air Force. He lives in Colorado Springs, and works at the Cheyenne Mountain Complex. All he's ever said about his work is that it's classified, but I'd think at least part of what he does has to involve his knowledge of languages.
"Even if we decide against whatever he's offering, though, it's worth at least hearing what it is."
"If it's giving us some kind of protection from being grabbed and studied... yes," Jim said. "Definitely worth considering."
Because of his leg injury, Jim was still off work so he was free to make the trip to Colorado Springs without having to worry about getting time off at such short notice.
They decided to take a cab to the airport, since they didn't know how long they'd be away. 'Two or three days', Daniel had said, but knowing Daniel Blair had suggested they go prepared to stay for at least a week. Even so, they packed lightly.
Dropped off at the main entrance to the airport buildings, they headed inside, and had barely entered when - "Blair!"
Blair swung around, and the only reason he didn't drop his luggage was that it was slung securely over his shoulder. "Daniel!"
The two men hugged for a full minute before drawing apart to look at each other. "God, it's good to see you!" Daniel said.
Blair nodded. "And you. You're looking good."
"The result of clean living, cuz. You look tired, but that doesn't surprise me. Reporters been hassling you?"
"Not really - I was lucky, a minor political scandal surfaced locally the day after I gave that press conference, and the sharks mostly forgot about me - an unknown - and went after Councilman Barrett. In any case Jim was monitoring all the phone calls and discouraging the intrusive ones." He turned. "This is Jim. Jim Ellison - Daniel Jackson."
Daniel stuck his hand out. "Hi, Jim. Blair's told me a little about you - ex-army, now a cop - "
Jim shook the offered hand. "I'm afraid you have an advantage over me. Until your phone call yesterday, he hadn't mentioned you at all."
"That's Blair for you. Never says anything about himself or his family unless it's completely inconsequential." He glanced around, and an older man with greying hair stepped forward. "This is Jack O'Neill. Jack, my cousin Blair Sandburg - " Jack offered his hand and Blair shook it - "and his friend Jim Ellison." As Jim and Jack shook hands Daniel went on, "Jack's air force. I work with him. He insisted on coming with me - I think he had visions of me deciding to spend the day exploring Cascade with you instead of heading straight back."
He sounded as if he was joking, but Jack - Jim noted - didn't deny what Jim could only describe as 'an affectionate tease'.
When they reached the air force jet, Blair and Daniel settled down together, heads close as they talked. Jim and Jack looked at them, looked at each other, grinned and sat together.
"I understand you were Special Ops," Jack said.
Jim nodded. "Can't say much about it, though."
"Yeah. I understand from Blair that what you and Dr. Jackson do is also classified."
"I have to tell you - I'm not sure I want to re-up and go back into the kind of work I did back then. But I owe it to Blair to at least listen to what Daniel's offering."
"I can tell you this - what we do isn't remotely the same as anything you did in the army. A lot of it is exploratory, strange as that may seem. We work in teams, and every team includes at least one civilian - usually an archaeologist or anthropologist. As well as being in the initial exploratory team, Daniel is in charge of the civilian unit. He's been responsible for the hiring of a lot of them, and I know he's wanted Blair on board for a long time; but Blair had found his own... center of interest, and Daniel loves him too much to try to tempt him away from it."
Slightly uncomfortable with the way the conversation was going, Jim decided to change the subject. "Blair says Daniel speaks at least twenty languages?"
"Those are the ones he's fluent in. He can get by in at least twenty more, and he can pick up a new language, or a fairly obscure dialect of a language he knows, really fast. And that's a very useful ability."
Jim nodded. "Yes. When I was stuck in Peru, I sometimes met people from neighboring tribes, some of them very, very small tribes where everyone was related to everyone else, who didn't speak basic Quechua. Usually at least one of the tribesmen I was with could communicate with them but, especially in the early days when my Quechua was very limited, I sometimes wondered how much more I could have learned from them if I'd been able to speak directly to them."
"Communication is always a problem," Jack agreed. He grinned. "I assume you've met Naomi? No, silly question - of course you have, she was the one who sent Blair's dissertation to that publisher. Do you find it easy to communicate with her?"
"Not always," Jim admitted. "She still speaks the language of the hippie sixties, at least some of the time. Sometimes I suspected it was deliberate - she never could quite get past the cop thing."
"She can't really get past the air force thing either," Jack said, "but at least Daniel is just her cousin, even though she sort of brought him up. I can only imagine how much worse it was for Blair."
"She never seemed to realize... " Jim sighed. "It was always what she thought was best for Blair, never accepting that he was doing what he wanted to do. This last couple of days, I've been wondering... "
"If she had an ulterior motive in sending Blair's dissertation to her publisher friend?"
