Originally published as a standalone fanzine by Criterion Press, 2000
If only you could walk into a 7-Eleven store and buy a psychiatrist or a psychologist as easily as you could purchase a quart of milk. Doctor Daniel Jackson, archaeologist and planetary traveler, heaved a rueful sigh as he stood outside the convenience store. Okay, so it wasn’t that Doctor Mackenzie was a bad psychiatrist. He was the chief psychiatrist for the Stargate Project and he’d been involved with the program from the beginning. He knew his profession; he cared about his patients. But after the incident with Machello’s little booby trap Goa’uld killers that had led the man to diagnose Daniel as schizophrenic when he was actually the victim of an induced Goa’uld-destroying ‘bug’, Daniel had been uncomfortable with the man. With all the base psychiatrists, actually. Being locked up in a padded cell, seeing things no one else could see was one of the worst memories of his life. He would be happy to avoid shrinks from now on.
It was worse lately. Something was going on out there on missions through the Stargate to distant planets, something that had all the SG teams returning through the gate and reporting that they had felt uncomfortable, almost itchy with an irritation the whole time they’d been on other worlds. So far the SGC’s psychiatrists and psychologist had been unable to pin down a cause for their reactions. It was a sensation that disappeared with the return to base, and Mackenzie was starting to sound off about gate-induced paranoia and limiting the number of missions any one team could make. What they needed, Jack had groused last night before the team had separated for a few days of downtime before their next mission, was a shrink who could think outside the lines.
Not likely to get one, Daniel thought ruefully. It wasn’t as if they could recruit an outsider for the Stargate project, and, even if they could, there was no guarantee he wouldn’t be military, too, and just as inclined to stick to rigid patterns. Too bad, too. When SG-1 had been on a mission to P3K-871 the day before yesterday, he and Jack had nearly come to blows. The bad moods had eased as soon as they were back, actually as they stepped through the gate, but something was wrong. Even if it wasn’t anything more than bad tempers, Daniel had a feeling that General Hammond was about to put all gate travel on hold until someone could track down the cause.
He hadn’t been back to his apartment for a couple of weeks. SG-1 had been busy working out the start of a treaty with a world as technologically advanced as Earth, and it had taken up everyone’s spare time. Freed for a break, Daniel realized he didn’t even have any fresh bread or milk in his apartment. Hard to stop and remember the basics when his life was so busy, and so unique.
No, you couldn’t find a ‘shrink’ section in the 7-Eleven.
Daniel opened the door to the market and walked right into a psychologist.
The brown-haired man drew back automatically and started to circle around Daniel without even raising his head. His slumped shoulders spoke of deep unhappiness and he looked like he hadn’t bothered to shave this morning. But Daniel recognized him, even though he’d never have expected to see him in Colorado, and he was stunned at the hollowness in the older man’s face.
"Peter? Is that you?" he ventured doubtfully.
That got a response. The man’s head came up—for an instant, there was hope in his eyes at the sound of a familiar voice—then he recognized Daniel and the hope drained away like water from a cracked pan. His expression hastily switched to bland and neutral and then he donned a polite expression, mild with surprise.
"Daniel? Daniel Jackson? Hey, Danny boy. Good to see you."
He couldn’t have sounded more interested if he’d discovered mold on his carpet.
"Peter Venkman, what on earth are you doing here?" Daniel had a very bad feeling. He knew that expression in the psychologist’s eyes, knew it better than he liked. It was the same, grim, helpless misery he’d seen in his own when he’d gazed into the mirror after Sha’re’s death. It was the look he’d seen in Jack’s on the first Abydos mission, after his son had accidentally killed himself with Jack’s service revolver. But surely the rest of the Ghostbusters weren’t dead. They were public figures; such a tragedy would have been all over the news. While Daniel didn’t have much time to read the newspapers any longer, everyone at the base remembered when the Ghostbusters had been summoned to the SGC to deal with five ghosts who had followed SG-1 back to the base through the Stargate on a mission nearly two years ago. Someone would have heard about such a disaster and spread the word. No, the Ghostbusters couldn’t be dead. But something was badly wrong or Doctor Venkman would be back in New York with them busting ghosts, not wandering around Colorado Springs looking as if he’d been kicked in the gut. "Are you okay? Are the others all right?"
"Yeah, they’re just dandy." Peter’s jaw hardened, then he caught himself. "They’re fine," he insisted. When the silence stretched out uncomfortably, he added awkwardly, "I...don’t work there anymore."
Daniel’s mouth fell open, and his surprise made Peter’s mouth tighten and his eyes develop an impenetrable shielding. Talk about a touch-me-not look. Jack sometimes wore that kind of expression when he was reminded of his son Charlie. Something was very wrong. The Ghostbusters were more than four men who had a business together, even such an unlikely profession as trapping and containing ghosts and spirits. They were a family; they were bonded very tight, the way police partners were bonded from going through fire together. The way SG-1 was bonded. Now Peter was saying they weren’t a team any longer. What could have happened?
"When did you get to Colorado Springs?" asked Daniel hastily. It seemed like a much safer question.
Peter hesitated, trying to remember. He didn’t relax his guard, though. Either something was wrong with him or he simply didn’t care. "Uh, yesterday. I think it was yesterday. I got a motel room."
"Motel? Why don’t you come and stay at my place? I’ve got plenty of room, and I’m not due back at the base for a couple of days. We can get you settled in before that."
Peter hesitated. He had the wary look of a man who was positive that a kindness would turn on him without the slightest provocation. He expected to be kicked, hard. Then he gave a wary shrug. Maybe he craved even such a slight kindness as a bed for a few days. "Why not? I don’t know how long I’ll be in town, anyway. You sure it’s not a problem?"
Daniel remembered Peter as a man with a smart mouth, in some ways a lot like Jack O’Neill. He was the Ghostbusters’ team leader, although in his case, it was not an official leadership, the way it was with Jack’s command of SG-1. There was no trace of confidence or wry humor in his face now or in his words. He looked like a man who had come to the end of his rope. Maybe he’d tied a knot and was hanging on for all he was worth and hadn’t figured out what he should do next—or even if there were anything he could do—so he was simply enduring. Daniel suspected that whatever was wrong had just happened and he was still in shock. He’d get past that point and start to think—and with any luck, he’d still be here so Daniel could help out.
So he tried to sound casual, the way he had to when Jack got prickly. "Well...I don’t know why it should be. Come on. I’ve just gotta grab a few things. I’ve been working hard, away from my apartment. Let me pick them up or I won’t be able to give you dinner tonight, and then we’ll head back."
Obediently, Peter tucked his grocery bag under his arm and followed him back into the store. He had all kinds of walls up around him, the kind with broken glass and barbed wire on top. What on earth could have happened to end the Ghostbusters’ partnership? Daniel had a horrible feeling he’d look like that if he didn’t have SG-1 any longer. These days, SG-1 was the only family he had. He’d been sure the Ghostbusters were Peter Venkman’s family. Now it looked as if something had changed that.
"So, what are you going to do now?" Daniel asked a few hours later. They’d returned to his apartment and thrown together a dinner consisting of things out of cans and lunch meat and peanut butter sandwiches, finishing it up with a couple of beers. Peter had talked, but he’d said things like, "Pass the salt," and, "How about those Knicks?" Carefully impersonal. Daniel was worried. He hadn’t really known Peter very well; he’d spent a day with him nearly two years ago, although it was a day in the heart of a crisis, and he felt that he knew enough of the man to like and respect him. Jack had considered him a pain in the ass, but he had respected him, too. What could have brought him to this?
Peter shrugged. "Dunno. Probably hang up a shingle somewhere. Maybe there are a lot of loopy people out there who would think it was a hoot to have a former Ghostbuster as their psychologist."
"Former Ghostbuster?" Daniel ventured delicately. "The business didn’t fold, did it?"
"Nah, the guys are still going strong." He drew a deep breath. "They’re alive. They’re safe—well, as safe as anybody could be when you’ve got Class Seven demons after you."
"But you’re not there any longer?"
Peter shook his head. "Not anymore. No." He picked up his beer bottle and looked at it regretfully, but he didn’t ask for a second, and Daniel thought it safer not to offer him one. There were times when it didn’t do to get drunk. It could be much harder to resist unhappy memories when control slid away. He didn’t need to turn Peter into a maudlin drunk.
"Uh, do you want to say why?"
The green eyes flashed once and then closed away. "No."
"Are you sure? Sometimes it helps to...talk. I know that from Sha’re’s death."
He was sorry he’d mentioned her, mostly because of the pain that always stabbed at the reminder of his loss, but also because it offered Peter a distraction.
"Oh, man, I’m sorry," Peter said hastily. "I didn’t know. Not just...possessed with that snake thingie anymore?"
"No. Her Goa’uld tried to kill me and Teal’c had to blast her to save my life."
Peter reached out and gripped his wrist in sympathy. "That’s rough. I always hoped you’d get her back." Drawing his hand hastily back, he shivered as if someone had just walked across his grave—not only walked but tap-danced. "Losing everything that matters is a hard thing to live with."
His words didn’t sound like conventional sympathy; they sounded like the understanding of someone with firsthand experience. "I’ve got Jack and the others," Daniel said. "I didn’t quite see that at first, but I don’t think I could have made it without my fri—"
"Without your friends." The words fell like stones into Daniel’s awkward silence. "Damn it," he ground out. "Damn it. I had to. I had to do it, Daniel. I had to."
"Had to do what?"
"They don’t care about me now. I’m nothing to them."
Daniel stared at him. "That can’t be true. They were like brothers to you. We could all see that."
"Were," Peter agreed. Misery glittered in the green eyes. "Not any more."
"You want the whole dirty deal? Okay, you got it." Daniel didn’t delude himself that he’d been persuasive enough to evoke true confessions, or that he’d been sympathetic enough. He was sure part of it was because he’d lost Sha’re and it gave them a fellow feeling, but most of it was because the story was bursting to come out and there was no one else for Venkman to share it with. If Peter hadn’t run into Daniel in the 7-Eleven, he’d have probably bottled it all up and it would have gotten worse, the way it had for a while with Jack, over Charlie. Maybe, subconsciously, he knew he had to talk or go mad. In the end, that was what had driven Daniel to Jack’s place for a night of beer, poker, and eventually spilling his guts, a while after Sha’re had died. That had been tough, but there had been a wary peace afterwards, the realization that people could live with impossible things—and did every day.
Peter would have continued to talk even if Daniel had walked out of the room. "It was a bust that went wrong, the bust from hell. We didn’t know it was going to be a Class Ten. Uh, we classify ghosts by how powerful they are, and that one’s way up there. We hardly ever see anything that powerful; usually the worst is a Class Seven; they’re mostly demons and pretty nasty. Okay, so maybe Gozer was that powerful, but most ghosts aren’t. This one was, and we made him mad. The throwers didn’t faze him at all, not old Mugwump. Just bounced right off his scaly hide."
"Mugwump?" Daniel prompted to keep Peter talking, although he was pretty sure he couldn’t have stopped him if he’d wanted to. It was hard to imagine a ghost with such a silly name.
"Well, it was more like Muzxgyqlpwuxyrp," Peter said, spitting out the string of mostly consonants with as much effort as Daniel might have rattled off the Pharaohs of the Nineteenth Dynasty. "He was powerful and nasty and used to having his own way. We made the mistake of using the throwers on him and that pissed him off royally. The next thing we knew, he waved his hand, we were stuck in his crummy dimension—all the ambiance of a bomb crater, let me tell you—and he was rubbing it in about how he’d kill us. Things like pulling off our ears and skinning us were kinda prominent in the list, oh yeah, and letting his underlings eat us. Or influencing our minds so we’d kill each other." His face hardened. "That one was the worst."
"He would have made a good Goa’uld." It wasn’t much of a comment, but Daniel knew what it was like to be in such trouble that there seemed no possible answers. That’s how he’d felt on the Goa’uld ship in orbit around Earth. Anyone who went through the Stargate learned the feeling quickly.
"Yeah. Maybe he was one in another life. Anyway, you know the guys. They’re tough and they’re brave, but they didn’t have answers this time. None of the equipment worked, and I thought we were finally gonna go down. Even Egon couldn’t think of anything, and Mugwump had our proton packs and throwers, so we couldn’t even cross the streams, the way we did to get rid of Gozer."
"What did you do?" asked Daniel. He wasn’t sure what crossing the streams was, although he vaguely remembered reading the term before. Obviously, someone had done something since Peter had said the other Ghostbusters were still alive. Surely they weren’t still stranded in the alien dimension? No, if that had happened, Peter would be pounding on the door to get them back.
"What I did best," Peter said, and the use of the past tense chilled Daniel, even before Venkman went on. "I smarted off to him. Gave him the Venkman lip. Rode him hard. What your buddy Jack would have done. The guys told me not to make him mad, but heck, there wasn’t anything else to do, and I didn’t want to go down without letting the creep know that we weren’t very fond of him."
"I bet he didn’t like that."
"No, that’s the weird part. He did. Turns out old Mugwump had a sense of humor. ‘Course, since he was as powerful as Gozer and as sweet as Saddam Hussein, it was a pretty sick one. You wouldn’t find him performing to standing room only crowds at the local comedy club. The thing is, the more I sounded off, the more amused he got. One minute I was sassing Old Scaly, the next he and I were off in a separate room and I could hear the guys screaming my name in the distance.
"He stood me there and dusted me off and I couldn’t answer them. He wouldn’t let me talk. He waved his hand and it was like I didn’t even have a mouth any longer." His face paled in remembrance. "I did. I checked. Then he spoke to me. I remember every word he said. He said, ‘I find you amusing, human. I will spare you.’ And then, he let me talk, but not loud enough to reassure my buddies. When I tried to yell, it came out in a whisper. Swell guy.
"‘But what about the guys?" I asked when I realized I could flap my lips.
"‘They do not amuse me. I will kill them.’
"‘No way. If you’re gonna make this choice, let them go. I’ll stay here and be your court jester, if you let them live.’"
Daniel could hear the anguish in his voice as he offered to barter his life for that of his friends. He had a feeling any of the SG-1 team would do that for him—several of them had made that kind of offer before, and so had he. It went with being family.
"So then, he looked at me for a long time. He had these golden eyes that glowed—sort of like those Goa’uld dudes you told us about last time."
Us? Whatever had happened, Peter still considered them ‘us’, a part of him. Why didn’t they?
"So the demon finally said, ‘I will strike a bargain with you. I will spare your friends, on one condition. That you sacrifice what you value most.’
"Well, there wasn’t an answer to that because they were what I valued most. I said so. ‘You’ve got a real Catch-22 going there, bunky. How can I sacrifice them and save them at the same time?’
"And then, he smiled. Fangs, let me tell you, honking big fangs, the kind that give you nightmares, and I didn’t even really notice. What were fangs when everything was going to hell? ‘There is a way,’ he said, and I had a feeling I was gonna hate it.
"‘But you’ll let them live? No tricks here?’
"‘No tricks, amusing little man. You will live in either case. But the only way I will allow them to live is if you will give up their love for you. They will be free, they will live, and you will be free and live, but you will no longer have a place in their hearts.’
"‘Ever?’ God, I couldn’t bargain with their lives. I couldn’t let them die. I couldn’t. But the demon was right, I would be giving up everything that mattered—everything but their survival. They’d be alive—and I’d be...out the door.
"Then he smiled and said that it would all be over when I—or the guys—no longer existed."
Peter’s eyes were huge and empty, and they were too bright with the tears he’d probably never been able to shed since it happened. He blinked a couple of times but it was an automatic defense. Macho protection number seven. "Great. They’d think I was their buddy again after I was dead, and then they’d feel lousy for what they’d done, and I hated that, almost as much as I hated the thought of having them look at me with contempt, or worse, as if I were a stranger. But I had to, Daniel. This guy could squish us the way we’d squish a gnat, and never even feel it. If I didn’t agree, I’d still be alive, but they’d be demon roadkill, and I couldn’t let that happen. I’d have given up my own life to stop that. It would’ve been easier. But he wouldn’t let me die for them. I had to live—without...everything that mattered."
Daniel stared at Peter in horror. That almost might be worse than losing Sha’re. He knew how he had felt when Amonet gazed at him out of Sha’re’s eyes, her expression full of contempt. "God, Peter...."
Peter deemed the comment worthy. "Yeah." He cleared his throat and stared down at his empty plate. "So I said okay. What else could I do? I had to save them. I made sure they’d be all right, that there wasn’t a trick to it. There wasn’t. I was out, but they were alive, they’d be safe. That had to be the most important thing. So I cut a deal. And then I realize I can’t hear them yelling my name any longer. Spell’s already working; they aren’t worried about me. A second later I’m back in the big room with them and Egon—god, the guy who’s closer than a brother—looks me right in the eye and says coldly, ‘I thought you’d finally run out on us, Venkman.’ God, that hurt." He shivered. And then, we’re back home at the firehall like Scotty beamed us there, throwers and all, and I can tell it’s me against them. They’re all standing together and looking at me like I was worse than pond scum. Okay, they’re kind of shaken, too, ‘cause they’ve had a number done on their minds, but when they look at me, I can see that they hate me. Well, at least strongly dislike. I’m nobody’s favorite Ghostbuster. Even Ray, who’s like my kid brother, he’s really uncomfortable because it’s not in him to be nasty, but he wants to. I can tell. And Egon—god, Egon was the first person I ever trusted. He never held my dad against me, not for a second. And now, I can see it in his eyes. He doesn’t trust me any longer. And he doesn’t even like me."
His eyes gleamed too brightly. "I had nothing left, but I had everything because they were still alive. I stood there and looked back and they glared at me, and I said, ‘I’ll throw some things in a suitcase and go. You can buy me out if you want to or put my share in my account, whatever you want.’ And Egon said, ‘Perhaps that might be best,’ and there wasn’t any yielding in his voice. So they went into the lab and I threw a few things in a suitcase and none of them even said goodbye. As I went down the stairs, I heard Winston say, ‘I never liked him, you know?’ And Egon said, ‘He isn’t the same man I once knew. I’m glad he’s leaving.’ It was like getting a knife stuck in my gut and twisted. But they were alive. They were alive, Daniel."
"You had to do it," Daniel offered as consolation. Not that it was much.
"Yeah. I’d do it again. Because I’d rather they hate me than they were dead. And they’ve still got each other. Then I went downstairs and Janine was there. Our secretary, Janine Melnitz, y’know? And it hadn’t affected her. She was still the same to me. She saw the suitcase and wanted to know if I was absconding with the family silver. We—kid each other a lot. I said no, I was leaving, and the guys wanted me to. She told me I had to be crazy to think that because she knew they had the bad taste to like me. Right about then, that hurt more than I could take and I nearly lost it. She stood there with her hands on her hips and stared at me like she’d never seen me before, then she really surprised me. She came and put her arms around me and said it would be okay. She knew it would. So I told her what I’d done. It just spilled out. I didn’t mean it to."
Like it had just spilled out now. Daniel wasn’t surprised. A sympathetic ear would be like an oasis in the desert to a man whose world was falling apart. "How did she react?"
"She wanted to charge up there and tell them what I had done for them. I told her not to bother. It wouldn’t change anything. Only thing that would was for me to bite the big one and I didn’t mean to do that.
"‘Where are you going?’ she asked me.
"I told her I’d send her a postcard when I got there. I didn’t know, but I figured I’d better let her know. She could tell my dad if he came around. ‘Sides, if something happened to one of the guys, I’d want to know. Maybe I could help...somehow. They wouldn’t have had to know it was me. I’ll probably head back to New York in a little while once the worst of this...wears off. Just had to get away for a few weeks."
"Did you tell her where you are?"
"Sent her a postcard of Pike’s Peak yesterday," Peter said. "To her apartment, not to headquarters. Least, when she gets it she’ll know I’m...okay."
Alive, he meant. Janine was probably afraid he’d take a stupid risk and accidentally on purpose walk in front of a bus. Not that he was suicidal, but Daniel had the feeling he wouldn’t be all broken up about dying accidentally. He said suddenly, "I know it’s not fair. I know I probably screwed up in the worst way. If they knew what I’d done, they might try to find a way to break the curse, but they’d do it as an academic exercise or something, or because they wouldn’t like anybody messing with their heads, not because they wanted me back. And it wouldn’t work. The only way is for me to die. The demon didn’t want there to be a way out. He was punishing us all for messing with him. The guys are okay."
Were they? Wouldn’t a little corner of their hearts realize that something important was gone from their lives even if they didn’t realize what it was? Wouldn’t it be better for them to know the truth and try to fix it, even if they felt nothing for Peter but contempt? Maybe Janine would tell them anyway. Peter had probably been afraid that if she told them, they wouldn’t care, that they’d consider themselves to have lost nothing worth saving. Maybe this was worse than Sha’re. At least Sha’re had been alive and aware inside, and she had never stopped loving Daniel. She had been spared further possession and she’d been saved from living with the knowledge that she’d killed her husband. Daniel hadn’t wanted to forgive Teal’c for killing her, but Sha’re had wanted him to. Had she been able to make a conscious choice between her own life and Daniel’s, she would have chosen to save Daniel, even if she died herself. That was what real love was. He’d have made the same choice for her, but he hadn’t been given the opportunity. He might curse fate about it, but it was the way it was, and Sha’re was dead past redemption. Only the love he felt for her remained.
Was Peter’s fate past redemption? The only thing he had left was the knowledge that he’d paid a terrible price to redeem his friends, a price that lesser men might have been unable to pay. Peter Venkman rose drastically in Daniel’s esteem. Not that his esteem could ever replace what Peter had lost.
Daniel made a vow to telephone Janine Melnitz and ask her to tell the Ghostbusters. Even if they tried to lift the curse for their own sakes, because they might resent the manipulation, and not for their lost friend who had given up everything for them, the end result would reunite them. Daniel couldn’t reunite with Sha’re, but maybe he could do this for Peter. In a way, he would be doing all he could for Sha’re, too, because he knew she would have wanted him to help. She would have expected him to help.
In the meantime, he had to keep Peter in his sight. "You saved them, Peter," he said. "It was the only way you could have saved them. It’s hard. I know how hard because of Sha’re. Fate dealt us both lousy hands. Going on is tough. Believe me, I know. I’m not trying to diminish what happened to you. I can’t. But maybe I can offer you a way to take your mind off it."
Peter eyed him doubtfully. "Like what?" he ventured.
He was younger than Jack, but he looked a hundred years old, especially in his eyes. Daniel said quickly, "Maybe I can get you a job."
"At the SGC?" Peter was quick. No one had ever denied that. "Would they take me on? Let me pop through that Stargate of yours?" He was only mildly interested, but he couldn’t think past his loss yet. At least if Daniel’s idea worked out, it would give him something to occupy his mind, something worth doing. Daniel knew hard work wasn’t the ideal anodyne for pain, but it was the best option going. It had helped him when he was fighting to live with losing Sha’re.
"They might. I’ll talk to General Hammond about it. We know you’ve got clearance, though they might have to run some extra checks. You’re used to working in a crisis, used to carrying a weapon. Okay, so you’d probably have to qualify on the firing range, but I did, too. Maybe using your particle throwers would help."
"Do they recruit outside of the military?" Peter didn’t look too gung-ho to sign up, but he was mildly curious.
"They do when they’ve got need. They recruited me," he pointed out. "The thing is, we’ve got a problem now that might benefit from a good psychologist."
"Come on, you’ve got a psychiatrist already. Mackenzie, couple of others, too. I met him last time. We had a drink together and talked about the profession. I’m not exactly practicing it, but I do put in time at a couple of free clinics to keep my hand in." There was a look of hope in his eyes, a craving to belong, even if he’d tried so hard to repress it. He could have gone hard and cold and tried to convince himself that none of it mattered. He probably would have done that before much more time had passed if he hadn’t encountered someone willing to help. Daniel vowed he’d go in first thing in the morning to talk to the general about it.
"That might be useful," he said. "I can’t tell you why we need you yet. It’s classified. But let me talk to General Hammond tomorrow. What do you say? Is it a deal?"
"Best offer I’m gonna get," Peter confirmed, although he didn’t look happy about it. Hard work might well be the anodyne for unhappiness but it offered a cold comfort. Daniel knew that all too well.
"Miss Melnitz? You don’t know me, but my name is Daniel Jackson."
Janine’s fingers tightened around the phone receiver in annoyance. This was getting bad; phone sales creeps getting her out of bed at night! Usually they just bugged her when she was sitting down to dinner or right at the best part of her favorite TV shows, or, worst of all, when Egon was here. She let her voice get shrill. Didn’t take much effort, either, the way life had been lately. This poor schmuck had just earned himself the wrath of Melnitz.
"Whatever you’re selling, I don’t buy over the phone, and I work for the Ghostbusters, so let me tell you, buddy, you’d better give up or I’ll send them after you with their throwers—"
"I’m calling about Peter," the man said hastily before she could hang up. "I live in Colorado Springs, and I first met Peter a little over a year ago. I ran into him this afternoon and I’ve got him staying with me."
Her knees went weak and she plopped down on her bed. "Oh, thank goodness. I had all these wild ideas..." She’d been afraid Peter had been taking crazy risks, that he’d pushed it because he didn’t see any way out short of dying. Doctor V was too strong to take his own life. She knew that. Besides, he was still alive. Of course he was. The other three were still acting like jerks whenever his name was mentioned, and Peter had said the only thing to break the curse was his death. God, the look on his face when he’d told her what he’d sacrificed to save them...
"You probably weren’t far off. He’s not doing well. He said you know what really happened."
"Yeah, and I wish I could get it across to those three clowns I work for. Doctor V asked me not to tell them, but I’ve come so close, especially when he vanished without a trace like that. I’ve been worried sick, but I knew he was alive."
Jackson sounded surprised. "How?"
"Because the guys still hate him. He said if he died it would break the spell. I’ve been...I’ve been scared to death he’d...do it just so they’d finally be free." Saying the words aloud made the possibility all too real. Janine shivered involuntarily. What if this Jackson character was calling to warn her that Peter had died? She was home in bed. She wouldn’t know if the guys had suddenly experienced a dramatic change of heart or not, not till she went in, in the morning.
Jackson must have heard the panic in her voice because he spoke quickly. "No, he hasn’t done it, and I’m planning to try to get a job for him. But the reason I called, Miss Melnitz, is that I think you should tell the other Ghostbusters what Peter did to save their lives. I remember them; I met them, too, a few years ago. And I’ve known Egon longer. They’re essentially fair men and they’re scientists. They’d find it difficult to refuse to solve a complex problem, unless the spell or whatever that thing did blocks that, too."
"You believe in it?" she asked, surprised. "That’s part of the problem. The man on the street would think it was just weird hype or something. They wouldn’t buy it. There have been some crazy stories in the tabloids about Peter being gone. I hate them, but I can’t do anything about them." They’d said Peter had embezzled money, that he’d run off with a starlet, that he’d sold his soul to the devil—and those were the milder articles.
"I’ve seen far more unlikely things than that," Daniel said. Who was this guy, anyway? How could he have possibly seen weirder things than a giant Stay-Puft marshmallow man? "Miss Melnitz—Janine. Please tell your bosses what really happened. They might not even register what you say, but, if they can, if the only change that Mugwump character made is how they feel about Peter, they might try to solve it. From what I remember of Ray, he’d want to look for answers in ancient books, and Egon is the kind of scientist who can’t refuse to solve a complex puzzle. He’s the one I know best. I seem to remember Winston solves mysteries before he gets to the end of the book. Give it to them as a problem or a mystery. Maybe there really is nothing they can do, but in case there is, let them work on it. I’ll try to keep Peter occupied in the meantime."
Janine felt tears spring to her eyes when Jackson called the entity ‘Mugwump.’ Peter had called it that when he’d explained, then he’d rattled off a long, incomprehensible string of letters as if he’d practiced them for weeks and said that was the monster’s real name. Peter was alive, and he must trust this Jackson guy because he’d told him. She’d been afraid Peter would pull everything inside and never trust anyone else as long as he lived. No matter how often he told himself that the guys didn’t hate him on purpose, the end result was the same. God, the sight of that hollow, empty look in Peter’s eyes as he came trailing down the stairs with his one suitcase had haunted her. She picked on Peter a lot, but that was because siblings often did. Even if she’d never admit it to anyone, Peter was the big brother she’d never had, and she was the only one allowed to bash him.
"Give me your telephone number," she said.
He recited it and she committed it to memory. "I’m out more than I’m in, but I check my voice mail nearly every day. Oh, and one other thing, Peter said he sent you a postcard yesterday. You should get it soon. I won’t call you at the Ghostbusters’ office, Janine, unless it’s an emergency. But I think we should stay in touch."
"Yeah, I’m all for that myself. You take good care of him, Daniel. I know the guys would want that if they were in their right minds and they’ll thank you for what you’ve done, if it ever gets fixed and things are normal again."
"Peter didn’t say when all this happened."
"Thursday," she said. "It was last Thursday."
"And this is only Monday. He must have grabbed a bus or a plane and come out here right away."
"To find you?" Janine didn’t quite recognize the name Daniel Jackson although it sounded vaguely familiar, now that she thought about it, and she wasn’t about to spring it on the guys. He obviously knew them well enough to understand how they’d react under normal circumstances. That would mean they might be able to guess where Peter was, and Janine didn’t mean for them to know yet. Even if they could break the curse, she’d like to let them suffer for a bit, so they’d understand what Peter had done for them and how he’d suffered for their sake. She wouldn’t do that, of course. She’d tell them instantly, so they could go and bring him back. It wouldn’t be fair to make him wait.
"I don’t think so. I think it was accidental. But I’ll keep an eye on him the best I can. You call any time you need to. There are occasions when I’m...out of reach for a few days. It doesn’t mean I’m ignoring you. If Peter’s here, he might even answer the phone."
"Good, then I can give him a piece of my mind for scaring me like this. And don’t tell him I said that, either."
"We’ll be in touch. Anything at all you can do, Janine...."
"Believe it, buster."
When the mysterious Daniel Jackson had hung up, Janine sat there clutching the phone. Don’t worry, Peter, she thought with grim determination. If I have to take those three characters and shake them till their brains rattle, I’ll find a way to fix it so you can come home.
"What’s up, Daniel?" asked Colonel Jack O’Neill, the commander of SG-1, when he spotted the archaeologist making his purposeful way toward General Hammond’s office the next morning. SG-1 was on downtime for a few days, and Major Samantha Carter had taken off the night before to visit a friend in Denver for a day. Teal’c, the Jaffa member of the team, who, as an alien and a member of a species at war with Earth, didn’t have the luxury of off-base vacations, had said something about meditating, maybe his kel’no’reem thing that he’d made Jack try when the two of them had switched bodies. Sweet. Now here was Daniel back from wherever he’d departed so quickly yesterday, and there was a look on his face that Jack knew of old. It was the look of trouble. Sort of a common condition where Daniel was concerned. "I would’ve thought you’d be home feeding your fish, filling out your journals, reading books about ancient Egypt or playing with some alien rocks. You’re turning into a real workaholic here."
"You’re here," Daniel pointed out with a grin.
"Yep, can’t stay away. Addicted to gate travel, I guess." He looked a question. "So, what’s up?"
"I need to ask the General a favor."
"A favor?" Jack arched one eyebrow. Daniel looked fervent and worried like a man on an unhappy crusade. Maybe he’d figured out what was driving them all nuts lately. Another remnant of Machello that they hadn’t detected, one to drive them all buggy the minute they stepped through a gate, something designed to limit the Goa’uld to one planet? Jack remembered reaming Danny hard on the last mission for no apparent reason, and Sam flying to Daniel’s defense. Only she and Teal’c had not appeared influenced by the round of irritation and bad tempers that had swept through all the SG teams—and maybe that meant something, but none of the base scientists knew why. Maybe Junior protected the Jaffa. The larval Goa’uld that lived in his belly might actually be good for something this time around beyond serving as his immune system—or maybe this was just another incident he was immune to. And maybe something about Carter having Jolinar in her head for a while had protected her. It hadn’t been fun for her to be taken over by one of the snakeheads, even if the one in question was a good Goa’uld, a Tok’ra, the kind that didn’t dominate their hosts, rather than the kind who were all out to subjugate everybody who wasn’t them.
Daniel struck a pose. "Yeah, I went shopping at the 7-Eleven yesterday and bought us a civilian psychologist."
O’Neill’s second eyebrow followed the first. "Funny thing, Daniel, there’s no ‘psychologist’ section in my grocery store. And I seem to remember hearing somewhere that this program is classified."
"Oh, that part’s okay. He’s already been cleared. At least he’s been here before and seen the Gate in operation."
Daniel’s eyes sparkled with mischief, even though something darker and sadder lurked behind them. Memories of Sha’re? At least the sparkle was back. Jack had missed it during his friend’s grieving period. "Who is it?" he asked. "Who, Daniel?" He grabbed the younger man by the shoulders and gave him a mild shake.
"Peter V— Oh, no, I get it. The spook chaser. The one with the smart mouth." Jack grimaced. He remembered Venkman far too well, from the time when the Ghostbusters had been recruited to help out SG-1 when they’d suffered a ghostly invasion from another world. The Ghostbusters’ team leader and psychologist had been one of the few men Jack had met with a smarter mouth than his own. The guy drove him up the wall. But the last person in the world to want to sign up with the SGC would be one of the Ghostbusters. That team was tight, maybe even tighter than SG-1. Practically Siamese quadruplets. He couldn’t remotely imagine one of them without the others.
"Not so smart now," Daniel said sadly. "He’s not a Ghostbuster any longer."
"Okay...why?" That didn’t make any sense. "Something happen to any of them?" He’d hate to think that. In spite of the oddity of their jobs, and the Venkman annoyance factor, the Ghostbusters were good folks.
"No, they’re all okay. It’s a long story. Come with me to talk to the General. He might listen better if you’re there, too."
Hammond did have a tendency to listen to the people in his command. He was probably the best commanding officer in that regard that Jack had ever had. He listened to what everybody had to say and then he made an informed decision based on his ethics, and how far he could push the regulations. He could be a hardass when called for, and usually, after the fact, Jack had realized that Hammond’s decision had been the correct one, even if he didn’t like it at the time. Sometimes he had to toe the line even when he didn’t want to, like any military officer. What would he say to Daniel’s attempts to thrust a Ghostbuster onto the team?
"Listen, sure. Accept the guy? I dunno. Are you sure about this, Daniel?"
"I’m sure it wouldn’t hurt us to have a psychologist on hand who never learned to think inside the lines."
"Aha. Throwing my own words back at me. You’ve gotten sneaky in your old age."
Daniel returned his amused grin, then sobered. "I didn’t plan for him to be here permanently. I’m hoping we can reunite him with his team eventually. But in the meantime, maybe we can help him and he can help us. He is a psychologist, after all, and he’s supposed to be a good one, even if you’d never think it at first meeting."
"Oh, for crying out loud," groaned Jack. "More of the psychobabble. Just what we need here. What makes you think a Ghostbuster can help with the little problem we’re having?"
"Not so little, Jack."
O’Neill grimaced, abashed. He’d really come down hard on his friend on the mission, and he felt bad about it. "Come on, Danny, you know that yesterday, when I—"
"I know," Daniel said quickly, conceding that it wasn’t Jack’s fault; any more than it was his own. "You know I—"
"Yeah." Jack grinned, relief in his face. "We’ll just have to remember that next time. Maybe it’s sound waves again."
"Sam and Doctor Fraiser have been working on that," Daniel reminded him. "SG-5 had some trouble yesterday and one of the team wasn’t involved. He tested for sound waves when it was going down and there wasn’t anything he could detect. Just like they did tests for that nifty little Goa’uld killer Machello invented." His mouth quirked at the memory.
"So you think we’re all brain cases?" asked O’Neill as he steered Daniel down the corridor to Hammond’s office.
"Maybe it’s just stress?"
Jack wasn’t sure if that were the case or not. He thought maybe it was something more. Maybe a Ree'Tou rebel had sneaked onto the base and planted something. After all, they’d be out of phase and invisible, easily able to pull it off. They wanted to destroy humanity like so many other aliens out there, even if only because they wanted to eliminate potential hosts for the snakeheads. But if that were the case, why did it only affect the teams that went through the Stargate, and why not Teal’c? He’d have sensed the presence of a Ree'Tou quickly enough, or ‘junior’ would have. The little larval Goa’uld in Teal’c’s belly had thrown fits the last time, and ‘Mother’ had been one of the good Ree'Tou. Why weren’t the techs who stayed here all the time affected by the gate stress? Okay, so a psychologist wasn’t the best answer, but Mackenzie’s theory about gate travel building up a high stress level in the team’s minds wasn’t exactly helping, either. His answer was to rotate the teams; recruit new ones after a certain length of time had passed, limit the number of missions any one man could have. Jack had insisted loudly that that was a bad idea. He knew Daniel agreed with him. The lure of the Stargate was very strong. Even when Daniel had insisted his only reason for joining SG-1 was to search for Sha’re, Jack knew he’d felt the pull of unknown worlds and lost cultures. He couldn’t sit back tamely and let others step through the ring into lost Egyptian civilizations, into Viking worlds, into lost Dynasties. Jack didn’t want to give it up either. Whether Peter Venkman could help or not, his presence was one more chance to delay a stand-down order, one more hold so that somebody could come up with an answer.
"I know stress," Jack muttered. "I’ve done stress. Yeah, this is sort of the same, but not. Something’s different. You might be right that an outsider can have a fresh perspective—but Venkman?"
"Come on, Jack, admit you liked him."
"When he wasn’t driving me to drink, yeah, he wasn’t so bad."
Daniel’s smile flashed out. "I’d bet good money he went home last time and said the same thing about you."
They reached Hammond’s office before Jack could respond. Okay, so he wanted to ignore the comment because he knew it was true. He did a quick rat-a-tat on the door with his knuckles and pushed it open. "Hi, General. Daniel’s got a present for you. I’m not sure you’re gonna like it. And it’s not even gift wrapped."
Major General George Hammond was in command of the Stargate project, replacing General West, who had been in charge at the time the original team first went to Abydos. Jack thought highly of Hammond, but he wasn’t sure how the general would react to Daniel’s new project. Daniel had a tendency to put the cat among the pigeons in the worst possible way.
Hammond’s head came up and he regarded Jack and Daniel the way he might respond to an unexploded bomb. "Why do I have a feeling I’m not going to like this? And before you say a word, it’s about to become official. We’re shutting down the gate until we can resolve this crisis, once we bring the remaining offworld teams home."
"One more chance, General," Daniel pleaded earnestly. He came to a stop in front of Hammond’s desk. Jack lazed in after him, his pose anything but military. Hammond never called him on that when they were alone, although he rolled his eyes wryly.
"Explain it to me, Doctor Jackson. I don’t promise to act on it, but you’ve made me curious."
Daniel beamed and started off on the most ludicrous and bizarre story Jack had ever heard, and he did it with such utter sincerity that he had both the General and the Colonel hanging on his every word. Powerful entities that kidnapped people to other realms? Okay, so the Goa’uld did that. Deals for survival? The Goa’uld, ditto. Nasty twists of fate that made everything backwards? Not just the Goa’uld there. Real life had its share of that. And the other Ghostbusters turning their backs on the man who had saved their lives because they had been conditioned to behave that way? Conditioning? Been there, done that. Maybe if Jack had never been through the Stargate and seen the weird things that happened to people out there, he would have unhesitatingly written off the story. But he’d been turned into a hairy caveman, had Machello’s Goa’uld killers sneak into him and make him go nuts. He’d actually seen the Ghostbusters’ equipment react to the invisible alien ghosts who had come home with SG-1, and witnessed the beings actually restored to life. He didn’t want to believe Daniel’s story. It twisted everything around and made threats real that he didn’t even like to think about. On the other hand, he and the rest of SG-1 had stopped two Goa’uld ships in orbit over Earth. Would Peter Venkman believe a word of that story, if someone tried to convince him of its reality?
"So you see, General, Peter needs something to do, somewhere to go; he needs to be needed and he needs not to be alone," Daniel started winding up his pitch. "I’ve been where he is, and pretty recently, too." He lowered his eyes for a moment then looked up, his face full of determination. "Peter Venkman is a gifted psychologist. I’ve been in touch with Egon Spengler since the Ghostbusters were here last. We correspond about ancient languages. He keeps me posted on the other three. I haven’t been in touch with him since Peter arrived, and I’m not sure I should. I’m going to leave that end of it to the Ghostbusters’ secretary, who is pretty determined to put things right. But the point is, Peter’s already got some clearance here. He knows about the Stargate. He’s a psychologist and he’d offer an objective, original perspective to our current problem. He’s also quick-witted, fast on his feet, and used to facing down horrors that would give most of the world screaming nightmares. Let him come in and see if he can figure out our little problem. If he can’t, or if he agrees with Doctor Mackenzie, maybe we can give up, but there are too many reasons for us to be out there to close it down without trying everything we can first. For all we know, the Goa’uld have found a way to make gate travel difficult for us. Peter might not be able to help with that, but he still might come up with some answers for us."
"Hmmm," said General Hammond. Was he buying it? He sat back in his chair and rubbed his bald dome. "Interesting. You don’t think at this point in time that the other Ghostbusters would give him a reference?"
"No, but that isn’t his fault. What he did proves how loyal he is. I’d think a man who would sacrifice that much out of loyalty would be an asset to the Stargate Project. I am sure he would get good references from the New York Police Department. He even gave the name of some clients of his, up to and including the Mayor and the Governor of New York. We know the Ghostbusters busted a ghost at the White House before we had the team here and that the President was impressed. That’s how you got clearance through so quickly last time, and I know there had to have been extensive background checks before we got the green light that time, even with the President’s approval."
Jack jumped in. Venkman irritated him but that didn’t stop him from realizing that the Ghostbuster was a good man who had the courage to face down powerful threats. Like SG-1, he and his team had saved the world. "I have to say, General, I wasn’t sure I’d buy this, but maybe for a little while he could help us out." Jack remembered that moment when he’d heard the gun fire in the house and how he’d known without any more evidence than the sound of the shot that his son was involved. He knew what it felt to come home from the original Abydos mission and find that Sara was gone. He couldn’t turn his back on Venkman now, even if the guy was annoying.
"I want to talk to him," Hammond decided. "Bring him in, Colonel O’Neill. Go with him, Doctor Jackson. I’ll see him after lunch. It’s possible we can come to an accommodation here, if his security checks are all right. I’ll put them in hand immediately." He waved them toward the door. "I just wish I didn’t think that this idea was more trouble than it was worth."
"Then you won’t shut down the project, sir?" asked Jack as he steered Daniel away from the General’s desk.
"Not entirely. I won’t put in a recall for the teams still offworld, but each new mission will be considered and determined on an individual basis before I approve it. I might even send Venkman along with you on a mission to observe any possible troublesome behavior. He has never been through the gate before. We’ll see how that takes, assuming he’s willing and that he checks out."
"Thank you, General," Daniel called as Jack pushed him out the door. "I know this will work out."
Jack wished he could be so sure.
** *** **
Egon Spengler was in a bad mood. Lately, he almost always seemed to be in one, and that was irritating. He would have thought that once that annoying slacker, Venkman, took off, things would run smoother at the firehall, but nothing had run smoothly at all. At least Venkman had been a fourth man on a thrower when the entities were tough. All right, so he had to be prodded to bother to come on a bust, but sometimes it needed four people. Maybe if they hired a fourth man to replace Venkman, things would settle back to normal.
No. He couldn’t do that. He wasn’t sure why, but he had a gut instinct, the kind of feeling he had never trusted, that hiring another man would be a mistake. Ludicrous. He didn’t operate on wild hunches. He was a scientist who reasoned out logical solutions based upon testing and on scientific results. Why didn’t he want to hire another man? He didn’t miss Venkman at all. Egon was glad he was gone. But there was something deep inside, in the twisting uneasiness of his stomach that had become common lately, which convinced him that the team mustn’t hire someone else.
Janine had turned cold toward him, toward all of them, since Venkman’s departure, too. She always was sassing them, mocking them, turning up her nose at them, even poor Ray, who plodded around most of the time, carefully unobtrusive, the picture of gloom. When Janine lashed out at him, he would flinch like a cornered rabbit and mumble something inaudible before he’d flee upstairs again. That wasn’t like Ray at all. His normal enthusiasm was totally gone. Surely he didn’t miss Venkman? He’d said loudly and clearly that he was glad that Peter had gone away. He’d meant it, too. Egon had seen the intensity in his eyes when he’d made the claim, especially when Venkman had screwed up and nearly gotten them all killed on that last bust. Look at Ray now. He sat propped on a stool at the table in the third-floor lab of the converted firehall that was Ghostbuster Central, Tobin’s Spirit Guide spread open before him. His shoulders were hunched as he idly flipped through page after page of the weighty paranormal reference book. He couldn’t be reading. His mind was far from the contents of the ancient pages, and the expression on his face was evocative of an inner misery.
Winston was down on the second floor. He’d decided it was time to re-read every mystery he owned, and he spent his evenings buried in them, frantically turning pages, muttering to himself. He wasn’t happy, either. Maybe they were all just tired, trying to handle the work of four men with only three of them. But that was ludicrous. For all the work Peter Venkman had done around here, a hamster could have replaced him and there would have been no difference.
Egon’s stomach twinged again. Perhaps he was getting an ulcer, and no wonder, with all the hassles they’d endured with Venkman lately. He reached into a drawer for the bottle of Tums he’d been living on for the past few days and popped two more of them into his mouth.
"Don’t take too many of those things," Ray muttered without lifting his head. He must have heard the sound of Egon shaking them out of the bottle. "They can’t be good for you. Maybe you should go to the doctor."
