Chapter 10

Twenty-five minutes later, Jack joined Carter in the gazebo, a McDonald's carry-out bag in his good hand. The Colorado weather was warm enough without being too hot or too cold to be uncomfortable, and cumulus clouds chased their way across blue skies as Jack approached Carter. “I got two double cheeseburger meals, with fries, apple pies, drinks... you name it, I got it.”

Carter immediately rifled through the bag, pulling out a hamburger and French fries. She didn't even bother to set the fries on the table before shoving three into her mouth. After practically swallowing without chewing, she commented, “Too bad Jonas isn't here anymore. He loved fries.”

Jack was momentarily surprised by her willingness to talk about such classified subjects, but didn't have the heart to call her on it. “Yeah, that man was a coronary waiting to happen.”

Carter giggled. “One thing he liked about this place was the food.”

Jack enthusiastically added, “And he really liked the food!”

Carter laughed again.

Jack couldn't stop himself from saying, “It's good to hear you laugh. I thought you'd forgotten how to do it.”

Surprisingly, Carter scowled. “You're one to talk, Mr. grumpy General.”

Jack wondered, That's what they called me? Aloud, he said, “I'm retired, Carter, remember? I'm hardly a General anymore, grumpy or not.”

Carter's head shot up when she was still in mid bite. “You retired?” she yelped.

“Oh,” Jack said, finally fully remembering everything about that scene in her room. “Yeah, I didn't have the chance to tell you - if I recall, you were too busy yelling at me.”

Instead of growing immediately defensive, as Jack predicted she would, Carter just shrugged her shoulders. “Can you blame me for not wanting to get the sedation treatment again?”

Her rhetorical question prompted a second inquiry from Jack. “What else about this place are you avoiding?”

Sam sat in her wheelchair, unmoving, not even eating, but thinking. “I'll tell you, but it'll take awhile. How long do we have?”

It was a question that made Jack laugh this time. He reached for one of her fries, but she gave his hand a playful slap, saying, “You've got your own - these are mine.”

Jack quickly withdrew his hand, but was secretly thrilled to see Carter eating with such gusto. Of course, that gusto was a message informing him how hungry she really was. “Wow - I don't think even Jonas was this excited about food.”

Carter just gave a sardonic snort. “We didn't starve him 'for his own good,' either.”

Jack's forehead wrinkled. “They're starving you?” he asked incredulously.

Sam had to concede, “Well, not starving me... at least, not on purpose... I don't think.” She sighed, unhappy again. “I could really do with some plain old fruit, though, something that isn't from the local McDonald's.”

Jack balked. “Fruit? You?!”

The astonished expression on his face made Sam grin once more. “Yeah, hard to believe this is the same Carter, isn't it?” She sat back in her chair, toying with her hamburger. “Remember how I always got so caught up in whatever I was doing in my lab that I forgot to eat?”

Jack gave a nostalgic grin as well. “I was always worried that you would waste away someday, and disappear. The doc would've had a hard time granting an invisible person leave to go on a mission.”

Carter snorted again, but it was a happier sound. “I wasn't the invisible one - that was you.” Her brow puckered in thought. “Didn't Teal'c tell me something about you drinking all the coffee in the Commissary that time you were invisible just to piss Daniel off?”

Jack hesitated. “Could be,” he evasively replied, not wanting to be thought to have a coffee addiction that equaled Daniel's - he was sure he wouldn't be able to stand the resulting teasing.

She was the one to smile a nostalgic smile this time. “I sure miss Teal'c.”

“Daniel told me that he's out recruiting for the Free...” His voice trailed off.

“I'll just say it so you don't have to,” she suggested. “The Free Jaffa.” She quickly glanced over her shoulder, then looked almost disappointed that no one was close by. “Crap - there's nobody around to hear me.” She turned back to him and grinned. “If by some chance we ever are overheard, I can just say that I'm babbling my crazy talk again.”

Jack sighed, aggravated. “Carter, you're not crazy.”

Her laugh was dry. “Tell that to the goons in here.”

Jack plunked his hamburger down in defeat. “How the hell did you end up in a place like this?”

Carter's second laugh was even dryer yet, mixed with biting sarcasm. “The Dork would know all about that.”

She was referring to Pete, of course. Jack's eyes narrowed. “The Dork - you called him that the time a few weeks ago that SG-13 was here, visiting.”

Carter's eyes narrowed in suspicion. “When were you here with SG-13?”

Jack squirmed, uncomfortable under her suddenly piercing gaze. “Thaaaaaat's a long story.” He took another bite of his burger so that he wouldn't have to tell her anything more.

