Daniel was more than a little nervous, a feeling he hadn't experienced before a mission in a long time. This would be SG-1's first mission since the whole episode with Ma'chello's Goa'uld killers, and he was worried about how it was going to go. It was a standard recon mission, no signs of intelligent life having been detected within a fifty-mile radius of the gate. Of course, that didn't mean that there wasn't any. The ruins on the planet proved that someone had once lived in the area, and there had been many times in the past when the initial readings from the MALP and UAV had turned out to be wrong, sometimes with disastrous results. Daniel sincerely hoped that this wouldn't be one of those times. His relationship with his teammates was still healing, and he didn't want to have to deal with some life and death situation on this mission, although an entanglement with a troop of Jaffa would certainly succeed in getting all their minds off the events of the past three weeks.
When the wormhole connected, Daniel stared at the rippling blue surface, remembering when he saw the event horizon in his closet. No. He wasn't going to think about that.
Daniel jerked his attention to Jack. "Yes. Yes, I'm ready."
"Okay, then let's go. There's a planet waiting for us to explore."
The four members of SG-1 ascended the ramp and stepped through the wormhole. They came out the other side onto a flat, rocky plain. Daniel's gaze immediately went to the ruins around a quarter-mile away.
"All right, let's check out those ruins," Jack said. "Daniel? Would you like to lead the way?"
Surprised, Daniel stared at the colonel. He'd never been allowed to take the lead before. Was this Jack's way of telling him that they trusted him?
"Um . . . sure," he replied.
It didn't take them long to reach the ruins. Once they were there, Daniel became absorbed in studying the ancient structures. His teammates watched him work, happy to see that he appeared to be relaxing. As far as the Stargate Program was concerned, this was not an important mission, but as far as SG-1 was concerned, it was very important. There were bridges that needed rebuilding, a foundation of trust that needed to be repaired, and, hopefully, the next few missions would do that.
It was no surprise that the ruins yielded very little of interest, although they did confirm that the people had apparently been under the rule of a Goa'uld, the name of which was not revealed. Daniel was not yet ready to call it a day and wanted to investigate some more.
"The UAV spotted some other ruins several miles from here, didn't they?" he asked.
"Yes, but we couldn't get there and back before nightfall," Sam replied.
"We brought our packs."
Jack, Sam and Teal'c exchanged a glance.
"You wouldn't have a problem with staying here overnight?" Jack questioned.
Daniel frowned. "No. Why would I?"
"No reason. I just thought that you'd like this to be a short mission."
Daniel stared at the colonel. "Jack, I'm fine, no residual effects. Janet gave me a clean bill of health, remember?" He paused. "Or do you think there's another reason why I wouldn't want to stay overnight?"
Jack detected the slight hint of tension in the archeologist's voice and quickly said, "No, no. Just wanted to make sure you were up for it, that's all. All right, let's go back to the gate and let Hammond know that we're extending the mission."
Once they'd informed the SGC that they were staying the night and gave an estimated time for their return, they headed out in the direction of the other ruins. As they walked, Sam struck up a conversation with Daniel. Jack and Teal'c joined in a few minutes later. As the conversation progressed, they felt themselves slip back into their old comradery.
SG-1 reached the edge of a small stretch of forest. As they entered it, they slowed their pace, eyes and ears more attuned to their surroundings. Here, it would be easier for someone to sneak up on them.
They made it through the narrow band of forest without incident and came out of the trees to the sight of ruins spread out in the distance, those of a city much larger than the one near the gate. Daniel immediately picked up the pace, eager to reach the structures.
They'd been wandering around the ruins for around three hours when Daniel discovered a stone tablet hidden inside what was left of a temple altar. The tablet turned out to be a brief history of the planet's people. It revealed the name of the Goa'uld who originally brought the inhabitants to that planet, as well as the fact that he was defeated in battle, and control of the planet was taken over by the victor.
"What happened after that?" Sam asked.