"Perhaps," Egon said mildly, not so much in agreement but in order to keep from refuting Ray, who had grown so jumpy he would have flinched at a dispute.
"I don’t miss him at all," Ray said out of nowhere. "I don’t, Egon. I didn’t like him. He was always mean to me. I...gosh, I almost hated him before he went away. But...but then why do I feel so funny?"
Egon frowned. He turned his eyes away from the computer screen and really stared at Ray. The younger man’s color was bad. His eyes were hollow with such bags under them that he might have packed them for a month-long vacation. "Change is always traumatic, Raymond, even good change. I’m not sure why that is the case, but it is. Peter would have known why. He always—" He fell silent, brought up against the wall that slammed shut in his mind whenever he tried to refer to the time he was coming to think of as ‘the Venkman years’.
"Psychologist," spat Ray with uncharacteristic fury. "Con man’s more likely. He could fast talk like his dad, make us think he cared about us, but first chance he gets, he runs out on us."
"The hell he did!"
The voice from the doorway was so hotly furious that, for the first few seconds, Egon didn’t recognize it as coming from Janine. The secretary stood there defiantly, one hand curled around a reluctant Winston’s wrist, the other raised in a fist as if she meant to march into the lab and punch them out one by one. What had happened to his sweet Janine? Why had she turned into this raging virago?
"What did you say?" he asked blankly.
"Egon, I have something to tell you, all of you, and I want you to listen. I want you to turn on that icy Vulcan logic you pretend at so well and don’t let your emotions tangle up in it. I want you to hear the true story and I want you to pretend for a minute that it doesn’t have anything to do with you, that it’s about strangers. When I’m done, I want you to promise me you’ll think about it. If you won’t listen and won’t think about it, then I quit—and I haven’t even touched the monthly reports. I’ll crash the computer before I go and I’ll put you out of business. I mean this, Egon. I want you to listen. All three of you."
"Gosh, Janine," ventured Ray uneasily, barely able to meet her gaze, "why are you so mad at us? We haven’t been mean to you."
"No, you haven’t. But you’ve been so far beyond cruel that I’d hate you for it if I didn’t know it wasn’t your fault."
"Cruel? Lady, we’re not cruel," objected Winston. He pulled his arm free and rubbed his wrist without realizing he was doing it. "Come on, Janine, you know we’re not."
"Not usually," she conceded. "But this time, you did something so bad that, if I didn’t know it wasn’t your fault, I’d have to hate you for it."
"What?" gasped Ray, horrified and guilty without even knowing what he should be guilty about. "What did we do? We knew you were mad at us, Janine, but we don’t know why. Tell us. I know something’s wrong. Nothing feels right anymore, but I don’t get it."
"Sit down. All of you. Now." She tapped her toe impatiently until the three of them were lined up in a row on the lab sofa, the one Peter had bought so he could lie around and do nothing while the others worked. Egon’s stomach, unaffected by the Tums, gave a new spasm. Perhaps it was his appendix, although the pain was nearer his stomach than the lower right quadrant, where the appendix resided.
When they were lined up apprehensively, Janine stalked over and stood before them like the kind of schoolmarm who didn’t hesitate to wield a savage ruler on recalcitrant pupils. "I’m going to tell you a fairy tale," she said. "And you’re going to listen to every word of it." Her eyes glittered fiercely, intent with a higher purpose. "Once upon a time, there were four brothers. Their job was to fight evil, and fight it they did, so well that they became world-renowned, heroes of legend and song, whose exploits were described in every home. Children tried to imitate them and women dreamed of meeting and marrying them. Needless to say, such heroes made enemies, because good men always win the enmity of evil."
"What the heck is this, Janine?" Winston interrupted blankly. "Fairy tales?"
"Shut up and listen."
"Better mind her. She doesn’t make idle threats," said Ray, then he gulped and lost color. Egon considered offering him the bottle of Tums.
Janine ignored the comment. "One day, a powerful ogre decided the time had come to stop the heroes. He was more powerful than their spells and charms, and he whisked them away to his evil domain and imprisoned them."
Egon realized that, for some unlikely reason, she was telling the tale of Venkman’s last bust with the team. He understood why she had cloaked it in the garb of fairy tales; they might not have listened otherwise; but he didn’t see what she had to say that would matter. She couldn’t whitewash Venkman, and he didn’t understand why she would even want to try. She was too smart to have been conned by his act.
"One of the heroes was a man whose ability to talk down his enemies was legendary. He used that tactic with the ogre, and it amused the beast. It amused the creature so much that it decreed that it would let the hero live. He could go free. ‘But no,’ cried the hero. ‘I won’t go free. Let my friends go. I’ll stay in their place.’"
"They always do that in fairy tales," muttered Ray. His face was twisted in fierce concentration. "They don’t do it in real life. Not ever." His mouth drooped unhappily.
Ray wasn’t meant to be such a cynic. His embittered claim added to the sickness in the pit of Egon’s stomach. Venkman had a lot to answer for.
"This one did," said Janine. "But the ogre was crafty and clever, and far more powerful than a human wizard. He offered a bargain. ‘In either case, I will spare you, for you amuse me. But if you do not agree to my terms, your friends will die.’
"‘Tell me your terms,’ the hero demanded.
"‘You must surrender what means the most to you in the entire world. If you do that, your friends may live and you may live. If you refuse, only you will survive.’"
"Oh, gosh," muttered Ray. His face was absolutely unreadable. Egon had never seen him look so blank. It was as if he could not get his mind around the concept. Egon wasn’t certain that he could. Janine had to be fabricating a tale. This could never be the true story of what had happened on that last bust.
"‘But that’s a Catch-22,’ insisted the hero. ‘They mean the most to me in all the world.’"
Egon opened his mouth to point out that the term ‘Catch-22’ was too anachronistic for fairy tales, but then he closed it again. He suspected that, if he did so, Janine would attack him for it. He bit his bottom lip and said nothing.
"‘They would not die, but it would be as if you were dead to them, for their love for you would die. You would be free and they would be free, but they would no longer love you. They would banish you from their circle, and they would despise you, call you coward, spit in your face. Yet, if you agree, they will be whole and well, and free in your own world. If you refuse, if you cling to their love for you and your need not to be alone, they will all die, but they will die loving you. Choose, and choose well, because once the choice is made, it cannot be unmade.’
"The hero stood and stared at the ogre with his heart in tatters. He could not choose their deaths. He could not endure their deaths for he loved them more than he loved his own life. ‘Is it forever?’ he asked, and his voice shook when he asked the question. He knew he would have nothing if he agreed, nothing but the knowledge that they were safe and well, and it would have to console him over the long, lonely years that would follow.
"‘Yes, forever. Until you or they have ceased to exist.’"
Janine stopped speaking and sniffed surreptitiously. Her eyes were huge and wide behind her glasses and they glittered with unshed tears. Egon’s stomach twisted again with fresh savagery. When she could speak again, she plunged on. "Only after he was dead would his friends love him again, because, once they were safe, they would no longer care for him and would make no attempt to free themselves from the curse. They would never know that it even existed. But he loved them far more than he loved himself, and he agreed to the ogre’s terms. At least if he chose their lives, he would have a victory. What is it they call it, Egon? A Pyrrhic victory? Where everyone wins but him? Or where the price of victory is way too high?"
"Yes, they call it that," he said through stiff lips.
"I thought they did. Everyone else won, and he won, too, because he won their safety. So the ogre lived up to the terms of the agreement and sent the four heroes home. And once they arrived, the other three hated him and banished him forever. And he went away with a broken heart and nowhere to go—and he was alone."
"Gosh," said Ray in a tiny voice when she had finished.
"You saying that jerk Venkman—" Winston began.
Janine flared into fresh rage. "Shut up. Shut up. If you dare call him a jerk, you’ll be sorry. You think you hate him, but he saved you. He saved you all, and he knew the price. Okay, so you hate him now. But you’re scientists. You’re Ghostbusters. You want to let that Class Ten win? Because if you don’t try to find a way to reverse it, I’m going to have to go to the press and tell them you guys failed. I don’t want to do it, and I’ll hate doing it. Egon, you know I love you. But right now, I don’t love you as much as I did before. The only thing that stops me treating you like you treated him is because I know it’s not really your fault."
She fell silent and looked at them intently. "Egon? Tell me you understood what I just said? Ray? Winston? Do you understand? I know my telling you doesn’t change how you feel. I know it can’t. I can’t break the spell or undo the curse, or whatever it was. But maybe you can. If you won’t do it for Peter, do it so you can free yourself from the domination of a ghost. Ray, all those books you’ve got—there has to be an answer in there."
"Perhaps," Egon said slowly. "I feel no compulsion to change my thinking. Venkman was unreliable, dishonest."
"No, he wasn’t. He would have died for you guys if it would have saved you. I don’t have a curse on me, Egon. I wasn’t there when it happened. I’m not under the entity’s influence. Maybe you think you hate Doctor V, but you don’t really, not inside. Even if you think you hate him, I think you would hate more the fact that some nasty gooper messed with your minds."
Egon pondered her words. Could they possibly be true? Was Venkman the hero of the piece? Had he saved their lives? It seemed utterly implausible. Surely not. Yet Janine was so positive. Had Venkman conned her, the way he’d first conned them? Could anyone con Janine? She was too tough to get suckered in. What if she was right?
"Golly," said Ray in a small voice. He was still huddled up but now his eyes were wide and horrified. "Egon, if she’s telling the truth…."
"You think she is, man?" Winston asked. "I never liked Venkman. I think this is a scam."
Ray shook his head. "Look at us all. I’m not like this usually. I know I’m not. I’m not afraid of my shadow. I’m not sure you guys are going to blame me for everything that goes wrong. Egon’s not really a lab fanatic. And he doesn’t pop Tums every five minutes because something’s bugging his stomach. He has a sense of humor but I haven’t seen one shred of it since Venkman went away. Winston, you’re usually the one that feeds us healthy doses of common sense. But now you just pull away and hide in a book. Something is wrong with us. I don’t know what it is. It’s so hard to think it could be Venkman. He was always nasty to us. But maybe we’ve been made to think that. What do you think, Egon? Is Janine right?"
"I don’t know. I feel no compulsion to have him back. But, on the other hand, I have not felt like myself since we were returned home by the Class Ten."
"Yes, Egon, and that Class Ten could have wiped the floor with you, but he just let you go?" Janine shook her finger in his face. "Why did he do that? He could have killed all of you. It would have been easy. He didn’t suddenly take a big gulp of benevolent pills."
"I kind of wondered about that myself," ventured Ray. "If only you weren’t trying to tell us that Venkman was a good guy, then maybe this would make more sense."
Janine drew an exasperated breath. "If he were such a jerk, Ray, how come you and Egon worked with him ever since college? How come you three were planning that big surprise for him only a week or so ago? How come you ran this business for so many years and made it a success if he were so useless? It wouldn’t have been worth carrying the slack for so long if he didn’t fit in, would it?"
"There is sense in what you say, Janine." Egon frowned. "I.... Had the Class Ten offered me that kind of deal, I would have taken it as well, to save my friends."
"So would I," Ray said. He wasn’t quite as huddled as before. "Gosh, Egon, at least we can find out if there is a spell or curse. Do you think it would show on a P.K.E. meter?"
"Perhaps." Egon grabbed the nearest detection device, adjusted it for Ray’s biorhythm readings and maximum gain, and aimed it at the occultist. Then he frowned. "How very peculiar."
"What is it, m’man?" Winston craned his neck to look.
"I’m detecting a strange overlay. I’ve never seen anything like this before. It’s almost invisible; it barely registers at the top level of power. We’d have had no reason to adjust the meters like this in the normal course of things, so, unless you told us the story you just told us, Janine, we would never have guessed that something was wrong."
"Then we are influenced?" Winston shook his head. "Man, knowing that doesn’t make me think any kinder of Venkman."
"Well, it wouldn’t, would it?" Janine demanded. "Okay, you know what happened now. He asked me not to say anything to you. He didn’t think it would do any good. He knows the only way you’ll ever care about him again is if he dies."
Egon’s stomach twisted so hard he jumped to his feet and blundered past them into the bathroom. For an agonizing interval, he leaned over the toilet while he lost the contents of his stomach. If he couldn’t remember Peter Venkman fondly in his mind, perhaps his body could remember. Perhaps the deepest reaches of his subconscious could remember.
After a minute, he felt someone stroking his neck and knew from the touch that it was Ray.
"It’ll be all right, Egon," he soothed. "I know it will. We’ll figure out and make it go away."
"Even if we don’t want it to go away, Ray?" he ventured when the spasms had passed.
"We only think we don’t," Ray ventured. "Because something’s wrong with us. You know what I think? I think the Class Ten wasn’t as strong as he thought he was. Because you and me and Winston, we’re a team. We’re a family. The demon didn’t know that. If...if Venkman was family too—and gosh, Egon, I keep getting these weird memory flashes that make me think he might really have been—then maybe the demon wasn’t strong enough to make it total. So that even if we couldn’t remember consciously, our subconscious minds would know that something was wrong."
"If he would give up his life to save ours, Ray, then we have done him a great injustice. I still can’t see it. My memories of him are twisted and unpleasant, and I keep wanting to snap my fingers and say to forget it, not to try."
"But you won’t do that?" asked Janine hopefully from the bathroom doorway.
Egon took the glass of water Ray passed him and rinsed out his mouth. His stomach was still unhappy but it had settled slightly. He could live with it, for now. "No, I won’t do that. I am a scientist. If I am influenced, then I want to know it and I want to remove the influence. Perhaps, if I do, I will return to...normal. Perhaps we all will." He took the towel Winston held out and dried his face. "Thank you, Janine. I know you feel you have a great deal to put up with from us right now, but please bear with us."
"Somebody has to," she said grudgingly.
"But...where is he?" Ray asked in a startled voice. "Where did Venkman go? He’s not here anymore. Is he staying with you, Janine?"
"No. I haven’t seen him." Why did something flash in her eyes as she said it? Egon was sure she knew where he really was. For an instant, he felt a surge of fury that she would conspire with Venkman and deceive them. Was she no better than he was? Then he stomped down the feeling. If Janine were telling the truth, his furious reaction was an induced feeling, imposed upon him by an outside force. Something had tampered with his mind, that’s what Janine claimed. He hadn’t even realized it had been done. If true, he had the obligation to fight it, to clear his mind. If Venkman were actually what Janine claimed, a man who had made an unbearable sacrifice for the sake of his friends, then he and the other two were guilty of a great wrong perhaps the greatest they had ever committed. That they had not known it and would never have intended it in their right minds could be no excuse. If he had been in Venkman’s shoes, what would he have done? What would he have felt?
Ray edged up beside Egon and gazed at him with stricken eyes. "We’d better get to work," he said. "I know it’s my fault, and I want to make it right, even if I don’t want Venk—uh, Peter, to come back. We have to figure out how to fix this."
"Only if he’s dead?" Winston said. "That’s what would break the spell? So we trick the spell and make it think Venkman’s dead?"
"No, that wouldn’t work," Egon replied. "No, he’d have to be dead in actuality. No longer existing, was that what you said, wasn’t it, Janine?"
She bowed her head in agreement. Why did Egon suddenly have an image of Janine and Venkman sparring like brother and sister? He wanted to squash it away, to repress it utterly, but he made himself concentrate on it. He could almost see it, a different Venkman than the obnoxious, unreliable man his mind insisted upon.
Was that the real Venkman?
And, if so, could the other three Ghostbusters ever undo the wrong they had done to him?
Did Egon even care, other than to fiercely resent the fact that an entity had tampered with his mind?
Yes, he had to care, even if it seemed impossible. He couldn’t let the Class Ten win.
Peter Venkman stepped into General Hammond’s office and stood waiting for the older man to acknowledge him. Hammond was talking on the phone, not the red telephone that was probably a hot line to the President of the United States but a perfectly normal black one. He put up a hand without looking up to still the newcomer and muttered, "One moment." His head was bent, presenting Peter with a perfect view of his bald dome.
Peter waited obediently. Did he really want this? Heck no, everything he wanted was back in New York, back with the life he’d had when he was a Ghostbuster, when he had three guys who were his brothers in everything but blood, where he was needed and wanted, and where he needed and wanted them in return. Ghostbuster Central was more than the place he lived and worked. It had been home. But he couldn’t have that any longer. Far better to be far from New York, so he wouldn’t be tempted to lurk around the firehouse and hope to catch a glimpse of the guys, just to reassure himself they were still alive and safe. No, that would be like a kid pressing his nose against a candy store window, never allowed inside. It would be impossibly harder in the long run to see them regularly and know how unwelcome he was. At least, out here, he was too far away to face that temptation every day. Maybe the people on the Stargate project could even use him, although the way he’d felt the past five days, he wasn’t much good for anything any longer. Maybe he should have tossed it all in long ago, looked up his dad, and made Charlie a happy man by running scams with him.
Only he couldn’t do that. If he did, the contempt he’d seen in Egon’s eyes when he left the firehall would have been real and not induced by a Class Ten entity with an unpronounceable name. Peter might play at being shallow and materialistic, but it was a game, a front, to hide the real man underneath, the man the other Ghostbusters had known well enough to understand and value in spite of his glib, mouthy exterior. The smart mouth was lost in the rubble of his life. It was hard to find the heart to say something cutting and witty.
The expression of loathing in his friends’ eyes couldn’t have hurt any more if it had been real.
General Hammond hung up the telephone with a murmured, "On my desk, sixteen hundred hours." He closed a folder that lay open in front of him and replaced it with the one beneath it. "Come in, Doctor Venkman," the general called. "Have a seat."
Peter plopped down in the nearest chair in his accustomed sprawl only to catch himself and straighten up a second later. Great image, he thought. How long has it been since I had a job interview? When I got taken on at Columbia. I don’t even have a resume. Nice going, Venkman.
Hammond’s eyes were neutral with only a hint of sympathy in them. He was a man with problems of his own, problems that dealt with national—heck, even global—security. Peter found himself touched that the man could spare even a tinge of sympathy for one misplaced Ghostbuster. "Doctor Jackson hasn’t told you about our problem here, I understand?"
"No, sir, he said I didn’t have clearance yet. Just that you have a problem and that it might help you to have a psychologist around who doesn’t have any preconceived notions."
"You realize we may discover quickly that the problem is not psychological," Hammond went on. "Doctor Jackson might have brought you here for a limited duration. On the other hand, apart from your father’s police record, which need not apply to the subject at hand, there is nothing in your own security checks to cause any problems." He nodded at the papers in the folder that lay open before him. "We have several glowing testimonials from prominent and respected citizens, and from people in high places from NASA on down regarding the work you and the other Ghostbusters have done."
Yeah, back when I still had a life. "It doesn’t exactly set any of us up for other work, but I have kept my hand in as a psychologist. I’m licensed in New York, not that it does me any good out here. I’ve even still got my teaching certificate, for all the good that does me."
"Well, now, Doctor Venkman, the SGC is our own little world. We won’t worry about that part of it. Daniel speaks highly of you, and even Colonel O’Neill has stated that he’d respect you and would be willing to work with you. Jack O’Neill is a notoriously hard man to impress. I spoke to Teal’c before you arrived and he, too, would be willing to cooperate with you in your potential investigations. Whether or not we’d send you through the Stargate is a moot point at this stage, since you have no training in that area, but we might consider it as an observer. You haven’t accumulated any time in gate travel, which could be an advantage. However, if we do use you in such a way, I want to caution you that, while no one has been injured yet, there is a danger of a lasting effect."
"What’s actually going wrong?" Peter asked. He was only mildly interested, but if it were something he could actually do something about, then it would be worth it. Maybe somebody would look at him with respect in his eyes. It wouldn’t make up for the contempt he’d seen in his friends’ expressions when he walked out of the firehouse, but it would still feel good. Peter had learned a long time ago that it was smart to take what he could get.
"It started with minor things; irritability, frustration, quick tempers. For a long time, we put it down to simple stress. There has been a lot of pressure on the SGC and SG-1 has gone through more of it than most, not that the rest of us haven’t felt it, too. It isn’t impossible that they’re just going through a case of job burnout. That’s Doctor Mackenzie’s theory—he’s the chief psychiatrist here."
"I met him last time."
"I remember that. And I must say the theory would make sense. However, we’ve encountered enough alien threats and weird pathogens out there that the answer might be far more complex—and far more deadly. We ran into the ghosts you helped us with last time, and we have an invisible enemy that could be behind what’s happening, although we have no evidence, no proof of that. Still, when someone has it in for you—when powerful alien races have it in for you—assuming stress to be the cause of the problem is rather simplistic and naive, not to mention downright dangerous. Our scientists are working on the problem, but we don’t have anything concrete yet."
"You said it started with minor things, General? So, let me guess. It’s worked its way up to major things? People punching each other out? Fights? Injuries?"
"No major injuries, at least nothing life-threatening. Two members of SG-4 wound up duking it out on a recent mission and one of them sustained a broken wrist and the other a mild concussion. Colonel O’Neill and Doctor Jackson blew up at each other on their last mission. They didn’t come to blows, but it was a near thing. If not for Major Carter and Teal’c, who appear to be unaffected, it could have been much worse. When they returned through the Stargate, I never saw two such sheepish people. They’ve made their peace—they’re too sensible and too good friends not to—but you can understand why I don’t want to risk sending teams through except in emergencies until the problem is resolved. It may even be a side effect of repeated gate travel. We’ve discovered the use of a sarcophagus—an alien device that we won’t expect you to encounter during your stay here—can have addictive side effects. All of this is still fairly new to us, and we’re using technology that, for the most part, we didn’t design and don’t fully understand. Sometimes we can’t even detect obvious problems with conventional testing."
"Yeah, I know how that goes. Every now and then we run up against a crazy entity that doesn’t set off the P.K.E. meters." He caught himself hastily. The habit of saying ‘we’ hadn’t gone away. He wasn’t sure it ever would. "The thing is, sometimes when you’re on the cutting edge, you run into problems nobody’s ever faced before. I bet you know that already. You’re out there dealing with problems none of the rest of us even dreamed of."
"Exactly right, Doctor Venkman." Hammond frowned. "I was due to retire before I was recruited for this project. When I do retire, it will be from the SGC. I would hate for my career to end with us giving up and going home with our tails between our legs because we couldn’t keep up with the big boys. I want to find a solution to this problem. You aren’t exactly a conventional troubleshooter. We’ve tried them before, although not on this. I’d be willing to take a risk with you. Maybe there’s nothing you can discover, but I’m told you think on your feet and things that would terrify the rest of us don’t faze you. I can’t promise you an ongoing position with the SGC, especially if we can’t resolve this. Even if we do, there are no guarantees, but Doctor Jackson seems to think you’d be a good addition to this project. Sometimes his ideas are a little far out in left field, but I have never doubted that he is a brilliant and insightful man. So for the time being, consider yourself a temporary member of the Stargate Project. I have a non-disclosure agreement for you to read and sign. Does anyone know where you are?"
"My secretary knows I’m in Colorado, but I didn’t tell her I had run into Daniel because I sent her a postcard before I met him. I can keep a secret, General." He accepted the folder the general handed him and read it through. Okay, it was like the one he’d signed before, only a little more specific. No problemo. He hesitated, waiting for fate to jump in and offer him a second chance. Fate was stubbornly silent. Peter heaved a sigh and scrawled his name on the form.
Hammond passed him a second document. "Then this is a contract for you to be employed here. It’s open-ended. If your situation should somehow resolve itself, you would be free to depart, although we would be grateful for a week’s notice in that instance. We wouldn’t insist upon it, but we hope that you’d finish any existing projects before you leave us."
"My...situation isn’t gonna resolve itself, General. Consider me signed on." Peter scribbled his name on the contract and passed it back. He was glad his hand didn’t shake. "Where do I start? Guess I just recruited myself to try to save the world again. Once you do it, they just expect it of you." It was hard to keep his tone light. Once, the glib words had just rolled off his tongue. Now he felt like he was wading through concrete, and that if he stopped to be clever, he’d freeze fast.
The general didn’t argue. Instead he handed Peter another sheet. "Your computer codes. When you get a chance, check out the files we’ve downloaded in your name. If you need help working the computer, anyone will help you. I’ve had the pertinent information made available to you in summarized form. Read up on it so you can be current. You do realize we can’t reveal everything we do here or an entire dossier on what has happened since your last visit, but we’ve considered the possible threats we face, the races that have the ability to set us up, and we’ve prepared a comprehensive survey. See what you make of it."
"Computers don’t like me much," Peter said wistfully. "I usually leave all that to the guys...." He changed direction in a hurry. "I just hope I don’t crash something and send us to DefCon 1."
Hammond’s mouth twitched in a smile that he repressed quickly. "Not possible with your security clearance, I assure you. I’ll have Colonel O’Neill take you to talk to Doctor Mackenzie and Doctor Fraiser," he said. "We might as well start there."
"Could I talk to the guys from SG-4 who had the fight first?" Peter asked. "I’d like to get their impressions before I talk to anybody else. And I’d like to pick Daniel’s brain and Jack’s. Then, when I talk to the medical types, I’ll be at least partway caught up."
"That sounds like an excellent plan, Doctor Venkman. I’ll have an airman show you to your temporary quarters. We can issue you some civilian fatigues, and I’ll see you get a quick refresher tour of the base." He pushed a button on his desk, and a minute later an airman so young and eager he looked like a Ken doll in uniform, still package-new, popped in and saluted with crisp, military precision.
"Airman, escort Doctor Venkman to the quarters assigned to him, see that he gets fatigues in his size, and show him quickly around the base. He’s seen the gate room on a previous visit, so there’s no need for him to visit it now. Show him the direction to refresh his mind, no more. When you’ve finished, take him to the infirmary to Doctor Fraiser and let her know he’s to interview Keller and Mahaffey."
"Yessir." The airman’s wide blue eyes gleamed. "This way, Doctor Venkman."
The minute they were out of Hammond’s office, the man relaxed his stance from attention, although not completely. "Are you really Peter Venkman? The Ghostbuster?"
"Yeah, that would be me." He couldn’t quite bring himself to say, ‘the former Ghostbuster.’ Some things were too painful. "I’m just filling in here for awhile."
"I’m from Newark," the boy admitted. Peter would have guessed the general location from the accent. A Jersey kid. "I’ve seen you guys at work. I never thought you’d come here, but they say you were here once before."
"Intergalactic consultants, that’s us." Peter grinned at the boy. "What’s your name?"
"It’s, uh, Frank Sinatra, sir." He blushed. "Really. I can’t help it. My mom thought he was great. No relation, though. Actually, my buddies call me F.J."
"And your dates probably call you ‘old Blue Eyes,’" Peter kidded him.
F.J. blushed again. "Well.... This way, Doctor Venkman. Your quarters will be down this corridor."
Peter had to say the room he was shown wasn’t exactly the Plaza Hotel. It wasn’t even the Motel 6. But it had a bed and a door that could close to shut out the world. He’d bring his stuff from Daniel’s place first chance he got. There was the computer terminal, and he sat down at the keyboard it to check it out. He was better with computers than he’d let on; as the Nineties passed, he’d realized he needed to be. So he’d boned up on the sly, and he didn’t have any trouble inputting his new password and calling up a few files. Just a quick skim while the airman went to fetch his clothes. Memorize as much as he could. He’d always been good at things like that.
A short while later, clad in a black tee shirt and BDUs devoid of military insignia, like the ones Daniel wore, Peter let F.J. issue him into the infirmary. He remembered Doctor Fraiser as an attractive woman who had been almost impressed with the Venkman charm. There was Sam Carter, too, although she wouldn’t be back until tonight, according to Daniel. At least his exile had beautiful women in it. Not that it even made a difference. It was still exile. This might be a place where he could be useful, where he was needed, but being needed didn’t fill the aching hole inside. This place could never be home.
"Doctor Venkman." Fraiser came to meet him, a clipboard in her hand. She did great things for a uniform. Think of that, Peter. Don’t think of what you’ve lost. "Welcome to the SGC. General Hammond said you’d be by to talk to my patients. They’ll both be released tomorrow. They’re good men, and good friends, and they both feel pretty foolish over the fight they had. Neither one of them is sure why—"
"Uh, uh, uh," Peter held up a hand to stop her. "Come on, Doc, I need to form my own impressions here. I’ve got a feeling you people have been booby-trapped, but in case you haven’t been, what I find out from talking to them might be important."
"Booby-trapped?" Fraiser raised her eyebrows in interest. "Why do you say that?"
Peter gave her a quick grin. "Because the little I know about the Goa’uld and what I skimmed on the computer files I can access says that you’ve got some crummy enemies out there. Some of them really have it in for you. These Ree'Tou rebel guys, the invisible ones, could make trouble and you’d never even know it unless you had those gun thingies that make them visible, those whatsis, the TER’s." Sounded like one of Egon’s gizmos with a complicated name. Peter hadn’t bothered learning the actual technical name. He usually didn’t with Egon’s either, just the acronym and what the device did, then he could make up a crazy name of his own for it and bug Spengler like crazy. He hated to think of the kidding that usually went on between them and that was now gone forever. He didn’t even bother to dream up a goofy name for the trans-phase eradication rods. "Now I’m betting good money you’ve thought of that already. But those little Goa’uld killer worm thingies that Macaroni guy left made people act crazy."
"Machello," corrected Fraiser gently.
"Whatever. Near as I can figure from a ten-minute scan is that people who didn’t have one of those Goa’uld snake characters inside them, or at least Goa’uld footprints, went nuts." He’d have to think about that later, why Sam Carter had proven immune. Her eyes didn’t glow; at least not that Peter remembered.
"Myself included," Fraiser replied wryly. "But they didn’t go away on their own, as whatever is wrong now does, whenever the affected party returns through the gate. I’ve been able to come up with no medical reasons for their behavior and since they display none of the violence and anger when they’re home, Doctor Mackenzie isn’t having much luck from the psychiatric end, either."
If it had been that easy, there would have been no need to recruit Peter in the first place. He figured he’d do what he did at home when the guys were trying to solve some complex ectoplasmic mystery. He’d just open his mouth and turn it on and see what came out.
"Okay, and I know you figured this, too. The crazy behavior offworld stopped once the people came back through the gate. Maybe the gate killed whatever it was. Maybe you need to be on call and make a few field tests once somebody starts acting weird. Take medical scans before and after. See if there are even fractional differences." He propped himself against a diagnostic bed. Might as well be comfortable.
Fraiser nodded. "Yes, we did consider that. It will be our next priority, and I suspect that if we do such a thing, you’d be included on the team."
Peter felt a thrill of anticipation, the first genuine excitement he’d felt since old Mugwump had brought the team back to the firehouse and abandoned Peter to his fate. "Go to another planet? See some little green men? Boy, is Ray gonna be envious, and Winston, too." He caught himself. The exhilaration melted away like ice in a heat wave.
"I doubt we’d choose an inhabited world," Fraiser said quickly. She was sharp enough to pick up his reaction but she had the decency to pretend not to. "Would you like to talk to the men now?"
"Yes. One at a time, if that would work out." He didn’t want them to influence each other as they talked, although they’d probably been beating their heads against it since they got back. It’s what the Ghostbusters would have done.
"I’ll set it up."
She vanished into the next room just as Jack O’Neill sauntered into the infirmary. "Hey, Pete," said the Colonel as a greeting. "Good to see you. Sorry about why. Mind if I sit in with you?"
Peter had just been thinking something like that might be a good idea. Jack O’Neill knew the routine of an SG mission, and Peter didn’t. He might pick up clues that went right over Venkman’s head, and he had more at stake here than Peter did, so he’d be giving it his all. He’d even experienced a little anger at his best friend himself. "Sure, Colonel. Come along. Don’t know if it’s gonna work, but we’ve got to start somewhere. Let me take the lead, but if anything comes to you, pipe up loud and clear. Deal?"
O’Neill grimaced. He wasn’t a guy to let other people take the lead, but he was too good an officer not to shoot down someone’s specialized knowledge, not if it meant finding answers.
Fraiser returned. "Hello, Colonel. This way, Doctor Venkman."
"I’m taking Jack Sprat with me," Peter explained, hiding a smile at O’Neill’s grimace at the sobriquet. He added smoothly to the doctor, "And it’s Peter, to you."
Jack groaned, but Fraiser smiled. "Peter, then."
Soon, Peter and Jack were sitting at the bedside of Captain Thomas Keller, a thirty-something man with carroty hair and a boyish face. His eyes were cool and knowing; the youthful look belied his experience. The cast on his right wrist spoke of his injury, and he had a few healing scratches and bruises on his face to prove he hadn’t gotten it all his way in the fight. He’d halfway covered the cast with the blanket when they came in as if he were ashamed of it.
"Hey, Tommy," Jack greeted him as Fraiser let herself out of the room. "This is Peter. New recruit to the team. Paid consultant, you know the drill. He’s talking to everybody who has had these little offworld adventures."
"A shrink," said Tommy Keller without enthusiasm, then he shrugged. "Okay, doc, do your thing." A puzzled frown puckered his brow as he studied Peter’s face. "Hey, you look kind of familiar."
"I was here once before," Peter said hastily. For Keller to know Peter had been a Ghostbuster wouldn’t make this any easier. "But I’ve never gone through the gate. I’ve got that treat ahead of me, if we can’t figure out what’s going down here. Maybe I can deck the Colonel." He cast a quick grin at O’Neill.
The colonel made a wry face at him and muttered, "Sweet," under his breath. "I think it’s a Goa’uld plot myself," Jack added. "I can think of a couple of ‘em who really have it in for us."
Peter repressed a shudder. He didn’t like the thought of those snake things lurking out there planning an evil fate for humanity. ‘Course a lot of ghosts had it in for the Ghostbusters, but this was worse. He’d been happier not knowing. No, he’d known for a while now, since the last time he was here, but it hadn’t really registered. Evil space aliens out to get humanity sounded like something out of a bad horror movie, not something that American troops were gearing up to face on a day-to-day basis. It almost managed to put Peter’s loss into perspective. Almost.
"No lie," agreed Keller, his eyes darkening at his own personal memories. "But I wasn’t even thinking of the Goa’uld when it happened. Steve and I were doing a recon before we went down to the native village. We weren’t even imagining being mad at each other, just wondering what kind of first contact we’d make. It was weird. He pushed aside a bush and when he moved past, it swung back and hit me in the face. God, it was an accident. Could happen to anybody. He was even starting to apologize when I belted him. Guy’s my best friend. I wasn’t mad at him. I don’t know where it came from but this crazy rage just boiled up inside me and the next thing I know, I’m trying to pound him into the ground." He gestured at the casted wrist. "Hit him so hard I broke my wrist and did a real number on my knuckles. I don’t know where it came from. The other two members of the team came running up and stopped me, but Steve was out like a light. I remember, I kept fighting to get to him all the way back to the gate. The others gave me hell—yelled and screamed at me like they were crazy, too. Then we dialed up Earth and came back through the gate and it all just...melted away." He tucked his chin into his chest and tried not to look guilty.
"Yeah, that’s like what happened to us," O’Neill admitted. "I didn’t go so far as to beat up on Daniel, but I came this close." He held up thumb and forefinger about half an inch apart. "I was working up landing a sucker punch to his jaw when Teal’c grabbed us and dragged us back to the gate, with Carter trying to calm us down the whole way. Teal’c’s strong enough to hold us off each other with no trouble at all. Then we came through and stood there on the ramp, and I wasn’t mad any more. Instead, I felt kind of weird and empty for a second, then normal again. Daniel and I kind of sneaked guilty looks at each other, and I got the idea he felt okay again, too. It wasn’t like the time on PJ2-455 when it was sound waves that were pissing us off at each other. Janet tested us for that. This was something a lot simpler. Just coming home made it go away—and it was instantaneous; didn’t have to wear off."
"Either that or something about passing through the wormhole itself did it," Peter pointed out. "It doesn’t make sense, though, because if the gate cures it, that would mean every planet you go to is a part of this—like a huge conspiracy—and that’s crazy. As near as I can tell, your selections for new worlds are pretty random. You got them off this cartouche thingie on the first planet you went to and the computer compensates for galactic shift." When Jack looked at him in surprise, he produced a wry grin and said, "Hey, I’m a fast reader. I just had a crash course and it’s fresh in my mind."
"Yeah, it’s still fairly random, although a little more organized than it was in the beginning," Jack admitted. "Not every address on the Abydos cartouche works, even with the computer compensating. Some societies buried their Stargates, or they were destroyed. We can’t go to every single one. Unless we’ve got a traitor on the base with a way to let the Goa’uld know—something like the Tollans’ long range transmitter?" He cocked his head at Peter, who shook his own. He hadn’t come upon that when he was doing his run-through. "Anyway, they’d have no way of telling where to find us, and making us irked and then mad seems kind of passive for the snakeheads."
"That’s what I thought, too," agreed Keller. He tugged the blanket up over his cast.
"That’s the kind of thing I don’t know enough about," Peter said. But you can’t have it both ways. Either the use of the gate stops it or it starts it. How could it do both?" He was glad of this. It was complicated and it was distracting him, although not even this could fully take his mind from what had happened to him. He knew he had to live with it. There was no other choice. "So unless you’ve got gates with actual conscious awareness that have it in for you, then just coming home can’t be the answer."
"We’ve brainstormed all of this already," Jack said, a hint of impatience in his voice.
"Figured you had. You’ve got a lot of junior Einsteins here. Egon—uh, Egon would say they popped out of the deep end of the gene pool. I’m just talking it through. That’s how I work. I open my mouth and let it flap. Usually amazing, brilliant things happen."
"Sounds like ego happens," Jack disagreed. Keller grinned.
Peter smirked. "And well deserved, every bit of it. Okay, Tommy. Let’s get back to you. Tell me about how you felt when it happened. Were there any warnings? And what kind of a guy are you? Quick tempered? Easygoing?"
"So laid back he’s nearly comatose half the time," kidded O’Neill.
"Pretty easygoing," Keller confirmed with a grimace at the Colonel. "I sure wasn’t mad at Steve. I wasn’t even thinking about him, just about the mission. I hadn’t had any weird reactions before, none of the irritability that some of the teams have reported. Steve got a little testy last mission, but it was a pretty annoying one and none of us figured it had anything to do with the hex."
"The hex?" Peter winced. Hexes were what had gotten into this in the first place. Maybe out there was a Cosmic Class Ten who had it in for any humans who dared to come through the gate. Mugwump had been erratic and testy and liked his own way. Tick off the wrong Goa’uld and he might decide to niggle the SGC to non-existence. That was one thing the Goa’uld and the Ghostbusters’ entities had in common, the belief that it was all right for them to hurt other people, simply because they could. Peter hated that. He had a strong urge to protect innocent people—kids, old ladies...even his buddies in a jam. He wasn’t sure if he’d been trying to overcompensate for the things his father did or whether that was the part of him that had first made him into a psychologist and then into a Ghostbuster. "Hexes sound like my business, not yours."
"Is that how you treat your patients?" Tommy asked doubtfully. That was right, he didn’t know Peter was a Ghostbuster.
"Are you kidding? I fast-talk ‘em. Fastest mouth in the east. Haven’t claimed the west yet. I leave that to the Colonel here."
Keller sputtered with laughter. "Boy, has he got you pegged, Jack."
"Ya think?" O’Neill stomped down a reluctant grin.
"So, is there anything you remember? Any little things that might not even seem important?" asked Peter. He bounced up out of his chair and started to devour the room in long-legged strides. He had two modes: near-comatose on a couch, and unable to sit still. Somewhere along the way, the normal Peter Venkman had halfway vanished. "Anything about your mood? About Steve’s? What about the rest of your team? You said they didn’t lose it like you did. How did they look, do you remember? Stressed? Angry? Worried?"
"Mostly worried," the captain admitted. "But we all knew things hadn’t been going right. And then they were ticked off at us and overreacting like mad, bawling us out like we were two years old. That’s not normal either."
Peter frowned and made himself still his pacing. He stopped at the foot of Tommy’s bed. "So maybe part of it is that you were psyched up for it, do you think?"
Keller shook his head vehemently. "Maybe I was psyched up for being worried, half expecting something to go wrong, but I wasn’t psyched up enough to try to kill my best friend."
Peter had a sudden niggle at the back of his mind, something that might work, but it faded before he could grasp it. If it was important, it would come back. Egon always said that; not to push it, just to wait and if it mattered, he’d think of it again. Egon was usually right about things like that—when he hadn’t had his brain played with. These guys had had their brains turned into cosmic ping-pong balls, too. Sure, a virus could cause bad tempers, but that would make it an awfully smart virus, one that only worked offworld, on a variety of planets with different conditions. Only thing they evidently had in common was that they were what Star Trek had called ‘Class M’ planets, suitable for human life. Surely each one of them couldn’t have something to make a virus thrive that Earth lacked. That was so improbable as to be out of the ballpark entirely.
"And I wasn’t psyched up to blame Daniel for everything since the invention of the first gun," put in Jack. He pushed himself out of the chair and went over to examine the contents of a small table as if they were as fascinating as Peter’s little black book. "Sometimes he irks me a little on a mission, but we’re just coming at things from different perspectives and it always works out in the end. Heck, the guy’s my friend. He doesn’t irk me enough for me to call him every crummy name in the book. And I know I don’t irk him enough to have him let fly with every exotic curse known to man. Afterward, he said some of them were in ancient Egyptian."
"Egon curses in Sumerian when he’s really steamed," Peter said automatically stopped short.
Jack kindly overlooked the lapse. "Yeah, Danny, too. The kid speaks twenty-three languages and some of them haven’t been in common use since Alexander the Great."
"Okay," said Peter, pulling back control of the conversation. Ancient languages reminded him too much of Egon. "Tommy, you don’t think you were mad enough to take a swing at Steve before he hit you in the face with the bush. What do you think you’d normally have done if that had happened?"
"Probably said something like, ‘do you mind?’ and forgot about it. Or called him a clumsy idiot—not meaning to be nasty about it. Just, kidding, you know. Like buddies do."
"Yeah, I know," said Peter sadly. "Okay, that’s what anybody would have done unless it was somebody they didn’t like who let fly with the branch or somebody who did it on purpose. But you overreacted. What was Daniel doing when you lost it, Jack?"
"Going on about some artifacts. He does that all the time, always wanting to haul home a pile of rocks. Weigh a ton, too. I ride him about it, but it’s just normal kidding, ya know? Call ‘em rocks, so he’ll insist they’re artifacts. Kind of like a game we play."
The way Peter kidded Egon about his highfalutin scholarly words. "Got it," he said. "Okay, I think I’ve got a handle on it, at least enough to go on. Thanks, Tommy. Don’t go punching anybody out until you get the cast off."
** *** **
O’Neill followed Venkman to the main infirmary room. "Okay, you got something there, didn’t you?" He wasn’t sure what there was to get, but he’d seen a lot of emotions running across the shrink’s face. Some of them were mixed up with the loss of his buddies, sure, but he didn’t think all of them had been. Were they going to get any use out of Venkman? He had the advantage of a fresh mind on the problem, and few if any preconceived notions, but Jack wasn’t sure he was more than a con man. He just couldn’t tell, even if he’d been helpful the last time around.
Peter plopped down in a convenient chair and put his feet up. "Don’t you get it, Colonel-baby? Whatever this is, it’s targeted right at your SGC. It can’t be a virus, and I don’t think it’s gate travel in itself. If it was, people would still be bashing each other once they got home."
That was so blindingly obvious that Jack shook his head in disbelief. They knew it stopped when they got home, but hearing it summed up by a newcomer made the point a little more clearly. Before he could say anything in response, the rest of his team trooped into the infirmary, led by an eager Daniel. Sam must have returned from Denver a little early, for she was there, too, already changed out of her civvies, and Teal’c, impassive as always, brought up the rear.
Jack couldn’t help feel a little thrill of pride at the sight of the rest of SG-1. He had the best team on the base and he’d challenge anyone to dispute it. Sam Carter was the smartest woman—heck, the smartest person—he’d ever known, and she was one of the finest officers he’d ever served with. She’d probably forgotten more about astrophysics than Jack would ever learn, or want to. Look at her now, probably analyzing everything Daniel had told her at a speed as fast as a supercomputer.
"Peter," she said in delight and went to the psychologist, who stopped imitating a throw rug and jumped up to receive her embrace. His face lit up as she hugged him, but Jack didn’t think it was anything to do with lust. The poor guy craved affection. Had to, when the people who usually cared about him most thought he was Goa’uld leavings.
"Hey, Sam," Peter said as he arched suggestive eyebrows at her. "Why not blow this popstand and run off to Aruba or Cancun with me?"
"Tempting, but I think I’ll pass. I make it a firm rule never to date other SGC employees."
"I could always quit," he kidded her, then he moved on and stuck out a hand to Teal’c. "Hey there, big guy. How you doing? How’s Junior?"
"I do well," Teal’c replied. "And the same is true for ‘Junior.’" He essayed one of those smiles that was mostly in his eyes. Jack was glad to see that Peter recognized it as such. But then he’d already started to figure out that Peter was much more perceptive than he let strangers guess. Protective coloration, much the same way Jack used his blow-off cracks.
The big Jaffa was probably one of the reasons SG-1 was such a great team. After he’d renounced the Goa’uld Apophis and thrown in his lot with Earth, Teal’c had proven remarkably steadfast and loyal. His knowledge of the worlds beyond the Stargate had saved their butts more times than O’Neill could count. Not only that, Teal’c was probably the most honorable man Jack had ever known. He lived by his honor and had volunteered more than once, to die for it. Lucky he hadn’t had to.