“Jack O'Neill!” Carter quickly expostulated, slapping her hamburger down in disgust. “If you think that keeping things from me will..!”

“Quick to get mad, aren't you?” Jack teased.

As a way of reply, Carter huffily released the brakes on her wheelchair. “Thanks for the food. Goodbye.”

He hadn't meant to tease her to the point that she would leave him! Jack's heart was in his throat as his right hand shot out to stop her. “Sam, Sam, wait.” He was so flabbergasted that he hadn't even noticed that he'd called her 'Sam.' Why had she flown off the handle that way so easily? The Carter he knew was never this touchy!

When she halted long enough to hear him out, he said,"Eat.” His order was only marginally more steady than his earlier speech. “I don't think I can handle the added guilt of you wasting away from lack of food to the guilt I already have about you being in here, so... your burger's getting cold.”

As reasons to keep her in the gazebo, 'your burger's getting cold' was as lame as lame could get. But that wasn't what was causing the pucker of confusion to mar her forehead. “You feel guilty?” she asked in blatant disbelief. “About me? Why?

God... Why had he mentioned that guilt thing? It had seemed like a good idea at the time. Actually, he'd just said what he thought would keep her there - it wasn't like he had planned on revealing anything of a personal nature.

Jack stared at the puzzlement etching her face, and sighed his defeat. He'd always been such a sucker for that particular expression of hers. It was so cute to see a bamboozled Samantha Carter.

But remaining silent was obviously not doing her any good, either. For one of the few times in his life, Jack did his best to purposely open up. “I've been thinking... about that Ba'al thing of yours... and the clone.”

But this did nothing to enlighten her. “What about the clone?”

Jack tried to buy himself some time by hesitating, but his hesitancy did more to make him look stupid. “Ba'al must have...” He started again. “The way she...” His voice trailed off, prompting Carter to give him a nudge. “Ba'al used some kind of memory recall thing on you, didn't he?” he half asked, half accused. “And then he 'gave' your memories to the clone.”

“Um... yeah... sort of.” She looked surprised that he unquestioningly bought her clone story, as well as was able to predict that use of a memory recall device on her. She clearly wasn't used to being so quickly believed.

“It doesn't matter what he used,” Jack gruffly decreed after another pensive moment. “I kind of thought that... when I thought about it... I mean, she... the clone...” This wasn't going so well. Jack decided he would just have to bite the bullet and tell her exactly what he thought about the scene he had spent months trying to erase from his memory. “She was just so empty when we were at the bottom of the ramp.” His gaze met hers for a knowing look that said everything that wasn't being spoken aloud. “Later I realized that her emptiness - it just... isn't like you.”

He paused in his stumbling vocalization to grunt a few breaths of air. Carter was listening with a rapt look on her face, as if she didn't want to miss a single word now that he'd decided to speak.

“You... think... you know me... that well?” she inquired at last, as if astonished that anyone would even contemplate the ins and outs of Samantha Carter, let alone actually doing it.

Jack thoughtfully said, “It was like...” His voice trailed off as his fear suddenly grew in leaps and bounds. Telling her about such an emotional thing as he was thinking of voicing would undoubtedly go a long way in promoting his cause with her. But such intensity as hers was unnerving. Jack didn't want to disappoint her by not disclosing the 'correct' thing... not realizing that he would have said the correct thing anyway if he would just let himself relax and do it. But then, he couldn't relax, because he also felt like the pressure to be open and honest had just doubled.

He ended up just repeating what he'd already said. “It was like...”

Jack again found himself struggling to choose how to put words to what was a very emotional event for him. But he absolutely could not back out now. He owed her. “Um...” He looked down, as if the words he was looking for had been inscribed on the sidewalk. Carter was patiently waiting for him to go on, but like Hammond, even her prodigious amount of patience had its limits. It would have to be now or never. “She seemed like... what we had... that thing...” He waved his good hand in the air between them to indicate the connection he had shared with her without actually voicing anything specific. “It was like...” How had it seemed then? “She wasn't even hiding something...”

Jack heaved a sigh at the same time Carter did. He felt her irritation with him for not being able to deal with his emotions grow in leaps and bounds. Spurred on, he honestly blurted, “It was like it didn't even exist.” He glanced at her, and when she winced, as if she had decided that she didn't blame him for thinking that it had disappeared by that point in time, clarified himself. “Like it had never existed.”