Daniel's gaze traveled over the writing. "Well, according to this, the Goa'uld who defeated Anhur was very cruel. The people were worked mercilessly. The Goa'uld would be gone for years at a time, leaving a large contingent of Jaffa taskmasters behind, then would suddenly show up and take children and young adults, killing anyone who objected. The people had begun to suspect that the Goa'uld weren't gods and really didn't like the fact that their children and young people were being taken away, but there wasn't anything they could do about it. They'd thought about revolt, but they knew that a lot of people would be killed in the fighting."
Daniel paused as he read the next few lines. "They'd been under the new Goa'uld's rule for around fifty years when, for some reason, the Jaffa were called away. This says that there were rumors that the Goa'uld was fighting a mighty battle with another one and needed all of his men to assist him." Daniel suddenly began to smile.
"What?" Sam asked.
"They left. One of the people had learned how to use the Stargate and knew the address of a planet they could go to, so the entire population packed up and left."
"Hah!" Jack crowed. "Good for them. I'd sure love to have seen the look on the face of that Goa'uld when he found out that the entire planet's population ditched him."
Daniel nodded. "They wanted to pass on their story, so this tablet was left behind for any humans who might come here in the future."
"Does it say where they went?" Sam asked.
"No, which I guess makes sense. They wouldn't have wanted to take the chance that a Jaffa would find this."
"Well, wherever they went, I hope they had a better life," Jack said.
"Yeah." Daniel gazed at the tablet, thinking about how brave the people had been. It felt good to know that they'd managed to escape the rule of the Goa'uld. Of course, there was no guarantee that they didn't fall under the rule of another one, but Daniel chose to think positively.
Seeing the pleased look on Daniel's face, Jack was happy that they'd chosen to come here. He patted the younger man's shoulder.
"It's nice to get a good bit of news every now and then."
Daniel smiled faintly. "Yeah, it is."
Jack gave him a final pat, then said, "Well, I'd like to get through the forest before nightfall, so we need to get started back."
"I'd really like to look around a little more, Jack," Daniel said. "We might be able to find out the name of the Goa'uld who took over the planet. This tablet doesn't say."
Jack was tempted to put his foot down. At any other time, he might have done so, but would it really hurt to give Daniel what he wanted? The guy had been through a lot, and it was the least Jack could do for him.
"All right, I'll give you two more hours."
In those two hours, Daniel did find out the name of the other Goa'uld, and Teal'c revealed that he was killed by a rival Goa'uld some five hundred years ago. Daniel had estimated that the ruins were somewhere around that old and wondered if it was possible that the Goa'uld was killed before he even discovered that the planet's population had fled.
By the time SG-1 reached the edge of the forest, it was too late for them to make it all the way through the woods before nightfall, so they decided to make camp there.
Over dinner, the team talked about the planet's former inhabitants and what they'd done.
"I suppose we shouldn't be surprised that someone actually did that," Daniel remarked. "The ancient Egyptians had the courage to revolt against Ra. What these people did was sort of a revolt, too, just in a different way. It's possible that this wasn't an isolated incident. There may have been others who did the same thing."
"Any Goa'uld whose human subjects deserted him in such a way would seek to hide knowledge of it," Teal'c said. "It would be a great embarrassment to him."
"I can imagine so," Jack responded.
After the meal was finished, they all settled down to a card game. The game didn't last long, Jack winning easily.
"Anyone up for another hand?" the colonel asked as he scooped up his winnings, which was a small pile of pebbles.
"Sure," Sam replied.
"I am willing to play another game as well, O'Neill," Teal'c answered.
"I think I'll pass," said Daniel. His attention hadn't really been on the game.
As Jack dealt the cards, Daniel got to his feet and wandered off a few yards to sit on a small boulder near the tree line. He gazed up at the stars, feeling relaxed. This first mission had gone well. In fact, it was almost like nothing had happened at all, as if it was just another ordinary mission with no special significance. Or at least it appeared that way on the surface. Daniel knew, however, that his teammates' thoughts had probably gone often to the reason why this wasn't just another mission, just as his had. It might take another mission or two before that would no longer be the case.
Catching some movement in his peripheral vision, Daniel turned toward the forest. He froze, the breath halting in his lungs at the sight of two large glowing red eyes staring back at him from the darkness beyond the campfire. The eyes were soon joined by a third, then a fourth. They moved independently of each other, like burning embers floating in the air. Daniel felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end.