Teal’c didn’t ask how Venkman did in return, and Jack was glad of that. Daniel had probably coached him before they came in. Instead he gripped the psychologist’s hand, and then clasped him briefly by the upper arms before standing back. Venkman wouldn’t realize that was an honor—no, Jack could see he did. He looked moved before he masked the feeling and put on a flippant face.
"Hi, Jack, hi, Peter," greeted Daniel. "How are things going? I see you got taken on, Peter?"
"Yep, it’s official," Venkman proclaimed, striking a pose to display his new clothes. "Gotta say I’m no fashion plate in this, but then nobody else here is, either, so I don’t have to worry about my rep. When you get your dress uniforms on, with all the medals, I’ll have to dig out my Armani suit in order to keep up."
Carter’s eyes lingered on Peter, then she shot a worried glance at Jack but didn’t comment. Okay, the whole team was picking up on each other’s signals. They’d have to vote Peter a temporary member of SG-1, even if he was actually assigned to the whole project. The poor guy needed it—badly.
"I brought your stuff in," Daniel informed the psychologist. "Had an airman stick it in your quarters for you. The Armani suit is ready and waiting."
"What have you found out?" Carter said, turning the discussion to business. She probably figured Venkman needed that, too. ‘Motherly’ was not a term Jack applied to Sam Carter with any regularity, but there was enough of it in her makeup that it could pop out when someone needed it. Jack could still remember how she had behaved when they’d first found Cassandra.
"Pete has a theory," Jack said. "I was just starting to hear it when you showed up."
"I don’t know if it’s a theory yet," Peter said. "More like an unproved hypothesis. Or, if you wanna be rude, try ‘wild guess’."
"Tell us," urged Daniel. "Sometimes gut instincts work."
"Thus speaks the true scientist," O’Neill kidded him.
"For a guy who can’t stand scientists, Jack, you’re really outnumbered now," Daniel ragged him right back. "Going over to the enemy and all that." His eyes sparkled.
Jack made a face at him then turned to Peter. "Okay, what’s the wild guess?"
The rest of SG-1 spread themselves out around the room. Carter sat down on the diagnostic bed, Teal’c assumed what Jack thought of as the Jaffa ‘at ease’ stance near the door, and Daniel draped his length against the wall beside Jack like a decorative wall-hanging.
Peter waited until they were settled. "Like I was saying, I don’t think the problem’s gate travel itself. Couldn’t be, not unless the gate itself is...uh, sentient, and nobody ever said that. Might be kind of interesting; come to think of it, but E—uh, Egon would say there’s no proof of that or you would have picked up on it a long time ago. It’s something else. You can’t not have a problem, then have one, and then not have it again, except when you take your VCR in because it’s acting weird and the problem clears up in the shop and shows up again when you get it home. How about this? Do you ever go by gate from one planet to another directly instead of coming back here first?"
"Sometimes, but not very often," Sam replied. "Why?"
"Because you’ve got a problem that occurs when you leave here, and goes away when you come back. If the gate does ‘on/off’ for some weird reason, like a toggle switch, then it should go off if you transfer laterally, right? And start up again when you gate home?"
"That makes sense," Sam replied. Jack could tell her mind was doing that mile-a-minute run that it was so good at, as she gave the theories and possible formulas full freedom. "Hmm. That’s something we’ll need to test. I can’t remember if anyone’s done that since this start—oh, wait, the diplomatic team switched from P3R-800 to P3X-221 last week. I can check with them, but—"
Daniel waved a hand for attention, like a student in a classroom. "I remember," he said. "I talked to Anderson after they got back from P3X-221. He said he’d been steamed the whole time, on both worlds, and he was pretty sure the treaty was going to be a mess because of it."
Peter snapped his fingers. "Okay, so this thing only switches off when you’re back. That’s not stress, my friends, not unless it’s the trickiest, weirdest kind of stress that ever was. That’s an imposed condition. Course, how it got imposed is probably gonna be a real bear to figure out." He leaned against the diagnostic bed where Sam sat. A tech appeared out of one of the inner rooms, studied them, and then went out again without saying anything.
"Someone is attempting to confine us to Earth?" Teal’c frowned. "There are several Goa’uld out there who would enjoy that. Some of them have been to this base. Apophis... Yu."
"Me? I’m not a Goa’uld," Peter objected in surprise. "Never had my eyes glow yet and I’m still a tenor."
"No," Teal’c explained levelly, "Yu is the name of the Goa’uld."
"Okay," said Peter, with an amused nod. "Sort of like Watt is the name of the demon." He abandoned the bed, flopped down in the chair he’d possessed earlier, and hung his feet over the armrests. He had a way of doing it that made his bones look as if they had been disconnected or a puppet with its strings cut. No spiffy military posture for Venkman.
"Or, who’s on first?" Jack put in. Teal’c gazed at him and Peter as if they had gone mad. Jack was more interested in finding out about a demon named Watt, but that would have to wait.
But Carter held up an arresting hand. "Wait, it’s a good point. Several Goa’uld have been here. We’d know if they came back another way. But that doesn’t allow for Ree’Tou rebels, who could have been and gone without us knowing if we didn’t suspect them and use the TER’s, or even for a traitor on the base. The only thing is, what could they have done to the gate that wouldn’t be detected? It’s not as if it’s ever unguarded. There’s always at least one tech in the control room on every shift."
"True, but there are computers all over the base," Daniel pointed out. "They wouldn’t have to do their tampering in the gate room or the control room, would they?"
"No, but what would they do?" Carter frowned. "I’ve made a thorough study of the gate and everything we know about it, how the DHDs work, and the chevrons, everything. I’ve got charts and diagrams and I have Jack’s research notes and drawings from the time the knowledge of the Ancients was implanted in his mind. I’ve been over it so many times I know it backward and forward. And I can’t see how anything could be induced into the gate itself to trigger this particular effect. I can imagine something being done that might make us bad tempered but I can’t understand how it would stop again automatically and consistently, once someone returned to Earth."
"That doesn’t mean it can’t be done," Peter disagreed. For a man who looked half-asleep, his brain was functioning on full alert mode. "Come on, Sam, you said yourself it was alien technology. You know how to use it and you have a lot of theories about how it works. You probably do know it best of anybody here, even Teal’c—sorry, big guy—but you don’t know it better than the guy who designed it. Look, I know how to drive a car. I even know how to do a lot of car repairs, even if I can usually con Ray or Winston into doing them. But I don’t know every detail of how an internal combustion engine works, or why. Maybe it’s something in the setting. Then it could be an ‘on/off’ thing you just haven’t encountered yet. You know a—what do they call it with computers? An undocumented feature?"
"We’ll start a systematic study," Carter decided. She pulled a notebook out of her breast pocket and started to jot notes in it. "We’re actually doing that now. We’ve been building test modules and altering settings to get results. We’ve sent the M.A.L.P. through to make comparison tests on the process at different settings and to different worlds, and that data is being analyzed. But you’re right, Peter, that unless it’s something that’s been altered in our own particular gate, that the problem must not be gate travel per se."
"Well, it probably isn’t," conceded Jack. He’d never been comfortable with absolutes. The minute somebody insisted a certain fact was true or false with no chance of alteration, he found himself wanting to find a way to vary it. Maybe he was just pig-headed, but whatever this was, he didn’t want to throw the Stargate program over just because somebody, somewhere might have had it in for Earth. A lot of people had it in for Earth, and they hadn’t managed to stop Earth yet; well, at least not in this dimension.
"You guys are all hung up on tech solutions," Peter offered. "There might be other things."
"Such as what?" Teal’c asked.
"Well, mind tricks?" Peter offered. "Some of these nasties out there are pretty powerful, right? How do you know they haven’t found a way to influence you? Believe me, such things can be done."
"Mass hypnosis?" Carter asked doubtfully.
"What about mass hypnosis?" Doc Fraiser breezed in. "Peter, if you want to see Mahaffey, you can go in now."
Peter hesitated. "Maybe not yet. Janet, you’re a doctor. You know about things like hypnosis?"
"We all do," Carter put in. "I’ve been hypnotized before. Once, we were conditioned to believe Daniel was dead, the three of us. We couldn’t consciously remember the process, but a part of us refused to accept that he was dead, although we had false visions of him dying in flames implanted in our minds. Hypnosis worked us through it."
"Yeah, and then we got Danny back," Jack said with blunt satisfaction.
"They even had a memorial service for me," Daniel said brightly. "I hear Jack said some nice things about me." He flashed an amused—and teasing—glance at the Colonel.
Jack hid a grin. "Yeah, well, treasure the memory, because it’s said and I’m not repeating myself."
Daniel gave him a nudge with his elbow.
Peter’s mouth tightened, but he relaxed it consciously. Maybe the byplay reminded him too much of home. "Okay. You went through this without knowing it happened. But you knew something was wrong. Depends on how it’s done. I know hypnosis myself. I think it’s too easy an answer, and it would have to have been done to all the SG teams. Somebody would have noticed, somewhere along the line. There’s always the odd man out who cannot be hypnotized."
"I am one," Teal’c put in. "My larval Goa’uld protects me from such things."
"And somebody said you and Sam weren’t affected by all this bad temper stuff," Venkman remembered. "And Sam doesn’t have a larval Goa’uld."
"No, but I did have a Tok’ra merge with me for a time," Carter admitted.
"Tok’ra? Oh yeah, the good Goa’uld. I saw them mentioned in my light reading." His eyes lingered on Carter’s face as if looking for traces of the experience. "This is getting interesting. So whatever this little problem is, it doesn’t affect the Goa’uld in any form. Kinda says it all, doesn’t it?"
He had a good point. O’Neill frowned. He didn’t like the thought of a snakehead plan that would force the humans to stay on Earth. It made him all the more determined not to let them shut down the Gate.
Peter waved his hand for attention. "Okay, I find it kind of hard to believe that every team that’s ever gone out has been grabbed and brainwashed without anybody ever knowing about it. Somebody would notice. One thing you need to do is go over your notes about your missions—and I mean all of them—and see if there is any unaccounted for time in them. Ten minutes nobody noticed disappearing, maybe. If somebody grabbed you for a little brainwashing, whoever was brainwashed wouldn’t necessarily spot it. But this is the military. I bet you guys keep a lot of records. And think of this. Teal’c and Sam would notice if the two of you disappeared and came back with this weird little time bomb in your brains. Unless they were there, too, and it just didn’t take with them."
"It might not have happened all at once," Fraiser theorized, her face alight with interest. "If some alien race was powerful enough to influence minds on that level, then they would be powerful enough to do it a bit at a time, and then say that it wouldn’t start until February twenty-third, or whatever."
"Or maybe it would even start slowly, as the different teams were affected," Peter said, excited. He threw himself out of the chair and rocked on his heels. He looked the most alive and alert he’d been since he’d returned to the base. "Little things that nobody noticed until more and more teams were affected. Then, gradually, you’d start to see a pattern, but at first, you probably wouldn’t notice because everybody has a bad day now and then, and people do get on each other’s nerves when they work together all the time." The excitement drained away and he flopped back. Poor guy.
"Okay, campers, that all makes a kind of weird sense," Jack put in. He pushed himself away from the wall and faced them all. "But that kinda begs the question. How do we find out who did it—and how do we reverse it?"
"Assuming it’s even the right answer," Carter said thoughtfully. "And not just what we’d prefer to the alternative. None of us want gate travel to have a cumulative negative effect."
"Cumulative negative effect," echoed Peter whimsically. "Do all physicists talk like that?"
"We have to," Carter teased gently. "I signed a contract to that effect when I got my degree. Besides, it bugs the Colonel."
"I just love the total authority I have over my team," Jack grumbled. "It’s such a rush, being the Colonel."
"I don’t think it’s this cumulative negative thingie," argued Peter. "It doesn’t...fit the facts. That’s one of those quick, glib answers people give when they don’t know answers. It’s gotta be something else, and I think it has to be outside influence because this negative thing, this burnout or whatever, wouldn’t go away just because somebody came home. Burnout doesn’t work like that. I’m a psychologist. I’ve studied it."
"He’s right," agreed Fraiser. "Doctor Mackenzie’s theories fit some of the facts, but they don’t fit them all. Cumulative brainwashing fits better, even if we can’t explain how it’s done."
"How about we get Mackenzie in here and hypnotize somebody?" Peter suggested. "Is he so hooked on his stress theory that he won’t listen to us?"
"I’ll make sure he listens," Jack said darkly. He thought about the time Daniel had been diagnosed as schizophrenic. For a normal human being who wasn’t regularly exposed to alien influences, Mackenzie would probably have been right on the money, but for a guy like Daniel, who went through the gate and practically wagged his tail at trouble, it had been a very narrow choice. Maybe Mackenzie had learned from that mistake. And maybe he hadn’t.
Peter arched a questioning brow but didn’t insist on an answer. "Then we need to get him in here. See if we can pick anything up. Even if we can’t, doesn’t mean that we’re off base. It could be a totally different technique. This brainwashing thing you had when Daniel was supposed to be dead..." Peter frowned. "It didn’t fully take, did it? You all felt something was out of kilter, sounds like. Either it was cut-rate programming or it wasn’t designed for humans. That might make a difference in the long run, y’know. If some cosmic nasty set it up that you’d feel crummy away from Earth, and okay again once you were home, he had to have missed part of the time, like he must have done with Teal’c and Sam. Not everybody on every mission has gone into kick-ass mode, have they?"
"No, but some of the people haven’t been on as many missions as others or been with the project as long. That’s why we thought it was cumulative," Doctor Fraiser reminded them.
Peter scratched his head in thought. "Don’t have to follow. If they hadn’t been on as many missions, that just means they probably had less chance to get their brains munched."
"He has a way with words, doesn’t he?" O’Neill asked wryly. He preferred his brain unmunched, thank you very much.
Peter shrugged. "Oh well, it’s only one theory, and I came in here cold. We could be a million miles off base with it. Could be something we never thought of, and probably is. Just, the thing is, I don’t see how it could be gate travel itself, unless there’s a heck of a lot more to the gates than you ever guessed, and you’ve probably met people out there who know more about them than you do, or have used them safely for generations or longer. That’s not your problem, not unless your own gate’s been slam dunked." He added wistfully, "I wish Egon and Ray were here. They’re good at things like this."
"They’d probably think it was a ghost or demon," said Daniel, striving to sound normal.
"Nah," said Peter too brightly. "But—hey, I’ve got an idea! I can get Janine to send me a P.K.E. meter just in case." He caught the doctor’s eye. "You know, the little gizmos we use to detect ghosts. Might be a good plan anyway. Hey, I wonder if they could pick up Ree’Tou energy. They’re out of phase with us, something like that, it says, and if you have to aim those phase thingies to see them, then you have to suspect they’re around to use them. You don’t take the TER’s to bed with you, after all and I didn’t see anybody walking around carrying one—not that I know what they look like. I betcha we could design something into the meter or alter the setting in a way that would pick them up." His shoulders slumped. "Well, you’d have to ask them to do it, maybe not tell them I’m here, or they wouldn’t want to do it."
Carter smiled at him maternally. There was that maternal thing again. Women were just suckers for that hurt puppy look. Witness the females on the base who pined after Daniel. "We’ll contact them if necessary, Peter, and we’ll avoid mentioning you, if that’s what you’d prefer."
O’Neill could see it wasn’t what he’d prefer; it was what he’d believed necessary. Hard to imagine what it would feel like; say if the rest of SG-1 decided they were fed up with Jack and wanted a new commander because they just couldn’t stand him any longer. A crummy deal any way you looked at it.
"Do it if you have to," Peter said. "There’s a lot more at stake here than just me. You guys need the gate if you want to keep up with the fun and games of galactic politics and other interesting things. And I’d kinda like it if the Goa’uld didn’t show up again in their honking big ships and start taking out our major cities. It’s not like I’d know how to upload a virus to their mother ship, after all."
"Yeah, have to say that wouldn’t be my first choice," muttered Jack with a quick grin, remembering how Daniel had once made a similar comment to Senator Kinsey. "Didn’t work when we had their ships here before."
"What about us going through the gate and letting Peter run tests on us if we start acting weird?" asked Daniel. "After all, the odds are nearly one hundred per cent that nobody has messed with his mind yet."
"Yet?" Peter rolled his eyes. "Oh, thanks, Daniel."
Jackson smiled. "It would be a way to test the theory, anyway. Could you hypnotize one of us in field conditions, Peter?"
"Probably, long as it isn’t Teal’c." He grinned at the Jaffa. "Don’t think I want to have Junior mad at me."
"What about hypnotizing one of us beforehand?" asked O’Neill. "You know, instead of telling us to bark like a chicken, you tell whoever you choose to be laid back as all heck and not to fly off the handle because somebody lets a branch zap him in the face. Then if that particular person still loses it, we’d know it wasn’t anything like hypnosis. And if that person stayed calm—"
"Well, that still wouldn’t be a hundred percent proof, because whoever it is might have stayed calm anyway," Daniel objected. "But it wouldn’t take away from the theory. I think it should be you, Jack."
"I concur," put in Doctor Fraiser.
"Yep, I knew being the Colonel was good for something," Jack groaned. He didn’t like the idea of having somebody walk around in his brain, not one teeny tiny bit, especially Venkman. Okay, so maybe he was better than Mackenzie. Barely. "Okay, kiddies, why me?"
"Because you lost your temper most strongly on the last mission, O’Neill," explained Teal’c.
"And because it’s better to have at least one control who goes through without tampering," pointed out the doctor. "And I believe you could do more damage if you lost control than Daniel could."
"Are you saying I’m more of a caveman than Danny boy?" Jack grinned wryly. "Just because I was a caveman once doesn’t mean I’d do it again. I’m not sure I can be hypnotized, anyway."
"I think it would depend on who was most receptive," Peter said. "Whichever of you responds better would have to be the one to undergo hypnosis. Under very controlled conditions, of course, because in the long run, hypnosis as behavior modification can run into some ethics issues and it’s never a permanent solution."
"Look, I’ll forego the ethical implications if it will let us keep the program going and grind the Goa’ulds’ noses in it," Jack agreed. "I’ll even sign up to let you do your mesmerizing thingie on me, long as you don’t get cute about it, Venkman."
"You take all the fun out of it, Colonel. I had some great ideas."
Jack could just imagine. "Course this all assumes Hammond would authorize a test mission like that." He glanced at Venkman. "I don’t suppose you could do one of your fast-talk numbers on him, show him why it might be important?"
"Sure, why not?" Peter slumped deeper into the chair. "Here’s what we do. I’m always getting flak for not keeping notes, so we get all this down nice and official. Which of you writes the best reports?"
"Usually Daniel," said O’Neill and Carter in perfect unison.
Jackson frowned with the look of a man who knows he’s just been set up. "I’ll do it," he agreed. "We’ll work out a plan with a projected goal and the steps to achieve it. That kind of thing always seems to go over well with the military."
"I’ll summon Doctor Mackenzie," Fraiser offered. "We can do a couple of test studies before dinner, see if he can pick up any evidence of mind tampering. If there is anything like that, I suspect it’s deeply buried, especially if it’s triggered not to respond until someone actually goes through the gate. If that’s the case, off-world testing would probably become imperative, and I think that Doctor Venkman, and possibly myself, would have to accompany you."
"Couldn’t we contact the Tok’ra?" Carter put in hopefully. "And see if they’ve heard any rumors that someone is taking action against Earth?"
Jack frowned. He’d already talked to Hammond about that possibility last week and the General had shot it down. "If humans have a weakness that is produced by gate travel, the last thing I want to do at this point in time is to advertise it to our allies," Hammond had said. "The Tok’ra were reluctant enough to treat with us in the first place, Colonel. Let’s investigate it further before we go running to them for help with our tails between our legs."
Jack had gone along with that, even thought the General was right, but now that Peter had offered new theories, it might be a good time to work with the Tok’ra on the problem. If they hadn’t already contacted the SGC, it might mean that they knew nothing about such a plan. But it could also mean that the Tok’ra had decided it was a problem Earth should handle on its own. Only he couldn’t quite imagine Jacob Carter agreeing to that, although Selmac and the other Tok’ra might have overridden him.
"Well, I’ll run it past Hammond," Jack decided. "The only thing that bugs me about this is that it’s such a passive plan. Most of the Goa’ulds we’ve run into out there would rather just smash and blast us, blow us up from orbit, or trash any of us they found out there, rather than let us pull back on our own. After the treaty, they did warn us if they ran into any of our teams out there that our ass was grass."
"Maybe it’s a power thing," offered Daniel, interested. He pushed himself away from the wall and wandered absently around the room as he pondered. "I thought of that, too, Jack. The Goa’uld are awfully arrogant. I didn’t think they’d be the type to send us home like this with our tails between our legs. They’d rather use us as an example and blow us to bits."
"Unless they’re afraid of Thor’s people jumping in and taking them to task for it, since we made the treaty," offered Sam. "They could think that no one would realize what they’d done, and they’d have us out of the game and no threat to them any longer without turning the Asgards any more against them. They wanted to confine us to Earth and restrict our technology. This would at least confine us to Earth, and if we couldn’t go out there and take them on, it wouldn’t matter what technology we had, at least right now. We’re a long way from interstellar spaceships."
"Maybe we should tell Thor," O’Neill thought. "You know, let him know that maybe the Goa’uld are violating the treaty."
"They did say they’d have no patience with us if they caught us out there," Carter reminded him. "Thor knows that. Even if they were systematically killing off SG teams, I’m not sure Thor’s people could do anything."
"Nice teams in your league," murmured Peter. "Reminds me of the time we watched a baseball game, good against evil, for the fate of one human soul—unfortunately mine. Fortunately, the good side won. One thing I think I ought to point out here is that evil always cheats. Don’t trust your Goa’uld to stick to their treaty if they have a chance to get away with violating it without anybody catching them at it."
"Oh, that makes me feel so much better," complained O’Neill. "Okay, campers, let’s get this report you’re so hot on into order. Daniel, you want to take notes here? When you’re ready and Mackenzie has run his little shrink games on our brains, Venkman and I will take it to Hammond and see if he’ll authorize a mission for us to test it."
"I’ll cross my fingers," said Peter, straightening up in his chair. "I can just see it now—Peter Venkman, galactic hero. Too bad I won’t make the headlines for it. That’d make a few people sit up and take notice." He slumped back again, and then he brightened. "Think I’d get a medal?"
** *** **
"This is just stupid," complained Winston Zeddemore. "Why are we doing this, anyway? It’s not like we’ve lost anything important."
"According to Janine, we have," Egon reminded him. "She insists we have lost an important friendship. If true, then we have an obligation to proceed. Imagine if an entity had made Ray and I turn on you. Would you want us to write you off?"
Winston frowned. "No, I see where Janine’s coming from, but it’s just so hard to believe." He shrugged. "Okay, I’ll keep going on it, but we’re not getting anywhere. What about you, Ray?"
The occultist looked up from the pages of a book even thicker than Tobin’s Spirit Guide. "I can’t find that entity anywhere, not in any of my books, not even veiled references. So I’ve been coming at it from the other end, looking for spells and curses and ways to take them off. This is the Dubolt Grimoire. It’s one I don’t even like to mess with, because it’s pretty powerful."
Egon thought Ray looked better than he had during the past few days. He was caught up in the research, and that had to distract him from his misery and unnaturally low self-image. Egon didn’t remember Ray being as diffident as he had been lately. Surely Ray had brimmed with self-confidence, although the memory of that was hazy. Janine had hauled Egon off by himself and pointed out that when the guys had met Peter, they’d all been good for each other.
"Ray came from a little town and because his interests were different from the mainstream—he was into comics and horror movies and things like that—they thought he was weird and wouldn’t amount to much. You and Peter taught him self-confidence and he learned self respect along the way. Since Peter left, it’s as if he didn’t learn that, after all. And you. Egon, you’re funny. You have a positively wicked sense of humor, but before you knew Peter, I don’t think you knew how to use it. You spent all your time in the lab, a total geek. Peter and Ray didn’t let you stay there. They made you come out in the real world and do a few ‘normal’ things and it was good for you. I think if Peter has been trashed in your mind by that demon, then the lessons you learned from knowing him got trashed, too. Ditto with Ray. If Peter wasn’t a good guy, then how did Ray learn his self-confidence? You would have been too busy in the lab to make him work at it. You’d have taken him on as another lab geek, and, believe me, I know what that’s like. My cousin Irving is a total computer nerd. He has all the social skills of an armadillo, because he never had anybody pushing him to develop any. You and Ray would still be friends without Peter, but there’d be a whole dimension missing from your lives. Look at yourself. Do you feel normal? Do you feel well?"
"You know I don’t," he said. He gave his glasses an impatient shove into place. "I’ve reasoned that perhaps my subconscious mind knows something is missing, but it is hard to believe it’s Venkman. I do accept that you are not lying to me, that you have told us the truth as you see it, and since you were not present when we were prisoners of the entity, you are most likely unaffected by anything it chose to do to us, therefore, what you say is almost certainly the truth. We have the evidence of the P.K.E. meters, as well, that weird overlay that even the traps cannot suck off us. I also find it peculiar that the entity simply released us unharmed. If changing our beliefs in the nature of our relationship with Peter can affect us so badly, then perhaps the Class Ten hoped that it would affect Ghostbusting equally adversely. Its actions might have been a means of forcing us out of business in such a way that the responsibility for the collapse of Ghostbusters, Inc. would never have been laid at the hands of a ghost. Such a belief, that a specter had driven us out of business, would have forced someone, perhaps the government, to take action in our place. Plans would have been made to combat such a threat. If we simply folded, the gap might have remained unfilled, at least until someone else decided to try a similar business. Certainly we have been inefficient since Venkman’s departure."
Janine winced. "Call him Peter," she begged. "Just hearing you say ‘Venkman’ in that tone of voice makes me sick. Egon, Peter and I always got on each other’s nerves. We used to kid each other and ride each other and bug each other like crazy, and I loved every second of it, even when he drove me nuts. But I always knew that, if I were really in a jam, I could go to Peter and he’d help me and never use it against me. He’d use other things, but he wouldn’t if I were in trouble. He deserves everything you can possibly do to fix this—and when this is over, I’ll deny I ever said that."
It was the claim of denial that had pushed Egon over into belief. If Janine were simply intending to con them into buying Venkman back, she’d never have said that; she’d have continued to insist entirely on the psychologist’s virtues. But that little tag carried with it the voice of reality, of a friendship that had certain rules, but a friendship all the same. He knew Janine loved him. He had a feeling he loved her back, and that he’d loved her more in the different world she talked about. He didn’t believe Janine would lie to him, not even a lie he would want to hear. Venkman had been their friend. It seemed wildly implausible, but it was true.
Which meant that Egon’s mind had definitely been tampered with, and he hated that. And it also meant that he had been turned against someone who must have been as close to him as Ray and Winston were. He did not like being used, and he particularly did not like being used against someone who deserved his loyalty and his friendship. He tried to shove aside the imposed memory of Venkman being such a louse and a jerk and concentrated on the pure research necessary to overrule the entity’s conditioning. But it was very hard work.
Now he called his mind to attention and focused on Ray. "Is it dangerous, Ray?"
"Yeah, a little. With some of these spells, just reading them sets them off, and sometimes just opening the page can be dangerous. So I’m being really careful. You can usually tell from the title what kind of spell it is. The only problem I can see from this is that the Class Ten might not have put a curse or spell on us. It might have physically tampered with our memories. If that’s what happened, there might be no way to reverse it. We might be stuck like this forever, and it would take a lot of time to get back to normal—if we ever could."
"Yes, there is a way to reverse it," Winston reminded him. "Janine says it’ll reverse if Peter’s dead. That doesn’t sound like physically messing with our minds to me. Sounds more like brainwashing or hypnosis, if it isn’t some kind of curse or spell."
He had a very good point. Egon frowned. "If conditioning has been artificially imposed upon our minds, be it by a spell or curse or even by hypnosis or another form of conditioning, then there is a way to remove it. Evidently, Peter’s death will remove it, but that’s a rather excessive cure." He could imagine Venkman dying somewhere far away, alone, believing his friends for whom he had given up his very life no longer cared, and even if his memories of Venkman were unpleasant, his stomach twisted in the way that was growing all too familiar. It seemed his stomach knew Venkman better than his mind did, and it was remarkably persistent about it. He would end with an ulcer if they couldn’t solve this quickly. And if Venkman died, and Egon was certain, in spite of the way he felt about the man now, that he would not be happy to be released from the mind tampering that way.
"Gosh, Egon," said Ray in a solemn little voice, "we don’t know how to remove hypnosis."
"I doubt that is the answer," Egon replied. "I’ve never been easy to hypnotize. I remember Peter used to try it in college, but of course I didn’t trust him, and—"
"You mean it seems now as if you didn’t trust him," Winston put in. "This feels like everything’s upside down. I want to say that I wouldn’t let that sleazy con man anywhere near me with hypnosis in mind, yet it seems like I remember him doing it for me after a really crummy bust and being glad of it."
"I kind of do, too," offered Ray. He flipped a page and stuck the bookmark ribbon into the book to mark the place. "If I don’t stop to think about it, my mind wanders off to a place where I can sorta see us and Peter, and we’re friends there. The second I catch myself, all the nasty memories wipe it out and for a minute it’s like I’m losing something really important—and then all the bad things come back, and I hate him again."
Egon removed his sliding glasses and polished them on the front of his shirt. "I think the entity didn’t bargain on Janine. If we’d simply come home and Venk—er, Peter had gone away, and Janine hadn’t been there to hear the true story, more time would have passed and perhaps it would have needed a member of our families visiting to make us realize something was wrong."
Winston nodded. "Yeah, like when I called my dad this afternoon. He thought I was crazy when I asked him if Venkman was my friend. He muttered for a bit about our job and then he said that I’d told him Pete was someone I could always rely on, that my Mom loved having him come over, that I’d told Dad that the three of you guys were my brothers in everything but blood. I asked, ‘All three of them?’ and he said, ‘Of course, all three of them,’ like I’d lost my mind."
"I know," said Ray, eyes huge with shock and with the guilt that had been all too prevalent in his face over the last few days. "I called Aunt Lois a little while ago. I asked her what she thought of Peter. She said she loved him like he was another nephew, and wasn’t I silly to ask. I asked her what I thought of him. She hesitated, then she asked me if I’d lost my mind. And she said, ‘You love that boy like he was your big brother.’ And then she started fussing and worrying that Peter had been hurt and she was going to come over and bring a casserole and I had to talk fast to keep her from coming over and...and seeing us like this. Gosh, guys, I feel terrible about this. I know it’s all my fault."
"No, Ray," said Egon hastily. "That’s just it. It isn’t your fault. Evidently, back in college, Peter helped you learn not to take blame for things that weren’t your fault. Just as he convinced me that I was missing a lot of the world by spending all my time in pure science. To remove our...our affection for him from our minds, the demon had to remove all we’d learned from Peter along with it. According to Janine, we’re not as...complete as we were without him. Not to say we wouldn’t have been complete in a different way if we hadn’t known him, but we were not given that opportunity. It’s hard for me to believe, too, but I consider myself a fair man. If he is truly our friend, we must solve this. We must. And not only because I resent having my mind tampered with but because it is the only right thing to do. And we must do it quickly."
Ray waved a forlorn hand at the books that lay spread on the table. "I know, Egon," he wailed. "But I don’t know how."
"Not yet, Raymond," Egon said quickly. "But we will resolve this."
"You know we will," insisted Winston.
Winston seemed the least changed in those flashes of memory Egon got from time to time. But then the team had met Winston as an adult, with the Vietnam War behind him. Yes, Venkman must have influenced his life, but he hadn’t had a hand in the making of his adult nature, the way Janine insisted he had with Egon and with Ray. Perhaps that meant Winston was most likely to come up with answers.
"Winston, will you help Ray with his books," he said. "We’re operating on a time limit here."
Both of the others stared at him. "Why a time limit, Egon?" asked Ray.
"For two reasons. I suspect the longer the condition persists, the harder it will be to remove it. And secondly, imagine Venkman out there alone. If everything Janine says about him is true, he is going to be very unhappy. While Janine does not believe he would throw away his own life on purpose, a man who has lost home, family, and career in one fell swoop is not a man who will take good care of himself. I would hate to have the spell broken by default." His stomach cringed at the very thought.
Ray’s eyes grew bigger than ever. "Oh, gosh, Egon...."
"All that means is that we have to find an answer quickly," said Winston practically. "So why are we sitting here talking?" He dragged up a chair beside Ray. "Where do you want me to start, homeboy?"
Ray passed him a book and they bent their heads over it. Egon returned to the computer and decided to go on line. Perhaps there were answers out there. He knew of several chat rooms that might solicit at least theories. And he had contacts in many parts of the country who could begin a discreet search for Venkman. After all, a man could not simply vanish. Peter would need employment. Unless he took a temporary job like selling used cars to get some ready cash, he’d want work in his own profession. So Egon started work in that area.
We will solve this, he promised the absent Venkman. If Janine is right, Peter, and we are close friends, I am obligated to solve this. Even more than that, I want to solve this, for a friendship that I cannot remember. I will not allow an entity to change my life—and ruin yours. Even if I cannot remember our friendship, I believe it exists. In honor of that friendship, I will never stop attempting to solve this problem. We will get you back, Peter. I swear it.
** *** **
"I don’t think you’ve been hypnotized," said Doctor Mackenzie a few hours later when they gathered in the briefing room to brainstorm results before they took their findings to General Hammond. He frowned at the pages of hastily scribbled notes in the book that lay before him on the table. "Or, if you are, it’s a type that is so deeply buried I can’t find evidence of it. It’s not a conventional hypnosis; however, I admit that an unconventional type might be unfamiliar to me. At least, you’re not reacting in the way I would expect you to react normally; when Nem conditioned the three of you on Oannes, there were apparent signs that gradually became more obvious, and he was an alien, who would use different techniques. This time, there is nothing."
"Yeah, it doesn’t act quite like normal hypnosis," Peter concurred with a nod at his own notes. He wasn’t sure he would nominate Mackenzie for the Open-Minded Guy of the Year, but he was competent at what he did. He’d gotten the most results from Daniel, who was probably a closer candidate for Peter’s imaginary award than Jack O’Neill was. Peter decided that if they got a mission, he’d choose Daniel to use as the test subject for their precautionary hypnosis because they would probably have better results with him, even though he’d feel safer if he could hypnotize Jack. "If it’s there, it’s completely hidden, and we don’t have any idea what the trigger is."
Hypnosis? Could that be used to snap the Class Ten’s hold on the guys? And would they stand being in the same room with him long enough for it to work?
He pushed the thought away. Right now he had something urgent and important to do. He needed that. He’d just show the guys he wasn’t pond scum, that he was reliable in a crisis, that he could work hard and never complain—well, hardly ever. Maybe they wouldn’t ever know about it, but he’d know. The only problem was, doing right for right’s sake might feel good but it was about as comfortable as giving up chocolate for Lent. You felt virtuous, but you missed the sweet, warm, gooey taste you loved.
"It wouldn’t be a form you knew before," Peter said hastily. "Come on, bunky, think. The Goa’uld are aliens. Maybe there are a lot of universal concepts floating around out there in outer space, but think of it. I’ve been to Europe. Do you know how many ways there are just to flush a toilet on this planet alone? Just thinking of that, what makes you think the Goa’uld snake guys would do hypnosis like we would? Or that they wouldn’t have some other form of quickly imposed mind control like hypnosis that doesn’t work quite like ours does? This Nem guy did his work pretty quick, from everything I’ve picked up. It wasn’t meant to work over the long haul, just long enough to make a point."
Mackenzie had that tight look on his face that spoke of a guy who was truly anal. Maybe shrinks got like that, especially in a military setting, or maybe it was just him. At least he’d listened to Daniel, that time they’d had him in a padded cell, long enough for Doctor Jackson to make his point and warn them of the danger they faced with those Goa’uld killers. Daniel had told Peter about it when they were waiting while Mackenzie tested Jack. Daniel still had some buried resentment about what had happened to him then. Peter could feel it. He had noticed that Daniel was excruciatingly polite to Mackenzie. The guy was a good enough psychiatrist to recognize Daniel’s attitude and understand it, which was why Peter hadn’t sat in on the individual tests. Peter did know the elements and procedures of hypnosis, but it wasn’t a tool he liked to use very often. It needed too much control to risk it unless it was essential and, even then, he’d rather it be done by someone who used it regularly in a controlled setting. In spite of kidding Egon that he could hypnotize him to put on a lampshade at a party and sing opera, Peter would never have done that. There were rules. Kidding was allowed. Messing with Egon’s mind was about as far outside the rules as it was possible to go.
He’d walked off and left Egon with a mind that had definitely been tampered with.
Maybe he really was pond scum.
He could hear Janine in his mind. "Come on, Doctor V. What could you have done? Let me handle this end of it."
And it wasn’t as if Egon would have allowed hypnosis, anyway. The only way he could ever hypnotize Spengler was when Egon allowed it, and then only because of the complete trust that existed between the two men. Remove the trust and you removed any possibility of Peter helping Egon in that particular way.
He still felt like he’d run out on the guys, though.
At least they were still alive.
"You’re correct, Doctor Venkman," Mackenzie said. "We’re dealing with a situation I never envisioned in medical school or any time since. Since the time Doctor Jackson was infected with a Goa’uld killer and I misdiagnosed the problem, I’ve tried to remind myself of that frequently. Naturally a Goa’uld mind control device would not work like conventional hypnosis. What I did find, however, was nothing I can prove medically. But the reactions I got from Colonel O’Neill in the test were slightly off from the last time I ran tests on him. Now, reactions do fluctuate slightly. People change and grow, they endure trauma, and they gain new life experiences. Should such testing prove static, I would worry. But my results—and this is a very subjective reaction, not something I can document and prove—indicate a slight influence. It’s not quite conventional hypnosis, but it’s there."
"I’ve got Goa’uld fingerprints in my brain. Sweet." The Colonel was not a happy camper. Peter could tell how utterly disgruntled he must be feeling. "And they got at Daniel, too?" he asked.
"Whatever is affecting you is also affecting Doctor Jackson. I can’t tell much from the very slight, almost imperceptible results I’ve observed, but it’s enough to suggest that an outside force has done something to influence your minds."
Jack O’Neill made a face. "So we’re talking alien mind control here? What gets me is that it was done without our knowing it. And it was done to a lot of different teams, probably at different times. Hard to think we’re that vulnerable to an attack we didn’t even notice. What do you think, Doc? Was it done out there?"
"Unless something was done specifically to our own gate, it must have been."
"Unless we’re talking some little fun and games from our old friend Maybourne," Jack theorized. "Now there was an idea I’ve run up against before, and it didn’t set well with me the first time. Earth-based conspiracy might be just as likely, kids, and it might even be easier to get up close and personal with the various SG teams from this end of the Stargate."
Peter perked up. Maybourne? He hadn’t come upon that name before. Who was he? Some kind of military conspiracy type? A spy guy? The SGC’s version of Walter Peck? Trouble, anyway. He could tell that from Jack’s expression and from the unhappy grimaces on Sam’s and Daniel’s faces. Teal’c didn’t exactly grimace, but something flashed in his eyes that didn’t speak well for the Maybourne dude.
Mackenzie and Fraiser frowned and Sam’s face went thoughtful.
"Could he be behind it?" Daniel asked. "Would he want to shut us down? He’d certainly want to set us up. Who knows what reasons he’d have."
"He’d need someone on the base working with him," Sam theorized. She pushed her notes aside. "It wouldn’t even need to be the Goa’uld finding a way to snatch us without anybody noticing. It would be easier for Maybourne to be behind this, or at least somebody like him."
Peter shook his finger at her. "Ah, ah, ah, Sam, think. I don’t know who this Maybourne character is, although, from the sound of it, he’d probably be my candidate for the X-Files’ Cigarette Smoking Guy of the SGC. But we just found out that it might not be conventional hypnosis or brainwashing, at least as we know it on the planet, not unless it’s really well done or programmed in a way we’re not up on, or else really deeply buried. Now this Maybourne guy might be sneaky and have contacts out there for all I know, but do you think he could have grabbed all the SC teams and done this without somebody catching on?"
"He could if he had someone on his team working for him who would lie to cover up for him." Jack’s eyes narrowed and he turned a very suspicious look at Mackenzie.
The psychiatrist looked so utterly astonished at Jack’s suspicion that he was either innocent or in such deep cover that protecting his mole status was thoroughly well ingrained. Who better to implant a little suggestion that things were not well beyond the gate than a man who played around with the minds of all the SG teams? The guy might definitely be a better candidate for the role of the villain than a mysterious Goa’uld who was content to let the trickle of water sweep away the dam, as out of character for the snakeheads as it sounded to the others.
"I assure you, I am not in league with Colonel Maybourne or with any of the factions who would like to close down the Stargate," Mackenzie insisted.
"Maybe not," said Jack, "but last time, when Daniel got infested with Machello’s Goa’uld killer, you were the leading proponent of shutting us down."
"Because my data suggested there could be problems with the gate. As a psychiatrist, I have to keep the mental well-being of the team as a priority. I should hate to see the gate closed. It’s benefited us very well in scientific advances, some of which have been medical. Besides, a part of me has always wanted to know what was out there, to see other worlds, to encounter alien beings. I am proud to be a part of the SGC. I know you might not value what I do as much as what someone on one of the actual teams does, but you’re military, Colonel O’Neill. You know field teams couldn’t exist without base support. I don’t want to have to suggest the gate be shut down. I hope we’ll find this is an external, imposed condition. However, since I can see how I might be considered a logical suspect, I am willing to take myself off this project, even accept being confined to quarters with computer access denied, while you work on it."
He didn’t look happy about it, but the one thing Peter did like about the guy was that he didn’t seem to take the group’s suspicions personally. He wasn’t trying to fast talk, to defend himself. That’s what he’d do either way, of course, if he were very good at his job. Peter didn’t really like the guy, but it wasn’t because he had that kind of bad feeling from him. He just wasn’t fond of the type. But Peter was smart enough to know that a really good undercover agent wouldn’t be able to do his job unless he were slicker than the best con man going. A con man had to be likable. An undercover agent might not have to be likable and appear ultra-trustworthy, but he definitely had to function believably in the environment he’d been thrust into. Either way, they couldn’t let it go any further.
O’Neill jumped up and went over to the door. He opened it and spoke to the man on guard duty there. Peter had trouble adjusting to those guards all over the place but he figured it went with the territory. The guy O’Neill was talking to hurried away and Jack came back into the room. He wasn’t armed. None of them routinely seemed to wear sidearms when they were off duty. But there were enough armed personnel on the base to make up for it. A second later, another uniformed guy carrying a gun stepped into the room and stood just inside the doorway.
Mackenzie heaved a rueful sigh, then he turned to Peter. "Doctor Venkman, I can see that you can’t risk me or even anyone on my direct staff and I understand it. I am certain that further tests and investigations will clear me. In the meantime, avail yourself of any of my previous test results. I don’t know the full degree of your clearance, but General Hammond and Colonel O’Neill will let you know what you can use. I’m not the only psychiatrist on this base, which means I’m not the only one under suspicion, and you’re a psychologist rather than a psychiatrist. But you’ll know the material. The important thing is to stop the influence, wherever it comes from."
"You called that one," Peter said. "And even if it’s this May Day character, doesn’t necessarily follow that you’d have to be involved in it, even if you’d probably have had the best chance to do it from within. But I also have a good idea what you can do to the human mind." He held up a hand to stop himself. "Okay, I take that back. I know the routine stuff, what’s used for treatments of patients. I don’t know the covert ops end of it at all beyond what I’ve read in a spy thriller or two, and those are more Winston’s bag than mine."
"Yeah, but you’d have an idea what could be done with the human mind, even if you weren’t trained to do any of it," Daniel put in. "Do you really think this could be done by someone trained on this planet rather than an alien power out there?" He gestured vaguely in the direction of the ceiling.
Peter frowned. "Yeah, I think it could. Scary thought, isn’t it?" He pushed his notebook around in front of him in a forlorn hope that it would suddenly give him answers. He was so outside his usual expertise he hoped it didn’t show that he was winging it like crazy. "Thing is, I know there’s really a dark side to some people. I know there are people out there—in our world—who wouldn’t so much blink an eye if this kind of thing was done, who could order it up on a mass scale. Look at Hitler, for Pete’s sake, or even Saddam Hussein. We may be on the side of the angels, but that doesn’t make everyone in our government or the secret agencies into saints. Yeah, our own people could do this without a second thought. The only thing is, the people who would do it best are probably the people who want what’s out there, the ones who probably insist you bring back high tech weapons to make it worth their while."
"We know that type, all right," agreed Jack. "But there are so many political implications of all this—" he waved his arm around to include the entire project "—that there are people in high places who probably change sides and motivations three times a week."
"Thing is," Peter insisted, "that I think these Goa’uld guys probably have better motivation than our own side. I get the idea people have tried to shut you down before, but they just used the government and chain of command. If those folks still wanted to do it, this might be the next step. I can’t figure out the politics of it. That’s for General Hammond."
"What’s for General Hammond?" asked the General himself from the doorway. He came into the room and closed the door behind him. "Colonel O’Neill, you said this was an emergency?"
"Well, yeah." Jack didn’t rise; he straightened himself up and only went back into ‘at ease’ mode when the General sat down at the head of the table. Sam stood briefly and Teal’c came to attention and then went back to ‘at ease’. "We ran into a possible explanation that none of us much like," explained O’Neill. "It’s probably not the right one but it could be."
"They think I’ve been inducing the altered states of the SG teams," Mackenzie put in. "I haven’t been, but even I can see that, if this is an Earth-based scheme, I’d be the most likely suspect. I’d like to take myself off the research project until my innocence can be proven."
