Sam woke on the floor of an empty white room, reached reflexively for her MP-5, and found it and her vest gone. She tried to stand, heart pounding, and made it to her knees before reeling back to the floor, head suddenly aching furiously enough to make her squeeze her eyes shut again.
"Colonel? Daniel? Teal'c?" She knew they weren't in the tiny room, had already seen that she was its only occupant, but she said their names anyway. When silence answered her, she braced herself for another attempt at verticality.
An indefinable movement in the air told her that a door had opened behind her, and she rolled over and opened one eye.
"Your friends are safe, as are you." The man who stood in the doorway was small, even by this planet's standards, but his lined face was composed and confident. Sam was unsurprised to see that his chiton was gray.
"I'm in the Hall of the Accepted, aren't I?" She blinked both eyes experimentally, but the headache seemed to be fading quickly.
"You are. I am called Demetru. I am to supervise you as you undergo the test."
"Daniel said we couldn't take the test." She stood, swaying a bit, and leaned to steady herself on the door frame.
"Hariteia relayed your request to the Hall. It has been reconsidered. If you are sufficiently recovered, please come this way." Demetru’s voice and manner were curt and unemotional. He turned and started down a narrow hallway which ended in a door like the one at the entrance to the naquadah mine. Sam hung back, trying to marshal her thoughts.
"We were in the city, in the tunnels. I just woke up...how did you bring me here? Where are my friends?"
"They are safe, as I have told you. You were all brought here with the magic of the Accepted. You are to be tested."
“I don’t believe in magic,” said Sam. “How did you bring us here?”
“You will have answers when you have passed the test.”
“And my friends?”
“They are waiting to be tested, as well.” Demetru indicated the door with a patient gesture.
Sam stayed where she was. “Menandi told me that many of the exiles on the surface first showed signs of the wandering sorrow just after they were tested.”
“That is true.”
Sam eyed Demetru suspiciously. “You don’t deny that there’s a connection?”
“I do not.” Demetru returned her gaze evenly.
“What is the connection between the test and the exiles? Why do they leave the city? What reason do they give their loved ones? Menandi never told me.”
“You will have answers when you have passed the test,” he repeated.
“Why should I let you test me at all? Why should I trust you?”
“Because I have not lied to you.”
Sam laughed bitterly. “No, you’ve only concealed, avoided, withheld the truth. How do I know I’m not going to walk into that room and be killed?”
“Because the Accepted have already had ample opportunity to harm you and have not done so.” Demetru spread his hands as if this should be obvious.
“I suppose that’s true,” she replied with a grimace. “But—“
“You shall have answers, Captain Carter.” Demetru spoke firmly over her protest. “But first, the test.” When Sam still held back, he took a step toward her and held out both hands, palms up. “Judge for yourself whether I would deceive you. I know that you discern much of the characters of others. You did not trust Kunind. I think you know that you may trust me.”
Sam frowned, taken aback. “How do you know about Kunind?”
“The Accepted see much.” Another patient gesture to the door. “Come this way, Captain Carter.”
“I won’t be hurt? My friends won’t be hurt?”
“I can promise nothing on that count.” Demtru folded his hands, still meeting her eyes, and Sam wondered if she was imagining the tinge of sadness in his voice. “The Accepted have no wish to harm any of you.”
Sam hesitated for another long moment, then dropped her gaze and sighed. Demetru opened the heavy door with a touch of his hand and Sam followed him through it. The room beyond was small, chilly, and smelled faintly of antiseptic. A small podium in front of the door displayed an array of lights that meant nothing to Sam. Demetru was all business now. He walked to the podium and placed his hand on a silver panel, causing the lights to shift into a new pattern.
“The test must be taken here, at the heart of the Hall, where the source of our power rests.” He touched one light, then another, and Sam heard a hiss as a large section of floor folded back, and a block like an altar rose out of the empty space.
Sam stared. On the smooth stone of the altar lay the frail body of a young girl in a thin shift. She lay on her side with her knees pulled in, so that she took up a pathetically tiny amount of the surface on which she lay. In one speechless moment, Sam took in the tremors that shook the little body, the gasp of a labored breath, the bones so fragile that they seemed hardly able to bear the strain of the colorless skin stretched taut across them. Most horrible of all was the face, the tortured eyes, the trembling mouth, fixed in a silent wail of pain.
“What--?” Sam’s heart was pounding in her chest. She stared from the child on the stone to the little hooded man beside her, who was regarding the child with equanimity. “What is--?” She found she couldn’t speak with her suddenly dry mouth, so instead she stepped around Demetru and strode to the stone, reaching out a hand.