'It's not real. It's not real,' he told himself. 'It's just a trick of the firelight.' But what if it was real. It could be some kind of animal, possibly carnivorous. He should tell his teammates. Daniel glanced in their direction, Jack's name on his tongue. But it went unuttered. Instead, the archeologist turned back to the woods. The eyes were moving more rapidly now, jerking this way and that, almost colliding with each other. They looked eerie, unreal. Maybe they were unreal. What if he called his teammates over, and they couldn't see the eyes. What if. . . .
No, he wasn't crazy. There was nothing wrong with his mind. Ma'chello's Goa'uld-killing slug was gone, and he was completely back to normal. He was!
Daniel kept staring at the eyes. What if he alerted his friends, and, by the time they got here, the eyes were gone? What would they think? Would they believe that something had actually been there or would they doubt him?
Daniel's gaze went back to the others. He should tell them. If it was a wild animal, it could be dangerous.
When the archeologist's attention returned to the forest yet again, he saw that the eyes were gone. He searched the darkness, looking for some sign of them, but it was if they had never been there.
Daniel was torn over what he should do. Whatever animal had been there was apparently gone now, but it could return, and if it came back when most of them were asleep in their tents and chose to attack, someone could get hurt or killed. He had a responsibility to his teammates to tell them.
Daniel knew that this all boiled down to a matter of trust. His teammates trusted him to alert them of possible danger, and he needed to trust that they had enough faith in him that they wouldn't just assume he was seeing things.
"Um . . . guys?" Daniel called hesitantly as he got to his feet. "I think there might be something out there."
The attention of the other three members of SG-1 was instantly focused upon him. They rose from their seats and joined him.
"Did you hear something?" Sam asked.
"No, I . . . saw something."
Jack squinted into the dark. "What?"
The colonel looked at him. "Eyes?"
"Yeah, four of them, glowing red eyes."
"The eyes of cats and some other animals glow in the dark when you shine light on them," Sam commented.
"How large would you estimate the animals to have been, Daniel Jackson?" Teal'c asked.
"Judging by the size and location of the eyes, I'd say pretty big. But, uh. . . ."
Jack studied Daniel's face. "But what?"
Daniel took a deep breath. He needed to trust them. "Okay, this is going to sound really crazy, but the eyes were moving independently of each other, almost like they were on separate stalks or . . . or appendages of some sort. I think there was just one animal."
"Soooo . . . you're saying that we have some kind of four-eyed monster out there?"
Daniel said nothing as his stomach tightened, his gaze dropping to the ground. Would they believe him or assume that it had all been in his head?
Jack looked out into the darkened forest, then back at the archeologist. Daniel's body was tense, his expression closed off. Was he waiting for them to say that what he'd seen probably hadn't been real, that it sounded insane? Yes, it did sound kind of crazy, but that didn't mean that it hadn't been real.
Jack realized that, in telling them what he saw, Daniel had taken a leap of faith. He had chosen to trust them, and how they responded would make the difference between him continuing to trust them in the future – or never trusting them again.
"Teal'c, get the flashlights," Jack ordered. "Let's see if we can find any tracks."
Daniel's head lifted, and his eyes met Jack's, filled with gratitude.
The search for tracks yielded nothing, and Daniel began to believe that he really had just been seeing things. They retreated to the campfire, Jack's P-90 sitting on his lap, his gaze going often to the trees.
Daniel sat silently staring into the flames. Maybe he wasn't ready to go on missions. Maybe there was still something wrong with him. What if his brain had been permanently damaged by Ma'chello's invention?
Daniel's teammates glanced at him more than once, not liking what they were seeing. If only they had found some evidence of the thing he saw, some proof that a creature of some kind had been out there. Evidence or not, they couldn't just ignore what he saw. They needed to assume that it had been real.
"I think we'd better do a two-man rotation on the watch tonight," Jack said.
"I was thinking the same thing, sir," Sam responded.
Teal'c nodded. "As was I."