"Doctor, I’ve already considered you as a possible suspect," Hammond said surprisingly. Or, maybe not so surprisingly. Peter had rapidly come to the conclusion that Hammond could be tough as nails if the situation called for it and that he was a very smart man. Because he’d seemed affable with Peter didn’t mean he wasn’t crafty and shrewd. He had to consider a much larger picture than Jack O’Neill did. As nominal leader of the Ghostbusters, Peter knew that he didn’t have to know Egon’s science or Ray’s occult lore. He just had to know how to pull it all together when the time came. He was more a Jack O’Neill than a General Hammond, but the procedure carried over.
"You didn’t say anything, Sir," put in Sam, a surprised look on her face.
"Because I don’t consider it the best option or the only option. Doctor, I’ve had you watched rather carefully since this began. If someone on this planet were attempting to shut us down, they’d have to have someone on that project who could influence behavior to produce this kind of result. Frankly, the evidence doesn’t support your doing it, but that doesn’t mean anything, simply that, if you’re behind this, you’re very careful or that what you did has been done gradually over a period of several years."
"You didn’t think we might just want to know this, sir?" O’Neill looked a little miffed. Okay, so ‘miffed’ was a mild word. His mouth was tight and his eyes glittered.
"The one thing I don’t want is a raft of suspicions floating around, directed at various SGC personnel," the General replied. "I’ve had to recruit various people to maintain a surveillance, Doctor Mackenzie. You may have noticed that someone sat in on your sessions with SG-1."
"Yes, but that’s customary," Mackenzie replied. His eyes narrowed. "I see. Making sure I didn’t plant any improper post-hypnotic suggestions? I could, of course, have keyed it to trigger phrases that would seem innocuous."
"You could. Which is why your sessions were recorded today and for the past several weeks. They’ve been analyzed in detail. They would also appear to clear you; however, it may be we’ve come in well after the fact and that there is nothing more that needs doing at this end to complete the downfall of the Stargate program. That being the case, I’ve decided that you will not be allowed to attend SG-1 if they should be approved to go through the gate. Instead, I will send Doctor Venkman and possibly Doctor Fraiser, although she might be, to a much lesser degree, a suspect."
Fraiser couldn’t have looked more astonished if the General had blown her a juicy kiss. She called her face to order immediately. "It would be possible to run lie detector tests on both Doctor Mackenzie and myself."
Peter shook his head. "Come on, those tests can be invalidated by people who are skilled in that kind of thing. I don’t know much about it but Winston’s an avid mystery reader, a sort of male Agatha Christie, and he’s told us a lot about it. Maybe you have better tests, and, if you do, go for them. Nothing to do with hurt feelings, just with the safety of your project. Maybe nobody looks cute wearing electrodes, but if it can really clear anybody..."
"If the subject himself is under a control, he might not even know it," offered Mackenzie. He did not look particularly happy about the suggestion. "It is entirely possible I’ve been conditioned myself and used against the team."
Wheels within wheels. Peter was glad this kind of thing rarely came up with busting. Of course, as he knew to his own cost, once was enough.
"So, what do we do next, General?" asked Daniel. "I don’t like to think that I’ve been conditioned, no matter how. I want to make sure we deal with this crisis, not just cross our fingers and hope it goes away. I don’t want to do a Keller and attack anyone else on SG-1."
"I would stop you, Daniel Jackson," Teal’c reassured him solemnly. "As I do appear to be immune."
"Yeah, but you can’t stop both Jack and me if we go loco at the same time."
"Can I not?" Teal’c’s eyebrow lifted fractionally. Peter wasn’t quite sure how to read the big Jaffa, but his minute responses were getting a little more familiar. He eyed Teal’c’s massive biceps. Probably the guy could stop Daniel with one hand tied behind his back. He might need two hands for Jack O’Neill, though.
"What I’d like to do," Jack offered, "Is make sure that Teal’c and Carter are equipped with zat guns, maybe Venkman, too, although I’d want him to have a crash course before he got his hands on one. If Danny-boy and I get out of hand, they could zat us. Gotta say it’s not my choice of a swell time, but I’d rather that than bash Daniel’s brains out."
Daniel winced. "I’ve been zatted and it wasn’t fun," he concurred. "But I don’t want to hurt anybody, either."
Peter didn’t remember encountering zat guns in his hasty scan of the history of the project. He’d made himself concentrate on the big picture, not the details. "You want me to neutronize you guys?" he asked.
"It isn’t like your particle throwers," Daniel said, then he frowned. "Well, maybe it is, a little. A zat is really a...what is it, Teal’c?"
"A zat’nik’atel," Teal’c replied, rattling off the alien syllables with as much ease as Egon spit out his twenty-dollar words. "It is a Goa’uld weapon. One blast immobilizes the victim, a second blast kills him, and a third disintegrates him."
Sort of like drinking Ouzo. One glass, you’re a bird. Two, you’re a crazy bird. Three, you’re a dead bird. "Whoa. Sounds like different settings on a thrower." Peter grimaced. "So, you get zatted once; does that mean you never dare risk getting around one again, or is it okay once whatever does it to your system wears off?"
"It wears off," O’Neill replied. "Because Daniel’s been zapped more than once. But let’s not push the time frame here. You use one on one of us, you don’t use it again—for at least six months."
"It would not require such a long waiting period, O’Neill."
"Yeah, I know, Teal’c. It’s just...not fun."
Again the eyebrow rose. Peter hid a grin, even though he wasn’t sure he wanted to use one of the zat thingies on someone he knew. He wondered if it would have disintegrated old Mugwump, the Class Ten that had gotten him into all this trouble. Moot point.
Hammond interrupted the weapons’ discussion. "Analysis of the past year’s missions continues," he said. "The program is running and there do appear to be minor gaps. Few of them took place before the treaty negotiated by Thor. Which would indicate that either Yu or Chronos would be a good candidate for whatever is being done to us. Or Nirti. If she escaped Goa’uld retribution, she would be the most likely candidate. Major Carter did save Chronos’ life, which might make him the least likely."
"He would not allow a factor such as gratitude to turn his purpose from destroying humanity as a species," said Teal’c tightly. Peter got the idea that the Jaffa had it in for that particular snakehead or that they had an unpleasant history. Nobody explained, but that was okay. He had to live with the ‘need to know’ thing. He put Chronos on his mental list of guys to look out for.
"So you’re saying that you found gaps in the mission reports since the treaty?" Jack cut in. "This has all happened since then? Okay, I vote for Nirti. And don’t forget, she can phase shift."
"In other words, she could have been on this base more than once since then with us none the wiser," Hammond said, his mouth grim. "I’ll run tests, and I’ll also issue TER’s wherever necessary."
Peter decided he had better go over his notes again that night, a lot more thoroughly. He did know about the treaty and its outcome but he couldn’t remember any of the details. Time for one of his midnight crash courses. He used to pull a lot of all-nighters when studying for tests in college so no one would guess the famous Peter Venkman so much as cracked a book. Egon had always known and had offered Peter a safe refuge for study, where his frat buddies wouldn’t see him working hard. He’d spent a lot of evenings over at Egon’s apartment, cracking the books and just hanging out. Egon....
"Our report should be ready within the hour," Carter offered to the general.
"I’ll go over it. Once the mission analysis is finished, I’ll take under advisement the possibility of a gate mission for you, probably tomorrow. If that happens, I’ll want either Colonel O’Neill or Doctor Jackson hypnotized and Doctor Venkman to go as a control. Teal’c, Major Carter, and Venkman will be issued zat guns. While it makes me personally uneasy, O’Neill and Jackson will carry MP-5’s. I won’t send anyone through the Stargate unarmed, even though I mean to select a neutral world that has proven safe in the past. However, at the first sign of trouble, Teal’c, I expect you to disarm them."
"I will do so."
"All right, we’ll go on as we are, and I’ll make my decision tomorrow. Doctor Mackenzie, I’m sorry, but we’re going to confine you to quarters and deny you computer access until this is resolved. While I personally believe in your innocence, it is not a risk I am prepared to take, especially since you may yourself be influenced."
The base shrink nodded. "I understand. If I could get copies of the mission reports, I’ll go over them for any evidence of tampering with the teams, especially on longer missions. Such missions might well have allowed time for Goa’uld to be notified through the Stargate by the locals. We can’t assume every culture we meet on missions is opposed to the Goa’uld, or even friendly to us."
"Only if they don’t have good taste," Jack muttered under his breath.
"All right, as you were." The general beckoned to Mackenzie and the two men went out together. One of the guys in uniform fell into place behind them, his rifle in hand.
The members of SG-1 exchanged the kind of glance that close teams share, and Peter lifted an eyebrow at Janet Fraiser, who was also on the outside for the moment. Once, he’d been part of such a team.
No. Don’t think about that. You’ve got too much to do here. Think about the mission instead.
Peter drew his notebook closer and flipped through the pages, his eyes moving unseeingly over his scribbled notes. He felt a very long way from home.
Maybe he’d better call Janine, ask for a P.K.E. meter. She could Fed Ex it out here. He hated to risk calling for fear one of the guys would answer and hang up on him, but he knew he’d better give it a shot. After all, Janine usually answered the phone.
When Jack pointed out the phone in the corner of the room and backed off with more tact than Peter had expected, he put the call through. Janine did answer, and he took a deep, relieved breath even as he squashed down his disappointment. "Ghostbusters. You got noises in the night, we make it all right." He could hear her gum snap, but the usual ‘snap’ in her voice was conspicuous by its absence. She sounded tired, dispirited, and bad tempered. If he’d been a problem client, she would have zapped him with both barrels.
"Peter!" Her voice rose to a screech and he yanked the phone away from his ear.
"Yeah, and deaf in that ear now. Tone it down, Melnitz."
"Where are you? I got your postcard. ‘Wish you were here’ isn’t much of a message, Doctor V."
"Colorado, like the card said. I’m living it up at Aspen. Women are flocking to me. They love me, all of ‘em hot for my body. I’m getting in some good downhills."
"Last I heard you skied with all the grace of a panicked rhinoceros, Doctor V. Where are you, really? With this Daniel guy?"
Peter froze and glanced sharply over his shoulder at Daniel and Jack, who were bent over the report, trying very hard not to look like they were listening. Teal’c probably wasn’t listening, but Carter, who was flipping through a report on Janet’s clipboard, had her head cocked. He didn’t know whether to be flattered or peeved at their concern. He settled for ignoring it. "How did you know that?"
"He called the other night. Said you were okay. Well...sorta okay."
Peter muttered a curse. He hadn’t wanted that, but at least Daniel had reassured her, at least he’d called her and not the guys. Maybe that was good. If he’d known, he wouldn’t have made this call, but even now he was glad he had.
"I’m getting by," he admitted, "even if somebody—yeah, you, Doctor Jackson—is giving away all my secrets." Daniel gave him what Peter’s dad had always called a shit-eating grin. Jack arched an eyebrow at Daniel, who shrugged. Ignoring them, Peter turned his attention to the call. "You’d like this, Melnitz. I’m saving the world out here." He could say that because she wouldn’t believe a word of it. "Are you doing okay?"
"Working overtime to keep up with these three clowns," she said. She sounded like she was waving a red flag in front of a bull in hopes of stirring him back to himself.
"Who authorized the overtime?" An automatic question.
"I authorized it myself, time and a half, and you better okay it when you get back. Besides, somebody has to look over these three pathetic characters."
"Pathetic?" Peter echoed. He hadn’t expected that particular description.
"I laid down the law to them and they listened. Peter, they’re working to break the entity’s curse. They spend hours on it every day."
"They...want me back?" God, he didn’t mean to sound so vulnerable. He couldn’t give Melnitz such good ammo to use against him in their ongoing war. Worse, SG-1 suddenly paid scrupulous attention to their notes. Nice going, Venkman.
She carefully ignored the catch in his voice. God, it was bad when even Janine pitied him. He hated that. Not only Janine, but SG-1, too. "No, they want their minds back. You should see them, Doctor V. Not only did they lose what they felt for you—they lost everything they learned from you. It’s scary. If I thought having you back here would fix it, I’d send you a plane ticket right this minute."
"Okay, if you don’t tell me what you mean right now, I’m gonna get Slimer on the line and tell him you’ve got cupcakes in your underwear."
"Do it and die, Venkman."
The familiar words flowed over him like a blessing. Found, briefly, one Peter Venkman. "So what do you mean?"
She took a deep breath and plunged into her description. The guys must not be in hearing or she’d have lowered her voice. "Well, Ray’s sure he’s to blame for everything up to and including global warming. Egon’s this lab geek who can’t speak any language but science and he’s got not one shred of a sense of humor. Winston—well, Winston’s kind of an outsider, in a way. They work together well on busts because that’s habit. They all learned that together and Winston’s combat smarts are still operating with the three of them when they go on a bust. But I think you were the original bridge between Winston and the other two. I’m afraid Winston’s gonna quit. He doesn’t like being the ‘hired man’."
Peter swallowed hard. "They’re different?"
"They’ve regressed. Egon hasn’t said anything funny in that dry way he has since you left. He stopped running me home after work. Ray creeps around like he hopes no one will notice him. He’s not watching his favorite ‘toons and when the new Captain Steel comic came, he didn’t even read it, just put it aside for later. Egon’s a candidate for a major ulcer. They all know what’s wrong, but knowing isn’t enough."
"Wait a minute. Whoa, Janine. Back up, old girl. They know?" His screech brought four pairs of eyes to bear on him. Four pairs of eyes just as quickly went back to their reports.
"I told them the whole thing. And it wasn’t just for you, Doctor V. It was for them, too, because they need to know. Egon’s furious, but he thinks it’s because his mind was messed with. He hates that. But I think it’s because a part of him really does remember you. A part of all of them do. I’ve been riding them hard. They deserve it."
"I told you not to tell them."
"Why? They need to know what you gave up to save their lives."
"Yeah, I suppose. Okay, Janine honey. Thanks." He wasn’t going to push it, not here with an audience. There were times when even a sympathetic audience was too hard to take. "Hey, one other thing. I want you to do a favor for me."
"Okay...." Her voice changed abruptly, suspicion creeping into it. Mentally, Peter blessed her for the change of tone. Now she sounded normal, like his feisty Janine again. "What is it?"
"I want you to get a P.K.E. meter and Fed Ex it to me overnight mail. Don’t send it to Daniel’s place. I’ll give you the address." He recited the cover address they’d given him to get it to the base. "I want you to do it today, this afternoon, if you can, if you have to make up a tall tale for the guys to get away with it. It’s really important that I have it tomorrow. Think you can?"
"Have you got ghosts out there?" she asked in surprise.
"You never know," said Peter lightly.
"Okay, Doctor V. I’ll do it as soon as we hang up. The others are out on a bust, so I shouldn’t have any trouble. But it might take awhile to get it there."
"You pay for the fastest way they’ve got," he insisted. "I need it tomorrow morning. Take it out of the petty cash."
"I wasn’t gonna take it out of the pittance you pay me."
"I’ll reimburse you, if I have to," he promised, although that wasn’t playing by their usual rules. "Just do it, Janine."
"You got it, buster."
He hesitated, aware of the press of time, but it sounded so good to hear a voice from home. He couldn’t ask to talk to the guys since they were away. "Gotta go, Janine. But you let me know if...if anything changes, okay?"
"You bet I will."
He smiled faintly. "I’ll catch you later, word of honor."
"You better, Venkman."
He hung up gently, then he reached for his notes. Daniel passed them to him without looking up. Peter sat down at the table beside Sam and opened the book. He couldn’t do anything to help the guys, so he might as well do what he could do. Only it wasn’t easy.
** *** **
This really sucked. Winston Zeddemore shucked off his proton pack and stowed it in the back of Ecto-1, while Ray carried the full trap over to join them. Ray plodded as he walked. Winston could remember a different Ray when he thought hard about it, one who plunged into each new bust with a vivid, glowing joy that helped inspire the rest of them. This Ray had done his job with about as much enthusiasm as a tired shoe salesman would fit too-small high heels on a woman with smelly feet. Ray used to love busting. Now, he didn’t seem to love much of anything.
And then there was Egon. Talk about a P.K.E. meter fixation. It was as if the meter was the only safe thing in the physicist’s universe. He had always lived and breathed them, but Winston didn’t think he’d done it to the degree he was doing it now. He couldn’t have, not and avoided walking in front of a taxi. And he’d always enjoyed it before, hadn’t he?
Could losing Venkman really make that much difference?
Winston’s mental picture of Venkman was of a whiner, a slacker, a sleazy guy who would use his friends at the drop of a hat. Behind that, though, he sometimes got fleeting glimpses of other memories, nothing that ever resolved into clarity, but brief images of a happier time. Janine talked about Peter a lot, battering her words against the wall of their resistance and contempt. Winston believed everything she said; he just couldn’t feel it. But her words matched those ephemeral impressions and it frustrated him. There had been a happier time, a time when Venkman wasn’t the enemy but a buddy. Even if Winston couldn’t feel it, he owed the ‘real’ Venkman all the effort he put in to trying to work this out.
He felt himself constantly batting his head against another wall, the wall that cut him off from the two scientists. He didn’t feel diminished as a person the way both Ray and Egon seemed to be, but he felt isolated from them, as if Peter had been the bridge between the two eggheads and Winston, the layman. He could connect with Ray really well on dealing with Ecto. He and Egon had even enjoyed a game of chess last night. But for the most part, he was an outsider here, someone the others had hired because the job needed more people to make it work, not a man chosen to fit seamlessly into a perfect whole. Okay, so Peter had been a scientist, too. According to Janine, and to the framed certificates in the messy office on the first floor, Venkman had two doctorates. Winston was sure he’d fast-talked his way to them, but Janine said no. Even Ray and Egon had frowned over the degrees and insisted it wasn’t possible to scam one’s way to one Ph.D., let alone two. But Peter had been, according to Janine, as far from a scholar in his actions and behavior as possible. He’d been laid-back and relaxed and evidently willing to cut Egon down to size when he spouted off those multi-syllable monstrosities he called words. He’d probably made a great bridge between Winston and the other two in the beginning when Winston was learning to fit in.
So it wasn’t just that they’d lost a man whom Janine had grudgingly insisted was a valuable member of the team. They’d lost the life lessons they’d gained from him. And since there had been no other way for them to learn them, since Peter had been there doing it, the lessons were lost entirely. Without Peter, Ray and Egon would have developed into mature adults on their own, but here they were, adult men in their forties, who were floundering like college guys suddenly thrust into the adult world. Time would probably heal that, teach them the lessons they’d learned from Peter, just as time would build new bridges for Winston to interact with them.
If he stayed around at all....
He caught himself on the thought as he accepted Egon’s proton pack to stash in the back of Ecto. Leave? Would he do that? He loved busting.
Or did he?
It was all so different now.
Look at Egon. Where had that hunched-over pose come from? And what about those Tums he lived on? Couldn’t be good for the guy to eat so many. If he was like this after a week, he’d probably be a candidate for a bleeding ulcer within the month.
Course, Janine said that Egon and Peter had been closest; they’d known each other the longest and they had a real bond in spite of being so different on the surface. Ray was like a lost puppy afraid of being kicked, having to grope after the confidence he’d possessed for years and now had lost again. He’d get there because Winston’s memories of the regular Ray were untouched by the transformation that had been imposed upon them. He could see the cheerful, confident, enthusiastic Ray in his mind with no trouble at all. That was one of the reasons he knew Janine wasn’t conning them.
But would he get there before the gaps in their minds and psyches caused them to get zapped on a bust?
Egon nearly had been zapped today. He’d been so fixated on the meter that he hadn’t seen the Class Five bearing down on him to lob a trashcan at his head. Only Winston and Ray’s panicked yells had shaken him out of his preoccupation in time to jump to safety. He’d stumbled, landed hard, slightly turned his ankle, and Ray and Winston had managed to snag the ghost while he was still fumbling his way to his feet.
Even busting was harder without Peter.
The frustrating thing was, Winston was acting more or less on instinct, reacting the way he was sure he usually did, but it didn’t feel right. You couldn’t walk through danger on remote control. It would trip you up in the end. The way they were busting lately was a sure-fire way to get one of the killed.
"How’s your ankle, Egon?"
"My ankle?" Egon lifted blank eyes. "Oh, it’s fine. Barely tender. I’ll soak it when I get upstairs, but it’s not sprained."
"I’m sorry, Egon. I should have yelled sooner."
Egon turned brooding eyes upon the occultist, who looked rather small and pathetic, poor guy. "It’s not your fault." The words were sincere but absent. "I was concentrating too hard on my meter." He stopped there, momentary confusion running across his face. Then he said impatiently, "This all feels very wrong. Another proof that Janine is right."
"We should have brought her on the bust," Winston said to her. "Maybe we should do it all the time, until we can crack this thing. At least she isn’t part of the brain drain."
Egon flinched. That’s right, the old Spengler brain was sacrosanct. The only reason he was trying to solve this whole mess was because the entity had dared to tamper with his mind. When—okay, if—they ever resolved it and things were back to normal, Egon was probably going to feel really lousy about that.
Except that the only way they knew to fix it now was for Peter Venkman to die. That would only make Egon’s guilt worse.
"Perhaps we should recruit Janine," Egon replied. "Although, I’ve started to feel lately that she feels an active dislike for us."
"Not for you, Egon, she’s in love with you," Ray mumbled. He tended to mumble a lot lately. "Here’s the trap, Winston."
Zeddemore stuck the trap in the back of Ecto. He had to admit Janine hadn’t displayed many signs of fondness for Egon lately. Her eyes were more inclined to hold a frustrated irritation. She talked to them a lot, telling them long, involved stories about what life was supposed to be like in the firehall, and he could tell she missed it. Heck, even Winston missed it, although it was hard to imagine the Venkman of her stories. Yet, the man of her stories was someone he’d have liked to know. Someone he supposedly did know, someone he considered a friend, a brother.
God, this was hard.
"She isn’t in love with me," Egon mumbled uncomfortably, his cheeks reddening. "I would be more inclined to believe that she despises me. She’s been remarkably contemptuous of me lately."
"Come on, Egon, I’ve seen her fussing over you." Ray’s comment was waaaaay too diffident. Surely he hadn’t been so scared to voice an opinion before. Another black mark against Venkman—no, damn it, against that Class Ten. It was hard to push past the block that must exist in his mind.
"As have I, Ray. But when she remembers how things used to be, she gets very cold. I...seem to remember I often took her home after work, if she hadn’t brought her car. I offered, last night. She said, ‘Don’t bother,’ and stalked off to catch the subway. I must say, that...hurt." He stared at them both. "We’re Ghostbusters! We shouldn’t be out of control in such a way. I want to blame Venk—uh, Peter for it all, but I can’t. I must make a conscious choice not to, but I will be in control of my mind. I will be." Yet the fierce determination wasn’t enough. He swallowed hard and then dug in his pocket for the ever-present Tums.
Winston shook his head. He was better off than Ray and Egon; he knew that. But he wasn’t whole either. None of them were. What’s worse, none of them were happy, none of them were even really friends any longer. It wasn’t that they couldn’t be friends without Peter. It was that they hadn’t really become close without the entire team involved in the creation of the friendship. The entity had taken away more than one man. He had begun a process that could eventually destroy the Ghostbusters, if they didn’t learn quickly the lessons they had learned over the years by being complete.
We better fix this quick, Peter, thought Winston regretfully. Or you’ll be coming home to three basket cases. Or worse, you’ll come home and there won’t be an ‘us’ any longer. We may not even make it if we keep screwing up like we did on this easy bust.
We’ve got to find a way to break the spell without having you die to end it. Because that might make us ‘normal’ again...but I don’t think it would make us whole.
** *** **
Peter ate that night with SG-1. The mess hall was quiet; individual conversations were carried on in hushed voices. Everyone there, whether they were part of an SG team or part of the base support system, knew that what happened over the next few days would determine whether the project went on or was permanently shut down. The word was out, in the way of grapevines everywhere, that Hammond had spent a good part of the late afternoon on the hot line to the President, going over the options with him. Rumor had it that the President had okayed one final mission.
If SG-1 couldn’t get a handle on what was wrong with gate travel on their potential mission the following day, Hammond would recall all teams still offworld. He’d even recall the ongoing Earth colony on something called the Alpha site. Peter didn’t know much about that; just that it had been a contingency plan once when there had been a chance Earth might be destroyed. Nice to live in happy ignorance of the doom that could have fallen on all their heads. Peter knew about doom that the rest of the world didn’t get. The Ghostbusters had faced that possibility more than once. But then, he’d been in control; he and the guys had been in control. If something went wrong out there in Goa’uld land, it could be over before there was time to say goodbye.
And even if he had the chance, the guys would probably hang up on him if he tried to call for a last farewell.
So, in the morning, he was going to another planet. Weird. Ray or Winston were the ones who would have been more gung-ho to do that than he was, and Egon would have valued it for the scientific aspects. He’d probably have jumped for joy. But the other guys weren’t psychologists—and they weren’t even here. Peter Venkman, one-man band.
He drew a deep breath and turned his attention to his teammates. Sam was saying something about someone named Cassie. The rest of the team evidently knew her; she was a child, from the way they talked. He listened to Sam regretting the fact that she hadn’t seen her in too long.
"Ya called that one," Jack added. "When this is all over, we’ll take her on a picnic. Yeah, you too, Teal’c."
"I do not dislike picnics," Teal’c replied in some surprise.
Daniel grinned. "It’s just the thought of you toasting weenies on a stick that gets us," he said in amusement.
"I have often toasted meat over a campfire," returned the Jaffa. "In general, however, it was not intended as a recreational activity. Your picnics are...pleasant. Rya’c would enjoy them." Something dark flashed in his eyes.
Peter didn’t know who Rya’c was, but Daniel must have realized how cut off he felt because he leaned closer and said in an undertone, "Rya’c is Teal’c’s son. He and his mother live on one of the worlds we’ve formed a treaty with. Teal’c doesn’t get to visit very often."
Teal’c had lost his entire planet; even though it was still there, it was no longer his home, and now it looked like he was exiled from his family, too. Daniel’s wife had died out there. Peter remembered hearing that O’Neill’s little boy had died in a shooting accident. His wife had left him over it, he vaguely remembered. He wasn’t sure about Sam Carter, but she’d had a Goa’uld in her head—okay, a Tok’ra, but it couldn’t have been easy either way. So this team had their share of rotten experiences, losing people who mattered. But at least they had each other.
None of them seemed to want to discuss the upcoming mission, although Peter was pretty sure it was on all their minds. In the morning, he or Doctor Fraiser would have to hypnotize Daniel as a control. If they could just prove their minds had been tampered with and that the problem wasn’t the gate itself, Peter had the idea that the SGC would fight tooth and claw to keep their toehold in space. There was no way to alter the gate itself, at least not with current Earth technology. Y2K hadn’t dumped a global crisis on Earth, or this would be even worse. But not even the year 2000 could make the people on this base understand all the ins and outs of the alien technology they had borrowed.
"What do people do for fun around this place?" Peter asked Daniel.
"Fun? Well, uh...."
"He plays with rocks," O’Neill put in with a crooked grin.
"They aren’t rocks, they’re artifacts." That had the ring of an old argument, the way Peter kidded Egon about his vocabulary. The way he had kidded Egon.
"I thought you were a field team. Don’t you have a whole room of little lab geek types to do the analysis?"
"We have a whole base full of little lab geek types," Jack agreed. "Daniel just has this problem letting go so we can send the stuff on. Sometimes I think the only way to do it would to pry them out of his cold, dead hands."
"I let them go," Daniel said with mock hauteur. "After I’ve given them the benefit of my superior insight."
Jack snorted. "Yeah, believe me, I know. You keep pulling all-nighters the night before a mission and you won’t be running around finding all-new rocks. You’ll be leaning up against the DHD snoring loud enough to warn the natives that we’re invading them."
"I never snore against the DHD. Do I, Teal’c?"
"That is correct. Although you did once fall asleep on P3R-777."
"Aw, come on, guys." Daniel gazed at them beseechingly. "We’d been there for seventeen straight hours trying to work out a deal for naquada after we hiked for two hours to reach their city, and even Jack was about to conk out."
"But I didn’t. I’m on top of things every second." O’Neill preened himself.
"I’m sorry, sir, but I had to keep elbowing you," Sam Carter teased him.
Jack assumed a mantle of conscious dignity. "I might as well change my name to Rodney Dangerfield here. I don’t get no respect. And here I am, the Colonel."
"And I was First Prime of Apophis." Teal’c’s voice was so dry that Daniel didn’t realize at first that the Jaffa had joined in the teasing.
O’Neill’s eyes sparkled. "Oh well, if we’re gonna pull rank here...."
Carter giggled. She wasn’t really a giggly type, but the look on Jack’s face must have been too good to pass up.
"I saved the world three times," Peter offered. He hoped he didn’t sound tentative.
"Okay, everybody’s trying to one-up me," Jack retorted. He shot one quick, measuring glance at Peter. "Prove it."
"Gozer," said Peter knowingly. He buffed his shirt front with his fingernails. "Nexa. The time Jeremy Whittington was destroying it by playing a flute. I did Nexa single-handed, too. Got nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize." Of course that was a stretch. He hadn’t actually been nominated, but he’d heard via the rumor mill that the Nobel committee had actually considered him, and Egon had insisted he’d been insufferable about it for weeks. Peter had always proclaimed that Egon was just jealous.
"What is a Nexa?" asked Teal’c.
Peter heaved a sigh. "That’s the trouble with being a Ghostbuster. Everybody expects us to save the world and then nobody remembers it. I’ll let you off the hook, Teal’c. You weren’t on Earth at the time."
"I remember Nexa," Daniel said. "I was in high school, and I was interested in science and mythology. Nobody else believed a giant sea creature could show up like that, especially a sentient one. The teachers all said it was probably something like a giant squid or else a lot of hype. But I did some research and found out there really had been Nexa legends as far back as ancient Babylon. The teachers still wouldn’t buy it."
"I’ve got the pictures to prove it," Peter said. "It got written up. I had a tame reporter there snapping away. Anyway, I hadda go up against Nexa. It had swallowed my buddies. I was hoping they were doing a Gepetto, like in Pinocchio, and that’s what happened. But I didn’t know it ahead of time." Saved them then, saved them last week. Got thrown out on his ear.
"Know the feeling," said Jack with commendable tact. "I had to leave Daniel here behind on Klorel’s ship when Apophis was trying to destroy the earth. I thought he was dying."
"I told you to go," Daniel said, somewhat uncomfortable. "I didn’t even think about the sarcophagus until you’d gone, but even if I had, you didn’t have time. Only thing you could do, and I thought you were going to blow up on the other ship anyway."
They exchanged a look, the kind Peter exchanged with the guys after they’d been through a really rough bust, and then looked away again. Daniel picked up his milk glass and gave it his full attention and Jack grinned at him with the kind of comradely affection people only show when the object of it isn’t looking, and then turned back to Peter.
"So that’s when we saved the world—well, one of the times. Guess we’ll have to agree that we’re all great guys, huh?" He glanced at Sam. "And gals."
She arched her eyebrows disdainfully. "Gals, Colonel? Let me remind you that it was the ‘gals’ on this base who saved your precious male butts when Hathor showed up here."
"Women," he corrected hastily in the tones of someone doing what is right because he knows he’ll get creamed for not doing it and not because he understood her reasoning. "And we were very grateful, believe me." Peter understood completely. He didn’t want to think about what Janine would do to him if he ever called her a ‘gal’.
General Hammond came into the mess hall then and held up a hand for attention. The various tables fell silent. "I wanted to make an announcement while so many of you are in one place. I’ve decided tomorrow’s mission is a go. We’ll proceed as planned. While it is in progress, we will be on full alert, and I’m going to double the shifts of all tech support. The word will be spread for those who aren’t here, but we’re going to cover everything with enough redundant systems to figure out whether we have a bug on the base or not. We’ll issue all the TER’s we have and be on the alert for a Ree’Tou presence or any other entities that have the ability to phase shift. I’ll meet with SG-1 and Doctor Venkman at twenty-hundred hours. That is all." He turned and went out, his escort behind him.
Peter swallowed hard. So it was official. He was going to another planet, and the whole weight of this mission fell on his shoulders. Talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Ridiculous, when he wasn’t even a tested member of the project. If the base psychiatric and psychological personnel weren’t under suspicion and if he hadn’t been brought in as an outside consultant, he wouldn’t have any part in this. But he was here, and he was stuck with it. Maybe the guys would consider him worthy if they knew—except that they would never know. If he died out there, they’d stop hating him, but his destination was buried so deep in clearances the guys would probably never know where he bought it. They’d get his body back eventually, if he wasn’t covered with unexplainable alien wounds, but that would be small consolation to anybody involved.
And even if he saved the day, figured out the voodoo hex on the Stargate project, he couldn’t tell the guys about it to prove his worth. He might help save the project that stood at the front lines for a battle few on Earth knew about, but he wouldn’t get anything for it except a nominal paycheck, and, at best, a medal he couldn’t show anybody. That sucked.
But he could do it and nobody else here could. That meant he had to. Even if the guys never knew, if they never took him back, he’d have saved them all over again.
"Nervous?" Daniel asked sympathetically.
Peter jumped. He’d been so far away. "Nah, not nervous. I’ll be great. After all, I’m a national hero."
Jack groaned. "And full of yourself, to boot." He seemed to understand; there was sympathy in his eyes. He added, "You know this is all so classified that if we talk we wind up roadkill—but are you going to try to check in with your team before we go, since they weren’t there when you called before?"
Peter hesitated. He wanted to, if only to hear their voices, but the last thing he needed before he accepted this massive responsibility was to hear their voices fill with contempt and disgust when they realized who was on the other end of the phone line.
"I’ll check in with Janine again," he decided. "She knows I’m on the up and up, and she won’t expect me to tell her much more than that I’m okay. She wouldn’t have told them I called about the meter." He saw Jack frowning and added, "I can keep a secret, believe me. I won’t give any of this away."
"I think you should talk to them," Carter put in. "I know it will be hard, but if...if anything happened, you’d hate not to have talked to them first."
Yeah, she had that pegged. "Okay," he agreed, hoping the reluctance, and outright panic, he was feeling didn’t show in his face. "I’ll go call."
"Do you want us to come with you?" Daniel volunteered, jumping to his feet.
The other three rose, too. Somehow, along the way, he’d become an honorary member of SG-1. They were all ready to back him. Peter swallowed hard, more touched than he could admit. If he stood there any longer, he’d probably break down and bawl, and he couldn’t let himself do that. So he pulled himself up to his full height. "No, I’ll handle this. Let me do it."
"We’ll be in the briefing room when you’re through, going over the mission reports to be ready for Hammond’s briefing," Sam explained.
"See you there later." Peter squared his shoulders and marched off in a near-military step, heading back for his quarters and a private phone. Nobody seemed to think he couldn’t call off the base. Maybe his call would be monitored and censored, and he hated that. But he had to hear their voices again, let them know that what he was doing was his choice and that if he croaked in the middle of it, it wouldn’t be their fault.
It was past Janine’s quitting time by a good three hours when he got an outside line and called, but she answered the phone. "Ghostbusters."
"Me again," Peter said. "Janine, honey, I want to talk to the guys."
"Are you sure? You don’t sound good, Peter. I don’t want them to...." She didn’t want them to give him a hard time, and it would be so easy for them to do it. Even though she’d talked to him this afternoon and knew he was all right—well, semi-all right—she probably knew it wouldn’t be any easier for him if he listened to the other three treating him like dirt.
He knew what she meant. "Yeah, I’m sure. Just for a few minutes, okay?"
Egon’s bass rumble sounded in the background, and Janine’s voice grew more distant. "It’s Peter, and you are too going to talk to him. What’s more, you’re going to be nice to him, or else I’ll...I’ll neutronize you. You get Ray and Winston down here right now, or else you’re...you’re fired."
There was a long pause, then Egon’s voice, hoarse and tense and rigid with dislike. "Venkman? Spengler here."
"Hi, Spengs," said Peter sadly. "How’s it hanging?"
Egon ignored that. "Janine insists we have all...misjudged you. If true, I must apologize to you. I know that may not be enough, but you have to understand our perceptions of you are...not pleasant. This would appear to be an induced condition, but knowing that fact does not alter the feelings we’re struggling to fight." He sounded rigid and cold, reciting by rote, pushing at his conditioning as if he were trying to shove Jell-O up the side of a mountain.
"Well, yeah, you’re alive, and I’ve got that," Peter said. He wondered if Egon heard him as a whiner and a complainer. Egon was the fairest guy he knew, but no matter how fair he was, he was talking to someone he considered of less value than last week’s garbage. It rang out in everything he said, and each word flayed Peter like the lashes of a whip.
"Janine said you saved our lives at an impossible cost. Since I can rationalize no other explanation for the entity to free us, I concede that must be correct. I apologize as sincerely as I can for our treatment of you."
"But you don’t want me back, do you, Egon?"
"Honestly, no. I realize this is an induced condition, however. Janine has reminded us of the time when Doctor McCatheter created an artificial allergy to ghosts in us and the cure was excessive exposure to ghosts, namely Slimer. We’ve wondered whether excessive exposure to you would break the spell."
"No, Egon," Peter said regretfully. "Big Ugly said the only way to bust it is for me to give up breathing."
"At which point we would know we owed you our lives and the weight of our guilt might well finish us. Unless we can stop this, I am afraid it will be the end of the Ghostbusters, and I suspect that was the entity’s intent when it offered you your deal."
Peter sighed. He could even take that if it brought the guys back. But—no! He wouldn’t give it up. "Hang in there, Spengs," he said hotly. "We’re fighting this. You think we want to give in because some big, ugly gooper decided it would be fun to trash us? No way, Jose."
"We are working to try to resolve the problem," Egon admitted. His voice was stilted, as if he were speaking to a stranger.
"Egon, listen," Peter said urgently. "Even if you can’t stand me, just listen for a second, okay? Janine said she told you what really happened. The thing is, even if it goes wrong and you only get yourselves back if I croak, here’s the bottom line. To save you guys, I’d do it again. Even now, knowing how really crummy it feels to lose everything that matters; I’d do it again. No matter what happens, you remember I said that, okay?"
Egon didn’t speak for a moment, and then he ventured warily, "What do you mean, no matter what happens?"
"Okay, here’s the deal. And if anybody’s monitoring this call, I’m not gonna say anything I shouldn’t, so don’t cut me off. There’s something tomorrow that I have to do. I don’t know if it’ll be dangerous but there’s a chance it could be. If I get turned into chopped liver and the spell goes off and you remember me the way you should, then whatever happens to me is not your fault. I’m not out here trying to get killed; I give you my word on it, Egon. I know you probably think my word is worth as much as a three-dollar bill, but ask Janine if I keep it when I give it, okay? Reason I called is, if it goes wrong, I just wanted to...say goodbye."
"Peter! Wait, Peter. Don’t hang up." Egon’s voice was urgent—but it still wasn’t warm. "I can’t remember the way it is supposed to be between us, or how I am supposed to feel, but if Janine is right, if you are right, then I insist you take no foolish risks." The words forced themselves out past the wall of his programming, out of the stubborn, unyielding nature of the man, and Peter was grateful for them, even if he couldn’t hear any caring for him in Egon’s voice, only grim determination to avoid a wrong.
"I’m not jumping in front of buses or doing an Evel Kneivel over the Grand Canyon here, Spengs," Peter promised. "But this is something I have to do because I’m the one who has a handle on it. You know me, Venkman the genius. Well, maybe you don’t know me. But I’m gonna manage it okay." He caught his breath. "Can I talk to Ray and Winston?"
"Yes, they’re here."
A moment of silence, then Ray’s voice, incredibly diffident. "Peter? Gosh, I’m so sorry for what we’re doing to you. I can’t seem to stop doing it, but I know it’s my fault."
Peter shuddered. The cold, mechanical Egon had been tough, and so was this. Was this what Ray would have grown into without him? No, because if he hadn’t been there to help the process, Ray would have found his inner strength another way. If he were like this now, it was because Peter’s support had been removed and there had been nothing substituted to replace it. Ray might have been different if Peter had never been in his life, but he wouldn’t have been weak. The hatred Peter felt for the entity that had trashed them surged up to a boiling point. He squashed it down.
"Listen up, Stantz. None of this is your fault. It’s old Mugwump’s fault and that’s all she wrote. I had to talk you out of blaming yourself for things when you were eighteen, but you outgrew it years and years ago. You guys aren’t at fault. I knew what I was doing when I chose to save you and, like I told Egon, I’d do it again in a heartbeat. So keep your chin up and act like Captain Steel, ‘cause I know that’s what the real Ray Stantz is like. When you guys figure out how to solve this, I’m gonna call that sucky ghost for writing a crooked deal like this one. I might even have an idea how to take it down." He grinned beatifically, but the smile faded immediately. "So, hang in there, Ray. And if I...run into more than I can handle out here and screw up, if I hear one ‘It’s my fault’ out of you, I swear I’m going to haunt you."
Ray chuckled faintly, but it wasn’t Ray’s typical laugh. He sounded sad, pathetic, lost. God, the entity had a lot to answer for. Peter did, too, for taking the nasty’s word so easily. He should have known better than that.
"Peter?" It was Winston. "Hey, listen, guy, this is really tough for us, and I know it’s gotta be even tougher for you. I want to accuse you of running out on us, but I know you didn’t."
Peter shivered. In a way, he had run out on them; he’d cut and run from a situation that would have proven unendurable if he’d stayed any longer, even if he’d always known he’d go back. But the guys hadn’t exactly wanted him to stay; they hadn’t laid out any welcome mats. "No," he said wearily, "I didn’t. If you guys can solve it, I’ll come back—if you want me to, that is."
Winston hesitated so long Peter considered just hanging up and writing off the call as a lost cause. Then Zeddemore said, "I think if we do this right, we’ll want you. We just won’t be sure if you’ll want us."
Peter swallowed hard around the gummy lump in his throat. "Come on, guy, I did this for you. I think I’ll want you." Can I go home now? God, how many times had he asked that question, secure in the knowledge that he had a home, a family in all but blood, who would welcome him there. What was that quote? ‘Home is where, if you have to go there, they have to take you in?’ If he hopped a plane after the Stargate mission and went home, he was pretty sure they’d take him in now, but they wouldn’t want him. They’d just endure him for fairness’ sake. Better to stay out here. They might not want him, particularly, either, but they needed him.
It was the best offer he had.
Janine took the phone back. "Doctor V, I’m in there pitching for you. They’re better than they were. They can remember bits and pieces of how it’s supposed to be. They know you belong here. The way they’re going through musty old books, they’re sure to find an answer sooner or later."
"Thanks, Janine. I owe you."
"Yes, you do," she said in much her normal tones. "Yes, you do. I did what you asked me to earlier. That part’s taken care of." The meter. Then she lowered her voice. "Listen to me, Peter. I heard what you said to Egon about whatever you’re going to do tomorrow being dangerous. If you get yourself killed to put things right, I’ll come after you and drag you back from the afterlife so I can neutronize you myself. And that’s a promise."
Her words warmed his heart. "Thanks, Janine," he said in a voice that was more unsteady than he wanted it to be. She pretended not to notice. "Gotta go now, Melnitz. Look, tell the guys I...I love ‘em. And you too, even if means you’ll make me pay and pay and pay."
"I will, too," she confirmed. Her voice wasn’t much steadier than his. "Because even if they can’t say it right now, they love you, too, and...so do I."
Peter fumbled for words and couldn’t find any, so he did the only thing left to him before he would break down and howl like a dog. He hung up, then he sat down hard on his borrowed bed and dropped his face into his hands.
** *** **
O’Neill stopped in the corridor and waited for Daniel to catch up with him after the briefing with Hammond that had only confirmed what everyone already knew—that the mission was a go for tomorrow morning. The archaeologist’s face was grave and purposeful. "What’s up, Daniel?"
"I was thinking about tomorrow." Jackson made a gesture back the way he’d come. "Sam was going over the mission reports and helping correlate those missing time factors and she can pin down something for almost everybody. The computer ran a scenario that picked them out. We disregarded certain times that we have other ways of explaining, like the time on P3X-989 where Harlan made robotic copies of us. Mostly we’ve been concentrating on timelines since the treaty. And everybody who’s had a bad reaction has shown brief moments of uncounted time since then. Even Sam and Teal’c have, although it doesn’t seem to have worked with them."
"Yeah, that’s what Fraiser said just now." Jack frowned. He knew the younger man too well to think that Daniel had come after him just to spout off facts, although he was good at that, far too good at it for Jack’s liking. Usually he did it on a mission when the baddies were just over a hill laying down heavy fire. This time, Daniel’s babble was an excuse for something else, though. It hadn’t taken O’Neill long to know the difference. "All right, what’s really up?"
"Well...." Daniel hesitated. "Peter’s going to hypnotize me in the morning. And he’s not going to hypnotize you."
"So, you’re just reminding me not to punch you out once we get through the gate?" Spotting a couple of airmen approaching, Jack took Daniel by the scruff of the neck and propelled him down the corridor to an empty office. He perched on the edge of the desk and regarded Jackson expectantly.
Daniel hesitated. "No, it’s not that, Jack. I still remember screaming at you last time. At first I thought it was something like what happened to us on PJ2-455, when the sound waves made us lose it."
"Yeah, but that wasn’t us, and we got past it once we were back, just like this time. We all had tests to make sure it wasn’t the same type of thing again, ‘cause if somebody could get in our records and see how that worked, it’d be a good tool to use against us out there." He gestured vaguely in the direction of the Gate Room. "Remember, they went back through the gate, and they couldn’t pick up anything like that this time. They went to the place where it happened with Teal’c to show them the way. Not a trace of a subliminal or low frequency sound there."
