The Bottom Line

“I’ll do it,” I say, not surprised in the least to hear the offer echoed by Jack and Sam. We share a look of solidarity.

Teal’c is in real trouble here. Unless one of us gets into that virtual reality game and helps him beat the damn thing – conclusively, finally – Teal’c will die. We cannot let that happen.

“Okay, s-so…” Bill Lee begins, faltering when three sets of eyes swing in his direction, “which of you is it going to be?”

“Me. It should be me,” Jack says firmly, thumping a fist solidly against his chest for emphasis. I know that tone. He’s pulling rank. Good thing that doesn’t faze me.

“Excuse me?” I immediately challenge. “Why should it be you?”

“I’m his commanding officer.”

Sam stiffens visibly, the stress we’re all feeling no doubt pushing her past the strict limits of military protocol. “Sorry, sir, but no, you’re not. I’m team leader of SG-1 now.”

Jack’s mouth ticks to the left, his lips pouting the tiniest bit. “Okay. I’m *your* commanding officer, then. And I say I’m the one goin’ in.”

“General, with all due respect…” Sam closes her eyes and gives an impatient shake of her head, the gesture threatening to negate the sincerity of her preamble, “… you can’t go. You’re the base leader, they need you here. I’ll go.”

“Teal’c needs me more,” Jack insists a little louder than necessary for Sam’s close proximity. “I have experience that’ll be useful in getting him out of that thing.”

Sam jumps to DEFCON two. “Oh, and I don’t?”

Okay, time to nip this in the bud.

Insinuating myself into the increasingly narrow space between them, I bark loudly enough to get their attention, “Whoa.” That, and gentle pressure on their shoulders has done the trick.

“Neither of you is going,” I declare. “You,” I say, turning to Jack, “have been in the military nearly 30 years, including black ops. I don’t even want to think about what kinda tactics this thing can learn from you. And you,” I’m in Sam’s face now, “in addition to your extensive military knowledge, have Jolinar’s memories. Do we really want to throw Tok’ra technology into the mix?”

I step back, feet planted, chest out, arms tightly folded in front of me – a visible sign of my unshakeable resolve. “It has to be me.”

Teal’c’s grunt of pain blares in the utter stillness that follows. I glance at Jack and just suppress a cringe of sympathy. He looks hurt, like I’ve just laughed off his request to play on my baseball team or something.

Finally, Sam shifts, clearing her throat with a quiet cough. “He’s right, sir,” she seconds my argument, though the frown lines around her mouth clearly indicate she’s not happy about it. “We’ve both got far too much information that the chair could use against us. It would be safest for Daniel to go.”

I flash Sam a quick grin and a firm nod, and, skimming my fingers along the buttons of my BDU jacket, begin to unfasten them. I’m just stalling, really, waiting for Jack to come up with some reason why he shouldn’t let me do this.

The unexpected silence goes on for just a little too long and I tip my head slightly, sliding my gaze from my chest to Jack’s face. I’m struck by the confidence I see in his eyes and… regret?

I know he’s thinking how, just a few years ago, no one would even have considered me for a mission like this; how the Stargate program has transformed me from a stumbling, book-carrying, tagalong geek, to an agile, gun-toting, fully functional member of an elite military team.

I send him a small quirk of my brow, hoping he’ll believe it’s okay. ‘Don’t worry, Jack,’ I silently mollify his conscience. ‘It’s because I’m not a soldier that I can do this.’

His gaze softens. “Okay. Let me know when it’s set up,” he grumbles at Sam and Lee, then turns without a backward glance and exits the room.

*****

“Ready when you are,” Sam calls, pulling me from my analysis of the previous VR sequences. I think I’ve discerned a pattern to the chair’s responses. Now, all Teal’c and I have to do is figure out what it’ll take to stop the loop once and for all.

Stepping away from the monitor, I turn towards the waiting chair… and freeze. The icy sensation racing down my spine has me wondering for a moment if I’m literally frozen, but the beads of sweat following the same path assure me that my body temp is above subzero.

The virtual reality chair looms darkly, its stark black surface calling forth a frightening image of some great chasm waiting to swallow me, sinking me in endless repetitions of my parents’ messy deaths.

In my desire to be as prepared as possible for this venture, I had blocked out everything going on around me in favor of concentrating on those recordings, so this is my first real look at the device. Of course, its twin has been right there the whole time, abusing Teal’c, but I hadn’t actually noticed the chair, so intent was I on my friend’s pain-filled frame.

I remember the first time we encountered these things; the details came back to me last year while I was reading the mission report. But it wasn’t until just now when I faced the chair, recalling I’d have to give it control over my reality; that the associated feelings of dread surfaced.

I know that these chairs have been modified, that the Gamekeeper’s twisted programming has been replaced with the virtual reality game Sam, Bill and the other scientists have been developing for the past two years. But, my first foray into the world created by these things was such an ordeal; my subconscious apparently refuses to fully accept that this one is different.

“Daniel?” Sam’s got a hand out, offering to help me descend into that black, hopeless pit.

I reply with what must pass for a confident smile, because Sam takes my hand and guides me against the chilled metal. Almost immediately, she and one of the other scientists working on the project, begin the process of strapping me down. He’s tall and thin, and I should know his name, but the information’s lost in sense memories of six years ago, when, in a very similar manner, a machine just like this one wound its steely arms around me until I felt I couldn’t breathe. Then it dragged me into hell.

My fingers curl around the lip of the chair, grasping for an anchor to this room, my friends. I swear the wires crisscrossing my body, the ones I know are designed to keep track of things likes my heart rate and blood pressure, are constricting, ever so slowly. As before, it seems the chair is determined to trap me in its clutches, holding me powerless to resist its assault on my peace of mind.

“You okay?”

I blink, and the illusion of my previous virtual reality escapade dissolves into Bill Lee’s concerned round face. The bright light of the lab glints harshly off the lenses of his glasses. It makes it impossible for me to see his eyes, but the tense set of his jaw makes me think I’m not masking my distress as well as I’d hoped. He’s holding what looks like an unadorned crown but is really the neural interface, the final element in this crazy hodgepodge of components of which I am the vital piece.

“Fine,” I spit out a little too forcefully in my attempt to convince myself of the fact.

A heart rending groan issues to my left and all eyes turn to Teal’c. Jack, who’s been standing vigil over the big guy since he’d gotten word that we were ready to proceed, takes a step closer. Dr. Carmichael scoots across from his perusal of the monitors displaying our vital signs and sets the bell of his stethoscope against Teal’c’s chest. His back is to me but I can tell by the deep crevice in Jack’s forehead that the doc’s not happy with what he hears in there.

“Let’s do this,” I bark at Lee. The poor guy startles, juggling the headpiece slightly before he turns without a word and lifts it towards my head.

I can’t say I’ve completely rid my mind of the thought that I’m dooming myself to an endless replay of my worst nightmare. At the very least, I could be trapped with Teal’c in a never-ending loop of Super Soldier assaults and Goa’uld sabotage that will cease only when we’re both dead.

But in the end, it doesn’t matter. My friend needs my help. For me, that’s the bottom line.

 

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