"Yeah - though as far as I know she didn't know what it was about. Blair doesn't think she knew - but I can't help but wonder... He trusted her, but that wasn't the first time she'd been left alone with his laptop, and he hadn't thought to password protect it, because he never took it out of the loft. So I wonder if that wasn't the first time she'd... well, broken into it, nosied into what he had on it. I suspect she hoped I'd react badly... and I did... but then Blair held that press conference and showed me what he'd do for me... I think Naomi realized then what a monumental mistake she'd made, but I wouldn't take any bets on it."
They fell silent as the plane sped on towards Colorado Springs.
If Jim felt somewhat nervous as the elevator took them to lower and lower levels in Cheyenne Mountain, none of his companions - not even Blair, who knew him so well - could be sure of it. Blair himself wasn't too happy as the elevator dropped lower and lower. When it finally stopped, Blair asked, "Just how many levels down are we?"
"You don't want to know," Daniel told him.
"Hey, it's heights I have a problem with," Blair protested weakly. Daniel didn't need to know that - although it wasn't actually a phobia - some three years previously he had developed a dislike of elevators too.
"Well, if you will fall out of trees," Daniel retorted.
"It wasn't my fault that branch was rotten."
"And we don't have any rotten branches down here," Daniel said.
"You sound as if you've both said all that before now," Jim said.
Blair grinned. "If not that, exactly, something like it. He accepts I'm afraid of heights, but doesn't quite understand it, so he teases me about it."
"We've fixed up a room for you along here," Daniel said. "You don't mind being together, I hope?"
"I think that we'll both be happier if we are," Blair told him.
Daniel led the way along a corridor, with Jack bringing up the rear, almost at Jim's side but half a pace behind. "There'll be a guard on your door," Jack said. "Nothing personal, it's routine while you're just visiting."
"I understand that," Jim said, his tone making it clear that he also understood the significance of Jack's position that half-pace to the rear... as well as the private who was following three or four yards behind them.
Daniel stopped at a door. "Here you are," he said. "General Hammond will see you as soon as he can, but it might be an hour or so. Get yourselves settled in, and Blair, I'll see you later."
The last thing Blair noticed as they went into the room was the private who had been following them taking up a position just outside the door.
In fact it was less than half an hour before there was a knock at the door; when Blair opened it, the private said, "I'm to take you to see General Hammond now, sir."
They followed him, Blair at least convinced within a very few seconds that if they did accept Daniel's job offer they would need a guide for the first two or three weeks if their remains, mummifying in the dry heat of the place, weren't to be discovered months later in some obscure corridor that led only to seldom accessed store rooms.
Finally their guide stopped at a door, knocked and opened it. They went in, and the private closed the door behind them.
There were four people waiting for them; Daniel, Jack, a woman, and an older man who had to be General Hammond.
Blair grinned cheerfully at them; beside him, Jim remained alert for a possible trap. Just because Blair trusted Daniel, just because he quite liked Jack, it didn't mean he could trust anyone else here.
Daniel said, "Hello again. This is General Hammond and Major Sam Carter. General, my cousin Blair Sandburg and ex-Ranger Captain Jim Ellison."
"Hello, gentlemen. Have a seat." He waited until they sat before continuing, "Captain, the non-disclosure statement you signed years ago still holds; you, Mr. Sandburg, as I'm sure Dr. Jackson has told you, will have to sign one."
Daniel pushed a paper and a pen over to Blair, who picked the paper up and read it. As he did, Daniel repeated what he had said earlier. "What we do here is top secret, but it doesn't go against the values Naomi taught us to respect and follow."
Blair finished reading, looked at Daniel who nodded reassuringly, picked up the pen and scrawled his signature. He pushed the paper back to Daniel, who passed it on to Hammond.
"Carry on, Doctor," Hammond said, but before Daniel could say anything a big dark-skinned man with an emblem - not a tattoo - attached somehow to his forehead entered the room through a different door. Almost instantly Jim stiffened, staring at the man suspiciously.
"This is Teal'c," Daniel said quietly. "He's the living proof of what I'm about to tell you. He's not from Earth - his native planet is called Chulak."
He swung into what Blair was to realize later was a 'Stargate for Dummies' explanation of what the Stargate was, what the people working on the Stargate project did.
Daniel looked at his cousin as he started speaking. "Part of what I was doing, Blair, that year I was completely out of touch, was learning what planets are in the Stargate system from the records held on one of those other planets. The Abydos cartouche proved invaluable for giving us the addresses for other planets in the system. It's like... you can only travel by train to stations served by the railway system, and you need to know which towns have stations.