Daniel grimaced. "Yeah, I know. It would be too much of a coincidence to have the same thing again unless somebody thought how well it worked last time and wanted to try it again and, even if somebody used it against us, it was awfully selective and somebody would have had to set it up on every planet we go to. Besides, Teal’c was affected on PJ2-455, and he wasn’t this time. That’s the part that proves it’s something else. Anyway, we took M.A.L.P. readings on some of those planets where it went wrong, and the M.A.L.P. didn’t report anything unusual in the atmosphere or any kind of weird sound waves, either." The archaeologist started pacing up and down the room. "Jack, we’ve been over all that a hundred times and so has everybody involved with the Stargate project. Don’t distract me with theories. That’s not what I want to say."
"So say it, already." Jack felt himself grow a little impatient, but not as impatient as he might have been with anyone but Daniel. Jackson had a way of getting to him, even when he frustrated him.
"I remember when I was yelling at you back there. I was acting like I hated you. For a few minutes there, I almost thought I did."
"Ditto. It hit us both, kiddo. I said worse things than you did."
"Probably because you’ve learned more profanity. It’s kind of funny, because, in a weird way, it’s like what happened to Peter’s friends, only theirs didn’t wear off. The thing is, I’ve seen how miserable he was. He did the only thing he could under the circumstances. But that’s not quite it. Jack, if you lose it out there tomorrow and you say anything or do anything that...hurts me, I just wanted you to know ahead of time that I understood it wasn’t your fault."
Ouch. "Blanket absolution? So if I whip out my MK-5 and blast you, you’ll forgive me with your dying breath? Come on, Daniel, don’t be melodramatic. You think I’ll have a chance to zap you with Carter and Teal’c on me like fleas on a hound?"
Daniel’s mouth quirked at the simile. "Well...I hope you won’t. But if you do, if it falls out that you deck me, or worse, and I can’t tell you afterwards that it wasn’t your fault, I wanted to...tell you now."
Jack shook his head. Sometimes he couldn’t believe Daniel Jackson. Look at him now, standing there all earnest and sincere, trust and affection vivid in his eyes. Jack wasn’t comfortable with all the mushy stuff, and Daniel really wasn’t either, but he was a little better at it than Jack was. "Aw, for crying out loud."
"No, I mean it, Jack. Peter’s buddies didn’t get the chance to apologize in advance for what they’ve done to him. They didn’t mean it either. So don’t think I’ll hold it against you if you lose it."
"No sense of self-preservation, that’s you," said Jack lightly.
Daniel didn’t answer that; probably remembering how he’d felt just after Sha’re died when he honestly didn’t have a sense of self-preservation and didn’t care if he made it or not. Jack was glad he cared now.
When the younger man did speak, it was to slightly change the subject. "Peter says he can’t guarantee the hypnosis will work on me, all things considered. It’s the best chance we have right now, unless some new data comes in, and I’m hoping it will keep me from doing anything stupid. But if I do—Jack, I don’t want to do anything to hurt you, but if I do, you know I won’t mean it."
"Yeah, I know that. Goes without saying."
"In other words, ‘shut up, Daniel’?"
Jack would have been more comfortable with considering it said, and he was pretty sure Daniel would, too, but then he realized that Jackson felt a need to say it. If it all fell apart and they both survived, at least they’d know ahead of time that they didn’t blame each other.
"Well, you do have a tendency to spout off, kid." He put out a hand and messed up the light hair. It wasn’t quite as much fun to rumple the younger man’s hair now that it was shorter but it would never do to admit that, not when half the female personnel on the base were after Danny to grow it long again. The Jackson ego was pretty modest, all things considered, but it still didn’t do to encourage it.
Daniel hesitated, then he grinned. "If you’ve got a lot of intelligent things to say, why not?"
"Is this a comparison of IQs?" Jack demanded suspiciously, trying to sound light. "A mad scientist kind of thing? Intellectual macho?"
Daniel chuckled. "If you’ve got it, flaunt it," he retaliated.
Jack poked him hard in the ribs.
"Are you all right, Janine? Would you like me to run you home in Ecto?"
The secretary jumped. She hadn’t heard Egon come down the stairs again. Quickly, she bent down, ostensibly to make sure her shoes were tied, but in reality to brush a tear from her eye. It wouldn’t do to let even Egon see she’d been crying. She had a reputation to maintain.
"I’m okay. I’ll take the subway. It’s only a few stops. You go upstairs again and work on a way to get Peter back." She finally lifted her eyes. Maybe he wouldn’t notice; she had already turned off her desk lamp. He probably hadn’t even realized she’d gone out to mail Peter’s package earlier or that the meter was even missing. It hadn’t even been hard to get a P.K.E. meter. One of them had been on Peter’s desk for the past week. The guys didn’t venture in there at all, other than that one time to look at the Doctoral certificates that hung there. She could have left gold bars on the desk and they wouldn’t have noticed. Not food, though. Slimer had a tendency to find that, wherever anyone set it down.
If Egon realized that her eyes were slightly puffy, he didn’t say anything. Egon wasn’t exactly Mister Sensitivity, although he could do it with the guys if it should be called for. Of course masculine sensitivity was kind of an oxymoron anyway, and when it was called for among her bosses, it came across differently than that, although they all could be awfully understanding with her. She hadn’t seen any of that lately, at least not aimed in her direction, except from Winston. It wasn’t that Egon and Ray had been jerks to her, no, never that. But Egon didn’t have the greatest of social skills with the fairer sex and Ray had always been a little shy. Now, without Peter’s influence, Egon’s social skills were in the toilet and Ray was almost afraid to look at her. They’d have learned different ones without Peter, but the entity’s actions had regressed them. The intellectual things they knew, they still knew; they’d learned that separately from Peter. But without even trying, Doctor V had taught them a lot of coping skills. She hoped that, when this was all over, they would realize that—and get the skills back. She missed the way they’d been.
"If you’re sure…." Egon hesitated. "I’ve driven you home before, haven’t I?"
And stayed over sometimes, Janine thought but didn’t say it. She was afraid the words would send this diminished Egon in panicked flight up the stairs. "Yes you have, Egon," she told him. "But that’s all right. You only did it when you didn’t have something major going down. And right now you do. So get up there and prove to me all over again how smart you are." She wouldn’t even flirt with him. It would probably confuse the heck out of him.
"He...didn’t sound so unpleasant on the telephone."
She glanced up again, startled. He’d sounded pathetic on the telephone, lost and lonely. Even someone under a curse couldn’t read ‘con man’ into that, could they? That forlorn voice had tugged at her heartstrings. She’d have given anything to hear the normal wisecracks designed to drive her up the walls.
"I’ve told you and told you. He isn’t unpleasant. Well, maybe to me sometimes, but I always give him payback."
"Sibling rivalry," Egon said surprisingly. "That’s what you describe every time you mention your relationship with Venk—uh, Peter."
"Yeah, so?" Busted. She’d never live this down. The only thing was, she was pretty sure Egon, once in his right frame of mind, wouldn’t give her away.
"So, you have proven a remarkably perceptive person. The man on the other end of the phone line sounded as if he had been in hell."
"A hell he chose willingly to make sure you three jokers survived. Remember that, Egon. Sure he drives me nuts, but I’d give anything if he were back here doing his number that makes me react like fingernails on a chalkboard. Now, imagine how you’d feel if you’d chosen to save Ray and Winston like that, and then they turned on you. Think about it really hard, Egon. Now remember how Peter sounded on the phone. And then, you get up there and you work all night if you have to, but you find a way to change this back. And when it’s all over, I’ll expect him to give me a raise."
Egon looked surprised, then his mind filtered her words. "You...battle over your salary, don’t you, you and V—Peter?"
"You bet we do. I’m getting time and a half for this. Peter said I could, and he’s the one that matters when it comes to money things."
"I...wondered how we managed the bills," Egon murmured.
"And now you know. Egon, you’re the fairest man I ever met. You’re the most honest. Can you stand there and tell me that it’s either fair or honest to act on behavior imposed by an entity and treat someone you love more than a brother like shit? Egon, I love you. The old Egon knows how much. But right now a part of me hates you, too. I know it’s not your fault, but so do you. You know the truth. You start acting on it, even if it’s tough, or I’ll—" Or you’ll what, Melnitz?
Egon didn’t push her to finish the threat. "Thank you, Janine," he said obediently. "If you’re sure about the ride, I have work to do."
"Get up there and find a way to bring Peter home."
She watched him plod up the stairs, her eyes lingering on the tail of blond hair on the back of his neck. It drooped. Everything about him drooped. At least, when this is over, you’ll know better how to value your friends, Egon. She’d give anything to have her very own Egon back—and to have Peter home, even bugging her the way he did.
And I won’t even ride him on it... Yes, I will. Then he’ll know he’s home.
** *** **
"We’re going to do this in private," Peter said to Daniel the next morning in the infirmary. "Only Janet will be with us. It’s not that you couldn’t be hypnotized in public, because I think most people can be. My uncle Alfonse went to a nightclub that had a hypnotism act, and even if he was out in the audience and not the volunteer who went on stage, he started clucking like a chicken right along with the guy who got picked. A couple of other people did, too. My aunt Maizie has the pictures to prove it."
"I don’t think there’ll be much need for me to cluck on the mission," Daniel objected hopefully. He was glad Jack wasn’t listening. He could always trust Jack for a smart remark.
"No, we don’t have time for fun," Peter said ruefully. Was he really thinking of it? Daniel didn’t really know Peter well enough to tell, but he didn’t think the guy was up for genuine kidding around, even if they hadn’t been in the heart of a crisis.
He didn’t really want to do this. Sam had been hypnotized before, the time Nem had programmed the others to believe he was dead. If only this had fallen out that she could have been the one, this time, too.
"Got another question," Peter said. "How long after going through the Stargate does this all start? Right away? Hours later?"
"The last few times it’s been pretty quick," Daniel remembered. "Say within half an hour. I think we were conditioned and didn’t know it a few times. Jack would say something pretty impatient and I’d snap back, but then we’d move on. The last time, we really lost it and said some really crummy things to each other. I think if Jack said something like that to me normally, I’d be mad, but I’d also have felt bad that he was being so unfair. I didn’t feel upset at all, just ready to grab him by the neck and throttle him." He glanced uneasily at Doctor Fraiser. "You know I don’t react that way, Janet."
"I’ve never seen you behave that way," she confirmed. "And while I think you’d be hurt if Jack came down on you unfairly, I also think you’d stand up to him and let him know he was wrong. You do have a tendency to offer your opinions without much encouragement—if any."
Daniel grinned. She was right. He offered Jack his opinions every time he opened his mouth. Jack’s induced anger and rotten behavior wouldn’t blight him; it would make him try to find out why O’Neill was doing it. It might hurt if it was blatantly unfair but it wouldn’t stop him calling his friend on it. Last time, he hadn’t tried to find a solution. He’d escalated the problem by yelling at Jack, telling him he was probably the lousiest mission commander since the dawn of time. He remembered screeching that anybody who came down on the people under him like that deserved to command an outhouse in Antarctica. He’d finished up his performance by insisting that it was too bad he’d been under the influence of Machello’s Goa’uld killers when he saw a Goa’uld take over Jack’s body, because glowing eyes were sure to be an improvement. Even now, he could remember the horror in Sam’s face as he said it, but not as much as he could recall the hot fury in Jack’s as a stream of profanity lashed out at Daniel. If Teal’c hadn’t grabbed them and held them apart, they might have killed each other. Jack had fought to get to him the whole way back to the gate and if Teal’c hadn’t restrained him long enough for Carter to remove their weapons, it could have ended in a very messy death.
"I’ll be as quiet as a church mouse this time."
"You think you will be," Peter said. "Look, Daniel, I don’t know that what I’m going to do will keep your temper down out there. I don’t even know that what we’re dealing with is some kind of alien conditioning, or even some kind of local secret spy agency conditioning like you’d see in a James Bond movie. Whatever it is, it might be so far away from anything I know about that I could even be making things worse, or, at best, changing nothing."
"I know that," Daniel replied. "But what choice do we have? You’re right that it probably isn’t the gate itself or it would work differently if we gated from one world to another out there. But we’ve proved that there were times on nearly every mission that someone was alone, sometimes on several different worlds. It would require a massive plan to condition us that way, but it isn’t totally impossible. So unless we can find out what it is, we can’t break it. If what you do to me today works and keeps me from calling Jack crummy names, or maybe killing him or getting zapped myself, then we have to do it."
"You know, I just thought of something else," Peter said. "You and Jack are close friends, different as night and day but still close. Keller said the other guy was his best friend. Maybe that has something to do with it."
"I don’t know," Daniel replied. "Jack’s pretty close to Teal’c and Sam, too. SG-1 is a pretty tight unit. That’s one of the things I like about it."
"Do you consider Jack O’Neill your closest friend?"
Daniel hesitated, then he nodded. He and Jack had been through a lot together. They’d probably not only saved each other’s lives but each other’s sanity. "Yes, I do. That’s what makes it so bad. I was wishing a Goa’uld on my best friend."
"You aren’t now," Peter consoled him. "Look, this is kind of what I’m going through. I know how you feel about it. God, last night, when I talked to the guys, I found out that when I saved their lives, I screwed up and let the entity take away everything they learned from knowing me. Not to say that I’m so wonderful, but here they are, grown men, not kids, adults with a lot of self-confidence, but because of what I did, they lost all that they learned from me, and they’re floundering because they didn’t have a chance to learn it differently. That sucks. So don’t think because you called Jack a few crummy names while under the influence that you did anything so terrible. He understands, doesn’t he?"
"Oh yeah. He’s not mad at me. At least he says he’s not."
"And you’re not mad at him?"
"So that part’s okay."
Daniel nodded. "It’s not that. It’s what might happen out there when we go through the gate again."
Peter had gone through a worse deal than he had. At least Sha’re, herself, had never turned on him. It had always been Amonet, forcing Sha’re to behave in a certain way. But Sha’re had always been in there, loving him. And now, the things Jack had said, about being such a loser that even his academic peers held him in contempt, had hurt, but he knew Jack didn’t mean them. Jack would defend him in a second if another archaeology professor came down on Daniel. He’d probably tromp the guy with hobnailed boots.
"Well, that’s what we’re going to try to stop," said Peter. "And if this doesn’t work, I’ve got other ideas. Maybe they’re not as good, but they’ll work. Maybe you’re conditioned to a specific tone, the sound of the gate opening, for instance. Only that wouldn’t work if gating to another world before coming back doesn’t stop it."
"Something to consider," Janet put in. "I’ll pass that information along to General Hammond as soon as this is over, in case no one has considered it."
"Okay," said Peter. "Get comfortable, Daniel, and we’ll start. Try to get as relaxed as possible. Don’t worry. I won’t leave a post-hypnotic suggestion that you start barking when you hear the word ‘zat’."
"Thank you. What do I do?"
"Not very. Tense."
"That’s okay. We’re gonna get rid of that tension. Let your hands hang down loosely. Shake them a little. Uncurl your fingers. Yeah, like that." Peter’s voice was suddenly the most soothing he had ever heard as he coached Daniel through a series of relaxation exercises. When Daniel’s muscles untensed, he went on with the process. "There’s a couple things going down here that will make it easy for you. The voice. Notice how I sound? This is my ‘seduction’ voice. I use it on the ladies and they topple like ninepins—wonder what a ninepin is. No, I couldn’t just yell and hypnotize you, not unless you were the most susceptible man in the world, and you’re not. You’re just more susceptible than Jack, and part of that is I get the feeling he’s been trained to resist, somewhere along the way. Black ops or whatever; they train you to resist conditioning. Not Goa’uld conditioning, unfortunately. But I’ve gotta hope that you’re more susceptible to that, too, because of his training, and that toning you down out there will keep him from losing it. Okay, so that’s just wishful thinking. But we’ll go from there. Just listen to me talk. None of this ‘you are getting verrrry sleepy’ routine. That’s a parlor game."
God, that lazy voice was nearly putting Daniel to sleep. He was getting very sleepy. He worked hard to smother a yawn.
"The other element’s trust," Peter went on, just talking quietly in that ultra-lazy voice. He sounded slightly like Garfield, the cartoon cat. Daniel squashed down a smile as he thought it. He’d noticed that before, when he’d first met Peter, and wondered if Jack had caught it, although O’Neill had never said anything. Well, Jack probably didn’t make a habit of watching cartoons, unless he’d watched them with his son. "We know each other, okay, not very well, but you and I were the ones who worked together last time, when we were dealing with those alien ghosts. You know I’m on the up and up—even if I’ve been down so long it looks like up to me."
Daniel smiled again. "You’re ‘up’ with SG-1," he said sleepily. Why was he so tired?
Peter went on. "We’re not going to do anything terrible with you. We’re just making you feel relaxed." His eyes bored into Daniel’s. They were a vivid green and full of shadows, but he was utterly focused now; the shadows were only a reflection of a pain so great that he lived it even when he was thinking of something else. Daniel felt a surge of pity for him. If Jack, Sam, and Teal’c started really hating him...
"You’re a lot more relaxed now," Peter cut in. "You want to catch a nap, but you won’t go to sleep. You’ll just drift. Know how it feels when you’re almost asleep and your mind is drifting out there in the ozone layer playing tag with comets and coming up with brilliant new ways to save the world? Latch onto that. You can write whole monographs in the blink of an eye. You can do anything. But all you have to do now is feel the way that feels, let yourself sink into it. Just...let...yourself...sink."
Daniel’s mind drifted. He didn’t even consider how he’d gotten to that point, just that he was there. Maybe it was a trance state. Whatever it was, it was incredible. His mind wasn’t shut down, it was just...open to worlds beyond worlds. He could probably translate Linear A in this frame of mind. God, it felt good.
"Okay, now, my voice is the only sound you’re going to hear. Just listen to it, use it as a guidepost. Whatever happens, you know you can follow my voice out whenever you choose. You aren’t trapped. You’re free. Your mind is free. You control it."
"I...control...it," Daniel murmured.
"You’re always going to know, in the back of your mind, the subconscious, what we talk about now. You choose not to bring it to the surface yourself. I’m not imposing it. It’s there, protecting you, like a shield, like those knights used to use when they jousted to win the heart of a fair lady. You’re a knight, Daniel, only you’re trying to save your kingdom now. You’re a musketeer. All for one and one for all. You’re on a quest."
"A quest," Daniel mimicked. He liked that mental image, Sir Daniel off to save the Stargate. It had been a long time, years, since he’d felt like that, like he’d felt he could rush off and save the world.
"In a little while, you’re going through the Stargate," Peter went on, his voice still ultra slow and lazy. He sounded like he was about to fall asleep. Daniel’s eyes were closed; he didn’t remember closing them or Peter telling him to.
"You can hear me?" Peter asked.
"I hear you."
"Good. I love to talk. The bigger the audience the better, but this time, it’s just for you, Danny boy. The pipes, the pipes are calling." Daniel heard the amusement in his voice and it made him smile, even though his mouth seemed distant, as if the smile were done by remote control.
Peter let him drift a second before he went on. "You’ll be going through the gate and something’s going to try to make you mad. But you’re in control, Daniel. You won’t let it make you mad. When you feel like you want to deck somebody, you’ll smile at him instead. When you want to curse, you’ll laugh. Because it’s funny, really. It has to be funny." He was silent a second, then the slow, lazy voice resumed its monologue. "It’s all a joke, a cosmic mistake. No matter how hard something inside you pushes at you to go for Jack’s throat, you won’t do it. You’ll kid him instead. Even if he’s yelling at you, you won’t care. Because you’ll know he’s really yelling at fate, and it won’t hurt you or make you mad if he curses fate. We all do that every now and then. And you won’t be mad at Teal’c either, for stopping you if he does, or with Sam. They’re your friends, and they’re helping you, and you’ll thank them nicely. You’ll be a good, polite guy. A sensitive guy, a Nineties kind of guy. Oops, this is Y2K. You’ll be a sensitive Y2K kind of guy. No guns, no yelling. It’ll run off you like water off a duck’s back. See, Danny, I can use a tired simile just like the next guy. It’ll just run off. You won’t care, because it doesn’t matter. It’ll be funny. You’ll laugh, Daniel."
"I’ll laugh," he echoed.
"And you won’t forget I said this. You’ll know, deep in that part of you between awake and dreaming. You’ll feel it in the back of your mind, but you won’t be able to push it to the surface—unless you choose to. You’ll know, and you’ll understand in your subconscious. You’re safe; you’re not manipulated. When this is over, I’ll just say—say ‘rutabaga’ and it’ll all go away. Next time you hear me say that word, you’ll know you’re home and safe and you can be yourself again. But for now, you’re in control, Daniel. You make yourself in control. You’ll laugh, and it will be okay. Got it?"
"Got it," Daniel said sleepily.
"Okay, good. We’re going to wake you up now and turn you loose on the galaxy. Daniel Jackson, superhero. Able to leap tall Goa’ulds at a single bound. When I clap my hands twice, you’ll wake up and you’ll feel good, you’ll feel eager for the mission. You won’t really remember what we talked about, except inside your subconscious. I’m not really hypnotizing you, Daniel. You’re choosing this for yourself. Remember that. I’m not embarrassing you. I’m not manipulating you. I’m just giving you a way to make yourself safe. It’s okay. It’s okay to laugh when it gets tough. Remember that. And remember that word I told you because it’s going to get you out."
"Good. Okay, you’re nice and relaxed. You’re going to come out of this feeling good. Your muscles aren’t tense, your stomach isn’t queasy, you’re not even nervous. You can do it, Danny boy." He clapped his hands together twice.
Daniel blinked and opened his eyes. That was weird. He felt so good, so cool and calm and relaxed. Was it over? He could vaguely recall things, a soothing voice, words pouring over him like a warm river. If he thought about it really hard, he’d knew he’d remember it all, but he didn’t want to think about it. He knew what had happened, but he knew in a part of his mind that was locked away. He could get to it, but he wasn’t ready to do that yet. Not when he felt so good, so sure they could defeat the programming.
"Okay, Daniel?" There was a blood pressure cuff around his arm. Where had that come from? He gazed at Janet Fraiser in surprise.
"I’ve been monitoring you," she said. "You didn’t notice?"
He shook his head doubtfully.
"You’re fine. Your blood pressure went down a little because you were so relaxed but not enough for us to worry about. It’s normal now."
"I thought I wouldn’t know what happened."
"Do you know?" asked Peter, leaning forward, interested.
He tapped his forehead. "Well...in here, I think I do. I just can’t...say it."
Peter beamed. "Good, that’s the way it works. You’re the one who does it to yourself. You make the choice. It’s not a parlor game. Sure, I could have had some fun with you if I’d wanted to, but I didn’t. You won’t bark like a chicken, I guarantee it, and Janet will back me on that. She’d have reamed me if I’d played around in your head."
"Bow wow," Daniel said lightly. "No, I do feel good. Thanks, Peter."
"Now, if it only works." Peter grimaced. "Thing is, we just don’t know. It’s like when I’m dealing with spooks and goblins and trolls and stuff. They’re not human, any more than your snakehead guys are. So sometimes things that would work fine in normal circumstances don’t once you step out of what Egon calls conventional reality. Only thing that might help is, I’ve never been out there and I’ve never been alone with anybody here who might be able to take pot shots at my mind. That doesn’t mean nobody could have; if you’ve got invisible guys clumping around here in alien boots, anything’s possible."
"An interesting technique," Fraiser said. "I’ll cross my fingers that it will counteract whatever we’re up against."
"Yeah, and I’d feel a lot better if I could tell what’s triggering it," Peter said. "If it’s just conditioning, the kind that says, you act weird once you leave Earth and normal when you’re back, that would mean there didn’t have to be a trigger. Just going through the gate out there would do it. But that’s one more control that could break down. If somebody out there is doing it, they might not want to take a chance."
"But unless it’s the gate itself, there’s no way to induce something consistently," argued Janet.
"And we’ve all but taken the gate apart and we’ve gone over the computer programs until we’re blue in the face," said Daniel. "We considered bringing in the DHD from the other gate to try to open it that way but we didn’t do it. We still might."
Peter didn’t look blank at the mention of another Stargate. He must have boned up last night. Daniel had the idea that studying the computer records he had access to would have given him something else to think about besides the way his team was treating him. "Whatever works," he said. "So, how soon do we get to go through the gate?" He was excited about it, but not as excited as he would have been if he’d had his friends with him.
"After lunch, General Hammond says," Fraiser put in. "I’m going to run a quick physical on you, Daniel, now that you’ve had the hypnosis session. And I must say, Peter, that Garfield voice you used is utterly reassuring."
"I don’t sound like Garfield," Peter said with pretend hauteur. "I don’t know where people get that from. I thought it was just one of Egon’s gags at first, when he started telling me I sounded like Garfield. Oh well, I’d rather sound like Garfield than The Brain on Pinky and the Brain the way Egon does."
Daniel chuckled. Peter wouldn’t be able to hear it himself. Everyone’s voice sounded different to himself than it did to others. Daniel had been too old for cartoons when Garfield had become a series, but he’d watched it now and then. He didn’t think of it most of the time when Peter talked, but Peter must have played it up in the hypnosis session because he had an image in his mind of the smug, mouthy feline. It made him smile.
Jack poked his head into the infirmary. "Are you guys done adjusting Daniel’s marbles yet?"
"Enough to know yours are permanently scrambled, Jack," retorted Daniel with a grin. "Are we ready?"
"No, we’re going to chow down first and then wait an hour, just like we were jumping into a swimming pool and not an event horizon." He slouched in and gave Daniel a light rap on the forehead with his knuckles. "Hello, in there? Everything go?"
"Everything’s go," Daniel replied. "I’m programmed now to paint your face green whenever you fall asleep—and then to write hieroglyphics on it."
"Sweet. My life is complete." He draped a casual arm around Daniel’s shoulders and guided him toward the door. Peter waved a farewell to Janet and followed.
** *** **
"So that’s a P.K.E. meter?" Jack surveyed the detection device warily. It was a hand-held gizmo, with retractable antennae at one end and a blank screen on its face. Accompanying it was another gadget about the size of a shoebox, with twin doors in black and orange stripes on the top. The bottom had little wheels at the corners, and a long cable connected it to a doohickey that looked like a foot pedal. He’d seen them before when the Ghostbusters had been recruited to help out the Stargate project, but he hadn’t paid much attention because the Ghostbusters hadn’t needed to use them. The contraptions had a definite Rube Goldberg look to them.
"She sent along a ghost trap, too," Peter said in surprise. "This is what we use to catch ghosts in. I don’t think we’ll even need it."
The devices must have caught every flight to make it to the cover address in time, and the package had been rushed down here directly rather than needing to wait for someone to pick it up. The messenger had brought it to the briefing room only moments before and Peter had torn open the package and removed the two gizmos. He’d instantly turned on the meter and pulled the antennae out of their recess. Carefully, he’d pointed the meter around the room in a full circle. Nothing happened.
"So, I take it we’re ghost-free, Doctor Venkman?" asked General Hammond. The corner of his mouth twitched in an aborted smile.
"At least normal ghosts. I’ll play with the settings awhile. Maybe if I set a negative valence...." He fiddled with the dials for a few minutes and raised it again. This time, something happened. The tips of the antennae glowed faintly—like Goa’uld eyes, thought Jack ruefully—and it gave a faint, asthmatic beep.
"What the heck was that?" O’Neill demanded. The Marine on guard at the door came to attention.
"That’s what we call residuals," Peter said. "I’m not sure what it’s picking up on, unless maybe it’s Junior here." He aimed it at Teal’c’s midsection. The bleeping faded. "Nope, not that. I betcha Egon could program it to detect a Goa’uld, or those Frou Frou guys."
"I think he means ‘Ree’Tou’," Daniel offered with an amused smile.
"Frou Frou?" Jack echoed. "I like it."
"What do you think you’ve detected, Doctor Venkman?" Hammond prodded, leaning closer to see.
Peter spotted his interest and switched chairs so he could show it off to the general. "It’s picking up something," he said and pointed to the LED display on the screen. "See, there’s a measurable reaction, but it isn’t here now. Whatever it is, it’s not a reading the meters were designed to pick up, but Egon and Ray keep expanding the parameters and adding settings. This version makes our original ones we used when we were fighting Gozer about as modern as a slide rule."
"What do you think it’s reading?" asked the general.
"Well, what it picks up on is energy, and it doesn’t pick up on conventional energy, even if we can adjust the settings to pick up on human biorhythms if we ever need to. We found out they were really pretty individual, and at a close range—a few blocks—we can use these to track down a missing team member. We even use them at generic biorhythm settings to help find people buried in collapsed buildings. That part got patented and now rescue programs are working on modifications that could help in earthquakes and avalanches to locate survivors. It should work a lot better than sniffer dogs. The royalties are gonna be so great..."
"Okay, so it’s non-conventional energy. You know these little gadgets. What kind would you say this is?" asked Jack.
"I’m not an expert. Old Spengs can make this thing do a tap dance. But what I’d say is that it’s not human. I mean it’s not human biorhythms. But it’s not quite like ghost readings, either. It’s something conceptually different. Weird. Like...somebody who’s maybe trapped in a dimension that’s so close to us we can almost touch it."
Jack exchanged a doubtful glance at Hammond. "You saying it could be that one of us isn’t the original, that he’s come from another dimension?"
"That could happen?" Peter asked in surprise. His eyes widened doubtfully, then he gave a quick shrug.
"That could happen," agreed Daniel. "I’ve been in another dimension and we met another Sam and Kawalsky. You don’t know him—he used to be in charge of SG-2."
Peter pondered it. He made a face that showed the effort. "No, it’s not that. Because those alternate people would still be human. The biorhythms might be off fractionally, but not enough that I’d get something weird like this. What I’m getting is something that isn’t here now but it was here—and it wasn’t in sync with anything I’d pick up, even ghosts wouldn’t read like this."
"Ree’Tou?" Hammond asked.
Peter shrugged. "I’m the team’s smart mouth, not the Science Guy. I’m not sure. But from what you said, this could indicate something that was—how’d it go?—out of phase?"
"How long do residuals linger?" Carter asked. "I have a physics background, Peter—not the same specialty as Egon, but I might be able to make sense of it."
"Various residuals last different times, and it depends on whether they were there originally more than once. Sure, dig in." Peter passed it to her and bent his head over it next to hers as he pointed out the functions of the different dials. For a guy who proclaimed to know nothing of science, he gave her a thorough breakdown, and if he used terms that even Jack could understand, Carter got the point. She began to make minute adjustments on the dials, her face aglow with interest, the way Daniel would look if he found a whole room full of artifacts all labeled with an unknown script.
Peter left her to it. Maybe it bugged him to see someone using a meter with skills that might be comparable to his lost friend’s. He pounced on the other gizmo, the one that had wheels, with relief. "At least, Janine didn’t send a full trap."
"Full trap? By that, I assume you mean one with a ‘ghost’ inside?" Teal’c eyed the device warily. "I do not trust this machine."
"It can’t trap a human. See?" Peter put his palm down hard on the trigger. "Don’t look into the light, guys," he cautioned.
Good thing he had. The light that shot up out of the trap was a brilliant painful white that was almost as bright as a Goa’uld shock grenade. Sweet. O’Neill blinked away afterimages as Venkman powered down. "Great," he muttered. "We can always blind the Goa’uld."
Carter hadn’t even noticed. Looked like a case of P.K.E. meter addiction to Jack. He vaguely remembered Egon babying one the last time.
"Maybe we could trap a Ree’Tou," offered Daniel, craning his neck to see at the same time he rubbed his eyes. He could probably even walk and chew gum at the same time. You had to give scientists some credit.
"Except the other doohickey says there aren’t any here now. Just that maybe they were."
"We knew that already, Colonel O’Neill," Hammond reminded him.
Peter shook his head. "No, listen. Residuals don’t usually last more than a few days, unless they’ve been reinforced over and over. You guys know about these invisible Frou Frous. Do you use the TER’s every time somebody comes back through the gate?"
"We have been, the past week or so, since all this started happening," Hammond said. "And we always have if there was a chance the gate teams had been to a world where we’d suspect the Ree’Tou rebels of having a toehold."
"And do you maybe use them to watch the teams leaving? Like, if one was already here, would it be able to get away?"
Hammond winced. "Sometimes, but not always, Doctor Venkman. We’ll initiate greater security."
Peter’s eyes lingered on Carter as she checked settings and took readings of the rest of SG-1. "She’s quick," he said in an aside to Daniel. "She’s recording all your biorhythms. We can use them to compare when we get back. See if anybody’s picked up a snaky passenger."
"You can do that?" asked Hammond in surprise. "Use this device to tell if someone has been infested with a Goa’uld?"
"We should be able to, sir," agreed Carter. "It would be of great use to us if we can stop the problem we’re having and resume normal gate travel. Perhaps we should purchase several of these devices and adapt the scanning function."
"How about we resume gate travel now?" asked Jack, impatient as always to get the talking over with and start the mission. "Are we cleared to go, General?"
"Yes as soon as we get the new M.A.L.P. readings. I want to make sure we’re sending you to an uninhabited planet. Simply because you detected no life last time doesn’t mean the Goa’uld haven’t landed there or gated there in force since then."
"We’re going back to P4K-901, aren’t we?" Daniel asked hopefully. "The one with the ancient ruins where we never found a trace of life."
"We aren’t going so you can study more of your rocks," Jack kidded him.
"But we have to do something while we wait for a reaction, not just stand around," Daniel insisted. "I can film some more of the mastaba walls while we wait to see if we have a reaction."
"Very well, Doctor Jackson," agreed Hammond. "The data will be useful. But that isn’t your primary focus once we’re there."
Daniel’s face came up, all earnest big eyes. "I know. It’s just, if it goes wrong, at least something good will have come of it. I know I can finish my translation if I can study more of the hieroglyphs."
"Scientist," Peter muttered to Jack. "One-track mind time."
Venkman was a smart guy. He’d pegged the problem without effort. But then he was used to scientists. Heck, even if he didn’t act like it half the time, he was one. He might be studying Jack as carefully as Daniel studied his precious ruins.
Why am I always surrounded by scientists?
** *** **
Peter Venkman swallowed hard. Rigged out like a boy scout about to start off on a nature hike, he wore a backpack full of supplies. He was also armed, not with his usual proton pack and thrower but with a military-issue handgun—and a ten-minute course on how to use it, which probably would have been just enough for him to be able to shoot himself in the foot, if he hadn’t mastered the deadeye art of target shooting in the carneys he’d worked summers, when he was a teenager. He’d also been assigned a zat gun that thrilled him nearly as much as it would have delighted Ray; my very first ray gun. The ghost trap hung on a hastily contrived loop on his backpack, so at least it felt right, but the backpack he wore was lighter than a proton pack. He hoped it wouldn’t throw him off balance.
Carter carried the meter. She had a real affinity for it. Maybe it was a physics thing. Besides, she knew what to expect out there, and Peter didn’t. It hadn’t taken her much time to learn to configure the meter to give off the kind of readings she’d need. She’d even figured out how to get it to squawk when aimed in the vicinity of Teal’c’s belly. Great. Now if a Goa’uld showed up and didn’t do the glowing eyes/eerie voice routine, they’d still know it.
The M.A.L.P. readings came back okay. No evidence of life, no signs that anyone had been hanging around since the last trip to this particular holiday resort planet a couple of months ago. Peter would have preferred one that resembled Vegas, complete with dancing girls in skimpy costumes and a casino, but that would probably defeat the purpose. He’d just have to memorize what he saw in case he’d ever be allowed to tell the guys about it. He imagined them hanging on his every word, eyes wide with enthusiasm, and squashed down the mental picture. Too far from reality.
Hammond came to wait with them as they ‘dialed’ the gate. Sort of like Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure with the numbers they dialed to venture into history. Instead of a phone, they had a massive computer that would make Egon and Ray salivate like crazy. A voice in the background announced each ‘chevron’ being engaged as the giant Stargate’s inner ring swirled around. As the numbers or symbols or whatever they were became engaged, a triangular thingie locked into place. Peter had seen this done before on his last visit to Cheyenne Mountain, but he had to admit it was a pretty classy show.
"Chevron seven locked," announced the tech, and suddenly a field of energy swirled into being and whooshed out at them. Peter noticed there was a line marking its end range.
"What would happen if that thing hit you?" he asked Sam in an undertone.
"All that would be left would be your boots."
Hey eyed her doubtfully, uncertain whether or not she was pulling his leg. "Okay, let’s pass on that, okay? Are you sure your boots won’t be made for walking if we go into it now?" He gestured at the glowing surface of what they called a stable wormhole. Wasn’t that something from Deep Space Nine? Okay, so Peter was going to step in and after a wild ride that Daniel and Sam had tried in chorus to describe to him, he’d step out—probably fall out—onto another world. It was so awe-inspiring that for once he felt small and humble. What would his pop think if he could see him now?
"We’ve done it hundreds of times," Daniel reassured him. "You’ll be fine. But you’ll see why we wait awhile after eating before we go through."
"Anybody pack any Alka Seltzer?" Peter asked hopefully as they started up the ramp.
"You will do well, Peter Venkman," Teal’c assured him. And what was with this ‘Peter Venkman’ thing? Come to think of it, Teal’c referred to Daniel by his full name, too, but O’Neill was just ‘O’Neill.’ Who knew much about the Jaffa’s culture? Peter wasn’t quite comfortable around Teal’c yet, but a blind man could see he was a man of integrity, in spite of the little worm thingie in his gut.
"Hope so," he said in answer. "You can help pick up the pieces if I go tumbling down the ramp. Just nobody take a picture of it if I land like a duck, ‘stead of a swan."
He hesitated as he reached the event horizon. The thing rippled with energy. Did he really want to do this?
Jack O’Neill didn’t offer him a chance to object. He grabbed Peter by the arm, and the next thing Venkman knew, he was a bodiless thing soaring through an endless tunnel of light that twisted and turned and suddenly devolved in on itself and pitched him out onto a dirt ramp under a sun that was paler and smaller than the one he was used to. Even the air smelled different, with a sort of...well, citrus-y scent with something underlying it that he didn’t remember ever smelling before.
Jack reached out and hauled him to his feet. "Oopsy daisy, Peter Pan. Not one of your better landings. This isn’t Never-Never Land."
Peter rolled his eyes at O’Neill. "And I guess that makes you Tinkerbelle, Colonel?"
"But Tinkerbelle was a female character. Would not Captain Carter represent her?" Teal’c objected.
Smothering a chortle, Daniel said hastily, "Never mind, Teal’c. Don’t go there."
"Just take my word for it."
"Tinkerbelle," Jack muttered under his breath. He hadn’t won that one.
Peter fought down his smile and brushed himself off, his eyes scanning the slightly bluish leaves of the plants and the tall, soaring nature of the trees. Yep, this wasn’t Earth, unless it was the best movie set in the business. There was the M.A.L.P.. What did that mean, anyway? ‘Make a Lousy Planetfall?’ ‘Money, Ambition, Love, Power?’ Better not ask. He knew from working with Egon all these years that letters were usually better—at least they were easier to say.
What did they call the place? P4K-901? Heck of a name for a planet. He straightened up and tried to pretend he hadn’t fallen. "I christen this world the Planet Venkman," he announced in ringing tones.
Jack made a rude catcall.
** *** **
"I don’t think we’re ever going to find it," said Ray in a dispirited voice as he flipped idly through the faded pages of his latest book. It was getting on towards late afternoon, but none of them had put any thought into what they were going to have for dinner. If the other two felt anything like Ray did, food would probably sicken them. It was easier to hole up in the lab and at least give the semblance of making progress in their search for a solution to their problem. "I’ve been through every book I can think of, and we’ve tried two dozen spells and removal spells. We’re all still the same. I just know I’ve done something wrong."
"You haven’t," Winston said automatically from his position at the computer, where he was scanning website after website for any information on the Class Ten who had gotten them into this fix. "This is more of the induced stuff. Come on, Ray, I remember you with too much self-confidence, not too little. You aren’t screwing up. Remember, Egon and I haven’t found any answers, either."
"Oh. Yeah. Sorry. I mean...." His voice trailed off and he gave an embarrassed little shrug. Rule number twenty, imposed by the group as a whole. No more apologies for things that weren’t his fault. But it felt like it was his fault. After all, he was the occult expert of the team. He should know these things. After Janine had explained what had really happened, they’d all gone over it about seventy-three times. Hard to believe one person could make such a difference in their lives.
Janine had said, "You’d still have learned all those things, Ray, if you hadn’t known Peter but the way it worked out, you just had them yanked away. You did it once, so you can do it again. But find a way to fix it instead. I’d rather have the old Ray back than a new one who’s just as confident—but who hates Peter."
Sometimes Ray thought Egon was jealous when Janine went on and on about Venkman. Surely Egon and Janine had had a thing going before all this happened. But there were flashes that came and went so quickly he had to let his mind drift to see them, which suggested Peter had helped to promote the romance. Hadn’t he sent Janine flowers with Egon’s name forged on the note? Prodded Egon into asking her out? Encouraged him like crazy? Ray could almost remember things like that, but not quite. The way they were now, that hadn’t happened, or Egon hadn’t trusted it. He was so uncomfortable with Janine, far more than Ray or Winston were. This morning, he’d fled like a startled deer when Janine had batted her eyes at him. Egon was the smartest man Ray had ever met but he didn’t have a clue how to handle the redheaded secretary. Or even how to interact with her. It couldn’t have all been Peter. It must be part of a greater whole.
The hardest flashes were the ones that showed Ray a momentary glimpse of warm friendship between Peter and the others. His mind fought to reject those images, trying to convince him he’d dreamed them, or that they weren’t real, but a part of him longed for them. They were real, even if the loudest part of his subconscious screamed that Venkman had used him, conned him, scammed him, and treated him badly. The guy on the phone, the one who sounded so lost hadn’t felt like a scammer. Maybe it was easier to deal with him when they weren’t face to face. But Ray knew it was his fault, that he’d failed someone who was supposed to be a friend. He hated that.
"This is not our fault, Raymond," Egon said gravely. He laid aside his calculator on which he had been running esoteric calculations based on the meter readings they had taken of the Class Ten when it had first captured them. "But it is something for us to attempt to remedy. To fail is unthinkable. I will not live with tampering in my mind. And Janine insists repeatedly that I should not live with what amounts to a betrayal of friendship."
"Man, you don’t know how to betray anybody," ventured Winston. He whirled in the computer chair and faced them head on, ignoring the website he’d been perusing. "I may feel a little like the outsider here, but I remember you on busts, and I remember other things, even little pictures in my head that go by like bullet trains. You think you betrayed Venkman? Heck no. That ghost set us all up and dangled our lives in front of him like bait. What was he supposed to do? Ask to see the fine print? None of us would have thought of that, just of finding a way to save each other. He was up against a Class Ten and they’re a hell of a lot more powerful than we are. It made us act this way. Peter thought us being alive was worth the price and he still does. He told you so, Egon. That’s why we owe him not giving up just because the answers aren’t easy."
"I have no intention of giving...." Abruptly Egon’s voice trailed off and the color drained from his face.
Ray gasped. All of a sudden, the room spun around before his eyes and he had to grab the edge of the table to keep from falling out of his chair. Inside him, something went ‘whoomph’, and the room fuzzed. Then it began to clear up and he felt so different it nearly blew his mind. It was the difference between a miserable little mud puddle and the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean, and he was free, and the world was right side up again.
And Peter was their own Peter again, and he was....
"Oh, dear god," Egon gasped. The calculator he’d been holding erupted from his hands and shattered on the floor, and he didn’t even notice. "What have we done? Ray, Winston, what have we done?"
"Shit, shit, shit," Winston groaned. "What did we do to Pete?"
"He saved us," Ray ventured. He had to clear his throat to keep on talking. "He gave up everything to save our lives and we...we reviled him for it. We really trashed him, didn’t we?"
Egon’s face was white as paper and as rigid as stone. He forced words out through lips that had stiffened alarmingly. "The spell is broken, Ray. We didn’t reverse it. We had no answers, only theories. We didn’t break it—and the only way to break it is...."
"If Peter’s dead," breathed Ray in a stricken voice. "Oh, no, Peter’s dead." His heart plummeted down to his stomach and started thudding like a drum.
"We don’t know that," Winston insisted staunchly, but the same knowledge, the same certainty, gleamed in his eyes that Ray felt. Peter...didn’t exist any longer, and they were free, saved by him, alive because of him, redeemed by his death. They were free and they hadn’t meant it, but they had hurt Peter badly and now it was too late to make it up to him.
"He said he would be doing something dangerous today," Egon spoke as by rote. "He said it could cost him his life. He said that we were not to blame ourselves if that happened, that he would have made the same choice again, knowing what he knew. His life had to have been hell, this past week. He’d lost everything that mattered: his family, our trust, his home, his career—his life. To save our lives, he gave up his own...and we don’t even know where he was."
Ray leaped up and went over to Egon. They stood looking at each other, then Egon stretched out a hand and clasped Ray’s shoulder. It would have been so easy to lean against his friend and weep, but Ray couldn’t do that. He found a strength inside himself that had been missing for days and reached up instead to grip Egon’s wrist. This was impossible to endure—but they would endure it together.
"I think Janine knows." Winston abandoned the computer without a backward glance and ran out to the stairwell. "Janine, get up here right now," he called. "We need to talk."
"It doesn’t matter," Ray said sadly. "It won’t...bring him back. God, guys, he died thinking we hated him. We did hate him."