“You cannot touch the Sufferer.” Demetru spoke at almost the same instant that Sam felt the shock of pain in her hand and saw the dome of energy around stone and child dimly illuminated for a moment before it faded into invisibility again.
“Why is she here? What have you done to her?” shouted Sam, finding her voice at last. She circled the stone, wide-eyed. She could see tubes and cords that fed from the stone and into the child’s back through ragged holes in the shift.
“She is the Sufferer,” Demetru replied blandly. “She is the source of our power. Her suffering affords the city its many comforts and necessities. Shall we begin the test?”
“What are you talking about? How could a child’s suffering be a source of power?” Sam was still circling the stone, hand out as if she expected to find a gap in the energy field that would allow her to reach through and touch the small face.
“It is the first law of our world’s magic.” Demetru stepped from behind the podium and approached the stone, hands folded. “One must suffer that all the rest may thrive. You have seen our city, the lives of its citizens. It is a place filled with health and learning, industry and happiness. It flourishes because of this sacrifice.” He indicated the child on the stone.
My God, it is an altar, thought Sam. She finally stopped pacing and stood staring, horrified, at the Sufferer. Some mad ritual left over from the goa’uld’s reign or some superstition birthed from a half-understood fresco in the chamber of histories had doomed this poor child to an existence of pain because somehow the Accepted believed that her pain powered the lights, the devices they used to heal, the machines mining the naquadah that was the real reason the city flourished. Sam reached out her hand again without thinking and then snatched it back when the field shocked her again.
“She can’t live forever like this,” Sam tried to sound calm, intelligent. She had to convince them somehow that this was ridiculous and appalling. “What will happen when she dies?”
“She will live for a long while, yet. The altar will keep her alive. But when she does die, a new Sufferer will be chosen.” Demetru’s glib reply was almost as horrible as the misery etched on the Sufferer’s face. “It makes no difference who lies on the altar. All that is required is the suffering of one for the benefit of the many. The test, Captain Carter?”
“How does choosing a replacement work?” Sam couldn’t help the edge of bitterness that crept into her voice. “Do you just pick someone at random or do you hold some kind of lottery?”
Demetru raised an eyebrow at her tone, but replied equably, “A child will be selected from among those newly born. It is believed to be kinder than choosing someone who has already experienced comfort and happiness. A Sufferer knows no other life, and perhaps suffers a little less for that.” He turned to Sam, eyes quiet, and said, “Shall we begin the test now, Captain Carter?”
Sam blinked and felt tears run warm down her cheeks. The chill air of the room dried them almost at once and she thought how cold the trembling form on the altar must be. She knelt as close as she dared to the perimeter of the field and looked into the white, twisted face. Her mind burned with a thousand ways to free this poor creature, all of them unworkable. No weapons, no tools, no strength to convince the calm, collected little man beside her that this was insane, inhuman, impossible. ‘Some of the things experienced during the test are unsettling, and perhaps some are not prepared in their mind for what they encounter.’ Who could be prepared for this? The girl opened her eyes, and for moment Sam glimpsed in them a pain so profound, so pitiful and terrifying, that it took her breath away.
“Let me take her place.”
She had hardly spoken above a whisper, but she knew Demetru had heard her because he frowned, the first real expression Sam had seen on his face.
“I don’t understand.”
“Let me be the Sufferer. Take this child and give her to my friends, tell them I’ve chosen to stay in her place.” The Colonel would go critical when the function of the Sufferer was explained to him, but Teal’c and Daniel would convince him to leave with the child. Janet would do whatever she could for the ex-Sufferer, and SG-1 would come back with reinforcements for Sam. The Colonel would blow the Hall apart if he had to. She just hoped it wouldn’t take too long. She didn’t know how much pain the wires in the Sufferer’s spine were inflicting, but she was sure she didn’t want to experience it for any longer than she had to. But she did have to.
Demetru shook his head. “But Captain Carter, the Sufferer knows no other life than this; the shock of suddenly finding herself free of pain might be enough to kill her.”
Why should you care if she dies? Sam bit back the reproach, and simply met his eyes with her own, letting her resolve show in her face. If it kills her, then at least she’ll know what it’s like to exist in the absence of pain, if only for a minute.
Demetru looked into her face, eyes wide. “You have already lived a life of many good things, Captain. Your suffering would be the more severe for that, surely.”
“Maybe that’ll up your wattage,” Sam heard herself say, choking on more tears.
“But the test--”
“Damn the test. Let me take her place.” She took a shuddering breath and looked into Demetru’s eyes, willing her fury and terror to the back of her mind. “Please.”