Daniel shook his head. "It was probably just a trick of the light or my imagination . . . or something."
"Hey," said Jack. "I don't know if what you saw was real or not, Daniel, but we all have to assume that it was. We have to be on our guard. Better to be safe than sorry. Right?"
Daniel sighed. "Yeah." He got to his feet. "I'll take the first watch. I'm not very sleepy." He strapped on his holster and walked off to the outer boundary of the camp.
"Crap," Jack muttered. "You know, normally, the last thing I'd want on a mission was to have some alien monster make an appearance, but I'd actually feel better if we did see something."
"He's starting to think that it wasn't real," Sam said. "He's doubting himself."
"Yeah. I thought that the only hurtle we had to overcome was him learning to trust us again, but I was wrong."
"Daniel Jackson has lost his trust and faith in himself as well," Teal'c remarked.
Daniel's eyes scanned the darkness. For the first time since joining SG-1 he was actually hoping that he would see something, that it wouldn't be a quiet, uneventful watch. Not that he wanted to be attacked by some creature, but if the owner of those eyes would just show itself, and his teammates could see it, he'd know that it hadn't all been in his imagination, and Sam, Jack and Teal'c would, too.
Daniel heard one of his team approaching. He glanced over his shoulder and saw that it was Sam.
"Hey," she said. "Teal'c and I will be going to bed soon. The colonel will be taking first watch with you."
Daniel nodded. His gaze dropped to the ground. "You don't have to pretend to believe me if you really don't. I'll understand. There's no proof that what I saw was—"
"Daniel, don't," Sam interrupted. "We don't need proof. How many times have you believed something without any evidence and turned out to be right? More times than I can count. The archeological community thought you were crazy when you believed that the pyramids were landing platforms for alien spacecraft, yet you were right! With barely any evidence to back you up you figured out that the Stargate network was built by a race of aliens called the Ancients, and it looks like you were right about that, too. In my whole life I have never met anyone who can figure out things with so little to go on the way that you can."
"But that's not really the same thing, is it. This isn't like me figuring out who built the Stargates or that there was a second gate on Earth. It's just me thinking I saw something when there's no proof at all that I really did."
"Okay, so it isn't the same thing, but that doesn't mean that any of us should reject what you believe you saw – including you."
Daniel let out a low sigh. "I'm just worried that. . . ."
The archeologist's gaze lifted to the forest. "What if I'm really not fully healed? What if that thing of Ma'chello's caused damage that Janet hasn't detected?"
Daniel's words really upset Sam. She rested her hand on his back. "Oh, Daniel. You mustn't think that way. Please don't doubt yourself. There is nothing wrong with your mind. You are just as sane as the rest of us. You need to believe that."
When Daniel remained silent, Sam gave his back a little rub, wishing she knew what else to say. She wished him a good night, then headed off to her tent. On the way, she stopped and talked to Jack in a low voice for a couple of minutes.
A short while later, the colonel joined the archeologist.
"I think in the morning we'll have a better chance of finding any tracks that thing you saw left behind," he remarked.
"Jack, you don't have to—"
"Daniel, just shut up. I don't want to hear you say it. There's nothing wrong with your brain . . . well, other than the fact that it seems to be lacking a pause button. In the morning we'll look for tracks."
Daniel met the older man's eyes. "And if we don't find any?"
"Then we don't find any. Maybe it's a tree-dweller."
Daniel searched the older man's face. "Jack, I don't expect you to jump through hoops to prove that what I saw was real just because of what happened. After all, there have been other times when you didn't believe me about something. You doubted me when I told you that I'd been to an alternate universe even though I had a staff weapon burn in my shoulder proving that something had happened to me."
Jack looked away, unable to deny Daniel's statement. "Yeah, okay, so I didn't believe you. I gave you the benefit of the doubt later on, though, didn't I?"
"We're not jumping through hoops to prove that what you saw was real. We'll just spend a few minutes looking for tracks in the morning. That's all." Jack shifted his grip on his P-90. "I'm going to take up watch at the other end of the camp."
After Jack was gone, Daniel returned his attention to the forest. The minutes slowly ticked by, the only sounds the chirping of insects and the call of some kind of night bird.