"No, we didn’t," said Winston sternly as he stalked back. He grabbed Ray’s arm and shook him lightly. "We didn’t hate him and he knew it. It was all the demon."
"Do you think that matters?" Egon looked like a man in torment. "Peter knew it was induced, but he still had to endure it. He died enduring it. We owe it to him to find him and...bring him home."
Ray swallowed hard.
Janine charged into the room and stopped dead, staring at them. It must have taken her two seconds to realize what happened. "You broke the spell?"
Egon shook his head sorrowfully. "No, Janine. It is broken, but we didn’t break it. Peter...must have done it."
"You mean he’s—" She gasped and pressed her hands against her mouth to stop the fatal word from spilling out. "He’s—" She couldn’t say it. Instead, she went over to Egon, wrapped her arms around him, and hid her face in the front of his shirt. "Egon, I’m so sorry."
"Peter is the one who deserves our apologies," Egon said flatly. That was bad. He was going into his total logic routine to cover up his emotions. Only Peter had been able to break through that particular barrier without days and days of trying. Only Peter could heal Egon now—and Peter was...gone forever.
Ray wrapped his arms around his middle but it didn’t warm him. Peter had died alone, even if he had been with other people. He’d died away from his friends, the family that hadn’t wanted him any longer. He wasn’t sure anything could hurt more than this—unless it was the way Peter had felt when he’d gone away.
"Janine," Winston said with a grim determination that kept his voice level, "I think you know where he was. You have to tell us now. We have to be able to go and bring back his bo—bring him home."
She loosened her hold on Egon and raised a tear-streaked face. "Colorado," she said. "He’s in Colorado Springs."
"Why? He hasn’t got family there?" Winston frowned.
Had he just gone somewhere at random, somewhere with no memories of times shared with the guys? No, they’d been to Colorado Springs together before, hadn’t they? He cast his mind back, over various cases, vacations, but he couldn’t focus on it.
"He’s staying with some guy named Jackson," Janine admitted. "I’ve got an address. He asked me to Fed Ex him a meter, and I sent him a meter and trap yesterday while you were out on that bust. He should have had it today."
"So he ran into a ghost out there." Winston was the only one keeping the conversation going. Maybe it was easier for him than thinking about what they’d done to Peter.
"He didn’t ask for a proton pack, only the meter," Janine insisted. "But there was a trap as well as a meter on his desk. I made sure they were working before I Fed Ex-ed them. He didn’t say why he needed it, though, and he didn’t mention a ghost."
"Jackson," Egon mused, a trace of life in his eyes. "Jackson. Colorado Springs. Did you talk to this Jackson, Janine?"
"Yes, he called me a couple of days ago when Peter first got there, even before I got Peter’s postcard. He wanted me to know he had Peter staying with him and that he’d keep an eye on him for us."
"He didn’t do a very good job of it," Ray muttered bitterly. If Jackson had gotten Peter killed....
"Janine," Egon said abruptly in a funny voice that made them all stare at him, "Was this a Doctor Daniel Jackson?" There was a flash of brightness in Egon’s eyes and some color had returned to his face. But his hands—they were clenched into such tight fists Ray half expected the bones to come popping out through the skin.
Daniel Jackson? The guy at that Stargate place under NORAD? Yeah, he and Peter had unexpectedly hit it off, Ray remembered; at least they’d figured out what was going down with those alien ghosts and had been able to work together to restore them. But why would Peter go to him? They’d only known each other a short time and hadn’t stayed in touch, at least not that Ray knew about. Daniel e-mailed Egon every now and then over a translation of an ancient manuscript and Egon reciprocated, but Peter never received any e-mail from him, had he? He’d never mentioned it, if he had.
Janine nodded doubtfully, unable to understand Egon’s fervor. "Yes, Daniel Jackson. He didn’t say anything about being a doctor. Why?"
"Because..." He hesitated and cleared his throat. "Janine, when Peter told you how the curse would be broken, what did he say? Did he actually say he would have to die in so many words? Remember carefully, Janine."
Was that hope in Egon’s voice? How could it be?
"Yeah, he said he’d have to die to break the curse," Janine replied reluctantly, as if she feared her words would make it so. Then her face scrunched up in concentration. "I know he did. Well, same thing, anyway."
Egon went to her and rested his hands on her shoulders. "An exact quote, if you please, Janine. Can you remember exactly what he said?"
"He said," and she closed her eyes as she recalled the conversation, "‘Until you or they no longer exist in the world.’ But what’s your point, Egon? ‘No longer exist’ means dead, doesn’t it?"
"Not when it involves Daniel Jackson," Egon replied. He let her go and took two unsteady steps backward, and it looked like he could scarcely catch his breath or keep his balance. "Did Peter understand that?"
"Peter said he’d die," Janine insisted. "He said he’d have to die to break the spell. It was pretty clear that’s what he believed, anyway. That’s what I believed."
"‘No longer exist in the world."
Ray couldn’t help wondering how much of that was wishful thinking, a fierce determination that Peter be alive. Except. Oh, gosh. Oh, gosh, what if…. Egon’s excitement and hope was catching. This was great. Winston lifted a questioning eyebrow.
"You’re right, Egon," cried Ray. "Peter might not be dead after all."
"Huh, why not?" Janine blinked at Egon in astonishment.
Egon’s mouth was tight but there was hope in his eyes. "Janine, I am very sorry, but I cannot explain my reasoning to you, unfair as that seems. I need to discuss this privately with Ray and Winston. As soon as I can explain, I will, but we are touching on matters that are classified by the United States government and you don’t have the security clearance to hear it."
"Oh, yeah, buster? Well, you wouldn’t know any of this if it weren’t for me." She reined in her temper and looked at him solemnly. "If it means Doctor V might still be alive, then I forgive you for it, and if you don’t tell me everything you can the second you can I am going to smash all your Petri dishes, even if they’ve got experiments in them." She hugged him again, hard, and marched away.
"The Stargate?" Ray ventured hopefully the minute the sound of her footsteps on the stairs had died. He could imagine Peter simply taking the entity’s words to mean that he had to die to free them of the curse. Anybody would. He’d probably repeated it word for word to Janine, who had taken it exactly as he had. Peter had been too shaken for complex reasoning. He’d just believed he had to die and had gone no further with it—unless that was why he had looked up Daniel Jackson.
"Man, that big gizmo that takes people to other planets?" Winston shook his head.
"If Peter went through the Stargate, he would, in essence, no longer exist in our world," Egon said firmly. "There was nothing in the curse about returning to our world reactivating it, so it is my belief that to go through the Stargate would invalidate the spell—as it apparently has done. I don’t know if Peter went to Colorado Springs on purpose, or if he simply arrived there, but if so it was most fortuitous." He held up a hand before either of them could speak. "Yes, I do realize that it need not be such a neat answer. Peter could still be dead. But it is entirely possible that his choice of destination was made because of the Stargate and the fact that he believed it was his only hope to end the spell."
"If that’s the case, why not have us stick him over in the Netherworld and then retrieve him?" asked Ray. "That would be a lot easier than going all the way to NORAD and he wouldn’t have to convince the government to do it, even assuming they’d agree in the first place."
"Because the only way for him to get to the Netherworld was to ask us to send him with that molecular phase gizmo you invented, Ray," said Winston excitedly. "And he probably figured, if it didn’t work, we wouldn’t care enough to bring him back. If he had to live with the curse, at least he’d still be in the same world he knew, and he’d have his dad and other people who cared about him."
Ray flinched. "Gosh," he said in a small voice. There seemed nothing more to say. Then he straightened up. "We need to call out there and let him know it’s okay."
"Do you know his phone number?" asked Winston practically.
"I know his e-mail address," Egon replied. "But if he’s not on line that would be slow. I can look up the number." He went over to the desk and pulled out a small notebook. A few minutes later he was dialing.
After a pause, he spoke. "Daniel, this is Egon Spengler. I know Peter is staying with you. Please, call back quickly or have Peter call. The problem has resolved itself and we’re waiting to welcome him home." He hung up looking unsatisfied. "We’ll have to telephone the project."
"Do you know that number?" asked Winston.
"No, but I’ll have the operator route me through NORAD and perhaps they can transfer the call."
He looked doubtful and Ray was pretty sure NORAD would pretend complete ignorance of the Stargate project. How did they usually put it. ‘We can neither confirm or deny the existence of such a project.’ "Ask for that General Hammond," he suggested. "If you mention the Stargate they’ll probably not only deny there’s any such thing, but they’ll send hit men after us or something."
Egon addressed himself to the telephone. It seemed to take a long time, and in the end, he hung up, looking considerably disgruntled. "No luck that way," he said. "I don’t have clearance to speak to Hammond. They practically denied there was any such person, although they did take my name and number—very suspiciously, too. We can only hope that the message will get to him eventually and he’ll call us."
"If Peter went through the Stargate, the odds are Daniel did, too. And you can bet they won’t tell us about it, even Hammond," said Ray. "Egon, we’ve got to go out there. Fly out on the first flight we can catch. Janine can drop us at LaGuardia. We might not get there before Peter is back but we can get there pretty fast if we get lucky with the flights. He might hear we’re coming. I don’t want to wait. If we’re right and it’s okay because Peter went through the Gate, then I want to be there waiting when he comes back."
"As do I," agreed Egon. He started for the bedroom. "Let’s pack in a hurry."
Winston went to the stairwell. "Janine," he yelled at the top of his lungs. "Book us on the first available flight to Colorado Springs."
She answered so quickly he realized she had gone no further than the second floor. "I already did," she called smugly. "And all I can say is, you guys better have answers for me when you come back."
** *** **
Daniel looked around P4K-901 and took a breath of the crisp, tangy air with relish. There had been no problems on this planet before, but it had been chosen because it was uninhabited with no dangerous predators. And they’d come here so soon after the Treaty that nothing might have been in place then.
He’d found this planet fascinating the first time and had wanted to stay longer, but the strategic value of the planet was not high, and the military wasn’t gung-ho to fund archaeological missions, not unless they tied in with critical information about the Goa’uld. They’d given Daniel as long as they could, but two days wasn’t enough. He was glad circumstances had sent him back, but he wished it had been different circumstances, happier circumstances.
"Hey." Peter gestured wildly at the gate. "It’s closed." Naming the planet after himself had distracted him from the gate shutdown until now. "Does this mean we’re stuck here?"
"No, we’re all right," Sam reassured him. "The gate only operates one way, except for the M.A.L.P. signals that can go back when the gate’s open. When we’re ready to go home, we just dial it up again." She pointed to the Dial Home Device set near the gate. "We just key in the code for Earth when we’re ready to leave."
"Oh. Okay," he said doubtfully. "Long as you’re sure. I mean, this planet has a great name now, but it’s not like I want to set up housekeeping."
"One of the reasons we send the M.A.L.P. ahead is to make sure there’s actually a DHD on the planet," Sam explained. "We’ve come upon planets without them and once the M.A.L.P. showed us that there was one, but when we got through we found out it was broken and we were nearly stranded."
"And you’re sure this one works?" prompted the Ghostbuster.
She checked it competently. "Yes, Peter, this one works. You won’t have to stay here forever."
"Just so long as you’re sure." He took her word for it and turned away from the DHD to survey the planet spread out before him. His eyes lingered on the alien structure that drew Daniel. "Hey, Danny, your buildings are all broken."
"They’re ruins. That’s the way they’re supposed to look," Jack put in. He didn’t sound bad tempered, at least not yet. He sounded amused at Peter’s reactions.
Peter didn’t notice the amusement, or, if he did, he didn’t let it show. He looked as happy as a kid as he stared around him. The fact of being on a brand-new world was overwhelming enough to push his problems to the back of his mind. He’d remember soon enough and all this joy would drain out of him, but for now he was happy. Daniel was glad of it.
Peter fell into step with Daniel as Teal’c started to circle out beyond the gate, his staff weapon firmly in hand. The Jaffa had a good instinct for problems like ambushes, and the archaeologist had grown accustomed to trusting him to watch his back. He automatically checked the perimeter on each new planet.
P.K.E. meter in hand, Peter frowned at its readings.
"Anything like those residuals?" Jack picked up on Venkman’s expression and migrated closer. He wasn’t showing any signs of irritability or bad temper yet. Daniel didn’t feel any, either, but then, if they were lucky and the hypnosis worked, he wouldn’t. Or it just might mean that whatever was wrong hadn’t affected this world.
"No. Nothing like that at all. If your Frou Frou guys were ever here, it was a long time ago. They could have been here last month and I’d have no way to tell."
Sam patted her TER. "If they should show up, we’ll be ready. Are you getting anything else, Peter?"
"Yeah, but I’m not sure what it is. It’s...something the meter’s not designed to detect, I know that much. Egon would have the thing singing and dancing. I think he sleeps with the meters. If it were legal, he’d probably marry one. But even he can’t figure out something that we’ve never thought of before."
"How did the meters get developed?" Sam asked, intrigued. It wouldn’t be long before she and Venkman were exchanging dialog in a language known only to scientists. That would be sure to bug Jack.
"Well, when we were teaching at Columbia, Egon and Ray put a lot of thought into figuring out what kind of energy ghosts and spooks and specters would put out, so they started working on something that could detect that kind of energy. The first few prototypes were flops. One of ‘em went off every time we were near buried power cables, and one blew up in Times Square. Once they actually got a working model, they started refining it and this is the result. I think it’d be better in day-glo colors and if it doubled as a CD player, but Egon doesn’t buy it. But Egon’s a businesslike kind of guy. So what he did was find ways to expand what it could detect at various settings. Once we started picking up on physical entities, he played with the negative valence readings, and it’s all geared to list the class of a ghost when we pick up one. But it does more than ghosts. Ray figured out how to make it read the undead, and they’d probably set it up for werewolves if we ran into enough of them to cause us problems."
"The undead?" echoed Jack, an eyebrow arching wildly in disbelief. "Little fanged friends who ‘vant to drink your blood’’? Give me a break. You’re putting us on, right?"
"Would I do that, Colonel?" Peter’s innocent look was so well practiced Daniel could see hints of his father, the con man, in his expression. "No, we’ve run into a few vampires. One of them even in Transylvania, I kid you not. We didn’t bust him. He was our client, not the bustee."
Jack rolled his eyes. "Why do I get the feeling I’m having my leg pulled?"
Peter only grinned wickedly and gave his attention back to the meter. He had recorded the biorhythms of each team member before they went through the Stargate and meant to use that as a comparison if anyone started acting wrong. "It’s not usually how we use them, but in a case like this, it’ll be good to know if anything sneaks in that doesn’t belong," he’d said.
Now Sam bent her head over it beside him and the two conferred in low tones. Something he said made her laugh out loud. While they were discussing the readings, Teal’c returned from his scan of the perimeter and shook his head once at Jack to let him know he hadn’t spotted any life signs.
Daniel started edging toward the ruins, determined to get more of the panels on video before they went back through the Stargate, but Sam raised her hand to arrest his progress. "Wait a minute. Whatever Peter was reading, it just stopped. Just like that. One minute it’s there, the next it’s gone."
"Yeah, and I’ve gotta say that’s weird," Peter agreed. He twirled a couple of dials, but the antennae stopped reacting and the screen’s display turned into a simple grid pattern with nothing reflected on it.
"If that was the cause of our problems, it existed after the gate shut down," said Sam thoughtfully. "Do you mind if I try, Peter?"
"No, dive right in." He grinned at her. "Whatever I was getting though, it was right around the gate. When I aimed it out there—" he gestured at Daniel’s ruins—"it faded. It wasn’t the gate, though. I checked that first thing."
The DHD? Daniel and Sam thought of that at the same moment. There wasn’t a DHD at the project, just a computer system to do the same thing; it dialed up gate codes more slowly than the DHD but it gave them a bit more control. Now Peter and Sam converged on it and took readings. Sam was getting to be quite good at the thing. Maybe she could understand the functions better than Peter, who, while he might have used it for years, was not a physicist. Maybe he could program a VCR with the best of them and yet not understand the science behind it. Sam might not program a strange one as fast, but she’d know exactly why what she was doing worked.
"Nothing here," she said, frowning. She raised her eyes to meet Jack’s slightly impatient ones. "This is definitely odd, sir."
"Why do I think I’m not gonna like this?" groused O’Neill. It was a tone Daniel would have expected from him at this point, but the fact that he sounded less than relaxed made Daniel uneasy. After all, Jack wasn’t hypnotized to laugh off his irritations. Daniel found himself smiling a little at the image of a frustrated and angry Jack O’Neill throwing back his head and giggling about them. Where had he gotten that idea? He really couldn’t remember much of the hypnosis process, but he was sure there had been something about laughing in the face of the crisis.
"It’s not the DHD, sir," Sam said. "That might have been an ideal solution. If this is a Goa’uld plot, they might have gradually sent people to as many worlds as they could go to so they could tamper with the DHDs. But I can’t find anything in the DHD remotely analogous to the readings I got on the meter." She slipped out of her pack and opened it. "I’d like to run a few tests on it just to make sure."
"Go for it, Major. But whatever you do, don’t take the DHD apart. We might have to head back in a big hurry."
"Nothing I can’t replace in less than thirty seconds, sir. I promise." She passed the meter back to Peter and wiggled under the device.
Daniel cast a hopeful glance at O’Neill." While she’s doing that, I’d like to photograph the ruins. Teal’c can come with me, even if there’s no one here."
"I’ll come with you," Jack decided. "And Venkman will come, too."
Peter looked up from the inert device in his hands. "Hold it, Colonel. You think it’s smart for you and Daniel to get off on your own away from the other two? You’re the ones we’re testing here."
"Well, considering I don’t feel the slightest urge to harm a hair on his head, and he’s supposed to be programmed to have a laughing fit if he gets mad, I think it might just be safe. You can watch my readings. I’d risk my life savings that you’re not programmed yourself. There just hasn’t been time. Stand between us if you like. Daniel will make all our lives miserable if he doesn’t get some more pictures."
Peter took a reading of Jack and another of Daniel, and frowned a little, but he didn’t object. "Teal’c, you come to the doorway of that building with us," he decided, as if he had suddenly been put in charge. While the Ghostbusters didn’t have an official leader, Daniel had picked up on the fact that Peter might be an unofficial one. He was probably used to analyzing a situation on the fly—at least on the other side of the gate. "That way you can be right on hand and still protect Sam, in case some nasty decides to put in an appearance."
Teal’c didn’t take the command from Peter. Instead he looked at O’Neill for orders. Jack nodded. "Yeah, it’s only a hundred yards anyway, not as if you’d be out of shooting range if something came through the gate. Do like Venkman says, Teal’c. You can still keep an eye on Carter, and you can rush in and help Venkman pull Daniel and me apart if we decide on a slugfest."
Teal’c inclined his head once and fell into step with them. When they reached the nearest structure, he chose a spot on a slight rise a few steps from the door, and stopped there. Leaning his staff weapon against his shoulder, he drew his zat gun.
Peter glowered at the meter readings he got and made quick, minute adjustments to the settings. "Take some good pictures, Daniel," he instructed as they came up to the ruined temple. "After all, I came on this vacation without my Polaroid."
"Yeah, snap away," Jack said. "We did this last time."
"We didn’t finish last time," Daniel reminded him. "We had to rush back because it wasn’t strategic."
Jack’s mouth quirked. It could have been an abortive grin or it could have been a grimace. "Yeah, whatever," he said without much interest and concentrated on the land beyond the structure.
The ruins on P4K-901 bore slight resemblance to a series of Egyptian mastabas, or tombs. If there had been burials here, the tombs had been pillaged long ago, robbed in the planet’s antiquity, but there was no evidence that anyone had ever been laid to rest here, no markings, no small artifacts left behind, no sarcophagi. The only thing that stood out were the hieroglyphs on the walls, carved extensively on the inside of each flat-roofed structure. Cartouches may have heralded the names of kings, and the layout was very similar to the writings Daniel was most familiar with from his digs in Egypt—but the symbols were different. A few of them bore a vague resemblance to the standard hieroglyphic symbols, but not enough that a translation would be easy. No handy Rosetta stone offered up a comparison of ancient Egyptian and the local script. No simplified, or demotic, version. Daniel had been over the recorded images many times since SG-1 had been here before, but he was no closer to interpreting them, even with the assistance of the computer. He’d picked out the most frequently used symbols and worked out a progression, even done a comparison with the hieroglyphics he was more familiar with to see if the letters could be substituted on the strength of their frequency, but all that gave him was gibberish. It might have worked if this had been the same language as ancient Egyptian just spelled with different symbols, like a comparison between the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets, but it didn’t. Every so often, in his spare time, Daniel had played with the unknown alphabet. He knew it didn’t matter in the long run; it had nothing to do with their missions, and the people who had written this were centuries gone. But he didn’t like to leave it unfinished. Maybe additional text would give him the one vital clue he needed.
"What’s the matter, Colonel?" That was Peter, his voice casual, amused. Daniel slanted a look in Jack’s direction and saw the type of look he had expected, fond exasperation and growing impatience. He’d want to give Daniel all the chances he could to solve the puzzle in front of him, but, on the other hand, he didn’t have any interest in archaeology and he was probably bored. Would that trigger a reaction? Was this planet safe? Some of the missions since the problems began had reported no difficulties. Maybe this world was another of them.
"Scientists," Jack muttered. "You gotta love the guy, but I swear, every grey hair on my head is the result of knowing him. The times I’ve stood around watching him stare at rocks...."
"I know the feeling," Peter concurred. "Egon can spend hours over a mold culture, and once he developed this weather balloon thingie that had him so caught up he forgot to take out the garbage—and I swear, the place reeked." His enthusiasm faded with the remembrance. "Yet, I’d give everything I own to be back in the firehouse getting exasperated over it again. Don’t get frustrated, Colonel. Be glad you’ve got what you’ve got."
"Yeah," agreed Jack, and the one word indicated a wealth of understanding. Jack wasn’t the kind of guy who could offer a lot of verbal sympathy, but Peter must have taken comfort from the understanding implicit in Jack’s voice.
Daniel let the conversation slide. He had to get this all on film and he’d bet everything the SGC paid him, little as it was, that there’d never be a mission back here, not unless the language suddenly proved important in coping with the Goa’uld. Not that it would. Teal’c hadn’t recognized the writing at all, and he knew more about the Goa’uld than anyone else in the project.
Here was another cartouche. Only—wait a minute. This one actually had some recognizable symbols in it. This was great. He couldn’t help smiling in sheer delight. He narrowed in the camera’s focus and recorded it. Perfect. Maybe now he could start to make sense of it. This one said...what was it? ‘She who gives birth to her race.’ God, this couldn’t be a monument to Hathor, could it? Had she been the one to come here long ago, before she’d been trapped in the Central American sarcophagus? She was dead now; she wouldn’t be showing up with an army of Goa’uld if they let their attention lapse. If only he could read more.
Letting the camera lie against his chest on its strap, he ran his fingers over the incised stone, willing the knowledge he was seeking to come to him.
"Daniel. Danny boy. Earth to Jackson." From the tone of Jack’s voice, Daniel had the impression that he had been trying to get his attention for some time now.
"Hold it, Jack." That was Peter. "Easy, big guy. I’ll do it. I know how." He slung his arm around Daniel’s neck, turned him away from the wall, and proceeded to give him noogies. "Hello in there, Doctor Einstein. Time to bring all your toys along and go home."
"But I’m nearly finished. I just found the most important clue."
"I don’t care if you’ve found the answer to life, the universe, and everything," Jack snapped. "We’re going home. We went through this before on Ernest’s planet and I’m not doing it again. You got that, Doctor Jackson?"
Suddenly, Jack’s face was full of fury. Where had that come from? Daniel stared at him in disbelief, then he started to chuckle. "Jack, you should see yourself," he gasped. "You look like an aneurysm waiting to happen. Come on, Jack, calm down. It’s okay. I’ll leave."
"Can it, Jackson. We’re outta here and I don’t need you to give orders to me."
"It’s okay, you don’t," Daniel chortled. Jack’s tone was hilarious. He stood there with the camera in his hand and considered recording the spectacle. It’d go over big on home movies’ night, if they had such a thing back at the base. Maybe he could start up a club. "Jack, you’re a card, do you know that." His smile stretched across his face. Jack’s face darkened menacingly, and that only made Daniel’s funny bone go into overload.
Peter aimed the meter at Jack, punched a button, did the same to Daniel, and then he stowed the meter inside his jacket and moved smoothly toward them. "It’s okay." His voice was soothing in the extreme. "Don’t lose it, Colonel. Think about it. You want to let the snakehead win? Easy, easy."
Peter was funny, too. He’d make a super comedian. What a pair they were. O’Neill and Venkman, the new Vaudeville team. Daniel started to laugh so hard tears ran down his face. None of this made him mad. He felt tensions slide away from him like water.
"I’ll ‘easy’ you, you stupid Ghostbuster." Jack grabbed Peter by the arm and yanked him sideways so hard that Peter staggered and would have fallen if he weren’t so quick on his feet.
"Teal’c!" bellowed Venkman as he struggled to regain his balance.
The whole thing had blown up even faster than it had last time, Daniel thought. Had his obsession with the alien text made it worse? Should they have just stood around sniffing the flowers? That image sent him off into fresh gales of laughter. He didn’t feel the slightest degree of frustration, resentment, or anger. Peter’s programming must have worked, because, ordinarily, the sight of that furious face and the angry words from Jack would have distressed him.
The Jaffa was already crowding into the narrow doorway of the mastaba. He had set aside his staff weapon because of the limits of space in the tomb, and he had his zat gun at ready in case he needed to use it to break up a fight. He looked like a menacing stranger, and the sight of him tickled Daniel’s funny bone. He would be ready to intervene in seconds.
"Hi, Teal’c," caroled Daniel and waved his hand at the Jaffa with affectionate delight.
Suddenly, seconds were what Daniel didn’t have. Jack had his MP-5 in his hand, and as Daniel fought the urge to giggle at the sight of the lethal weapon, Jack fired, even as Teal’c aimed the zat gun. Daniel knew what that felt like but the thought of getting blasted only brought a fresh burst of giggles.
"Noooo!" Peter jumped between the two men, a second too late to grab O’Neill’s hand and deflect the shot. He went right into Teal’c’s line of fire and blocked his shot, and the Jaffa jumped sideways to avoid zatting him.
Daniel felt something hit him hard in the side just above his belt and knock him down and around. The ground actually rushed up at him. Pain, white hot and blazing, centered itself on the bullet wound and radiated outward, until it filled his entire body.
The urge to laugh left him in a hot rush that made him dizzy and flooded him with a searing, raging fury.
Peter grabbed at Jack’s wrist. He might be strong and fit from all his years of running around with a proton pack on his back, but he wasn’t trained in hand-to-hand combat the way Jack was. O’Neill’s other fist came out and slammed into Peter’s jaw. He fired again and Peter choked out a pained cry and grabbed at his arm just before he hit the ground.
"You son of a bitch, you shot him." Daniel fumbled for his own weapon. Jack was a danger to all of them; he had to be put down like a mad dog, and Daniel was going to do it to avenge himself on the bastard who had tried to kill him. He struggled to draw the gun but his strength had left him and he could only lie there cursing impotently and glaring up at O’Neill with white-hot rage while his fingers fumbled uselessly after his weapon. Beside him, Peter scrambled sideways in the dust, clutching at his arm, and blood oozed between his grasping fingers.
Jack’s body jerked as if he were a puppet and someone had cut the strings. The MP-5 squirted out of his hand and he went down, twitching, his face lax. Behind him, Teal’c hastily lowered the zat gun; he did not dare to use it again or he would risk killing O’Neill. Daniel thought that was an excellent idea.
"Daniel’s reacting, too," cautioned Peter in a voice laced with pain. He knocked the MP-5 out of Jack’s reach. Daniel scrambled weakly after it, but Peter hit it again with the heel of his hand and it eluded the archaeologist’s grasping fingers.
He’d get it, he’d kill Jack, and then he’d kill Venkman for interfering. He had to. Desperately, he fought for the gun. He had to kill Jack. A corner of his mind still clung to the hypnotic suggestion but it was so dim and remote that he could override it without effort. He had to kill his enemy. He had to kill—Jack.
That wasn’t right. But the mad lust that pulsed through his body overrode all sense of reason and he only knew he had to kill...kill...kill. But the pain was too strong and he couldn’t move.
Teal’c stood over him and gazed down at Daniel, his eyes measuring. He put away the zat gun he had fired. "He will be unable to act," he said, and removed Daniel’s gun, which he tucked into his belt before he bent to retrieve Jack’s. "What is the nature of your injury, Peter Venkman?"
Cursing, Daniel struggled to get up. What had happened to the hypnosis? Did he even care? As long as he could kill Jack, nothing else mattered. He fought to reach the writhing man.
"Okay, so it’s a cliché, but I think it’s just a flesh wound." Peter’s voice was full of pain but he was trying to sit up.
Daniel wasn’t mad at him except for getting in the way; he was just mad at Jack. A portion of his mind wondered if that were significant, but the anger that flooded through him didn’t allow him to pursue the speculation. He had to get to Jack—he had to kill him.
Peter pulled the meter out of his shirt and checked the results. "They were starting to show different readings," he said to Teal’c. "It blew up so fast I couldn’t stop them." His eyes lingered on Daniel. "When he was hit, it wiped out the conditioning, and I didn’t even have to say ‘rutabaga’."
Something loosened in Daniel at the word, but it didn’t take the anger away.
"Why would you wish to say such a word, Peter Venkman?" asked Teal’c as he knelt to examine Daniel’s wound.
"Long story. Guess we blew it, huh?" He put the meter into his shirt front again and sat up, offering his arm to Sam to examine as she burst into the tomb, zat gun in her hand.
Daniel fought to get to Jack. The zat blast would be wearing off at any second, but if he could get to Teal’c’s zat he could fire again and do the fatal number on him. Then he wouldn’t have to put up with these annoying limitations and interruptions. He lunged up and the pain in his side overrode everything else. He was still struggling futilely for Teal’c’s weapon when he slid down unknowing into the darkness.
** *** **
"Now what?" Peter asked as Daniel collapsed. "We better get him back through the Stargate fast. How long does that last?" He nodded at Jack, who was still twitching, although he had started to curse with steady, methodical precision, as if he meant to run through every off-color word he knew. "Guess we know a good old zat blast doesn’t finish whatever this is. And Danny lost the conditioning when he was hit. Adrenaline? I don’t know. Back to the drawing board." He curled his fingers around his wound, conscious of the sticky wetness of new blood between his fingers. Sam pried his hand away and set to work on the injury.
"He did not react adversely until then?" asked Teal’c. The Jaffa bent and secured manacles on Jack’s wrists. Jack glared at him but didn’t abuse him verbally. "I am sorry, O’Neill, but you would thank me for this, were you in your righteous mind."
"Right mind, Teal’c," O’Neill corrected him. An automatic reaction if Peter had ever heard one. Jack was scarcely paying attention. He was still angry, still determined to get to Daniel.
"I shall remember. O’Neill, we must go through the Stargate. Daniel Jackson and Peter Venkman need medical attention."
"Let him die here," Jack spat, glaring at the unconscious Daniel.
"Let’s get the bleeding stopped," Peter corrected, and Teal’c returned to Daniel and finished up the field dressing he had started to apply before O’Neill had re-entered the picture. "Got a bone to pick with you, Colonel, but it can wait. Can we go home now?"
The question hurt more than his arm did. How many times had he asked it of his friends after a rough bust?
"Can you walk, Peter Venkman?"
"Yeah, I can walk." Sam finished whatever she had been doing to Peter’s arm. He glanced down and saw she’d applied a neat dressing. Not very big, and a little blood had already spotted it, but it would do until he could get home and roll his eyes at Janet Fraiser and hope for a little coddling from her and maybe even from Sam if he played his cards right. No, he thought reluctantly and abandoned the idea. They’d have too much on their plates already. Jack O’Neill was probably going to feel lower than a dachshund’s belly when they went home and the problem went away.
"Then, we must go now," Teal’c said. "I will carry Daniel Jackson. Major Carter, can you escort Colonel O’Neill?"
She nodded. "Come on, sir, on your feet."
"Make me." It was a futile defiance. Sam juggled the Jaffa’s staff weapon. She’d put her zat gun away the second she saw the Colonel had been hit and she couldn’t even so much as threaten him with it, when its use meant it would kill him. Peter glanced at the colonel’s eyes and saw panic in them, masked by the anger. Deep down inside, he knew what he’d done.
"I’ll help, Sam," Peter offered. His arm hurt like blazes, but he could use it if he had to. He wanted to take more readings and check for that weird one again. That had to have something to do with what had happened. If it was a trigger, it merely allowed the process to start; the frustration had to build up. Jack had been awfully bored over the filming. That had probably escalated the condition. Runaway train time. So, if they picked up whatever it was again, or something similar, it might be the ‘off’ switch. If only he knew enough about the fine points of the meter to figure it out.
They made their way carefully down the hill to the Stargate. Teal’c didn’t seem to find Daniel a burden in his muscular arms. He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother. Hands manacled before him, Jack came reluctantly, still cursing, but it didn’t take more than a touch of Sam’s hand on his arm to steer him in the right direction. Peter held the meter in his good hand so he could check readings all the way. He could see a difference in the biorhythms, all right. Waaay skewed. Too much adrenaline, too much something. Maybe Janet could make sense of it. Endorphins, neurotransmitters, that kind of thing. Peter knew a little bit about the medical, chemical side of it, but a doctor would be sure to know more.
When they got to the gate, Sam let go of Jack’s arm long enough to push the appropriate panels on the DHD. "E.T. phone home," Peter muttered under his breath, his attention divided between watching O’Neill and checking out the P.K.E. meter. He had all the readings he needed on the two influenced men. Now to see if he could find that other weird reading.
He did. There it was, just like before and just as ugly, maybe just fractionally different. What the heck was that? The gate wasn’t activated yet, so how could it be connected? Peter grimaced.
And as the gate ka-whooshed open, Jack O’Neill’s fight left him and he stood there, an expression of sheer horror spreading across his face.
They didn’t take time to acknowledge it. Instead Sam did something with a hand-held device—recognition code, Peter vaguely remembered—then Teal’c marched through the gate with the unconscious Daniel settled in his arms and Carter nudged Jack with her free hand.
Peter fell into step beside the colonel. "Come on, Jack baby. Not your fault, any more than my buddies back home are at fault for what they pulled. We’re gonna get this one figured out, ‘cause I’ve got all kinds of leads here." Yeah, leads he didn’t understand. He could only hope all that the high-tech equipment and skilled technicians back at the base would pin down what it was he’d read there and where the heck it had come from. Not the DHD; it wasn’t in use when Peter first detected the strange readings, even though it had been the second time.
Well, that was for later. He stepped through the wormhole without the hesitation he’d felt the last time, and let it spin him back to Earth across space too distant for his mind to accept. When he got there, he’d let himself collapse and take a little downtime.
** *** **
"You’re not hurt, Colonel," Janet Fraiser told O’Neill. "But you’ve been zatted and you need to rest for a little while. Just stay right here and try to relax. You’ll be fine."
"Never mind me," Jack insisted. "What about Daniel?" He felt like pond scum. He’d done it. He’d actually shot Danny. He’d tried to kill his best friend. What kind of a louse did that make him? Didn’t they say a person couldn’t be hypnotized to do something he wouldn’t ordinarily do? Did that mean he was the kind of jerk who would do something like this? Too much black ops training, too much situational ethics? They should have left him on P4K-901 and brought the DHD back with them so he could never leave. He deserved it.
"He’s in surgery right now," said Janet. "I’m going in to assist Doctor Warner, and I’ll be back with news the minute I have it. I saw the wound and if the bullet went the way I think it did, we’re talking a not-too-serious injury. A little muscle and tissue damage, but nothing that won’t heal completely."
"You sure about that?"
"I haven’t been in the operating theater yet. I’m not positive. But I did check his vitals and examined him and I saw nothing to indicate major organ damage. I’ll be back when I have more news and I expect you to be here when I get back."
"I’m not going anywhere." Ordinarily, Jack couldn’t get out of the infirmary fast enough, but this was different. He slumped down in a convenient chair and tried to shut out the sight of Daniel lying limp and unresponsive in Teal’c’s sturdy arms, his face white, the blood vivid.
Fraiser nodded. "Tell Sam and Teal’c they can wait with you as soon as they finish the briefing with General Hammond."
Jack nodded, and she went briskly away. He imagined the O.R. and tried to push the image from his mind of Daniel lying there, slack and unaware because of Jack’s failure. He didn’t have much luck. It was wedged tight and wouldn’t go away.
"Reaction," said Peter Venkman from the next bed. Shirtless, he sat with his feet dangling while one of Fraiser’s people cleaned up his arm. Jack had caused that wound, too, but he hadn’t wanted to hurt Peter as much as he’d wanted to get past him to finish the job on Daniel. He could remember exactly what it felt like, the hot anger, the depths of contempt and scorn, and the intent to remove from his life the object of his hatred. And it was Daniel—guy had saved his bacon any number of times, guy who had probably been instrumental in keeping him sane. He owed Danny more than life, and he’d tried to kill him. What did that say about him?
"Reaction, hell. I just about killed my best friend."
"So? Not like you controlled it, is it?" Peter’s face was unyielding. "My best friends think I’m pond scum, but it’s not their fault, either. If I let you wallow in this, it’s the same as saying my buddies are pond scum, too. I’m not gonna do that. Hey! Ow!"
"Sorry, Doctor Venkman," said the tech who had been cleaning his wound. "We need to take a couple of stitches here, so I’m going to inject you with a local anesthetic."
"Fire away. I’ve been a pincushion before."
"I’m coming at it from your friends’ point of view," Jack grumbled. "You think, when whatever hit them is over, that they can just shrug their shoulders and say, ‘okay, that was nasty but what the hell, it’s not our fault’?"
Peter’s face darkened. "If they know what’s good for them, they will. They do the guilt thing and they’ll face the wrath of Venkman. Listen to me, Jack. Daniel’s gonna understand."
Yeah, the kid would understand. Jack knew that, even if Daniel had slipped the hypnosis leash there at the end and tried to retaliate. At least he hadn’t done it, didn’t have to live with it. And walking in there when Daniel was out of surgery and seeing the forgiveness, the absolution, in his face, was gonna hurt more than getting zatted had. Jack had done it once. What was to stop him doing it again? They were going to have to close the Stargate. Jack had fought to keep the project going, but if team members started taking potshots at each other, it was crazy. No matter what they could learn out there, it wasn’t worth Danny’s life....
"Thing is," Peter said, "we proved one thing. We proved it’s some kind of brainwashing. I just did a quick patch with Daniel, and it didn’t stay patched, but it worked for a little while. That means there’s a way to do it forever. If that weird reading I got had anything to do with it, your people can analyze it out the wazoo until they figure out what it is. Once they know, they can protect against it, right? None of this ‘the Stargate isn’t worth it’ crap."
"I never said—"
"Didn’t have to, Colonel. Been there, done that. You think there haven’t been times when something’s really gone down the tubes and I’ve screwed up bad that I haven’t wanted to write off Ghostbusting for the sake of my buddies? That’s normal. It’s human. But if you do that, you let whoever is responsible for this win. Do you think that will do Daniel any good? Think it’ll make him happy?"
Jack knew that. He hadn’t thought it through yet; he’d been too fixated on the memory of Daniel lying there, bleeding and in pain, because Jack hadn’t been able to fight off whatever had been done to him. He knew his guilt was self-indulgent; he knew it wouldn’t do any good, but that didn’t stop him feeling it. Maybe once Daniel was out of surgery, once he knew how bad it was, he might be able to think past it. Maybe.
Peter gnawed on his bottom lip as the stitches went in. He didn’t crane his neck to look. Instead he stared up at the ceiling as if it held a series of girlie pictures or a map leading to buried treasure. When the last stitch was in, he finally risked a peek at the small, neat dressing. "Will it leave a scar?" he asked as he pulled on a clean tee shirt, his voice momentarily muffled until his head emerged through the neck hole. "Something to impress my multitude of lady friends?"
"It’ll probably fade until you won’t see it unless you know it’s there," the tech told him. "You’ll be fine, Doctor Venkman. But I’m going to ask you to stretch out for a couple of hours and let us monitor you. You didn’t lose enough blood to require a transfusion, but you did lose some. We’ll see that you get fluids."
"A cold glass of Coors would be nice," Peter wheedled, but the tech grinned.
When the man had left, Peter turned to Jack again and studied him measuringly. Jack couldn’t find any blame or contempt in the level green eyes. Instead there was sympathy and understanding spelled out there. How could he do that? He was Daniel’s friend more than he was Jack’s. O’Neill and Venkman had too many similarities to get along well, and too many differences. He didn’t know the Ghostbuster as well as Daniel had come to in the last few days, but he knew him enough to respect him in spite of the smart mouth. If Peter thought he hadn’t done anything terrible.…
No, that was a cop-out. He had done something as low as he could get. He’d tried to murder his closest friend.
"Come on, Jack, only dead is unforgivable," Peter said. "And even then, it wouldn’t have been your fault. Everybody on this base knows we were out there fighting to keep the project going. We did what we could ahead of time to make it work. I could say I screwed up because I couldn’t hypnotize you. Nobody’s keeping score."
"I shouldn’t have gotten two steps away from Teal’c. He could have stopped me. That was crazy. Bad call."
"Come on, the meter didn’t show anything, and we weren’t picking up any aliens or Ree'Tou or whatever. And you weren’t more than two steps away from Teal’c. It was so narrow in there he didn’t have a clear shot and then, like an idiot, I got in his line of fire." The fact that he didn’t call the alien rebels ‘Frou Frou’ underlined his seriousness. "I was checking your biorhythms the whole time for something different, and, when I got it, it hit so fast there wasn’t time. I think you’d have got off at least one shot even if Teal’c had been leaning on your shoulder. Don’t go there, Jack. It was never you. It was whatever is behind this. We can’t pin this on a honking big Class Ten the way I can. We don’t know who to make into a scapegoat. Don’t make it you."
"It was my finger on the trigger."
"Yeah, and think of this." Peter shifted his arm and tried not to wince. It was Jack who winced at the sight. He’d shot Peter, too, and here was the guy, trying to help him. "Whatever that weird reading was, it had to be the trigger, and the un-trigger. Because when we heard it, you ‘switched off’. You were in your right mind again even before we stepped through the gate."
Jack blinked at him in surprise. "Ya think? Right mind being a pretty subjective term here."
"No, I’m serious. Whatever it was, it had to be connected with the readings we got when we came through. Switch on; let you work up a full head of steam. Switch off, and it’s gone. Nifty little system. But it’s not the gate. And it’s not the DHD because that wasn’t in use the first time—and anyway, we don’t have one here. Not the gate, ‘cause it wasn’t on, either. So they must have hid some nifty little alien gizmo by the gate. It’s activated when the gate comes on, before you bop through, and then, when you start dialing up to come home, it pops on again. Betcha."
Jack straightened up. "That makes sense. But it would have to be fairly small or we would have spotted it."
"Bingo. The last thing they’d want is some weird gizmo you’d home in on the second you went through the gate. Might as well paint a sign on it that reads, ‘trigger device, beware’. Somebody needs to go through and find it, and it’s got to be right there. Sam didn’t find it taped up under the DHD when she was checking it out or she would’ve said. She had time to find it, if that’s where it was, before we started playing cowboys and Indians in the tomb. Could be anywhere, and any size, small as a microchip, I bet."
"We can send a team through to scan for it." Maybe there was an answer. But, no. How would something like that explain jumping from planet to planet? Damn. Of course it would. Because when they turned on the DHD it would shut off but the new planet would activate it again, assuming it was seeded with whatever nasty little gizmo was planted there. Not all missions had problems—which probably meant that not all planets had the devices. Still, some of the teams had done routine scans and picked up nothing. It was one of the things they’d tried in their search for explanations. Maybe with the readings Peter’s gizmo had detected, they could adjust their own equipment to pick it up.
Peter grinned. "We can tell General Hammond what we think. Sam’s got my meter and she’s going to run some analyses on the weird stuff I detected, as soon as she knows Daniel’s okay."
Venkman grimaced. He must have known mentioning Daniel was a mistake because he said quickly, "Sorry, big guy. I didn’t mean to remind you."
"It’s not like I forgot," Jack snapped. Not an induced anger, this time, or at least one he’d voluntarily inflicted upon himself.
"I’m gonna practice on you," Peter said whimsically. "I hope someday my buddies’ll show up and if they do, they’ll probably do the guilt thing, and if I practice on you, I’ll know all the right things to say. Course I don’t know you as well as I know them, but you’re right here and you can’t get away yet. I know you have to hear it from Daniel to make it real, but the bottom line; it’s not your fault. If you don’t buy that when he tells you that, you’ll make his recovery harder."
"You fight dirty, Venkman."
"You bet I do. I learned that from my dad. Sometimes you make nice, sometimes you go for the jugular. Whatever works. But I’m not conning you now. Look, Egon blasted me once by accident with the thrower. Zapped me good and I needed CPR. It wasn’t fun, but he was under the influence of a ghost at the time without realizing it. What I saw in his eyes was hate. I was sure, crazy as it sounds, that he’d done it on purpose. Thing is, once I figured out what was really going down, that Egon was in trouble, how I felt didn’t matter, just helping Egon mattered. You think Daniel’s gonna stop caring about you because something outside yourself did something to you that makes you feel like pond scum? Heck no, he’s gonna be more worried about you than he is about himself. Because that’s how you’d react if he’d been the one to shoot you and was hovering over your bed packing all his bags for a major guilt trip. Besides, think of it like this. You’re the one who did this to mar the perfect Venkman body, and I’m not reaming you for it, am I? Heck no. Instead I’m planning like crazy to capitalize on it and maybe get Janet to come back and stroke my fevered brow. I bet she will, too, if I play it just right."