Her guilty expression spurred him to go on, no matter how jittery the thought of continuing made him feel. “I'd always... gotten the impression... that...” Jack winced. “It was buried... but not gone... at least, not for me,” he hurried to correct. He wasn't going to comment on the feelings for her that lay at the back of all these proceedings, and certainly hoped that she wasn't going to say anything about it, either. He didn't know how he would answer such a confession if she said anything after all this time. It would just be better if she didn't say anything at all.

So that she wouldn't have a chance to comment, he simply rushed on. “It was almost as if she... it... didn't know...” He sighed a big gulp of air. “As if Ba'al had been picky... giving her the memories that would be sure to...”

Sam interrupted him at last in a dead voice that finished his comment, “He chose the memories that would be sure to hurt you the most.” She had said something specific, but hadn't said anything specific at all. It was Jack's favorite kind of answer - the non-answer.

Sam simply continued eating her cold hamburger in a defeated silence. At last, between bites of burger and fries, she whispered, “And you're right about the memory device thing.”

Jack carefully replied, “I thought so.”

She went on now that she had gotten started. “You're also right about him handpicking the memories he included, though he saw everything.” A deep grimace etched itself onto her face. “I tried to stop those thoughts...” Her face now twisted up even more to indicate the futility of hiding the unpleasantness of that particular memory. “But it didn't work. It wasn't long before he knew everything.” Again she was alluding to the issues between them without actually saying anything about them. At least she understood where he was coming from in not wanting to vocalize things. But again, he didn't know if that was a good thing or not.

Carter broke into Jack's pondering. “And when he programmed the clone, he made sure that I watched everything he did. So I would know... what...” She couldn't go on, and lapsed into silence, not staring at him, not eating, just sitting with her eyes closed, as if she wished she could shut out her memories just as easily.

But Jack had enough personal experience with trying to ignore unpleasant memories to know that any further attempts on her part were sure to lead only to complete agony. Jack went back to his burger in order to distract her, but just as he was about to take a bite, muttered, “Sadistic son of a...”

Carter interrupted his mumbling to confess something more. “That's not all. I'm pretty sure...” She once more trailed off, and gazed unseeingly at the fries in her hand. She remained silent as if knowing that putting words to what had happened to her would somehow make it more real.

What she blurted still came as a total surprise to him. “I should have said something to you before the mission... something about breaking up with Pete right before we left.”

Jack's forehead wrinkled. “Said something? What do you mean?” He shrugged his right shoulder. “There was nothing you could have...”

“If only I hadn't kept everything so quiet,” she insisted once more, and contemptuously tossed her fries back into their box. “At least you would have known that she was an 'it,' and not felt like you had to...” She ground her teeth, the sound echoing around the gazebo. “I could have saved so much heartache.”

But Jack was not as quick as she was to condemn her decisions. “I still say there wasn't anything you could have...”

“I'm always so damned sure not to say anything.” Her anger was evident in the sparkle in her eyes. “All I would have had to do was mention one tiny thing to you before we left.” Her self-loathing had almost consumed her by now. “In the end, I brought you more...”

Jack didn't let her go on. “You did what you felt that you had to do, Carter,” he harshly reminded her, already realizing that she was referring to the hurt he'd always tried to hide, surprised that she'd even been aware of him at all during and after her engagement, but not wanting to hear about it. Hearing it made it as real as her leg, and as harmful. “Neither of us talk much about what's going on in our personal lives,” he at last conceded, fascinated by his burger. “You can't expect me to hold you accountable for something that I would have done too if I'd been in the same position.”

Now Carter did meet his gaze, her own piercing through him like bullets. “That doesn't mean that what I did was right.”

Jack pointed out, “What I did wasn't necessarily right, either.” He uncomfortably squirmed in his chair, uneasy about admitting any of this. Emotions tended to scramble his brains - he always came out of conversations about emotions feeling like an idiot.

Still, he owed her... a lot. More than he could ever repay, really. So he tried to subvert his natural instincts to shut up and run like hell. “Hammond told me that I was running away, and he was right.”

Carter paused, somehow knowing that his whisper indicated how hard this was for him to admit to, but couldn't stop herself from arguing, “You were acting out of self-preservation. I don't see how you could have done anything else any more than I could.”

Jack heaved a self-flagellating sigh and ran his fingers down his face. “No, he was right. I should have stayed no matter how upset I was. I could tell that something wasn't right. A good commander...”

“You weren't being a commander then, Jack,” Carter reminded in a harsh voice. “You were being human... I made sure of that.”

But Jack disagreed. “No, 'it' made sure of that. 'It' said what it said. 'It' made a total hash out of both our lives. 'It' was old Ba'al at his best.” Like she had earlier, he ground his teeth in frustration. “What I wouldn't do to take his damned clones and shove them down his..!” But his anger was with that hated System Lord, not Carter. He made sure that she knew that by looking her in the eye.