"Our remit is to visit other planets, make contact with their inhabitants, establish friendly contact if we can. We - " he gestured around the table - "are the first contact team. If you accept the job offer, you'll be in one of the follow-up teams. The opportunity for anthropological study is tremendous, though obviously you can't publish anything just yet; but you can write papers and have them dated and stored against the day when knowledge of the Stargate is made public - which it will be, eventually. And while Jim's abilities would be of considerable value in first contact, they'd also be extremely valuable in the follow-up work."
Jim and Blair looked at each other, each knowing that the other was interested.
"I'll be honest, it's not totally safe. There's danger to Earth - indeed, to much of the galaxy - from an inimical race of parasites called Goa'uld. They look rather like snakes, but snakes with teeth. As juveniles, they're symbiotic," Daniel explained. "The juveniles can, and do, live... well, wild, in some places, but once they mature they force themselves on a host as parasites, lock onto the host's nervous system and take over the body.
"The Goa'uld raided Earth several thousand years ago and set themselves up as gods in Egypt; but they also kidnapped groups from other places on Earth, moved them to other planets and left them there as... well, colonists. Many of those 'colonies' are still living the way their forefathers did, hundreds - even thousands - of years ago.
"The whole purpose of 'seeding' planets with humans was so that they could 'harvest' them for hosts, always selecting young, strong, good-looking victims. They're still doing that in some places - as a host ages, the parasite abandons that body and takes over a new one. If he's unlucky, the host will live on for a while, racked by the memories of what the Goa'uld used his body to do. If he's lucky, he'll die quickly."
"If these Goa'uld look like snakes... how can they identify 'good-looking' in a human?" Blair asked.
Daniel looked at him for a moment in silence, as if the question had left him at a loss for words. "I suppose that at first they didn't, but they have access to their hosts' minds, so over time they'd begin to recognize what humans consider good-looking," he said, and swung back into his 'recruiting blurb'. "We're not sure just what an adult Goa'uld's lifespan is, but there's some evidence that at least some of the ones that were active in Egypt several thousand years ago are still alive today. And we know that mature Goa'uld will kill young ones before they can take a host, to prevent... well, competition. They don't want too many ambitious youngsters around.
"Sometimes the Goa'uld were active on a planet for a while, but then moved on and left it to its own devices, and you'd be surprised how much many of those tribes have forgotten - except that the gods might one day return through the chapa'ai - that's what pretty well everyone out there calls the Stargate. And just occasionally one of the System Lords does remember about a planet that's been ignored for several centuries, and pays it a visit. We've had a few run-ins with them."
There was a note in his voice that made Blair say, "Not all of them ended well?"
"Not all of them ended well," Daniel agreed. "We do have allies out there, though - there are one or two very advanced races in the galaxy. We've got a pretty good relationship with the Asgard, for example.
"Even for follow-up teams it can be dangerous. Wouldn't be the first time a follow-up team has run into difficulties because they weren't expecting trouble. You'll need to be armed - "
He was interrupted by the ringing of a cell phone.
Blair slapped his hand against his pocket, pulled out his phone and checked the caller display. "Sorry," he muttered, and looked at Jim before glancing at Hammond. "It's Simon - Jim's boss. I'd better answer."
Hammond nodded, and Blair raised the phone to his ear. "Sandburg."
'Thank goodness,' Simon said. 'You and Jim camping or something?'
"Or something. We're visiting my cousin. Is there a problem?"
'Yeah. I've just had a visit from a pretty high-ranking army officer, wanting to know where Jim is. He admitted he'd already been to the loft, only you weren't there. Sounded as if he didn't believe your press conference. I think... I think the pair of you would be better not coming back.'
"You're on your cell phone, of course?"
"One of us will call you back in a few minutes." He clicked the phone off, and looked at Hammond. "Daniel said that if we joined you, we'd be protected?"
"We answer directly to the President," Hammond said. "You work for us, it becomes treason for anyone to interfere with you."
"What's wrong?" Daniel asked.
"The army just turned up in Cascade looking for me - and that probably means for both of us," Jim said.
"They didn't believe the press conference either?" Daniel showed no surprise at Jim's tacit admission that he'd heard the Cascade end of the conversation.
"Looks that way," Jim said. "Coincidences do happen, but... "
Jim and Blair looked at each other for a moment again, then Blair nodded, and turned to Hammond. "You've got yourself a sentinel-guide pair, General. It's not just because of... " He waved the phone. "We were already very interested. This just gave us the final push to reach a decision quickly."
"We work for you, we're with the air force?" Jim asked.
"We're actually a combined unit, with personnel from all branches of the service, plus civilians," Hammond said, "but yes, you can tell your boss that you'll be with the air force."
"Can I say Cheyenne Mountain?"
Jim pulled out his own cell phone, and hit the speed dial for Simon. The call was answered on the first ring.
"Hi, Simon, it's Jim. If the army comes calling again, you can tell them that we've accepted a job with the air force, based in Cheyenne Mountain."