"Ya think?" Jack couldn’t quite imagine it, although Fraiser could be motherly when she chose to be.
"You do guilt over me and I’m gonna sic Slimer on you," Peter threatened.
"Slimer? Who the heck is Slimer?" He’d heard the name before, last time, but he didn’t remember any more than that.
"Our pet ghost. Little green spud. Egon and Ray keep him around because he lets them do experiments on him—and because they think it’s a hoot to watch me get slimed." He grinned beatifically. "Just wait. I can get him here if I need to, and all the clearances in the universe won’t keep him out."
"You’re bluffing," Jack suggested doubtfully. He wasn’t sure any such ghost existed. "The Ghostbusters with a pet ghost? Give me a break."
"The little guy likes to curl up on my pillow right before it’s time to go to bed. And he didn’t get his name on a whim. He slimed me the first time I saw him, and it’s like a giant blew his nose and rubbed it on you." Peter grimaced. "Out of the top ten things I do for fun in the known universe, hanging out with Slimer is number minus six-oh-eight."
"Why don’t you just blast him, then?" Jack wasn’t really interested, but it was a mild distraction and he needed one.
"Are you kidding? Ray loves the spud. It’d break his heart. Besides, I’m the kinda guy who likes to have something to complain about. I love complaining, whining, and bugging the guys. Funny thing, I think you enjoy the complaining game, yourself, though I don’t think you’re a whiner."
No, Jack wasn’t a whiner. But Peter had him pegged. He did get a charge out of bitching about things beyond his control.
"Thing is," said Peter thoughtfully, "you can take it too far. Do it too much and you start to either annoy the hell out of people you like or you get them feeling sorry for you. Now I don’t mind annoying the hell out of people—within limits—but the last think I want is to be the guest of honor at a pity party. So...think about it, Colonel. Play this right and you’ve got everybody all nice and sympathetic. Play it too strong and it’s gonna be ‘poor Jack, he’s turned into a basket case, and we’ll have to pull him off SG-1.’"
Before Jack could respond to that, or even think about it, Carter and Teal’c arrived abruptly, in a rush. "How’s Daniel, sir?" Carter demanded.
"We don’t know yet, Major."
"Doctor Fraiser said it didn’t look like there was any major organ damage," Peter put in hastily. "We’ll know eventually. "Pull up a bed and join us."
Teal’c arched an eyebrow. "The beds are attached to the floor, Peter Venkman. They cannot be ‘pulled up’."
"Figure of speech, buddy. You know about figures of speech, right?"
"That is correct." He started to list them then stopped when he realized Peter’s question had been rhetorical.
Carter drew up a chair and sat down. "Peter, I took your meter to the lab and showed them how to look at recorded readings. They’re doing a spectral analysis of the readings now and they’ll proceed to test for everything they can. I hate to ask this of you, but do you think Doctor Spengler would be willing to collaborate with them on the analysis?"
"Egon? Sure, as long as you don’t put him in the same room with me," said Peter mournfully. "He knows more about these meters than God. He designed them. Go ahead and give him a call. You can tell him I mentioned it but that you guys confiscated it for your tests, whatever. I think he’d help."
"We came up with a few ideas," Jack volunteered and told her about the possibility of alien devices planted near the Stargate. "Maybe somebody could check that out while we’re all waiting. If they took a short trip through the gate, looked it over, and got out again, they might make it without major destruction to life and limb."
Carter ignored his defensive sarcasm. "That’s a good idea, Colonel. I’ll run it past General Hammond. It would help with figuring out the readings we’re getting now."
"Go for it. I’ve got a feeling the General’s not gonna be keen to try again, though."
"I shall accompany such a team, O’Neill," Teal’c volunteered. "It is apparent that I am immune."
"Or else so little influenced that you are able to fight it," Sam replied. "I haven’t felt any urge to act, either. Maybe I should go, too." She frowned. "I want to wait here and see about Daniel, but I might be able to do more good on a search."
"Go ahead, Carter," Jack urged. "Give ‘em hell. You, too, Teal’c. Maybe when you get back, we’ll have good news about Daniel."
She cast a doubtful look at him and a questioning one at Peter, who arched his eyebrows at her but didn’t speak. Then she hurried out, her face distressed. Teal’c followed her impassively. If he had picked up on all the visual cues flying about, he hadn’t react to them, at least not visually.
Peter mouthed the word ‘pity’ at O’Neill, who grimaced. Okay, so Venkman had a point there. That didn’t make this waiting any easier. Until he’d seen Daniel, he wasn’t sure he could put this out of his head.
As if he’d said everything he meant to say, Peter closed his eyes and feigned sleep. Jack was left with his thoughts.
He’d had a lot better company.
** *** *8
Sam Carter frowned at the readings and printouts in front of her. Strange. This was very strange. Under Hammond’s reluctant approval, a team had gone back to P4K-901, composed of members of different SG teams who had previously been unaffected, including herself and Teal’c, and accompanied by one of the lab techs with Peter’s meter and various other scanning devices. They had stayed a mere fifteen minutes and they had scanned every meter of the space around the gate for evidence of alien devices. If any had been planted there, they had been too small for visual detection and too well shielded to allow scans to pick them up. That didn’t mean nothing was there, simply that the equipment they possessed was unable to detect it. They’d have to go with their readings rather than an actual alien device. The meter had picked up the same mysterious readings as last time, and, at the same time, her scanning tools had pinged. The spectrometer hadn’t responded but the one that measured sonograms had. The tone was a sound at an inaudible pitch. Like what had happened on P2J-455, the problem had been triggered by sound, not an ongoing sound that built to irritation but one that came on long enough to evoke programming, the way Peter’s ‘rutabaga’ should have snapped Daniel out of the hypnosis. When they dialed home, the second reaction occurred, just as it had when they’d left before. The meter had not been able to detect a difference in the two reactions, but the specialized sound monitors could. The two tones were similar but different, neither consciously audible to human ears.
So now they knew how it had been done. That didn’t tell them what had been done or when—or why, but it did give them a lead. At best, it might help them find a way to block the sound. White noise generators worn as earplugs might obliterate it when they first went through the gate.
But that didn’t remove the actual conditioning. And it didn’t remove whatever caused the sounds.
"Any luck, Major?" She jumped. General Hammond had come right up to her without breaking her concentration.
"Oh, sorry, sir, I was thinking." She laid out her charts and popped up the computer screen that showed her results. "I know how to prevent the trigger from acting on the teams, sir. That doesn’t solve everything, but it will make it safer for us to go on missions."
"But? I can hear it in your voice."
Carter ran her hand over the spread papers. "I can block what’s being done to us, sir, as long as it isn’t altered. But that doesn’t tell us who’s behind it or how it’s done. Somehow, people have been conditioned. It could be a form of hypnosis, since that did work on Daniel until he was hit. However, blocking the sound trigger entirely would protect us much better, at least for now."
"So, what you’re saying is that you can shield against the conditioning but not remove it."
"I can’t, sir. Someone skilled in deprogramming might be able to. The problem is, this was done to us with impunity. Someone was able to walk right up to us, either here or out there, and mess with our minds. I lean toward the Ree’Tou, since we know they’re out of phase and we don’t have TER’s going all the time. There just aren’t enough of them yet to cover every angle of the base. We think we’ve got all the Ree’Tou that came through the gate, but it’s possible more came through before knew about them and concealed themselves at other levels, and that they come down here and tamper with our equipment at times when we’re less likely to be alert. I’d like to find a way to design TER functions into our base cameras so we could monitor for them more thoroughly. I think I’d need to work with Tok’ra scientists on that, possibly the Tollans, although I think they’d be less likely to help."
"So you’re convinced we’re up against the Ree’Tou rebels, then, Major?" Hammond picked up her charts and leafed through them.
"No, sir, it’s just one possibility. Nirti knew how to phase shift, as you’ll remember. We know she was taken back through the Stargate in custody but we don’t know that she stayed a prisoner or that she was the only Goa’uld who possessed that ability. And we can’t rule out the fact that it could have been done from this side. Maybourne represents a faction who would like us to close down the gate or find a way to use it for his benefit. He isn’t the only one. This is devious enough that I could believe it has a human origin. We simply don’t know enough."
"If it has a human origin, how did the sound triggers get planted?" Hammond asked.
"That was my problem with that part of it, too, General. Unless—" She jumped to her feet and snapped her fingers. "That might even be easier. We went over the gate area on P4K-901 with a fine-toothed comb, but the one thing we didn’t test because we simply didn’t think of it, was the M.A.L.P. It was sitting right there, and every single mission we go on uses one. It might even explain the shift between planets, because when we do that out there, the worlds we visit are SGC worlds and there’s a M.A.L.P. handy then, too. Also, sometimes the M.A.L.P.s are damaged on arrival on new worlds. That could explain times when nothing happened, or else a specific M.A.L.P. might have been overlooked in the tampering. Someone, either the Ree’Tou or a traitor within the program, could doctor the M.A.L.P.s in such a way that they’d emit the tone. I don’t think we even tested them, did we other than routine maintenance scans?"
"Never. An unconscionable lapse. I’ll put teams on it right away."
When he had gone to do so, Carter sagged back in her chair. It still didn’t solve the problem, but, if she were right, it put them one step closer to a solution. If they could find M.A.L.P. tampering and remove it, they wouldn’t even need the white noise generators, although they’d be useful as a backup. Even if everyone on the base had to undergo massive reprogramming, it could be done and then they’d be clear of the threat—until the next time. That would leave them the harder job—finding the culprit.
It was time to go and check on Daniel. She knew she would find Teal’c there already, projecting loyalty to both Daniel and the Colonel.
O’Neill. She hadn’t liked the unhappy glitter in his eyes. He had to be feeling terrible, even if it wasn’t his fault—he knew that. If only Daniel would play up properly and reassure him. She was almost a hundred per cent positive Daniel would do exactly that, but it wouldn’t hurt to slip in and make sure before the Colonel talked to him, just to be safe. It hadn’t been Jack’s fault. Daniel himself had insisted on photographing the walls of the tomb. If anything, Jack had been too willing to allow it, but it was sometimes hard to say no to that eager, expectant look, especially since it had disappeared altogether for awhile after Sha’re’s death. They were all a bit inclined to indulge him lately. Maybe they shouldn’t have allowed Daniel or the Colonel sidearms at all, but it was hard to take the risk of an alien planet without them. That had been a tough call.
The one thing she had to do before she went to see Daniel was to telephone Egon Spengler and discuss meter readings with him. It was nearly six o’clock, which meant it was eight in New York. Still, the Ghostbusters lived at their headquarters, didn’t they? Someone should be there.
Using the number Peter had given her, she secured an outside line and put the call through.
She got an answering machine.
Leave a message? No, it would be better to try again. They could be out on a bust or have gone to dinner. They’d be back later.
Sam shut down her computer and handed her printouts to Lieutenant Simmons who had been assisting her. First she’d find out if she had guessed right about the M.A.L.P.s and then she would head for the infirmary.
** *** **
"He’s going to be fine." Janet Fraiser was smiling, the truth of her words evident in her eyes. She wasn’t just saying what O’Neill wanted to hear. "No major organ damage, no internal bleeding, and the bullet was very cooperative. It took the path that would cause the least damage."
Peter couldn’t hold back a smile of his own. The battle was halfway won. Now all they had to do was get him and Jack to talk to each other.
"That is good news, Doctor Fraiser," said Teal’c. The Jaffa had shown up after his mission back to the planet and waited with them. He wasn’t a big conversationalist, Teal’c, but Peter was sure Jack had been glad of his presence and unvoiced support.
"How soon can he have visitors?" That was Jack, and Peter had never heard such a combination of reluctance and eagerness in the same voice before. Teal’c automatically shifted half a step closer.
"Not for several hours. He’s still sleeping and I won’t disturb his sleep, even for you, Colonel."
"Are we sprung?" Peter asked. His arm still hurt, but it was a dull, distant ache rather than the sharp jangling agony he’d felt when he’d been hit. Let him pop a few extra-strength Tylenol and he’d be ready to cut a swath through the base’s female population. Yet, he couldn’t think of that; he could only wonder whether or not Sam had talked to Egon and what he’d said. That call would let his buddies know where he was, and while they knew he was okay and might even know about Daniel, they might not want him involved out here. They might warn Sam that Peter Venkman was a dirtbag, not to be trusted. The people here knew better, but mud had a tendency to stick.
He pushed thoughts of his friends out of his mind. He wasn’t ready for that yet.
"Yes, you’re both ‘sprung’," Janet replied. "But I do want you to wear your arm in a sling, Peter, until I tell you to stop."
Peter sat up and looked around for his shoes. Finding only the boots he’d worn on the mission, he sighed and put them on instead. This had been an endless day. The only difference with the other endless days since last Thursday was that, on this day, he’d had something to do to keep his mind busy. Was that how it was going to be from now on out? Trying to fill the empty hours? Trying to find something to replace—everything that mattered? Would he learn to make new friends and a new life? The very idea of that hurt so much he didn’t want to think about it at all. Better to think about the weird readings he’d got with the meter. Even here, where he was on his own, he still had a hand from Egon, courtesy of the meters. Could he do anything as just Peter Venkman?
Yeah, I can save my friends and toss my life into the toilet. I’m pretty good at that kind of thing.
Jack bounded off the bed as if he’d been lying on an ejection seat. "Can I at least look in on him?" he wheedled.
Fraiser hesitated, then she gave a small smile. "Yes, you all can," she decided. "But don’t try to talk to him. Just look."
"You’re the boss," agreed Jack and fell into step with her so tamely that Janet caught Peter’s glance and lifted an eyebrow. He shook his head. I tried. Didn’t get very far yet.
She nodded, picking up on the intent if not the exact thought. They both knew the answer to the colonel’s funk. It was Daniel himself.
Teal’c marched at Jack’s heels. Peter was getting better at reading his poker face, and what he saw there was Teal’c’s sworn allegiance and support. Made Peter’s estimation of Jack O’Neill as a commander rise. It would take someone special to win the Jaffa’s loyalty.
At the moment, Daniel didn’t look like the answer to the colonel’s problem. Instead he looked frail and helpless, his face nearly empty of color, surrounded by monitors and attached to electrodes and IVs. It would probably have been better for the Colonel’s peace of mind not to see him in this state, because his own face went nearly as white at the sight. Peter remembered going with Egon into the ICU when Spengler’s father had suffered his stroke. He’d looked like this, so still and fragile that you’d think a breath would have blown him away. There’d been a guy in the next cubicle that had just come from bypass surgery. He’d looked inert, his body virtually uninhabited, yet eight hours later, Peter had seen the guy laughing with his family, while Egon’s dad had sunk slowly toward death. Peter had stuck by Egon’s side as the physicist made the comparison and withdrew into his own inner pain. But Daniel wasn’t dying. Daniel was going to do the laugh routine or Peter would know the reason why, even if he had to rutabaga him into it. He’d stick with Jack, too. The babes on the base could wait. This was more important.
Jack’s fingers curled around the IV stand so tightly his knuckles whitened. He said, "Aw, Danny," in a voice that Peter wouldn’t have heard if he hadn’t been standing right at the colonel’s side. O’Neill put out his other hand toward the unconscious Jackson, then drew it back before he could touch his forehead. At the foot of the bed, Janet Fraiser made a slight, involuntary urging gesture, as if she thought it would do Jack good to complete his motion, but Jack didn’t. His face closed in on itself and his eyes darkened. Teal’c’s jaw tightened.
Peter did what Jack couldn’t and Teal’c probably wouldn’t. He put out a hand and pushed back a stubby lock of hair from the lax forehead. He did it because he was the only one who could right now, and because he’d want someone to do it for him if he’d been the one lying there and his friends couldn’t. As if he understood, Jack flashed Peter a grim caricature of a smile before he closed it all in again.
"He’ll be fine," Janet said. "This time tomorrow he’ll be clamoring to be out of bed."
Jack’s look said all too clearly, ‘Yeah, right,’ or, ‘I’ll believe that when I see it.’ But he hesitated a long moment before he stopped choking the life out of the IV stand and stepped away. He backed up, all the way to the door, and would have missed it and collided with the wall if Peter hadn’t shot out his good arm and given him a tug sideways. Teal’c waited, unwilling to depart before his Colonel was ready.
"Hang in there, Daniel," said Jack, the words no more than a breath. Then he turned abruptly and marched out of the room like a man on his way to the gallows. Peter shrugged apologetically at Janet, winced as the gesture tugged at his stitches, and set off determinedly to be a hound at Jack’s heels—one of a pair of hounds. Teal’c was sticking to him like a burr.
** *** **
"It’s the M.A.L.P.s, sir," Carter said excitedly when she encountered Jack and his attendant train in the corridor. Unable to wait to share her news, she dragged the three of them into the nearest empty room she could find. "We checked and every M.A.L.P. on the base has been tampered with. We retrieved the one on P4K-901 and it was definitely meddled with and capable of emitting the trigger sound. It’s very subtle and you wouldn’t find it unless you were looking for it, and even then you’d need a very good idea how it was produced to find it. We now know that someone who has access to this base is behind the problem."
"The M.A.L.P.?" O’Neill wasn’t thinking too clearly yet. The sight of Daniel in the infirmary, laid low by Jack’s own handiwork, was too vivid an image in his mind to allow new information to override it. "What about them?"
"They’re sending the trigger sound to activate the conditioning," Carter explained. "We went over every possible source of the sound—that’s what the meter picked up, a low-level sound, beyond the range of audible human hearing, just like we did on P3X-989, except that sound produced an ongoing irritation and this one merely triggered a reaction—in fact, that may be what gave our saboteur the idea. It’s not what the P.K.E. meter is designed to detect, but the range is wide and we had it wide open when we were there. We took sound tests on it when we went back just now and it activated. We focused right in on it and there’s no question. When we ran tests, we found proof. Every single M.A.L.P. we have has had programming done on it. Very skilled, subtle programming. Nothing that would show up in a routine diagnostic."
Peter sprawled in one of the room’s uncomfortable chairs. He had sprawling down to a fine art. Jack perched on the edge of one, ready to spring up in a second. "So that says someone from Earth is doing it?"
"Not necessarily. It could still be the Ree’Tou Rebels or somebody like Nirti—or it could be one of them working with someone here."
"And it does not resolve the problem of conditioning," Teal’c replied. "When we were conditioned on Oannes to believe that Daniel Jackson was dead, there was a time gap readily determined by this base, time enough to account for the programming. The brief gaps on missions could easily have natural causes. I do not believe that they are enough to have allowed programming on this level."
"You think it’s our guys, then?" asked Jack. "Somebody like Maybourne? Or Samuels? Or Senator Kinsey? Somebody who thinks it would be nice to shut us down because we have a big budget? Or somebody here who sides with the snakeheads, for whatever stupid reason?"
"The thing is, sir," said Carter, "that, while it could have been an off-world influence, I think it makes more sense to have it at this end, or to have it here with alien help. Our people have access to the M.A.L.P.s. Mackenzie might be behind it in spite of his claims of innocence, but he could be conditioned himself to set us up. Hammond is recruiting deprogrammers from the Pentagon. We’re going to run tests on every member of every SG team. It could take weeks."
"Yeah, but weeks of downtime is a lot better than shutting this place down permanently," volunteered Peter. "And if you’ve got a traitor in your midst, at least you’d find out. I always kinda thought that this was too slow and tame a program for the snake guys. They sound like they’re a lot more into the instant gratification game."
"Ya think?" Jack knew Peter might well be right. This had never felt like a Goa’uld scheme to him, although it was devious enough for the snakeheads all down the line. It was just too leisurely, too subdued, too passive. Look at Apophis. He’d wanted to come right here in honking big ships and start zapping the Earth from space. Chronos and Yu had decided they’d just kill any SG team they happened across. He couldn’t see them devising a complex scheme that had probably taken years to set up and crossing their fingers that it would work.
"I don’t like the idea that a member of the SGC could be behind this," Sam said reluctantly. "I hate that. But I’m not I enough to deny the possibility. We’ve all seen what Maybourne is capable of, and there are others who haven’t been our friends, both in Congress and at the Pentagon. Not only that, we’re up against covert agencies and possibly even civilians who have latched onto what we’re doing here, not to mention foreign powers, although they’d probably rather just get their hands on the gate than shut it down slowly like this."
"Indeed, there are many individuals and factions who would wish the Tau’ri Stargate shut down," agreed Teal’c.
"So what happens next?" Peter asked. "Truth serum? Thumbscrews?"
"We’re a little past the thumbscrews," Jack replied, although the truth serum wasn’t a bad guess. There were any number of drugs that could make a guy spill his soul to the enemy and never even hesitate. Heck of a world, but it beat the one the Goa’ulds would impose on Earth if they ever got a toehold. Jack didn’t like the truth serum routine but he liked it better than the thought of a snake zipping in through the back of his neck and doing to him what had been done to Skaara until he’d been freed of it, what had been done to Kowalski that had ended in his friend’s death.
"But not the other stuff, I get you," said Peter. That kind of thing was outside his realm of expertise. He might know what it was like to risk his soul against a major demon, but the extent of what could be done by a devoted programmer to a human mind would be a lot more theoretical to him. Or would it? He’d just seen a prime example back in New York.
"Will Doctor Peter Venkman report to General Hammond’s office immediately."
Peter jerked his head up at the sound of the P.A. system. "What the heck is that about?" he asked. "I haven’t done anything terrible, have I?"
"It’s not like being called to the principal’s office," Jack kidded him, since the psychologist looked alarmed at the summons. For all he’d tried to help Jack, he was pretty messed up himself. Jack recognized the condition, even if Peter was coming at it from Daniel’s end of it, not from Jack’s. "Hammond’s a pussycat, really. He won’t eat you."
Teal’c arched an eyebrow at the pussycat comment, but Peter just shrugged, pushed himself to his feet, and headed for the door.
When he had gone, Carter looked after him. "I hope it isn’t trouble about his friends. He’s been a tremendous help to us."
"Peter Venkman is a good man," agreed Teal’c.
They all agreed with that. Jack pushed his thoughts back to the plot they’d uncovered. It shouldn’t be that hard to figure out who was behind it, who had access to the M.A.L.P.s. If Mackenzie were conditioned to set them up, they’d be able to figure it out. If he had done it voluntarily, they’d learn that, too. Jack wasn’t wildly fond of the shrink, but he’d seemed a good man, doing his job the best he could, within his own guidelines. The fact that they were rigid guidelines and didn’t always allow for the bigger world the Stargate program had opened for them wasn’t an incurable problem. After he’d misdiagnosed Daniel when he’d been infested with a Goa’uld killer, Mackenzie had striven for a more open attitude. Jack hoped he didn’t prove to be the one. And it wasn’t as if he were the only shrink on the base. Once he got done dealing with whatever he’d summoned Peter for, Hammond would have to spend a lot of time considering the possibilities of that very thing.
** *** **
Peter trailed along the corridor to Hammond’s office, half surprised to find himself greeted by a number of base personnel as he walked. He didn’t know everybody’s names, but he recognized faces, even that Sinatra kid, who grinned at him encouragingly and gave him a thumb’s-up sign when he hurried by on some task of his own. This was a good place, and it had good people in it. Maybe they weren’t Peter’s people, but they’d have to do. Now that he’d done all he could on the problem he’d been brought in for, he might not even have a place here, any longer. What could one Ghostbuster/psychologist do for this place that would merit keeping him on long-term? He wasn’t a psychiatrist. He wasn’t even a genuine practicing psychologist, although he did keep his hand in at a free clinic back in Manhattan. What he had to offer a place like this could be done twenty times better by other people. They wouldn’t keep him on out of pity; the government didn’t work like that. Maybe they’d send him out with a good reference, but the odds were they’d send him out one way or another, once they’d taken this crisis as far as they could.
Oh well, he could always track down his pop and sign up to run scams with him. He’d never wanted that. He hated that. But he had to be somewhere. At least his dad would welcome him with open arms. And, no matter where else he went, not unless he found a way to make it happen, no one else would.
He knocked on the door to Hammond’s office and walked in—and the next thing he knew, he’d been swept into a pair of open arms.
Okay, I’m delirious here. This isn’t really happening. But it felt real. It felt like Egon. It sounded like Egon. And it sounded like his own Egon, the one who considered Peter his oldest friend, and not the cold stranger who had spoken to him with such contempt before Peter crept away from the firehouse and all that mattered to him, not the man on the telephone who had possessed Egon’s voice and Egon’s determination but not Egon’s heart.
And he sounded desperately relieved. "We thought you were dead, Peter. We believed the only thing that could break the spell was your death. We thought we’d driven you away and killed you." The arms tightened so fiercely that Peter couldn’t breathe, but he didn’t care. You didn’t need to breathe when you were surrounded by a miracle.
"E-egon?" He gasped out the name and Egon instantly recognized his predicament and loosened his grip for Peter to suck in some air. "It’s broken? God, Mugwump said it would break if any of us died, not just me. I’d forgotten that. Ray? Winston?" His heart plummeted down to the soles of his borrowed boots.
"They’re here, too, Peter. They’re alive and well. They’re waiting with General Hammond and they’ll come in here in a moment. We’ve been traveling nonstop since the spell ended, and arguing with guards at the main gate until we convinced them to check with General Hammond, and he brought us here. We talked about it and thought it would be easier on you if you had to deal with one of us at a time instead of all of us at once, especially since the General reported you were injured." His eyes tracked from the sling to Peter’s face, probably trying to decide if he were about to keel over. "We decided I should be the one to tell you. And to offer us our most sincere apologies for the unconscionable way we’ve treated you."
"Never mind that, it wasn’t you," Peter said instantly. God, was it over? The nightmare ended? Just like that? He didn’t get it, and he stood there waiting for the other shoe to drop. "What did you guys do? How did you break the spell? Did Ray figure out something in one of his musty old books?" He had to have it clear. This couldn’t be a trick, could it? No, the warmth in Egon’s voice was sincere. Maybe it was safe to unwind and just be glad.
"We didn’t solve it, any more than we could have rescued ourselves from the Class Ten," Egon insisted. "Peter, please allow me to apologize for our treatment of you. Janine told us what you sacrificed to save our lives, and, now that the spell is broken, I realize what an impossible choice you were given. We tried to remove the spell, but I’m afraid I only attempted it because I would not allow my mind to be tampered with. Your feelings were not a part of my motivation, at least not then, and for that I feel very ashamed." His eyes met Peter’s, then slid away, and Peter could see how guilty he felt. He must be taking lessons from Jack O’Neill.
"It’s okay, Egon," Peter said because he couldn’t make Egon go on feeling that way one second longer. He blinked hard against the tears of relief and joy that he didn’t want to shed. You can’t be vulnerable, Peter. He felt overwhelmed, but he didn’t quite feel safe yet. The world wasn’t safe, not if a guy like Egon could turn on him. Maybe it wasn’t really okay yet, but it was going to be okay, once he had a chance for the realization to sink in. Wasn’t it?
Egon must have noticed Peter’s eyes were too bright, but he kindly ignored it. "You solved it yourself, Peter," he said in a deep, soothing rumble. "Don’t you understand why yet? Isn’t that the reason you came here?"
"Huh? What reason?" Peter stared at Egon in astonishment. He hadn’t been the one to break the spell; how could he? "What reason? I just had to...get away for a little while. I couldn’t stand to have you guys look at me the way you did and know you hated me. So I just ran, hopped a bus, and next thing I knew, I was in Colorado Springs. Figured it was as good a place as any to go to ground. I’d have probably come back in a couple of weeks and tried to knock sense into your heads. Janine would’ve helped."
"You didn’t look up Daniel?"
"Heck, no, never even thought of doing it. I ran into him at the 7-Eleven. I needed something to eat, and there he was. Why would I—oh!" The light dawned. He must be an idiot not to have thought of it the minute he first saw Daniel. But he’d never thought of that part of it. He’d equated ‘no longer exist in the world’ with ‘dead’ and hadn’t thought past it. "Omigod. The Stargate. That’s it, isn’t it?"
"Somewhat slow on the uptake, Doctor Venkman," Egon teased gently—and very carefully. Maybe he didn’t think he had the right yet, or maybe he didn’t think Peter was up to it.
"You mean, when I went through the gate this afternoon, I...stopped existing in our world. Geez, that’s so obvious. I must be brain dead here, not to have figured it out."
"No, just under a great deal of strain." Egon’s hands came down on his shoulders and gripped tightly. "Peter, the minute Janine told us where you were, we knew. Well, perhaps not instantly, but soon enough. Our first reaction to the lifting of the spell was rather...devastating. We were so certain you were dead."
"The one, the only, living Venkman," Peter said because he couldn’t find the right words to say.
"Thank God. Although not entirely intact." He touched Peter’s sling. "Is it bad, Peter?"
"Nah, just a flesh wound. Good for a round of being waited on hand and foot and having you guys bring me sodas and fluff up my pillows, once we get home." He grinned outrageously, and Egon smiled back.
Then Spengler sobered. "Once Janine told us, we gradually realized there was a way for you to have survived the breaking of the spell. We tried to telephone but we got Daniel’s answering machine and when we called NORAD—since we didn’t have a direct phone number here—we were stonewalled. Not on purpose, but for security. So Janine drove us to the airport and we grabbed the first flight we could. We didn’t even stop to catch our breath on the entire trip."
"And Hammond let you in?"
"Actually he came to meet us at the main gate and ushered us to a room somewhere in the complex, where he questioned us at length. He was somewhat...stern about it, but, once he realized why we were here, he unbent remarkably. He brought us down here, gave us non-disclosure papers to sign, reminded us we couldn’t question you about your work here without further clearance, and sent for you."
"Hammond’s a real pussycat," Peter said, remembering Jack’s words. The Colonel had called that one, right on the money.
"Peter." Egon cleared his throat and started again. "We came out here for one reason, to bring you home. We...remember everything that happened since the entity returned us to the firehall, and none of us wants to endure that again. We know that, compared to what you endured, it was mild. So I’m asking you if you can ever forgive us, if you will look past what we did—and come home."
He could go home.
For an instant, the world fell into place, everything back in its natural order, and for an instant, he knew joy and relief.
And then he hesitated. What if it happened again? What if something went wrong, something happened to fling him back on the outside again? This time had nearly killed him. Could he go through that more than once, lose his family, his home, his career, everything that mattered? Could he let himself take the risk that it wouldn’t happen again?
Some writer guy Egon knew about had once said you could never go home again. Now Peter stood there helpless, aching with the longing to be able to shrug it off and recapture that first moment of joy. Instead, he felt lost and wary, uncertain. Could he dare to take the chance?
Egon saw the hesitation in his face. At once, his own face tensed up and pain filled his eyes. He took his hands off Peter’s shoulders and stepped backward until he was out of touching range. "Ray was so excited on the trip out here," he said. "He kept insisting that we were going to get you back and that everything would be fine. Winston hesitated. I think he realized, like I did, that the Stargate might not be the answer, and that you might have died in reality. He didn’t shoot down Ray’s hopes but he was right there the whole time and didn’t ease up until Hammond told us you were all right."
He swallowed hard. "But I wasn’t sure. I know you, Peter. I know how often you make things as hard for yourself as possible. If it’s that you can’t forgive us for the way we treated you, I’ll try to understand, but I won’t stop trying to make it up to you."
"Nah, it’s not that," Peter said hastily. "I know it wasn’t you guys’ fault. Had to be imposed by old Mugwump; I’m so great nobody would hate me without major intervention."
"Then what? Tell us what we need to do to make things right."
Peter sucked in his breath. This was so hard. It shouldn’t be hard. It wouldn’t be hard for Ray. Egon was right; he did tend to make things as tough for himself as possible. He hesitated, and then, because he couldn’t stand it for Egon to hate himself over something beyond his control, he blurted out desperately, "Convince me it will never happen again."
Egon stared at him a long moment. He said softly, "Oh, Peter...." Then he pushed the sympathy he felt away from him and said instead, "I didn’t think you’d take the coward’s way out."
Peter stiffened as if he’d been gut-punched, even if he understood why Egon was talking that way. "God, Egon, it’s not that. It’s just...you guys are my family. Okay, look at it like this. Your dad hated Ghostbusting. If you could have another chance with him and still be a Ghostbuster...."
"I would take it in a heartbeat, Peter, even if it meant living with his contempt. Just as I will accept your contempt for being too weak to resist the Class Ten’s manipulation, if only you will come home."
Oh, now, that was fighting dirty. "Weak, Spengs?" he asked. "Come on, the greatest brain since Einstein, weak? I don’t think so. Remember what you told me after I’d been possessed by Watt? That I wasn’t weak, or to blame, that some things were simply physically impossible and that we shouldn’t chide ourselves for not being able to do them. Same thing applies to you, here, unless you think somebody with an IQ like yours has to play by different rules." He saw Egon hesitate. "Aha! You do think that. You smug bastard. Or are you trying to say that you failed because you don’t care enough? Yeah, like I want to hear that one." He was fighting mad because it was so much easier.
"I would have ripped out my soul to save you, Peter, if I’d been given a fair chance," Egon spat back. "How dare you accuse me of such a thing? Maybe that’s why you don’t want to come back."
"God, Egon, I want to come back more than I ever wanted anything in my whole life," Peter blurted out. The anger had gone away entirely, leaving him lost and empty. "But I just don’t know if I can take the chance...."
"The hell you can’t," Egon cried. His cheeks were hot with emotion and his eyes blazed. "Peter, you are the bravest man I have ever known. I’ve seen you go up against unspeakable evil and face it down. I’ve seen you put aside your own fears for our sake time out of mind. Do that now. If you can’t do it because you need to come back, do it for us. Do it for Ray, whose heart will break if he doesn’t get his ‘big brother’ back. Do it for Winston, who needs you to be a bridge between his common sense and our science. And do it for me, because you taught me how to be whole, and that’s a lesson that needs constant reinforcement, even for...an Einstein."
And then Peter’s barriers crumbled. It was all right after all. He didn’t understand how it could be, not with the nightmare so close, but Egon had said it would be, and Egon never lied.
So he went into another hug and didn’t break this one until breathing once again became an urgent priority. This time, he stepped back and took a deep breath and felt whole.
"Okay, yeah," he said. "I’ll come. Because I hate to think what kind of a mess you guys have made of things without me."
"So do I," said Egon under his breath. Then he brightened. "I’ll call the others."
A second later, two guided missiles launched themselves at Peter, and surrounded him in a flurry of back-slapping and hair-tousling so energetic he was sure he would pop his stitches. When Egon said hastily, "Be careful of his arm," they fell back guiltily and gazed at him in alarm.
"Gosh, Peter, are you okay?"
Peter reached out and rumpled the auburn hair. "You bet I am, Ray. Are you?"
"If you forgive us. I can’t believe we did that."
"You didn’t," Peter said. "Come on, guys, we won. That’s what matters." He couldn’t hold back the grin that split his face. "Not even that lousy Mugwump could keep the Ghostbusters down."
"You sure, Pete?" Winston’s question didn’t refer to the ghost.
"Are you kidding? Think I’d throw over the best deal a guy could ever have?"
"When the best deal’s been behaving like jerks, I’m not so sure," Winston returned.
Peter eyed them all with pure delight. "So, does this mean you’ll do the laundry for me for the next month, wash the dishes, handle the budgets, and convince Janine to be polite to me and Slimer to keep off my bed?" he asked hopefully. Maybe he was pushing it a little, testing them, and Egon seemed to understand that, but it was what he would have said anyway.
Ray answered for all of them, his eyes twinkling with sheer happiness. "In a pig’s eye, Peter."
And all four of them laughed.
** *** **
Samantha Carter adjusted her equipment and continued the search of Doctor Mackenzie’s office. Protected by the protein marker left by Jolinar, she was one of the few people on the base who appeared immune to the subliminal tones that triggered the programming, and the only one protected who had the scientific background to make the tests. She’d checked in with Doctor Fraiser and learned that Daniel was doing well and should be waking up soon, but she didn’t have the luxury of waiting in the infirmary to see him. She would have liked to sneak in first, before the Colonel, and reassure Daniel that O’Neill hadn’t meant what had happened and that he felt terrible about it, but she had work to do that couldn’t wait, and she trusted Daniel to know that.
Teal’c provided her with backup while she tested every device in the psychiatrist’s office that might be capable of producing the tones, even a personal memento or two. The Jaffa was even more immune to the conditioning than she was, or so the tests proved. To prevent any trouble, she had supplied herself with tiny white-noise generating earplugs and wore them as she worked; counting on the sound detectors that had picked up the tones from the M.A.L.P.s to alert her to the problem.
If she found something here, it didn’t mean that Mackenzie was the villain; she’d talked to the man and was almost convinced he was innocent. He’d given her names of two of the other psychiatrists on his staff, Doctor Carolyn Boyd and Doctor Albert Hendricks, not as possible conspirators, but as ones who had probably worked with as many members of the different SG teams as he had. She knew them and had ‘enjoyed’ sessions with both, especially after Jolinar had sacrificed her life to save Carter’s. Boyd was deft and impersonal and Sam had spent a lot of time working with her; she was sure Mackenzie had set her up to work with Boyd because she was female, although Sam wouldn’t have had any negative feelings toward a male psychiatrist. She understood Mackenzie’s reasoning even then. He must have considered what happened to her to be a mental equivalent of rape, and, at that time, they had believed Jolinar to be male, not realizing that she had almost always been in female hosts. Carter had gone through several sessions with Hendricks over her time at the SGC, too, and a number with Mackenzie. The mental health of the SG teams was vital to the success of the project, and she’d worked with all three after the problems started to develop.
She did not like Hendricks.
It was nothing she could put her finger on because he seemed deft and sympathetic as a psychiatrist, but she’d come away with a near-subliminal suspicion that he considered her almost a Goa’uld and disliked her as a result, even after the Stargate program had met and had begun to work with the Tok’ra. She couldn’t remember Hendricks ever making an appearance when there had been Tok’ra on the base, and once she’d gotten the impression, when her father was mentioned in a session, that Hendricks would have been more comfortable if Jacob Carter had died of cancer rather than become host to Selmac.
She knew she couldn’t suspect the man on the strength of his potential bigotry alone, but she would have been more comfortable viewing him as a suspect than she would Mackenzie.
The room she was searching was used by all three for sessions; it was comfortably neutral, the colors chosen deliberately as a result of studies to determine what would be most relaxing for the subjects, and no objects had been added to create a jarring effect. Only Teal’c, whose cultural imperatives had been developed on a different world, had ever been less than comfortable with a session here.
She took out one of her earplugs and spoke to the Jaffa, who waited, stolid and unperturbed, in the doorway. "Teal’c, did you ever have a counseling session with Doctor Hendricks?"
"I have not," he replied. "Twice, I was scheduled to meet with him, but, in the end, instead, I saw Doctor Boyd or Doctor Mackenzie."
Was she onto something here? She knew Jack O’Neill didn’t care for Hendricks, but he hadn’t said much. Of course he wasn’t fond of ‘shrinks’ in the first place, and even less so after the debacle with Daniel and the Goa’uld killers. Could this simply be a personal hatred? Or was Hendricks the ideal tool for someone like Samuels, or Senator Kinsey? She vaguely remembered seeing Hendricks talking with the Senator once, but the mental image was so fuzzy she would have been unable to testify to it.
"You suspect Doctor Hendricks?" asked Teal’c.
"Not ‘suspect’. I don’t have anything but impressions."
"I have always found your impressions to be clear and well reasoned, Major Carter."
"It’s worth talking to Hammond about—if we find anything in here. I’ll continue the scan." She popped the earplug in again and the white noise effect drowned out extraneous sounds, although she would have heard Teal’c if he had called for her attention.
In the end, the sound came from the thing she’d have least expected and almost didn’t test, a humidor on the desk. If she had remembered Doctor Mackenzie smoking cigars, she might not have tried it. And of course it could be purely decorative. But when she picked it up and opened it, there was a slight discrepancy on the bottom; the container was fractionally shallower inside than it should have been. She lifted out a few cigars and ran her fingers over the inside of the case. There was a tiny raised bump—she pressed it.
The sound detector lit up.
At once, Teal’c came into the room and joined her. Raising his voice to compete with the noise generators in her ears, he said, "You have found something?"
"I’ve found a way to induce the primary tone," she agreed. Her fingers moved busily. In a far corner of the box, the push of another near-undetectable ridge created a secondary tone that made the detection device light up again. "And here’s the other one."
"Did any of the psychiatrists who used this office indulge in the smoking of tobacco?"
"I’ve never seen Mackenzie smoke, and most women don’t smoke cigars, so that could probably exclude Boyd. But—" She frowned, concentrating for all she was worth. "Hendricks," she said positively. "When I had my last session with him—it’s been over a year ago—he sat there and played with a cigar the whole time. He didn’t light it. I thought it was something he did to keep his hands busy, or maybe to create a reassuring image; back before it was learned that cigarette smoking can cause cancer, prominent, reliable men used to smoke cigars. Bank presidents, people like that. Hendricks likes to project that kind of ambiance. The ‘old boy’ network. Do you understand that term?"
"O’Neill once explained it to me. It excludes the competent female population of this planet."
"Yes, it does. In spite of Women’s Lib, there are a lot of male holdouts that feel their masculinity is threatened by female competency. And even in these times, there are people who are reassured by the ‘old guard’."
"That is most illogical."
Sam hid a smile at the tone of his voice. For a second, he almost sounded like Spock. "Yes, it is."
"Does this indicate Doctor Hendricks may be the guilty party?"
"You will not go for a weapon."
Sam barely heard the words because of her earplugs, but she made out enough to get their meaning, and to recognize the speaker. Hendricks stood just inside the doorway, engaged in pulling it closed behind him. In his other hand, he held a zat gun, and it was aimed at the both of them. They were standing close enough to each other that one blast could take them both down. Worse, if he disintegrated them with three blasts, he would have effectively concealed the evidence. If he moved Sam’s equipment to another location, he might even get away with it.
Murder had been a lot harder before the murder weapon itself could take care of the evidence.
"You will not fire your weapon," Teal’c said in a rock-steady voice. It was probably his First Prime voice, one accustomed to be obeyed without question.
"I don’t take commands from you, you filthy Jaffa," spat Hendricks.
"I outrank you, Doctor Hendricks," Sam tried crisply.
"You’re as bad as he is. Let a snake run around in your mind—and use what it left behind. You’re contaminated, just like he is. I’m glad you were the ones that found me out. This base will be cleaner without the pair of you."
"Why are you doing this?" she persisted. She had to stall. Teal’c carried a zat’nik’atel, too, but it was not in his hand. If she could distract Hendricks long enough for him to get to it....
"Why do you think I’m doing this? We don’t belong out there. We don’t need what they give us, not when they’re going to steal away our humanity. A plague of Goa’uld, taking over human beings. You gave your own father to them, you sick bitch."
"I saved my father’s life," Sam insisted. Why had she never noticed before that Hendricks was insane? Was it just this one twist in his psyche? Would he still be ‘normal’ if he hadn’t been recruited to the Stargate project?
"Keep your damn voice down. I’m going to kill you."
"And you thought this up all by yourself?" Sam shifted slightly to block view of Teal’c’s hand. She could feel the Jaffa’s arm moving very carefully in tiny increments as he tried to reach his weapon, accepting the cover she gave him as the most natural thing that could happen. The members of SG-1 had learned to work together seamlessly and interpret the slightest of signs from each other. If they could be saved from this maniac, that would be the thing to save them.
Hendricks’ eyes flickered. "Yes, I did," he insisted, and she was certain he was lying. "Why not? You think only gate travelers can think and plan? I’ve been working on this for over a year, and no one noticed."
"It’s brilliant," she said. Maybe if she played up to his ego, she could get him to talk. Was this room monitored? There was a lot of redundant security monitoring all through the base, and psychiatric sessions were recorded as a matter of course. She was fairly sure that there would be no monitoring the rest of the time, unless Hammond had ordered heightened security. Had their very presence in this room triggered it? She didn’t dare turn her eyes in the direction of the concealed camera. "How did you ever think of the sound triggers? Even Doctor Mackenzie says it’s not conventional hypnosis. Especially since you affected Colonel O’Neill and he’s resistant to hypnosis."
"I saw how sound worked on O’Neill and Jackson, even on the Jaffa, on P3X-989 and realized a subliminal tone would be an easy trigger. Anyone can be conditioned," bragged Hendricks. "In the colonel’s case, I enhanced it with medication. Undetectable medication. And it was worth it. He shot that Goa’uld lover."
Sam could imagine how Daniel would feel being called a Goa’uld lover when he probably hated the Goa’uld as fiercely as it was possible for him to hate. Hendricks had missed the point entirely with Sha’re. He wasn’t perceptive where his obsession was concerned. He had to have someone backing him. He simply wasn’t smart enough to have conceived of this plan himself, and he wasn’t high tech enough to have designed it. Could he have made a deal with the Ree’Tou? He was irrational enough not to see that as dealings with the enemy, or perhaps he believed he could use them for his own purposes.
Ignoring the slur on Daniel and Jack, she said, "Who gave you the sound device?"
"Colonel M—" He bit it off before he could finish. "I planned it myself. I planned this whole thing myself."
Maybourne? Possibly. He’d have been planning his use of the Antarctica Stargate long ago. Maybe he’d wanted to get this one shut down so he could do his own thing, unhindered by the inconvenient morality of the SGC. What about Makepeace? They’d have to look into either option.
"Yes, but someone had to give you the sound device."