Perhaps thirty minutes had passed when the bird abruptly fell silent. There was a very faint rustling sound. Daniel's head jerked in the direction of the noise, his eyes straining to see in the dark. And then he heard a low hiss, like that of a snake – or a Goa'uld symbiote.
That thought made Daniel take a hasty step backward, his heart rate climbing. He pulled his Beretta from its holster and aimed it toward the sound. And that's when he saw the eyes again, blood-red and glowing like fire. They swayed about this way and that, their unearthly gaze making a chill run down his spine. He suddenly felt trapped, hypnotized by the crimson orbs. He couldn't move, every muscle locked in place as he watched a crested head appear from the darkness, two-feet-wide and crowned with four eye stalks. Its mouth opened, revealing five-inch-long fangs. The head was attached to a massive serpentine body. It slid down the tree upon which it had been hanging and began slithering toward him, its eyes never leaving his.
Daniel tried to call out for help, but his larynx lacking the power to work. He was frozen in place, unable even to pull the trigger of the gun in his hand. The creature was now just a few feet from him. It reared up, its head drawing level with his. Daniel was screaming for help in his mind, but he was powerless to stop what he knew was about to happen.
Suddenly, the silence was shattered by the sound of a P-90. The snakelike creature jerked violently and let out a high-pitched scream. A second shot hit it, then a third and fourth, the last two bullets ripping through its head. The beast fell to the ground and writhed about, its death throes churning up dead leaves and fallen branches. At last it grew still.
Jack came running up to Daniel, who was now starting to tremble from reaction. Sam and Teal'c, who'd awakened at the first shot, joined them.
"Oh my God," Sam gasped, staring in horrified fascination at the monstrous creature.
"Holy crap," Jack cursed. "That thing must be at least sixty feet long." He looked at Daniel. "Daniel, are you okay?"
"Y-yeah. I-I couldn't move. I tried, but it's like I was frozen in place. I couldn't even yell for help."
"Maybe those things have the ability to hypnotize their prey," Sam suggested. "People used to think that snakes could do that."
Teal'c knelt beside the creature and lifted one of the limp eye stalks, revealing a red eye with a black slitted pupil.
"Well, that explains what Daniel saw earlier," Jack remarked. He gave a shudder. "I'm thinking that maybe we should move the camp a little farther from the trees. Actually, a lot farther might be wise."
They moved the camp back twenty yards. Though it was now quite late, it was no surprise that none of them felt like sleeping.
"You see, Daniel," Jack said as he nursed a cup of coffee. "You weren't imagining things."
"Indeed," agreed Teal'c. "You are of sound mind."
The archeologist met the eyes of his teammates. "Thanks. If you guys hadn't believed me, and I took the first watch alone, I'd probably be dead."
Jack patted his shoulder. "Well, that's what we do. We back each other up." His eyes locked upon Daniel's. "I know that Carter, Teal'c and I sort of messed up on that last time, but I swear that will never happen again."
Daniel's lips curved upward in the smallest of smiles. "I know, Jack." He paused. "I trust you."
The sound of those three words lightened the hearts of Daniel's teammates.
"We're really glad to hear that, Daniel," Jack said. "I know that a lot of people in your position wouldn't have been able to trust us again. But trusting us isn't enough."
"You must trust yourself as well, Daniel Jackson," Teal'c told the archeologist.
"Just like we trust you," said Sam.
Daniel gazed off at the forest. He hadn't realized until tonight that, because of what happened with Ma'chello's invention, he'd come to doubt himself, in the ability of his mind to distinguish what was real and not real. He needed to get past that, both for his own sake and the sake of his team.
"I know," he said. "It might take a little more time . . . but I'll get there."
Jack nodded sharply. "Damn straight." He smiled. "So, since it looks like none of us are going to get any sleep tonight, how about another game?"
"Sounds good to me, Jack," Daniel replied softly.
As the cards were dealt, Daniel looked one by one at the faces of his teammates. The broken trust was mending, the shattered faith restored, and he knew that, though there might be more rough times ahead, he and his friends would get through them together.