'Blair as well?'
'He said you were visiting his cousin... '
"Yes - his cousin works here." Jim could practically see Simon shaking hia head at that. "Simon, can I ask you to take charge of the loft? Get a removal firm to pack everything up, and find an estate agent to sell it. I'll contact you once we know where we'll be staying - "
'I think Rafe and Connor might be interested in buying it,' Simon said. 'They announced their engagement this morning.'
"Pass on our congratulations," Jim said. "Okay, if they're interested - get a valuation, and if they're happy with that, it's theirs.
"We'll be in touch later, but we're pretty tied up at the moment - "
'You are satisfied that you haven't jumped into the fire?'
"Yes. I can't tell you anything about the job - "
'If it's in Cheyenne Mountain, it's classified, right?'
"Right. But from what we've been told, it's a valuable job, and I'll be able to use my... talents openly. And Simon - thanks - from both of us." He hung up. He turned his attention back to Hammond. "Sorry about that, sir, but Simon - Captain Banks - has been a good friend and he was understandably concerned."
"He knew about your senses?" Hammond asked.
"Pretty well from the beginning," Jim admitted.
"One of the other detectives we worked with realized when we were on a case together, and maybe three others had an idea but didn't actually know for certain; for two or three reasons we gave the Chief of Police and the DA a modified admission, a couple of days ago, playing down the level of my abilities. My father knew. Apart from them... nobody. It was safer to keep it a secret."
"Brackett," Blair said.
"I'd forgotten about him," Jim muttered. "An ex-CIA agent. He's currently in Leavenworth for trying to steal a top-secret plane. It's possible he told the army that my sentinel abilities are genuine, hoping to get a reduction in his sentence."
"It doesn't necessarily work that way," Hammond said. "I know we're a covert group, but that's mainly because... Can you imagine the widespread panic there would be if the world knew about the Goa'uld? Thousands of years ago, people accepted what they could do as magic, and bowed obediently before the gods because they had no way of escaping; today, people almost everywhere at least know that technology exists; one look and they'd be screaming about weapons of mass destruction and rushing for the nearest car, train or plane to take them away from the invaders. Quite apart from direct casualties, millions would die in the panic."
Jack nodded his agreement. "Ideally we need to find some way to negate the Goa'uld threat permanently," he said, "but the advanced races of the Galaxy haven't been able to find any way to do that - "
"And one of those races is kin to the Goa'uld," Daniel added. "The Tokra share their hosts' bodies and from everything we've been able to discover from the one or two we know well, the symbiotic nature of the juvenile is totally retained, and the two work in harmony. With the Goa'uld, as soon as they hit adulthood they... well... "
"Develop delusions of grandeur?" Blair suggested.
"You could put it that way," Daniel agreed.
"Some of the covert agencies, though," Hammond said, "might promise your Brackett a beach front property on Venus if he spilled some beans, and then totally fail to make good on it - they'd leave him exactly where he is."
"If he's credulous enough to believe in a beach front property on Venus he deserves to be left exactly where he is," Blair muttered, knowing that only Jim would hear him, "but I do know what Hammond means." He was rewarded by a slight twitch of Jim's lips.
"You'll both need a short training period to establish your level of fitness as well as learn about the weapons we use," Hammond went on briskly with a quick glance at Blair. "Don't take this the wrong way, son, but... In Detective Ellison's case it's probably not necessary, but we've never found that the... er... well... "
"The geek squad," Jack said. "We've hardly ever found that the geeks are fit enough when they arrive, and in most cases they're not much use with guns either."
"Sandburg's fit enough," Jim said. "And he's lethal with things like vending machines, fire hoses and baseballs. Not sure about guns, though."
"Who needs guns when you've got a fire hose or a handy vending machine?" Blair asked.
"I don't think I've seen either on any of the planets we've visited." Somehow Daniel managed to keep his face straight.
"So we just make sure he has half a dozen baseballs in his pack," Jim said, even as he noticed Carter leaning towards Teal'c, who had a slightly bemused expression on his face, murmuring something, but out of politeness he chose not to listen.
"Seriously, though, Blair," Daniel went on, "you'll need to be armed, but we have an alternative to a gun. A zat just stuns - at least, one shot stuns. A second one kills - and if you're facing a Goa'uld or a Jaffa - those are the people who make up the Goa'ulds' armies - take that second shot. You wouldn't hesitate to kill... oh, a mosquito, would you? It's much the same thing, even though it looks like a person. The host would beg you to give him that mercy, if he could. And the Jaffa would mostly do anything their 'god' orders them to."
"That sounds like a weapon that'd be very useful for the cops," Blair said. "How long between shots before the second shot counts as just a stun?"
"We've never had much reason to find out," Carter, having finished whatever she had been explaining to Teal'c, commented.