Demetru considered her for what felt like forever, and then his mouth turned up in a small, infinitely sad smile. He nodded, put out his hand, and touched the energy field. The field lit brilliant white for a moment, then was gone, and where the altar and the Sufferer had been, there was only empty floor.
Sam blinked, looked at Demetru, looked at where the altar should be, opened her mouth to ask one of the hundred questions on her tongue, but Demetru held up a hand.
“Captain Carter. You have passed the test and been Accepted into the Hall.” He gave her a little bow.
“That was the--but the child--”
“An illusion, my dear Captain. Shown to every citizen in his fifteenth year. It is called, among the Accepted, the Choice of Three. Those who choose as you have done are permitted to put on the gray and learn the use and understanding of our technology.”
“But…” Sam took a steadying breath and wiped her nose shamelessly on her jacket sleeve, too preoccupied to be embarrassed. “But all the people in the city…”
“Choose to accept the sacrifice of the Sufferer. They are given a series of questions and tasks to answer and complete. When they have finished, they are informed that they have failed the test and are sent back to the city. It is an ancient rite, begun by the first Accepted when they succeeded in driving out the gods and freeing the people of this planet from slavery.” He smiled again, and it was almost a happy smile, this time. “Now we live bountifully in the tunnels that were once a prison and a grave for our ancestors. And to prevent any such slavery from ever being perpetuated on this world again, we hide our technology behind a screen of magic and the Choice of Three.”
No wonder the Accepted always look unhappy, Sam thought. They know they’re the only decent people on the planet. Sam shook her head, reeling, as all the pieces of the puzzle fell into place. Her relief at finding that there was no Sufferer, had never been a Sufferer, warred with anger at the realization that all those brightly-robed people--Menandi, who took such joy in new information; laughing, jovial Bodhus--had chosen to live their lives at the cost of someone else’s. Had been prepared in their minds, as Menandi said, to allow a nameless innocent to suffer so that they could live comfortably.
“The exiles!” Sam exclaimed, rising to her feet as the final piece fell into place. “The people who take the wandering sorrow.”
“They choose to walk away,” nodded Demetru. “They cannot quite countenance a life lived at such a price, yet they cannot bring themselves to offer their own lives for the Sufferer’s either. So they live such a life as they can scratch from the frozen surface of this world and suffer, they think, less than they would if they were to offer themselves for the altar.”
Sam looked at her own boots, all anger forgotten. She had offered herself knowing that her team would come for her, that the pain would end. Demetru had offered himself believing that his suffering would last the rest of his life. She felt almost humiliated standing next to him in that empty room.
“I’m sorry.” She didn’t realize that she had spoken aloud until she realized that Demetru was looking up at her, politely confused. She cleared her throat. “I shouted at you.” And I may have passed your test under false pretenses, she thought.
“Oh, there is no need to apologize. I probably deserved it.” It was Sam’s turn to look confused. Demetru sniffed. “I cast my vote against allowing you to be tested. Hariteia insisted that it was the best way, that you would understand our need for secrecy if you passed the test, that it was better to test you than to allow you to speak to the exiles and draw your conclusions from incomplete information. I believed you would all fail as so many have done.” He gave her another little bow. “I am pleased to be proven wrong. At any rate,” another smile, faintly amused, “you did not shout at me nearly so much as Colonel O’Neill did when I administered the test to him.”
“The Colonel. Where is he? Have Daniel and Teal’c been tested, already?” Sam looked around the room as if she expected to see them standing in a corner.
“They have. They all passed, as I think you know.” Demetru paced to the wall opposite the door and held out his hand, almost touching it, then paused. He turned to look up at Sam and said, “You understand, Captain Carter, why we cannot, as your Colonel puts it, share our toys with your world. The codes of our order and all the efforts we have expended over the past three hundred years to keep our technology out of the hands of those who would misuse it…it would all be for nothing if we allowed our technology to leave our control.”
Sam nodded. Demetru pressed his hand to the wall and a section of it resolved into a door that opened. Sam almost stumbled walking through it because the room she entered was so like the one where she had slept and eaten and pried at the light fixture for the past two days that it was almost as if nothing she had experienced since waking up had been real. But one look at the faces of the three men waiting for her assured her that it had been very real, for them as well as for her. The Colonel looked rattled and angry about being rattled. Daniel had his arms wrapped around himself, and the eyes behind his glasses were brimming with heartbreak. Teal’c’s frown had a haunted look to it.
“All right, Captain?” the Colonel stopped fidgeting with his sleeve and put his hands in his pockets.
“All right, sir. Ready to go home.”