Teal’c’s arm shifted slightly further. She didn’t dare look at him or give any indication that she was thinking about it because Hendricks had been trained to read visual cues. Teal’c himself was silent. Maybe he’d figured that if he spoke he’d set off Hendricks’ obsession.
"I bought it. You can buy anything, if you know the right people."
"And you’ve slowly conditioned everyone on this base?"
"No, only members of the SG teams. Why waste my energy on those who don’t have contact with the snakes out there? You I didn’t bother with, just one session. I could tell you were resistant. I didn’t bother with the Jaffa either. I assumed the conditioning would eventually force O’Neill or Jackson to kill him."
"Don’t you realize that, without the gate and the allies we’ve made out there that we’d be even more vulnerable to the Goa’uld?"
"Why would they bother us if we stayed home where we belonged?"
Teal’c’s elbow touched her back, once, very lightly, a near-subliminal movement. He didn’t need more.
She went one way, Teal’c went the other, and the Jaffa’s zat gun fired at the same moment as Hendricks’. Sam felt the faintest edge of a backlash that made her limbs tremble and twitch but didn’t bring her down. Teal’c and Hendricks collapsed on the floor.
She couldn’t spare a second to make sure Teal’c was all right. She kicked Hendricks’ zat out of his hand and over in Teal’c’s direction, then she slammed her hand on the button near the door. "Security to the main psychiatric office immediately."
Alarms started to sound through the base, and, content that she and Teal’c had done what they could, she scooped up Hendricks’ zat and aimed it at the prone psychiatrist. They’d find out who backed him, who worked with him, and they’d deal with what had been done. Maybe a combination of the tones could be made to remove the conditioning, if it were done right. That might be something Mackenzie could work out with the deprogrammers. Now that they knew how it had been done, they might be able to do more. If Jack O’Neill had been helped along with drugs, they could get a record of anything that had been prescribed to him over the past two years and analyze it.
She knew Hendricks hadn’t acted alone, but at least they had the one who was doing it locally. He might not even be the only one, but he’d talk. He’d have to.
She looked down at the man who lay writhing and moaning on the floor and felt not one shred of pity for him.
Teal’c had just pulled himself to his feet when the door burst open to admit a squad of armed Marines with Colonel O’Neill and General Hammond in hot pursuit.
Teal’c said, in a voice just beginning to steady, "General Hammond, we give you your traitor."
"Way to go, kid," exulted Jack O’Neill. "Great job." He peered at them closely. "You two all right?"
"Better than he is." Sam nudged Hendricks contemptuously with her toe. "Teal’c took a zat blast and I got the trailing edge of one, but we’ll be fine."
O’Neill bent over Hendricks. He looked like he was fighting down the urge to kick the man in the face. "So this is the son of a bitch who made me shoot Daniel," he said. If Sam had been Hendricks, she would have been very, very afraid.
Still twitching slightly, Hendricks scrunched his face up into defiance and didn’t resist when two of the Marines hauled him to his feet and secured his hands behind his back.
Sam picked up the humidor and passed it to Hammond. "The tones are administered from this, sir. I think it needs to go to analysis right away."
"Yes, it does, Major Carter. Well done. Both of you. Do you want to perform the analysis yourself?"
"I’d rather go see Daniel, sir. There are people more qualified than I am to work on it. As long as they wear the white noise generators, they should be fine, especially since we suspect the programming was only done to the SG teams."
"All right. SG-1, you are dismissed to the infirmary. I’ll see you for a briefing tomorrow morning at oh-eight hundred."
"Yes, sir." Sam cornered Teal’c with her eyes and they fell into step with the Colonel. The three of them set off for the infirmary in perfect step with each other.
** *** **
Jack O’Neill was pacing when the alarm sounded. Peter Venkman, who looked like a different man after his reunion with his team, had come to wait with him and had brought along the other Ghostbusters. Watching them bunch protectively around him, alert to every nuance of his expression, and the way Peter glowed at the slightest evidence of concern, Jack had envied him. He had his reunion over; his team knew Peter still valued them. They were a little wary, a little overprotective, but Peter was thriving on it.
When the alarm sounded, he threw a hasty, "Stay here," order over his shoulder and raced off to check. Peter looked like he wanted to go along, but Egon put out a hand to restrain him and he dropped into his chair without a second’s protest.
Jack arrived in time for the mopping up. He should have thought of Hendricks himself. The guy was an anal little prick and he said so to Carter as they headed back for the infirmary after the bastard had been arrested.
She donned a totally neutral expression that didn’t cover the twinkle in her eyes. "Don’t mince words, Colonel. Tell us what you really think."
"Smartass," O’Neill said fondly. Now that they knew what had been going down, they could fight it.
"You’re my commanding officer, sir. It’s inevitable I pick up some of your style."
Teal’c arched an amused eyebrow but he didn’t comment.
"What happened?" Peter jumped up to meet them when they returned to the waiting area. "Did you figure it out? Are we under attack?"
"No, and we caught the bastard responsible," Jack reassured him. He looked past Peter at the other Ghostbusters, who didn’t really have the clearance to know more than that.
"Let me guess," Peter said. "Hendricks, right?" His team, who still didn’t know what had happened, didn’t look surprised when Jack’s expression confirmed his guess.
"Heck no, I didn’t have a clue. But if it was somebody here on the base, he’d be the one I’d pick. I talked to Mackenzie’s team before I did the hypnosis on Daniel. And I have to say, he reminds me of Walter Peck—guy who shut down our containment unit right before Gozer came. Full of himself, narrow as the opening in a closed elevator door. I just wasn’t sure how he could have done it and I’d bet you big bucks he didn’t do it alone." He glanced over his shoulder at his buddies. "Anyway, at least you got him. Sorry, guys. Clearance."
"That’s all right, Peter," Egon reassured him. "We understand."
"I might have to stay here for a couple of days," Peter put in. General Hammond wanted me to give a week’s notice, but he said if things worked out with you guys, he’d understand if I didn’t want to stay."
"If you need to stay to tie up loose ends, Peter, of course we’ll wait for you," proclaimed Ray. "We’re all going home together, and it doesn’t matter if it’s tomorrow or next week."
"Yeah, and we understand about need to know," added Winston. "I’ve been in the Army and they have ways of doing things. Don’t worry about it. We don’t think you’re keeping secrets from us on purpose. We know there’s a problem, and we know you helped with it."
"Actually, Egon’s the one who helped the most." Peter threw a delighted smile at his friend, who arched a surprised eyebrow at him. "Wish I could explain it, big guy, but we’d have taken a heck of a lot longer to pull all this together if not for your humongous brain."
"If you say so, Peter. I—"
"Excuse me." Doctor Fraiser came into the room, a smile on her face. "Daniel is awake, and he’s feeling pretty good."
"Awake?" Jack totally forgot the Ghostbusters, who drew back to leave SG-1 their moment. "He’s alert?"
"He drifted in and out for awhile, and I talked to him a time or two, but now he’s fully awake and he’s ready for visitors. He asked to speak to you, Colonel."
"Me?" O’Neill’s voice squeaked in astonishment, and Carter, who could always be counted to pick up on his reactions, touched his arm.
"It’ll be okay, sir," she reassured him softly. "He’s going to be fine."
That wasn’t exactly what Jack was worried about. He knew, in his head, that he wasn’t to blame for what had happened on P4K-901. If Daniel wanted to chew his ass for it, he’d take it, and it might break the tension. What he was really afraid of was walking in there, getting an instant and blanket absolution, and having to deal with that. It might be a whole lot easier if Daniel yelled at him.
Venkman grinned and bounded up. "Come on, Colonel, I’ll go with you, at least to the door."
"Is this some kind of psychological hand-holding, Venkman?" O’Neill demanded suspiciously.
"No, I never hold hands with guys. Bad for my rep. Ask my buddies here."
The Ghostbusters made a bunch of encouraging noises interspersed with a catcall or two.
"Trust him," said Egon solemnly. "We do. Of course, we’re stuck with him and we have to—"
Peter gave Egon a friendly poke in the ribs and the physicist allowed it and poked back. Jack envied them mightily.
Venkman held up a hand. "Be right back, guys. Come on, Jack." He slung an arm around O’Neill’s shoulder and steered him after Fraiser. Carter hesitated as if she meant to come along but at the last minute she didn’t.
Over his shoulder, Peter called to his friends, "Back in a sec, guys. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do."
"And that offers us total freedom," Egon said pointedly.
Peter beamed. "They’re great guys," he said the second he and Jack were out of earshot. Then he dragged O’Neill to a halt. "And so is Danny boy. I’ve got a lot of faith in him. Whatever you do, don’t diminish him by going in there all humble like you’re groveling. It’s not fair to him—or to you."
"Anybody ever tell you that it’s not nice to read people’s minds, Doc?"
"Yeah, Egon does, when I read his. Come on, Colonel, I know exactly where you’re coming from, and I know what it feels like from Daniel’s side. I nearly screwed up with Egon when the guys first got here. I almost blew him off because I was scared to take the risk of getting dumped on again. I don’t think Daniel’s gonna do that. After all, our situations were different. But don’t you do what I nearly did. Don’t back off because you’re afraid you might hurt him again. He’s a grown-up. He can take care of himself."
"I have to watch his back. How can I watch his back if I might put a bullet in it?"
"You’re not gonna do that. You’re gonna be all nicely deprogrammed before they even let you look at a gun again. And believe me, I know it can be done. Maybe it won’t be as easy a cure as popping me through the Stargate and lifting a curse, but it’ll be done. Anyway, you don’t want to hurt him; he’s your buddy. So don’t hurt him by getting all stiff and prickly and trying to defend him against you. Maybe you think you have to watch his back because he’s not military and you are. But I’d bet my next Porsche that he watches your back, too, and that he’s hauled your butt out of the fire more than once. Don’t put him down, don’t make him less than what he is." He gave O’Neill a slight shove. "Go on in there and bring the house down with the greatest reconciliation since mine with the guys. Give you my word, I won’t even watch."
"Get out of here, Pete," O’Neill said, unable to hold back the gratitude he felt for the man’s understanding. He was sure Carter and Teal’c would have said the same things to him, and he knew it was true. But until he walked in there and saw the look in Daniel’s eyes, he wouldn’t know for sure it was going to be all right.
Daniel’s eyes were shut when he entered the room, and Jack’s tension grew. The archaeologist still looked pale and fragile, too, although the second IV was gone, leaving only one running into the back of his right hand. The oxygen he’d been on before was gone, too. A temperature monitor cuff attached to one fingertip, and the readouts over his head showed his blood pressure, temperature, and other readings Jack didn’t understand except from visiting various members of his team in here over the past few years. They all seemed comfortably in the normal range, though, and that was good.
O’Neill turned his gaze back to Daniel’s face and discovered that, while he’d been checking out the monitors, Daniel had opened his eyes. He was regarding Jack sleepily, his expression too neutral to read.
"Hey, Daniel," Jack said warily.
Alarm slid into the blue eyes. "Jack? What’s wrong? Janet told me just now that they caught Hendricks, that he’d been behind it. Did anybody get hurt?"
"Yeah but not serious. Teal’c got a zat blast and Carter nearly did, but they’re fine. We don’t know yet who else is involved, or who was behind Hendricks, but you can bet we’re gonna find out."
"I didn’t have any doubts about that." He waved the unattached hand vaguely in the direction of the chair that had been pulled up right beside the bed. Fraiser, stage-managing the reconciliation? "Sit down, Jack."
O’Neill collapsed into the chair, certain his knees wouldn’t sustain him if he didn’t. "You hanging in there, kiddo?"
"Just a little sore. Janet says I’ll be able to get up tomorrow; they’re even going to have me taking a few steps tonight. I’m okay."
"You don’t look very okay."
"No, I bet I look pretty bad." He took a deep and wary breath. "But I’ve gotta say, Jack, I probably look better than you do."
"What can I say? Bad day." God, that sounded too glib.
"Yeah, I know. I’ve had better."
Jack winced. He hadn’t meant to; he just couldn’t help it. "I’m sorry, Daniel."
"I know." Just as easy as that? Sincerity shone out of the blue eyes. Was the kid a saint? Did they teach forgiveness in Archaeology 101? Daniel was too good at the forgiveness game. He’d forgiven Teal’c after he’d taken Sha’re to Apophis, and he’d forgiven him again for shooting Sha’re. Jack sucked in breath. If Daniel could forgive Teal’c for killing his beloved wife, maybe he would forgive Jack for putting a hole in his skin.
That hadn’t really ever been the issue, though. Jack should have known Daniel wouldn’t blame him.
He didn’t have to. Jack felt enough self-blame for both of them.
Daniel shifted against the pillow, and stopped abruptly to gnaw on his bottom lip. Jack flinched again.
"Stop that," Daniel said, irritated.
"I didn’t do anything."
"You cringed. Come on, Jack, cringing isn’t your best look. Yeah, this hurts. Yeah, I’m even a little irked that it happened—but I’m not irked at you. Sounds like it’s Hendricks I should be ticked off at, not you."
"No, I’m just a guy who couldn’t resist hypnosis when he did it, even though Peter and Mackenzie said I was a lousy candidate for it. Guess all my training didn’t do me one shred of good."
"Oh, come on, Jack. You’ve told me I’m I more than once, but don’t you start. You know there are ways to do it to anybody." Daniel paused to take a few cautious breaths and to stifle a big yawn. His hand slid down and pressed against the wound. Jack felt color leave his face.
Daniel noticed and he glared at O’Neill. "Yes, it does hurt. I had surgery and it never feels great afterwards. Do you want me to turn as stoic as Teal’c and pretend it didn’t happen so you can feel better?"
"You fight nasty," Jack countered. He suspected Janet Fraiser had been in here laying down the law to Daniel before he came in. He’d been too quick with the acceptance for her not to.
"I have to, Jack. Don’t do this to me. I’ve lost too many people already to lose another because he won’t face me."
Oh, that was a low blow. It effectively clamped down on any excuses Jack might have made. He couldn’t cut and run now, not without dumping a load of guilt on Daniel himself, and he wasn’t that low.
"Anyway," Daniel persisted, settling himself very carefully, "You’re not I, Jack. Maybe ordinary shrinks can’t hypnotize you easily, but you know through covert ops that there are a lot of nasty things that can be done to the strongest man who ever lived—and last I heard you might be able to leap tall buildings but you need a running start in order to do it."
Jack felt a smile start but he didn’t have the heart to let it continue. He’d screwed up; he hadn’t been able to resist, and if he’d been a better shot, Daniel might be dead.
Daniel saw the smile and he saw Jack repress it, and he picked up on it right away. Tired and weak he might be, but his mind was as clear as crystal. Every shred of his energy was focused there, on staying alert and saying his piece.
"Jack, listen to me." Now urgency crept into his voice. "It wasn’t you who shot me. It was conditioning. And it was something you couldn’t have controlled, not in any way. It wasn’t an accident, an oversight, and I will not let this turn into something you can forget for a while but never forgive yourself for."
Jack jerked back, and any color left in his face went away just like that. He could feel it going. He felt cold and his scalp tightened and he stared at Daniel in shock. Talk about going right for the jugular. He hadn’t consciously allowed himself to associate this shooting with his son’s accidental death with Jack’s service revolver, but he had a feeling his subconscious had made the inevitable connection with no trouble at all. Venkman hadn’t known enough about Jack to figure that out or he might have touched on it, but then Venkman didn’t know him soul-deep—and Daniel did.
He said involuntarily, "You son of a bitch," and would have done anything to call the words back a second later.
"Maybe," Daniel persisted sleepily and he didn’t take offense at all. "Jack, don’t you see? This isn’t the same—not that the other was really your fault either. But it’s not the same. I’m going to be fine. This time next week, I’ll be ready to go through the gate again. I’m the guy who doesn’t stay dead, remember?"
The guy who had come back from the dead before, more than once. The guy who couldn’t risk using a sarcophagus again if it happened another time. The guy who had been through hell over a sarcophagus. The guy Jack had felt he had to protect because he’d seen too much happen to him already. Somewhere deep inside, there’d been a connection, the never-acknowledged belief that, if he could keep Daniel alive, it would somehow atone for Charlie’s death. And that was far too heavy a burden to impose on any man, let alone his best friend. He had no right to do it. He had the right to want his friend to be safe and to look out for him when he could. But that was the bottom line. He wasn’t fate, he wasn’t a god; he was just a guy who had had rotten things happen to him, just like Daniel had. It made a bond, but shared suffering wasn’t anywhere near to all there was to that bond. Crazy, but this guy who had started out as an annoying, geeky science type who drove Jack crazy had become a friend essential to his very comfort and well-being. Maybe he could defend Daniel against a lot of threats, but he didn’t know how to defend Daniel against himself.
"You better not," he said roughly because if he’d tried to speak more gently, his voice would have wobbled.
"Okay, here’s the bottom line. Jack, I forgive you. I don’t even blame you—I can’t, because if I’d have gotten my gun out, I’d have shot you back, so we’re even. And that wouldn’t have been me, any more than this is you." He touched his side gently. "If you let this screw things up between us and with the team, I’m going to have to knock you on the head."
"Think you can?"
"Right now, I don’t think I could knock your little finger," Daniel admitted with a wry smile.
"‘Sorry’ I expect. Anything more, and you’re going all out on self-indulgence." He yawned, gapingly.
"I better let you sleep."
Daniel stretched out his hand and curled his fingers around Jack’s wrist. "Jack, please," he said, fighting to keep his eyes open. "Don’t do guilt on this. I don’t have to forgive you because there’s no fault. But you have to forgive yourself. Come on, I won’t go to sleep until you do."
"Ah, conditions. Should’ve expected that."
"Yes. You should." He struggled against another yawn. "Come on, Jack. Let it go."
"Oh, hell, Danny," Jack said. He bent down and gathered the younger man as gently as he could into a hug that couldn’t be as strong as the one he’d given him after he’d learned Daniel was alive and not blown to ashes on Klorel’s ship, but no less fervent for all that. He felt the arm that wasn’t on the IV come up around his back and cling weakly, then drop away again, and he settled Daniel back against the covers.
Daniel gazed up at him, too tired and weak to do much more than smile. But the smile held not one shred of blame; instead it held an expectation of relief. Jack heaved a vast sigh that left him feeling purged, and returned the smile full measure.
"Now I can go to sleep," Daniel said comfortably and closed his eyes. He was out again, just like that.
Over his head, the life signs were sure and steady.
Jack stood looking down at his sleeping friend for a long moment. Then he brought up fists and scrubbed hard at his eyes before he went out to find the rest of his team.
** *** **
"And so, we don’t have all the names yet, General," said Doctor Mackenzie three days later. The briefing included all of SG-1, members of all the other SG, teams, Fraiser, Mackenzie, and Peter Venkman, who was already packed to head out of here the minute the meeting was over. His friends had gone to a motel in the city, but they would be by to pick him up shortly. Once the meeting was over, he would no longer be an official member of the SGC. That suited him just fine.
Daniel, looking a little pale and shaky, was present, too. He wasn’t officially discharged from the infirmary yet—Fraiser had brought him to the briefing in a wheelchair—but he was looking a lot better. Now he was seated comfortably next to Jack O’Neill. That had gone a lot better than Peter had expected it to. No, that was wrong. He should have expected it to work out. His own problems had worked out—not effortlessly, but with a little work, because his team was worth any effort. He’d never have let them go off without them so he could curl up here and lick his wounds. Maybe he’d been afraid of the risks, but the risks were worth it. He knew that now, and he was sure Jack O’Neill was equally confident. He’d been ragging Daniel since the meeting started.
Hammond picked up the ball. "We have several names, one at the Pentagon, one in Congress." He didn’t name them. Peter hadn’t expected him to. "We’ve acquired Hendricks’ password and are working on reading his encrypted files to learn more about the process used. In spite of his bigotry on the subject of the Goa’uld, we believe he somehow managed to acquire Goa’uld techniques, possibly from teams who were illegally using the Antarctic Stargate. Also, we suspect a Ree’Tou connection, but we haven’t any conclusive data on that yet. We’ve done thorough sweeps of the base and stationed soldiers with TER’s at strategic points, and there are no Ree’Tou here now. As the psychiatric team comes to understand the process, we should be able to remove the conditioning without trouble, and now that we understand the triggers that were programmed in, we’ve set up a white noise generator that will run continuously on the base to block the tones, until such time as the conditioning is removed."
"What about gate missions, General?" Jack asked.
"At this point, only essential missions will take place, and teams will be equipped with white noise generators. We’ve managed to adjust the M.A.L.P.s to remove the programming that sent the tones, so unless there are random factors we haven’t considered, such as variants to the tone and naturally occurring phenomena on the planets that match the frequencies, we should be well covered. As each team is cleared, regular missions will resume. We should be up to full strength again within a month."
The team leaders looked relieved.
"Doctor Venkman," Hammond said, turning his attention to Peter. "Without the use of the meter you sent for and some of your theories, this would have taken us far longer to solve, and it might possibly have led to at least a temporary shutdown of the program. Your government is grateful for your actions."
"Heck, General, I was just sounding off. And Egon’s the one who designed the meter and set its parameters so that it could react to those tones. I just used the thing. I didn’t even really understand what I was getting."
"Nevertheless, Doctor Venkman, you helped to save our project. It was not any one man who solved the problem; it was a result of excellent teamwork, and you fit in here very well. We like a person who thinks on his feet and who can think unconventionally. We know we can’t recruit you permanently, but we’d like to think that you and your own team might be willing, on occasion, to act as consultants, at the usual fee."
Peter brightened at the mention of fees. Money always appealed to him. "So, is there a reward?" he ventured hopefully.
O’Neill jabbed him in the ribs. "Shut up, Venkman. You think you’re gonna get paid more than I do? After all, I outrank you."
"So? I’m a civilian consultant. I know about working government projects. We worked for NASA once." And got stiffed on the bill.
"Actually, I do have a reward for you, Doctor Venkman," Hammond said. "It’s not monetary, however." He picked up the small box that had been lying before him on the table, and opened it. "If you would rise, please...."
Peter stood up, and Jack O’Neill jumped up beside him and took the box from the General. "The President couldn’t be here to give you this, Doctor Venkman," he said formally. Hey, maybe that was why he and all the military brass were in their dress blues—amazing the things Carter did for a uniform—and why Daniel had actually put on a suit instead of a robe over his hospital gown. Peter had on his own Armani suit because Jack had insisted it was a formal briefing. He hadn’t expected anything this fancy, though. The President? The President knew about him being here?
"In honor of your assistance in preserving the Stargate program, it is my privilege to present you with this civilian medal, designed specifically for you, Doctor Venkman." Jack pinned it formally onto his lapel and, even though Peter was a civilian, he snapped him a formal salute. Peter sketched a casual one in return and craned his neck to see his medal. Classy. Big, ornate, bronze thing on a red, white, and blue ribbon, with a fancy design. It had his name on it, and read: "For Valor." Cool. Okay, so he probably couldn’t wear it on dates and brag that it had come from the President, but he could wear it in front of the guys—at least until they shot his ego down, the way they always did. He looked forward to the opportunity. He was going to love it. This is great. I really am a national hero—even if nobody ever finds out about it.
The general shook his hand and then Daniel pushed himself carefully to his feet and did the same. Teal’c gripped him by the upper arms, careful not to touch Peter’s nearly healed wound. "It has been a pleasure to serve with you, Peter Venkman," he said.
But it was Sam who gave Peter the reward he treasured most. She put her arms around him and gave him a kiss, full on the mouth.
"This briefing is adjourned," Hammond said formally, and everybody relaxed. Some of the other teams crowded around to shake Peter’s hand, to offer their praise to him, to Carter for her work on the sound effects and for helping to stop Hendricks, to Teal’c, who had taken the psychiatrist down. Peter worked his way out of a knot of people and went in search of Hammond. "General, there’s one thing I’d like to ask you. Now don’t hit the roof. It’s not a gift I want, just a loan. Just in case."
"Let’s talk, Doctor Venkman. What is it you want from me?"
Peter told him.
** *** **
"Wow, that was great," Ray Stantz exulted as the four Ghostbusters walked into headquarters and set down their suitcases. In the cab from the airport, Peter had toyed with the idea of keeping his arm in a sling to see if he could win sympathy from Janine, but the others had shouted him down. He had protested like mad, but he’d been glad of their putdowns. He’d have hated it if they were too careful around him, too protective, too willing to allow him his way. That wouldn’t have felt natural, and this did. This felt like he was really back where he belonged.
Turned out he didn’t need the sling after all. The minute they walked in, Janine cried, "Doctor V," and flung herself at him. She wrapped his arms around him and planted a great kiss full on his lips. He loved it. Janine knew how to kiss. Between her and Sam Carter and his farewell from Janet Fraiser, Peter had been having it good. He took full advantage of the kiss, lingering over it just long enough to make her mad, and then standing back when she wiggled free. He was smart enough to yank his foot back before she could stomp on it, too. He had Janine’s moves down pat. She’d probably make him pay for the spontaneous welcome. It wasn’t in character for her to admit she liked him, or he her. But she’d come through for him when he really needed it, so he wouldn’t ride her about it—well, not very much.
"You look good," she said. "You get one day’s grace, buster, and then it’s business as usual."
"Only one day?" He donned an exaggerated expression of dismay.
"You’re lucky to get that, and it’s only because Egon told me when he called that you got hurt out there." She eyed him up and down. "You look intact to me. Figures. Knowing you, it was probably all sham."
Peter instantly pushed up his jacket sleeve and showed her the band aid that neatly covered his two stitches. "See? Scarred for life."
"Sorry, buster. No gaping wounds, no sympathy." She turned to Egon and gazed up at him with her heart in her eyes. "I missed you."
"And I you." Egon accepted her hug and kiss as no more than his due. When Janine emerged from that one, she looked a little flustered. "Oh, Egon, you’re you again. You weren’t yourself for a whole week. But now, the real Egon is back."
"Uh...so it would...seem." He ran his finger around inside his collar, and Winston and Ray chuckled.
"Guess that means putting up with the real Peter," she conceded. "You guys were such pains for the last week before you went out there to get him. It’s a good thing I’m used to used to working under such lousy conditions because of Doctor Venkman here, or I would have quit."
Peter turned to her and grabbed her hands before she could pull away. "Janine, you get a raise."
She stared at him in astonishment and for the first surprised instant couldn’t find words. "I do?"
"You bet you do. Least I could do for all you did for us. And it’s retroactive to the day this started."
"The time and a half, too?" she asked suspiciously.
Peter loved the suspicion and hesitated just long enough to play up to it. When she started to explode, he grinned and hugged her again. "Time and a half, too. After all, you had to put up with the jerk squad."
"Gee, Peter," began Ray.
Egon elbowed him. "Don’t worry, Ray. It couldn’t have been hard for Janine. After all, she’s put up with Peter for many years. She’s had plenty of practice."
"I’m gonna get you for that one, Spengs," cried Peter, but he couldn’t keep the sheer joy out of his voice. He loved every second of it. At least they weren’t tiptoeing around him and fussing too much. He liked fussing, but he liked it under his own control. This was normal repartee, and it felt so right that he could have almost gotten down and kissed the floor of the firehouse in gratitude.
"This will not do."
Peter knew the voice instantly He’d heard it before, telling him what a choice he’d have to make to save the lives of his friends. It had been cold, hard, inimical, offering a bargain he hated but couldn’t refuse. He’d expected it back, once the team was together again, but he hadn’t expected it quite this soon. Muzxgyqlpwuxyrp. Mugwump. The cause of all their troubles.
"Oh yeah? Hey, big guy. Figured you’d show up. Couldn’t leave a job undone, could you?" He turned to stare at the Class Ten who hovered between them and Janine’s desk, one taloned hand resting on Ecto-1. The car’s springs groaned in protest. Yep, there it was, teeth and claws just as sharp as the first time, huge, leathery scales glistening in the overhead lights, and it was parked between them and easy access to their packs and throwers. Egon’s meter squealed into overload and he turned the power down automatically. The guys exchanged uneasy glances. They hadn’t been able to stop the entity the first time and it had put them through hell. Peter could see them thinking frantically. Worse, Janine was here, too. If they got hit with a bargain like the last time, there’d be no one to shake sense into them.
Mugwump looked shocked. "I destroyed the Ghostbusters. How can you be intact? None of you are dead. This is unbelievable." His deep, rumbling voice made their ears hurt.
Peter struck an annoyingly cocky pose. "You never said ‘dead’, Scale Face. You said ‘not in the world’. Hate to break it to you, Brain Drain, but that’s not the same thing. All that fancy language got you into trouble, didja ever think of that?"
"I thought of everything. If I could not destroy you slowly and painfully, I will destroy you quickly and painfully. You will die now, in terrible anguish. You will not find your weapons to hand, for I moved them before you came."
"Hah!" spat Janine. "I would have seen you move them out of Ecto." She cast an uneasy glance at the car. Even if the proton packs and throwers had still been there, the guys couldn’t get to them before the big ugly started ripping off arms and legs. He was a physical entity, Egon had said, and, when they’d run into him before, they didn’t have the atomic destabilizer with them so they could render his form ectoplasmic and suck him into a trap—assuming a standard ghost trap would have even held him. Usually, the most powerful ghosts they trapped were Class Sevens and the occasional Class Eight. They hadn’t trapped Gozer; just sent the Sumerian demi-god back to his own realm and sealed the door. No, even ten throwers might not stop this dude.
"You think I needed to move them visibly in front of you? What small minds you humans have. Now, you will die." And he stretched out a clawed hand for Egon, who was closest.
"Egon, get down." Peter’s hand dove into the front of his jacket and came out with a weapon. He didn’t take time for precise aim, but he didn’t have to because his target was so huge. The first shot staggered the big creature, who reeled back away from Ecto and squashed Janine’s desk flat with one giant foot.
"What the heck!" blurted Winston in astonishment, and Ray’s mouth dropped open. Egon promptly took another reading.
"Behind me!" Peter urged his teammates and waved them to comparative safety. He didn’t have much time for this because he was pretty sure the first blast wouldn’t keep Old Scaly down for more than a second or two.
Watching the unsteady creature carefully, Peter fired a second time and hit the creature in the center of its chest. "Take that, you ugly mother. After what you did to me and my buddies, I’m gonna enjoy every second of this."
With a deafening screech, Muzxgyqlpwuxyrp pitched forward and landed flat on its belly on the floor, making faint mewling sounds that gradually trickled away to a hollow, echoing silence broken only by the surprised gasps of Janine and the other Ghostbusters. Its body heaved a couple of times, turning the largest pieces of Janine’s desk into kindling, then it went utterly still and the heavy rumble of its breathing died away to nothing. Its body quivered one final time then didn’t move again. Physical entity! Perfect!
"That’ll teach you to mess with a Ghostbuster," Peter cried and fired the zat gun for the third and final time. While the other four gaped in disbelief, Mugwump sizzled around the edges and then slowly melted into non-existence. When the process finished, only the shattered desk proved that the entity had been there at all.
"He wasn’t so tough." Peter blew across the barrel of the zat’nik’atel the way a character in a Dewey LaMort western would have blown the smoke away from his six-shooter after a gundown on Front Street. "What is it they say? The bigger they are, the harder they fall?"
Janine eyed the ruins of her desk with disbelief. "Yeah, well, if he squished my purse, you’re gonna buy me a new one, Venkman."
Egon stretched out a hand for the weapon as Peter shut it down. "What did you just do, Doctor Venkman?" he demanded.
Peter pulled it back. "Uh, uh, uh, hands off. This little toy is so classified my ass would be in a sling for the rest of my life if I let you so much as look at it. I had a feeling we’d run into our old disappearing buddy again the minute we got back, so I figured out a solution. Hammond didn’t really want me to have it—he’d rather have had root canals in all his teeth and had people stick bamboo shoots up under his fingernails—but I had a feeling Old Scaly would be back as soon as he realized we were a team again. I had to beg and grovel to get a loan of it, and I think the General was pushing his authority so far beyond the line I don’t dare let anything happen to it." He tucked the zat into his waistband and pulled his jacket over it. "I have to call him and let him know he can have it back again, if the phone isn’t smashed along with the desk. We don’t get to keep it, and I think he risked his career to loan it to me, not to mention compromising security right and left. But what can I say, when you’re a hero, people bend the rules."
"When you’re a hero, you get pretty insufferable, Pete," groaned Winston.
"I’ll say he does," called Janine as she dug in the rubble that had once been her desk. "I know a certain ‘hero’ who has to buy me a new computer. I just hope the backup disks are safe or somebody will have to recreate all the billing statements for the past year from the hard copies—and it won’t be me."
"One computer coming up. State of the art." Peter admitted, trying to remember what the budget had been like when he left and whether they could afford to pay cash for it or if they’d need to use plastic. He could probably squeeze a computer in, never mind the cost of the plane tickets to and from Colorado. He’d taken his bus fare out of his own account, so that didn’t figure in. "You get a day’s grace, too, Melnitz, then it’s business as usual."
"So long as my raise still counts, I guess I can live with it."
Egon glanced wistfully in the direction of Peter’s concealed weapon. "I wish I could have studied it," he said regretfully. "But I won’t make the attempt. However did you get it through airport security?"
"You think it’s made out of anything that sets off alarms?" Peter asked. He didn’t have a clue what it was made of, but that didn’t matter. Hammond had reassured him it wouldn’t trigger the metal detectors, and he ought to know. He probably wouldn’t have broken the rules for Peter if there’d been a way to detect it. Peter meant to protect it with his life. Hammond had trusted him, and Peter was careful not to screw up with people like that.
Egon adjusted his P.K.E. meter and took readings in the place where the beast had last lain. "It’s gone. This place is clean," he said. "At least, except for Janine’s desk."
The secretary hauled her purse out. The leather was a little scratched, but it was in one piece. She fussed over it a minute, probably trying to decide if she dared hit Peter up for a new one, and then shrugged and let it go.
Peter heaved a deep, relieved breath. "Then I bag the couch," he said. "Somebody, get me a soda? And Ray? Will you fluff up the pillows for me. Egon, take my bag upstairs."
"Are we quite sure we actually want him back?" Egon asked wryly.
"I was wondering that myself," muttered Winston.
Ray grinned and scooped up Peter’s suitcase. "Oh, I don’t know. We’ll give him a grace period, guys, like Janine is. Because I have to admit, I kind of like having him back." His eyes sparkled wickedly. "But we won’t tell him how long it is—or what horrible unspeakable things we’ll get Slimer to do to him if he pushes it one second too long."
"Ray? Come on, Ray. You’re the one guy I thought would be sympathetic to my plight."
"An excellent plan, Raymond," Egon agreed. But he draped a comradely arm around Peter’s shoulders as they started for the stairs.
"Guys?" Janine wailed. "What about my desk? Guys? Egon, don’t you want to take me home?"
The physicist stopped dead, and turned to smile at her. "Tomorrow night, Janine. Once we make certain that Peter is...home to stay."
Janine looked disappointed, but she concealed it instantly. Interesting. Peter would have to think about that when everything calmed down. She picked up her purse and prepared to leave.
"Home to stay? You better believe it," Peter said quickly when they had told Janine goodnight. "Give up busting? Not on your life." He snatched his suitcase away from Ray and led the way up the stairs. A little exemplary behavior would make him feel good right about now—and it would bug the guys like crazy. "I’ve gotta call Hammond and tell him to come and pick up the zat."
"Did you say ‘gat’, Peter?" Egon asked with a groan of disgust.
"Yep, the ‘gat’," Peter kidded back. "I bag the first shower." He fled up the stairs with his friends in hot pursuit."
"Oh, hey, Daniel, they sprung you? I thought you weren’t getting out of the infirmary until tomorrow morning."
Daniel stretched cautiously. He still looked pale, but he was coming on. No IV’s, no canes or wheelchairs, just his own two feet, and dressed in real clothes, not hospital garb. "No, I’m free. I’m doing fine, and General Hammond says while we do the deprogramming, I can work on the film I got on P4K-901. I’m nearly there in the translation. The last part I got proved to be the key. Jack, that world was once a stronghold of Hathor. If we can interpret the alien hieroglyphics, we might be able to find out a lot about her motivations and plans and history. Just think of it."
"I’d rather not think about the lady at all."
"It’s not as if she can hurt us now. You took care of her, Jack."
"Come on, you should be off your feet," Jack fussed. Easier to do that than remember Hathor, and he was pretty sure Daniel had a lot of nasty baggage as a result of the Goa’uld. He would be happy to get the subject away from her.
"I’ve been off my feet for four days, Jack. I’m tired of horizontal. I want to do vertical for awhile."
"So where are you heading?"
"The lab. The film’s been processed and loaded into the computer. It’s all ready for me." His eyes gleamed with eager anticipation.
"You need a hand?"
"You, Jack? I’m going to study artifacts and ancient languages. Last I heard, you hated that stuff like you hated Goa’ulds."
"Nah, I hate Goa’ulds a lot more than I hate stuff like that. I’ll come along, anyway, until I get bored out of my skin. If you want the company, that is?"
Daniel’s eyes narrowed at the faint hint of diffidence Jack had been unable to repress, but all he said was, "The company suits me just fine." His expression defied Jack to pull a humble routine or get into guilt. He hadn’t let him spring bad feelings on him once the entire time he’d been in the infirmary.
"Okay, I’ll come. But I can assure you I probably won’t like it much."
That made Daniel’s smile blaze out in full force. "Oh, I don’t know, Jack," he said in a lazy voice that spoke of kidding. "I bet you my next pay raise you’ll like it better than being hypnotized."
Jack struggled, trapped between a disgusted grimace and a smile of genuine delight. "You are in soooo much trouble, Jackson."
They fell into step and headed for the lab.
** *** **
"Peter? Why are you up?"
Venkman rolled his eyes at Egon, who had come down the stairs to discover him curled up on the couch in front of the television set on the second floor. Never mind it was three a.m. Peter had the TV on too softly to disturb his buddies, who deserved a good night’s sleep after all they’d been through, but Egon never let things like that stop him. The sight of his friend made Peter smile and his world slide one step closer to normal.
"Hey, Spengs," he greeted him.
"Peter? Are you testing us?"
That was Egon for you, cut right to the chase. Peter could have pretended ignorance but that would only delay the inevitable. Testing them? Probably. Pushing as hard as he could go to make sure they didn’t find him unendurable, to make sure they didn’t regret having him back. Okay, so it was probably an insecurity hang-up, but he hadn’t expected Egon to pick up on it so fast.
"Maybe," he conceded. "Sorry."
"No, it’s all right. It isn’t necessary. You’ve been home a week. We are overjoyed to have you back, but, after a point, your testing becomes a luxury, a self-indulgence."
"And then I get zapped? Good thing Hammond’s gun is gone." He smiled at a joyful memory. "And I got to slime the Colonel."
"You did enjoy that, didn’t you, Peter?"
"Not as much as the rest of SG-1 did." Peter chortled delightedly at the mental image. SG-1, including a recently discharged Daniel, had come to retrieve the zat gun, and all of them, except for Jack, who had to change his clothes after Slimer was through with him, had a good time. Perfect. He liked Jack, but he couldn’t help it. It was a hoot to have someone else slimed even worse than he usually was.
"They are good people," Egon said. "And we are grateful to them for taking you in."
"Heck, Egon, they wanted to. After all, I’m a national hero."
Peter grimaced. "Okay, yeah, a little."
"You needn’t. No conditions on your homecoming, and you could make us pay for the way we treated you."
"No harm intended, no foul." Peter snuggled more comfortably into the couch. Any second now, he was going to get sleepy and be ready to trek on up to bed, bad dreams forgotten.
If Egon had picked up on the bad dreams, he didn’t mention them. Thanks, Spengs. "Peter. Test us if you must. But try to trust us again, too. We...miss that."
"Trust you guys? Heck, yes, I trust you guys," Peter said, surprised. He hadn’t taken it that far yet. The testing proved over and over that he was home—but it might remind them how badly they’d acted, and they hadn’t had any control over what they’d done. He met Egon’s eyes head on. "Okay. Sorry. Testing goes. My word on it. Anything I do tomorrow isn’t testing. It’s just the patented Venkman technique."
"I can live with that. I’ve had more than twenty years experience at it."
Peter smiled. He really was home. "Hey, Egon?"
"What the heck are we doing up? It’s the middle of the night."
"I did wonder that myself."
"I’m sleeping in tomorrow," Peter proclaimed. "Bust or no bust. We’ll have Janine reschedule it."
"Yes, Peter," said Egon patiently and put out a hand to haul Venkman to his feet.
** *** **
"We ought to have a christening, like they do with ships on their maiden voyage," offered Daniel Jackson as SG-1 climbed the ramp toward the glowing event horizon of the Stargate. "Our first real mission since everything went wrong. It feels good to be back where we belong."
"Yeah, and when we get over there, Danny boy, I’m gonna hog-tie you. I saw those M.A.L.P. images and you are not going to rush headlong to those weird pyramids and try to solve everything in the first ten seconds. I’ve had enough ancient languages in the past couple of weeks to last me two lifetimes."
"They did look intriguing ruins," commented Teal’c as he walked up the ramp ahead of them. "Very much like your own Egyptian pyramids. Another culture based on Egypt."
"Well, the gate was originally in Egypt," Daniel agreed. "I suppose that’s why we’ve found several cultures out there that have ties to it. It was probably easier to take people with the gate right there."
"Than it would have been to bring mass collections of humans from other locations and send them through," agreed Sam.
General Hammond’s voice came from the overhead control room. "Good luck, SG-1."
"Thank you, sir," called O’Neill. "Back in the saddle again. Let’s hope this is a good one. No snakeheads, not too many ‘rocks’ to haul back for Daniel."
"Plenty of technological items to study," offered Sam.
"Cultural information," added Daniel happily. He was feeling better now, his side healed, and there was the definite suggestion of a bounce in his walk.
Teal’c looked his usual self, but even he seemed eager to resume their journeys.
Jack beamed at his team fondly.
"Too bad we don’t have Peter with us for the first mission," said Daniel with a touch of regret. "He did get a kick out of going through the gate. Although I think it’s Ray we’d have to hogtie if we took him. You think you have it bad with me, Jack. You’d need more than a leash for him. You’d need a harness."
"Sometimes I think I need one now," groused Jack affectionately. "Besides, Pete got a big kick out of sliming me when we went to pick up the zat gun Hammond loaned him on the sly," complained O’Neill. He still remembered walking into Ghostbuster Central, shaking hands with Peter Venkman—and the next second having a horrible, green mushy thing land right in his face with a ghastly, squishy sensation. It smelled and it was sloppy, and that slime didn’t want to come off. Neither did it help that his team had all but collapsed in laughter. Even Teal’c had lost all shreds of Jaffa dignity at the sight of his commanding officer dripping with goo and muttering irritated expletives under his breath. Worse that Slimer had decided Teal’c was off limits and that Ray had commanded the little ghost not to slime Daniel because he was still recovering from his injury and not that long out of the base infirmary. Jack had mother-henned him all the way across the country on the military flight they’d hopped, just to make sure he wasn’t overdoing. Worse, Daniel had let him. Someday, down the road, he’d have to find a way to get Danny for that.
Not that the Ghostbusters knew precisely what had happened to the archaeologist, and Jack was glad about that. It still bugged him that he’d shot Daniel, but Daniel wouldn’t let him wallow in it. He had a way of saying, "Ah, ah, ah," and waving a chiding finger in Jack’s face whenever he caught him at it. He probably allowed the fussing because he thought it would do Jack good, rather than because he wanted to revel in it. Yep, Jack had his Daniel pegged all right. The reverse was definitely true.
Slimer had decided Sam was a ‘pretty lady’ and, instead of sliming her all over, he’d just planted a big, sloppy smooch on her cheek. Easier to wipe off her face than to have to change her clothes. How did those guys live with that? And how could he wipe that smirk off Venkman’s face?
On the other hand, Slimer was a heck of a lot better than Apophis, who wouldn’t conveniently stay dead. For all he knew, Apophis could be waiting out there right now, eager to make new trouble for SG-1. Jack’s hand crept down to check his sidearm. He didn’t even hesitate. The deprogramming hadn’t been much fun—letting a shrink get too deep into his psyche was one of the worst things Jack could imagine—far worse than being slimed. But the shrink had made him go out to the practice range and use his gun again until he was comfortable with it—and he’d ordered Jack to take Daniel with him when he did it. Sound therapy, yeah, but it hadn’t been fun at first. Daniel had only flinched once, and he’d pulled his act together the minute he saw Jack realize it. It had taken several sessions for both of them to be comfortable with the process. If it came to that, Daniel might not have actually shot Jack, but the conditioning had made him want to. He’d been assigned target practice, too.
"You did look funny, sir," Carter ventured, her mouth twitching as she fought to hold back a huge smile. He decided she could write the mission reports for the next month for looking so amused. He’d tell her about it when they came back.
"She’s got you there, Jack," agreed Daniel, who made no attempt to hide his own wicked grin. "You did look pretty funny."
"Yeah, stand-up comedy has been my lifelong ambition. Cool it with the slime, already. I can always get Venkman to ship me out a crate of it—and booby-trap your beds."
Teal’c hesitated as if he were not quite certain if O’Neill were serious or not, but the other two didn’t turn a hair. They were too used to him. Maybe he needed to vary his routine a little. Confuse the hell out of them.
"Okay, kiddies, enough slime and other fun things," the Colonel commanded, taking control of the mission back as he walked up to the event horizon. "Last one through the gate is a rotten egg."
"How could we become decomposed eggs, O’Neill?" Teal’c asked in perplexity, but he accepted the challenge, and SG-1 stepped through the gate completely in step with each other—which was, thought Jack in total contentment, the way it should be.