"If they are still unconscious when they are hit again, they will die," Teal'c said. "If they have regained consciousness, they will simply be stunned again."
Blair nodded. "Makes sense," he muttered.
"But even if a zat is your weapon of choice, you still need to be trained in the use of conventional weapons," Hammond said.
Blair sighed, knowing that if he had decided to go to the Academy, he would have been in exactly the same position, but without the alternative of a weapon that merely stunned.
Their training period was actually quite short. In Jim's case it was a complete formality, as everyone had known it would be. In Blair's case, it proved to be more of a formality than even Jim had expected. He had known that Blair was fit. He had known that Blair's aim - when he threw something - was totally accurate. He hadn't realized that Blair's aim with a gun was as good as it turned out to be. Even Daniel expressed some surprise at Blair's accuracy with a gun.
Blair grinned. "Daniel, I never said I didn't know how to shoot," he said. "All of your expeditions were to Egypt, where the most dangerous animal you were likely to encounter was a scorpion - and no, I'm not minimizing the danger from them, but it's not practical to try to shoot one. Some of the expeditions I was on - you're talking wilderness, not quite uncharted jungle, but close to it. There are often dangerous animals, and I'm not talking about the obvious predators. A wild pig can be lethal."
"A pig?" Jack said.
Jim nodded. "Blair's right - when I was with the Chopek, I saw a hunter injured by a wild pig. The rest of us managed to kill it before Chimalli was hurt too badly, but there was no way that animal was anything but completely aggressive."
"So I learned how to shoot straight as defense against... " Blair grinned suddenly, and glanced at Jim. "Against the pigs." He was well aware of Jim's silent groan, and knew from Daniel's matching grin that his cousin had recognized the reference, though it was obvious that all the others had taken the comment at face value.
New personnel were temporarily attached to a team to give them experience before getting their permanent position, but never more than one per team. But because of what they were, Jim and Blair had to be assigned together. And whatever team they were assigned to would have to be told exactly why Ellison and Sandburg had to be together... and while it wasn't necessary to keep Ellison's abilities secret, it was something that was probably best left at 'need to know'.
Hammond thought about it for several minutes, before deciding to assign the two to SG1. It made sense - the members of SG1 already knew about Ellison's abilities, and O'Neill was a man who didn't take long to assess just how good someone would be in the field; though Hammond had no doubt that Ellison, as an ex-army ranger, was good. He was a little less sure about Sandburg, although Ellison seemed confident enough of him. And while Jackson also seemed confident that Sandburg could do whatever was asked of him, Hammond wasn't about to forget that the two were cousins. It was unlikely, but Jackson could be seeing what he wanted to see.
The five men and one woman gathered in the gateroom several minutes ahead of their scheduled departure time; even Daniel, who normally arrived at pretty well the last minute, was there well ahead of time, escorting the two new men.
While they waited, Jim and Blair stood close together, Blair murmuring something too quietly for the others to hear.
"Remember to keep everything dialed down to normal, or even a little below normal," he was saying. "Nothing about the wormhole is natural. Even Teal'c said it feels weird at first, though you do get used to it. But people have reacted badly on their first few trips through it. You don't want to arrive feeling disoriented or nauseated."
Jim nodded as Jack said, "Right, then, campers, let's go!"
Sam and Teal'c went first; Jack indicated that Jim and Blair should follow them, and he and Daniel brought up the rear.
As they arrived at the other end of the wormhole, Blair was wishing that he could dial down his senses; he swallowed and took a deep breath of air that somehow didn't smell quite right, before glancing as Jim.
Jim seemed to have come through the experience without any great problem. "Okay?" Blair murmured.
"Yeah, but I'm glad I had everything dialed down," Jim replied.
Blair took another deep breath, trying to identify just what the air smelled like. None of the seasoned members of the team made any comment; it was Jim who said, "Problem, Chief?"
"The air... it doesn't smell the same... "
"You've been on expeditions to jungle regions - does the air smell the same there as it does in Cascade?"
"Of course!" Blair said. "It's *fresh* air, not tainted with the smell of gas... "
"All planets smell slightly different anyway," Daniel said. "Something to do with the different plants growing on them, different levels of trace elements in the soil... It's nothing to worry about."
"Okay," Blair said. "Now what?"
"There's the ruins of a settlement a mile or so that way - " Daniel glanced at the Stargate to orient himself, and gestured towards the left. "It seems to have been pretty standard practice to have people living close to the Stargate so that visitors could be checked out, provided with an escort if necessary. If there are no longer people living nearby - and I don't see any paths - either the planet hasn't been visited by the Goa'uld for quite some time, the people were moved elsewhere, or else they've just died out."
"Died out?" Blair asked.