“Have you seen Daniel?” she asked next.

Jack was confused at the sudden change of topic. “Huh?”

“Daniel,” she patiently repeated. “Have you seen him lately?”

What did Daniel have to do with Ba'al or his clones? “Um...” Jack tried to figure out where she was going with this, but had to admit defeat. “I just spoke to him on the...”

Carter was adamant. “But did you see him?”

“Uh... no.” Jack quizzically stared at her. “Isn't he just on another one of his translation kicks?”

Carter didn't immediately respond. She looked lost herself as she at last mumbled, “That's the way it looks.” She didn't elaborate, and again Jack's forehead swooped into a frown.

“What are you getting at, Carter?” he eventually asked when she said no more. “That Daniel's a clone this time?” His snort told her what he thought of that possibility.

Her blue eyes unflinchingly met his brown. “Why not?” she challenged.

This was ridiculous. First she was going on about how she should have said something to him about breaking up with Shanahan, now she was on about Daniel being a clone. For the first time, Jack wondered if maybe the doctor in this zoo of a nursing home wasn't more right about her diagnosis than he'd thought.

Jack could tell that Carter recognized what he was thinking the second he thought it. “Easy to think that I'm nuts, isn't it?” she wryly pointed out.

Jack was amazed that she had so quickly guessed his innermost ramblings, though he shouldn't have been. “You have to admit that PTSD...”

Carter would have instantly vaulted to her feet if she had been able to. As it was, her eyes spit fire. “I do not have PTSD, Jack, and you know it!” She glared at him. “I would think that you of all people would..!”

“Then prove it,” Jack announced in no-nonsense terms. “You sound like the typical paranoid...”

Carter didn't back down. “If I'm sounding paranoid, then it shows nothing but that you taught me well, Jack!”

He huffed at what she had said, but didn't negate any of her words. It was well known that he was THE paranoid man of the SGC.

At last, in a more modulated voice, she repeated, “I ask again, have you seen Daniel lately?”

Jack glared. “And I told you, I talked to him just this morning on the phone.”

“Talked to him... but didn't see him?” she reiterated.

Well... no. But of course Daniel was absent - he was on one of his translation kicks... wasn't he? “Isn't he... I don't know... what do archaeological linguists do when they're not on missions?”

Carter blinked, seeming to be glad that he didn't just write her off as a lost, crazy cause. “I'd be fine with this... except for one thing: ever since I've been in here, whenever Daniel got lost in a translation, he would eventually bring it to me to pick my brain, since he doesn't have Teal'c around anymore to pick his brain.” She meaningfully glared at Jack. “But I haven't seen Daniel in two and a half weeks. He used to come to see me every two or three days without fail, more often if he was having trouble with translating something.”

Jack stared at her in disbelief. “He's done that for months, has he?” He couldn't see Daniel as someone you could count on to be so punctual. Daniel had been late for at least half of their briefings. “'Punctual' and 'Daniel' don't go hand in...”

“And where is SG-13?” Carter relentlessly continued. “They've been by to see me every week, for five months! Now, nothing, for weeks! You can't convince me that they've just been busy doing paperwork!”

Jack was at a loss as to what exactly she was getting at. Unless... “Don't tell me you think that Ba'al has the real them, too, and what we've got is their clones who don't want to see you in case you'll recognize them as impostors! That's just something that's...”

“Then where are they?” she bit off. “Why the sudden need to be anywhere but here?” She heaved in air like she'd run a marathon. “Why is it so hard to believe that Ba'al would do to them what he did to me?”

“But...” Jack spluttered. He wanted to argue against her points, to not believe her. In fact, he did believe that she had been cloned - there was proof in that. But this! The idea that Daniel, as well as all of SG-13, were clones too was..! “But...” he blurted, ready to poke a million holes in her theory - like the fact that just because someone didn't show up as expected didn't automatically mean they were a clone; or like none of these suspected individuals had ever showed anything that looked clonish; or maybe these people were absent because Daniel and those on SG-13 were just extremely busy. Instead he abruptly found himself considering her idea, no matter how preposterous, wild, or crazy it was.

“But nothing!” Carter said emphatically. “We already know Ba'al has cloning capabilities. He fooled you, and you've got to be the hardest person to fool in the galaxy. What makes you think that he can't do the same thing to the whole base?”

The whole base? Jack couldn't help but think...

But Carter's next words were so quiet he had to strain to hear them, making them twice as horrifying. “What a perfect way to infiltrate the Tau'ri.”

Chapter 11

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