“Amen to that. Demetru, old buddy,” the Colonel gave the Accepted a grin so tight that it looked about to snap and hurt somebody. “We’d like to go home. Any chance of that happening?”
“I will have you transported to the chamber of histories. Your weapons and your packs have already been sent there for you.”
“That would be fantastic,” said the Colonel, sarcasm bristling from every word.
“Goodbye, dear Captain.” Demetru nodded to Sam, who nodded in return. “Goodbye, to you all. We shall not meet again, I think. But I would have been proud to see you put on the gray.”
Teal’c nodded gravely and Daniel said “Goodbye, Demetru. Thank you.” The Colonel merely waved his hands impatiently, and then they were standing in an alcove across from the Stargate.
Hariteia was standing between them and the MALP, which had their packs, vests and guns secured to it. As they approached, Daniel stepped forward, one hand outstretched as if he wanted to say something, but she merely nodded at them, her face grave, and turned away. She had already left the cavern by the time they reached the Gate.
“Dial.” The Colonel marched to the MALP, and handed Sam the remote as Daniel jogged to the DHD and began dialing. Sam was maneuvering the MALP over to where the rest of her team stood waiting for the wormhole when Menandi’s voice made her jump.
Sam turned, jaw set, and saw the young woman come running toward her, smiling.
“I thought I had missed your departure. I am glad to be wrong.” Menandi reached her out of breath and flushed, wearing a delighted grin. “You decided to leave today, after all, I see. Will you be returning soon?”
Sam turned away to watch as the wormhole established with the dramatic cascade that always frightened people when they saw it for the first time. When she turned back, Menandi was still waiting for an answer. Sam flinched at her expectant smile, and looked away. Suddenly it seemed too hard to look at this woman whose conscience allowed her to stand here and smile while her loved ones shivered on the planet’s surface and a child who did not exist shivered in a cold white room not far away.
“No, I don’t think we’ll be back,” she finally replied.
Menandi looked disappointed, then alarmed. She stepped closer, looked into Sam’s eyes. “You have taken the test. You have the wandering sorrow.”
Sam gave a miserable laugh. “Maybe I do.” Then she turned her back on Menandi and her smile, the chamber with its frescoes, the mines full of naquadah, Kunind, Bodhus, the damned dome light.
“Captain,” the Colonel barked, and Sam jogged up beside him.
Daniel and Teal’c reached the event horizon, stepped through, and were gone. Sam, walking slowly behind the MALP with Colonel O’Neill at her side said “Well, sir, I guess we struck out this mission.”
“I don’t know, Captain.” The Colonel came to a halt alongside her as she waited for the MALP to roll through the Gate. “We may have been through two days of more or less pointless tests and study, culminating in an experience that will probably give us all nightmares for the rest of our lives, and come out the other end with no space guns to show for it…”
Sam cocked an eyebrow at him.
“But on the upside,” the Colonel suddenly sounded much less cavalier, “I now know what choice each member of my team would make if given the option to do the right thing and damn the pain…or just walk away.”
Sam looked at her boots again, then up at the shimmering blue wall of the event horizon.
“And hey,” the Colonel added, as if it had just occurred to him, “Daniel got to look at frescoes!”
Sam stepped through the Gate smiling.
Endnote: If, at some point toward the end of this fic, you began to suspect that I was riffing on an Ursula K. Le Guin story, you get a cookie. I read “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” several years ago and I've been wanting to write a kind of response to it ever since. I figured that if the show could get away with episodes that were basically “Like that Star Trek episode, only different,” then I could do “Like that Le Guin short story, only not completely depressing.” (And for the record, I am informed by aurora_novarum that I am not, in fact, ripping anyone off, but “homaging in the best of Stargate’s traditions.” So there.)
If you haven't read this disquieting story, and would like to, a PDF file can be found here: http://www-rohan.sdsu.edu/faculty/dunnweb/rprnts.omelas.pdf
If you haven't read this disquieting story, and would like to, a PDF file can be found here: http://www-rohan.sdsu.edu/faculty/dunnweb/rprnts.omelas.pdf
“Omelas” is one of those stories that breaks all the rules (it has no characters, no dialog, no plot, just a setting and a twist) but is still famous. This is, I think because of two things: One, it happens to be a handy way of explaining the philosophical concept of the scapegoat without having to read William James or Dostevsky. Two, I think it scares people. It scared me, at least, because it made me wonder if I had it in me to make the same choice as Menandi and the citizens of Omelas: to simply convince myself that the whole mad contract was reasonable and worth the price. I think a lot of people are disturbed by the story because it makes them wonder if they, in the same situation, would even walk away.
Part 1 | Part 2