"Disease, famine... These were never large communities to start with, so there would inevitably have been inbreeding; and some kinds of congenital weakness... well, inside a few generations there mightn't be enough healthy adults for the colony to survive.
"But we've sometimes found valuable info in towns on deserted planets, so it's still worth checking the place."
"Right, you two," Jack said. "Stay with Daniel - "
"Isn't that a waste of Jim's abilities?" Blair asked mildly.
Jack looked at him. "Right," he said. "I forgot about that. All right, Ellison - what can you tell us?"
Blair reached out and laid his hand on Jim's shoulder. Jim concentrated for a minute, then relaxed. "I can't detect any sign of people, or even animals of any size. I'd say it's totally safe."
"Then let's head off."
The woodland surrounding the Stargate was very open, and they set off at a fairly brisk pace, Teal'c dropping slightly behind, despite Jim's assurance that it was safe, to guard their rear.
The settlement - if it could even be dignified with the name because it looked more like a fairly large farm - was indeed a ruin.
It consisted of only three or four one-story buildings which were - or had been - solidly constructed out of stone. They had undoubtedly been built to last, but time and weather had combined with neglect to leave all but one with collapsing walls and roofs. If there had ever been more buildings, time had totally destroyed them.
The party paused on the edge of the 'village', studying it. Finally Daniel said, "The ruined ones were abandoned first, as people died or moved away, while the one in the center was probably still occupied for quite some time." It was quite a big building, the only one that was still completely intact.
"But... " Blair said.
"But?" Jack asked.
Blair moved a few yards away from the others, to look at the buildings from a slightly different angle. "The big building looks as if it was built - or more likely reinforced - for defense; a lot of the windows are blocked. I don't think it was occupied, in this form, for more than a few years - relatively speaking - after the other ones were abandoned. I'm wondering if something attacked the place, and the people all moved into the central house, maybe because it could be better defended. Maybe even robbed out part of the other houses to get the material to block the windows."
"If this place was seeded by the Goa'uld, the people might have been afraid of them, but they wouldn't have tried to defend themselves against their gods," Daniel said.
"You said yourself that sometimes the Goa'uld forgot about a planet," Blair replied. "Maybe they forgot this one, and this was an enemy that arrived... later. I was going to say unexpectedly, but the people had time to build defenses."
"Or maybe the weather changed, and the defense was against really bad weather?" Sam suggested.
"I'd guess the weather was never all that good," Jim said. "When wood is plentiful, people don't go to the effort to build in stone unless the weather - at least in the winter - is pretty foul."
Daniel nodded his agreement. "Wattle and daub, mud bricks or their equivalent, were the regular building materials for most of the general population in most of the groups that were taken from Earth. Even though the trees are fairly sparse, it's possible they cleared a wide strip around where they planned to build for farming, and that wood would have been available to them for building."
"And thatched roofs," Blair added. "Splitting stone for tiles - far too labor intensive if there's a simpler alternative. And the ground is pretty flat. How far would they have had to go to get stone?"
"Well, they obviously felt it was worth it. Now let's see what's inside it," Jack said. He strode over to the door, and tried to open it. It wouldn't move. "Seems to be wedged closed," he muttered. "Teal'c - "
He stepped back, and Teal'c moved forwards a little, raised his staff weapon and fired it at the door.
Blair looked at the resulting hole. "Thorough," he said.
Jack moved forward, Jim and Teal'c close behind him. Blair glanced at Daniel, shrugged, and then, with Sam close behind them, they followed the others.
They found themselves in a small room. The daylight coming in from the doorway was sufficient to show two doors leading from it. Jack moved forward again and tried one of them; it opened to reveal another small room. Inside, they could just make out a table with a bench on each side.
"I'd guess the room here was some kind of guardroom," Jim said. "There would be one, maybe two, sentries. The rest of their squad would be in there, as backup in case of trouble." Jack nodded his agreement.
As Jack closed the door, Jim moved to the other one. It opened onto what appeared to be a corridor running the length of the building, but the light from the doorway wasn't enough to show more than a few yards of it. Blair reached into his pack and took out a small flashlight that, when he switched it on, proved to be more powerful than its size suggested. He shone it down the corridor.
It was typical of any corridor anywhere; several doors on each side, and at its end, one more door.
The first two doors on each side opened onto small, empty rooms; they carried on down the corridor. The third door on the left opened into a relatively large room... full of skeletons, many of them partly covered by the remains of clothing.
"Ssss..." Jack couldn't prevent his hiss of surprise. "Now this is odd. They can't have been prisoners - not with the door unlocked."
As Daniel moved forward, Blair at his heels, he said, "I think they were hiding in here, just waiting to die."
"Ya think?" Jack asked.
"Look at the way they're lying," Blair said. He indicated a group of three, one noticeably smaller than the other two. "Look at them. They've got their arms around each other. I'd guess this was a husband and wife and their kid - as if they were trying to comfort each other. And there, and there, and there - " He indicated other groups. "They fastened the outside door, so I'd guess there was something out there they were terrified of, then they just gathered in here in family groups and waited, knowing they were going to starve to death. Probably some of the other rooms are the same."
"But... " Sam began.
"I think Blair's right," Daniel said. "They weren't afraid of dying, but there was something outside they didn't want to face."
"It is unlikely to have been the Goa'uld," Teal'c said, echoing Daniel's earlier comment. "They may have feared their gods, but they would know that when they visited, the 'gods' would select a few of their number to take away, then leave the rest of the population unharmed. Those left would know that the 'gods' would not return for possibly another generation."
"Then what?" Jim asked. "I couldn't detect any large animals - "
"How would you know?" Jack asked.
"Heartbeats," Jim said. "I'm aware of the sound of heartbeats, usually just as a dull background noise unless I concentrate. The bigger the animal, the slower the heartbeat. We've never been able to establish my exact range, but here, with no other sounds getting in the way, I'd say that there's nothing bigger than a rabbit for at least half a mile in all directions."
"You can hear that far?" Sam gasped.
"No traffic noise, anything like that," Blair said. "No people other than us. Back home, Jim has to concentrate hard to hear easily further than... oh, maybe a hundred, hundred and fifty yards. Normally, he has to be careful not to concentrate that hard. Think about it - you're standing waiting to cross the road, there's steady traffic noise - and then suddenly someone thinks another driver has cut him off, blasts his horn - "
"Completely deafens him?" Daniel asked.
"Yes. Heightened senses are a great help - sometimes. Other times they're a terrible disadvantage. It took me a while to realize that," Blair added softly.
"And once you did? Those dials were a great idea," Jim said.
Blair flushed a little; almost embarrassed by Jim's open admission. "Thanks," he muttered.
They left that room and tried the next. It was the same; skeletons gathered in small groups, in positions that suggested comforting hugs.
"They gave up," Daniel murmured. "What would make them give up, and just wait like that to die?"
"Not weather," Blair said. "They wouldn't have needed to secure the outside door against weather."
"It's possible there were big animals here at one time," Jim suggested, "but they've either died out or moved away."
They carried on checking the building, finding two more rooms containing skeletons. The rest of the rooms were completely empty.
"Well, there's nothing here," Jack said as they went back towards the doorway. "Nothing worth salvaging - and I'm not sure there's anything you could use either, Danny."
Daniel sighed. "I think you're right," he said, and glanced at Blair. "Sorry," he went on. "I'd hoped that this first planet would give you a better idea of what we do."
"Negative results are still results," Blair said.
They went back to the outside door, looked around the ruins one last time and started off in the direction of the Stargate.
Although there didn't seem to be any great reason to hurry, the group walked briskly, all anxious to leave the mystery of this world as quickly as possible. They had covered roughly half of the distance when Jim raised his head sharply and swung around to look back the way they had come - but also up towards the sky.
"Take shelter!" he yelled. "Get close to a tree - now!" He grabbed Blair's arm and began running for the nearest tree. The others - used to sudden danger - reacted immediately, also heading for nearby trees, although none of them were sure why Jim had called the warning.
And then they saw it - plunging out of the sky, wings swept backwards, claws reaching forwards, was a massive bird. There was no doubting that this was a major predator.
With its potential prey sheltering, it opened its wings to swoop upwards again. Teal'c swung his staff weapon up, and fired. The bird crashed to the ground.
They moved cautiously towards it. "Wow!" Blair said.
The curved beak, over a foot in length, was well designed to tear meat from a carcass. The talons were almost as long. Any animal they grasped would die very quickly.
"I think we know now what the natives were hiding from," Jim said. "Death from starvation was probably better than becoming prey for those things."
"But why would the Goa'uld plant a colony on a world with a predator like this?" Sam wondered.
"Stargate," Jack said firmly. "Now. We can discuss this once we're safe. Jim, you heard this thing coming?"
"Keep listening. Where there's one, there are bound to be others."
They set off again at a steady jog.
The Stargate stood in a fairly large clearing, the DHD, as usual, a few yards from it. As they reached it, Jack said, "Anything?"
"I think there's another one coming, but it's still a fair distance away."
"Teal'c - "
The big Jaffa nodded, standing ready with his staff weapon. Sam moved forward and punched in the chevrons to take them home.
As the event horizon steadied, Jim said urgently, "It's coming - starting to dive... "
"Move!" Jack snapped.
The six bundled through the gate. Teal'c remained standing on guard until the others were through, then stepped quickly through himself as the bird swooped down, barely missing him.
Back in the gateroom, Hammond met the returning travelers.
"That didn't take you long," he said.
"There was nothing there except a lot of bodies," Jack said, "and some oversized budgies."
"I see. Debriefing in half an hour," Hammond told them.
Teal'c headed for his quarters, while the remaining five went to the mess for a quick coffee to fill the time before the debriefing - in any case, all felt the need for some kind of pick-me-up, and caffeine fitted the bill nicely. Although they spoke only of inconsequentials, all were thinking about the puzzle of P9X-173.
"All right," Hammond said as he looked from one to the other of the group sitting around the table. "Report."
"Like I said," Jack replied. "Bodies and - "
"We went to the settlement detected by the MALP," Daniel interrupted. "It was a ruin, though there was one building still intact. Inside it we found a lot of skeletons - how many would you say, Blair? Three hundred?"
"Mmm... I'd have said over three hundred," Blair said, "but possibly not as many as four."
"The way they were lying, it appeared that the people had gathered in the building and just waited to die. There was nothing to indicate why, but when we were on our way back to the Stargate we were attacked by a very big bird of prey. Teal'c killed it and we carried on; just as we were leaving the planet we were attacked by another one."
"When you say 'very big' - ?" Hammond asked.
"It was big enough to have carried any one of us away," Sam said. "There's supposed to be a limit on how big birds can be and still fly; this was far, far bigger than the biggest flying bird you'd find on Earth. Think eagle multiplied by about ten."
"And the birds were probably why the natives shut themselves into a building and just waited to die," Daniel finished. "They'd probably lost a few of their number to the birds, knew there was no way they could defend themselves, and chose the more peaceful death of starvation."
"Though thirst would have taken them much quicker," Blair said.
"But the buildings were of stone," Jack said. "Somehow they'd managed to build stone houses - "
"If a System Lord, or even a minor Goa'uld, had lived there, he would have had the stone buildings constructed for himself and his Jaffa, while his subjects lived in wooden huts," Teal'c said. "He would not have cared how difficult it was to collect stone to build his palace and the outlying buildings for his army of Jaffa. His slaves would have lived in rough wood-built huts. After he left - probably some years after he left - they probably risked moving into the houses built for the Jaffa."
"Then what happened to the Goa'uld and his Jaffa? You proved that a staff weapon could kill one of those things - "
"There are several possibilities," Teal'c said. "First, the Goa'uld discovered that the planet had too few resources to exploit, and his Jaffa were having to devote too much time to defending the people from attack, and abandoned it. Second, the Goa'uld was himself attacked by one more powerful and defeated, but the planet, with few resources and a small population of humans, held nothing that the victor wanted, and so he ignored it. Without the protection of their god, the people then had no defense against the birds. Third, punishment. If a community - or even a handful of the people in it - displeased their 'god', he would find some way to punish them all. In many cases that meant killing, not only the ones considered to be troublemakers, but also their entire families, and sometimes some unrelated individuals as well. Some Goa'uld were quite... imaginative in how they went about that. This world could have been used by one of those.
"Possibly the birds were not native to the planet; the people had for some reason angered the Goa'uld, and to punish them he had some of the birds taken there, whichever world they originally came from, then he and his Jaffa left. For a few years, until the numbers of the birds multiplied, there would be no real problem for the people, but once they did... And the people would know it was possible to pass through the chapa'ai, but they would not have known how to operate it; an additional punishment in the form of mental torture - knowing there was a way to escape, but one they were unable to use."
"Well, okay, but we've never come across a world with anything like those birds," Jack said.
"There are many worlds that do not have a chapa'ai, and can only be visited by ships," Teal'c said.
"That makes sense," Blair said. "Big predators need relatively large prey, and Jim said there weren't any big animals on P-whatever, at least where we were. Of course the birds'd go for man as the biggest prey around. And birds of prey have fantastic eyesight. They probably spotted us from miles away, and thought 'Yippee!' A nice juicy man would make a big change from constantly hunting small prey."
"All that is speculation," Hammond said. He looked at Jack. "Your conclusions?"
"I'd say we lock this planet out of the system. There didn't seem to be any resources in the immediate vicinity of the Stargate that we could use, and the birds mean it's not a good idea to make further exploration by any follow-up teams."
Hammond nodded acceptance of Jack's opinion.
As Jim and Blair got ready for bed that night, Blair asked, "Think we made the right choice?"
"I don't think there was any other choice we could have made," Jim replied. "But I'm quite glad we'll be in a follow-up team once our training period with SG1 is over. I know you'll probably worry a bit about Daniel - "
"Yeah, I will," Blair agreed. "I didn't realize, when they were telling us about things, just how dangerous it could be, especially for the first contact team. I know now."
"Yes," Jim agreed. "It could be dangerous - but it certainly won't be boring."