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[personal profile] magibrain
Title: A Long Drawn-Out Breath and an Impossible Sky
Author: magistrate
Rating: T
Genre: ...slipstream. :|
Beta: 1 cuil: if you asked me for a beta and I gave you a raccoon.
Continuity: Nothing blatantly canon-defying, so far as I can tell. Some point in canon when they have naqahdah reactors. And Daniel.
Summary: I DON'T KNOW
Disclaimer: I am not Italo Calvino. The opinions expressed herein are the properties of the characters and sometimes of Ferdinand de Saussure. Caution: this machine starts automatically. You cannot swallow. Questions, comments and existential crises can be left in replies or directed to magistrata(at)gmail(dot)com. Thank you for... reading?

She was halfway up the mountain carrying most of Daniel's weight across her shoulders when a flicker of light caught her from the corner of her eye. She turned without thinking, saw some white insect disappear into the jumble of light and flora and scene, and then, in an instant, everything stepped back.

The view from the mountain, which had been: exposed overland route, treacherous terrain, was suddenly: an entity, a thing, a vista with scale and depth in which she could drown, the air cold and clear and sharp as diamonds pricking her lips and melting into her lungs, the sky a vast and terrifying bowl of air clinging to the surface of the world with nothing but its own weight to hold it there. The world was rendered in searing whites and bright greens, browns and greys and the heat of the blue of the sky. Her presence on the mountain seemed tenuous, as though the reasons for things had evaporated – why they had to go, why they were upright, why they were the people their lives had made them be.

Up ahead the Colonel turned, and his footsteps on the rock were unsettlingly clear. "Carter?"

She blinked. The world in front of her continued to seem strange, like a leap from 2-D to 3, a dimension jumping from nowhere and changing the way things lay. It seemed alive, or if not alive, something namable, and she couldn't move until she remembered that name.

"Major Carter." The same name; a different voice. She shook her head, looked away from the view, and placed herself: on the ascent to the Stargate, with the Colonel taking point and Teal'c guarding the rear, step after step across the scree.

"Sorry," she said, and risked another glance across the landscape. But the vista wasn't strange now: mountains, distant forests, like they'd seen on any of a dozen worlds and had been staring at for the past day.

The Colonel was watching her.

"Sorry," she said again. "I drifted." She saw him about to speak, to admonish, and said "Won't happen again" before he could. He looked satisfied by that – or at least pre-empted – and shut his mouth into a hard line.

"Come on."


Daniel leaned forward. "We have a timetable. We know what will happen. You just have to make it through to the other side."

So, the ones who didn't go insane got better.

She couldn't work out if the statement was tautological or not.


"De Saussure," Daniel said, when he crutched into her lab. She jumped, because she'd been staring at her mission report and hadn't expected anyone to come in, and because Daniel was speaking with an authority she usually heard when he was springing revelations on the Colonel. They were usually revelations the Colonel didn't appreciate.


"De Saussure," Daniel said again, and crutched in to take a seat on one of her chairs. "'The bond between the signifier and signified is arbitrary.' Ferdinand de Saussure. Course in General Linguistics. I'll send it to you."

Sam turned the words over for relevance, but found nothing. "Daniel," she said, and he held up a hand.

"'The idea of sister is not linked by any inner relationship to the succession of sounds s-o-r which serves as its signifier in French; that it could be represented equally by any other sequence is proved by differences among languages and by the very existence of different languages.'"

He looked at her expectantly.

She waited for a moment, wondering if any further explanation would follow. When none did, she reached out and closed her laptop, unsure of what the gesture was supposed to mean. "Okay? And?"

Daniel leaned forward. "One of the defining characteristics of sentience is the ability to create complex maps of signification and meaning. And these – they don't arise, fully-formed, out of the natural order of things. They're arbitrary. Inherently, the ways in which we map meaning has no meaning."

For a second, that made a horrible amount of sense. She rested her palms on her knees, tried not to let her fingers curl inward. "So I'm losing sentience."

"What?" Daniel seemed surprised. Hell if she knew. Hell if she could tell anything. "No, Sam, your perception is shifting. You said yourself, it seemed to mean something."

"It all means something," she said.

Daniel took her hand and put it within his.


The light was coming in through the temple walls.


Right. P3M-459. She had to tell someone what happened.

She wasn't in her lab.

She'd needed to be alone.

Lab was the usual place to write up the reports, but it didn't fit right today. There was too much noise. Not in the usual sense of sounds, acoustic waves, the fine variations of pressure that could be interpreted by the human ear, but in the sense of noise-to-signal, of interference, of the blinking lights on the computing cluster and the shadows as they fell across the shelves and the piles of notes with their inky symbols on the light-scattering paper. She was tucked into the corner of the elevator, ignoring the looks people kept shooting her as they rode from floor to floor, and she had to write down what happened.

You know. While she could.

at which point the radiometer registered an increase in infrared and microwave emissions–, was where she'd left off. Infrared and microwaves had wavelengths too long to be picked up by the human eye, so they fell outside the spectrum of visible light. So they were invisible light. She wanted to note that down, because it seemed important, but she didn't think it was the sort of importance that should be noted down on a mission report.

The human eye couldn't pick up the fluctuation, but the radiometer did. The radiometer was a surrogate eye. A supplementary eye. Auxiliary? That seemed important, too.

and the unidentified device entered an active state.

It also picked up the surge of blue light, blending into full-spectrum, that came through the walls. A redundant eye.

The elevator sank. She registered the acceleration on the top of her stomach.

We were unable to deactivate it before the device produced a wave of force which affected Colonel O'Neill, Dr. Jackson, and Teal'c

The door opened and Daniel lurched in, oddly unbalanced on his crutches.

"Sam," he said, with strained relief.

"I'm fine," she said, and frowned at the paper. She was handwriting it – a break from normal procedure, yes, but her computer was optimized for graphs and geometric shapes, and she'd needed to get down the pattern of the light. Which, while distinct, was not geometric in the least.

She wasn't convinced wave was the right word.

"Why aren't you in your lab?" Daniel asked.

She shrugged.

The door closed behind him, and he leaned back into the wall. "You're worrying people," he said, and she blinked, because her response to that had been the first thing she said when he stepped in. She scribbled (directionality of perception with regards to time?) in the margin of the report, where it clustered with six or seven other unruly parentheticals.

Too much information was probably better than not enough.

Daniel checked his watch. "It's been six hours already."

"We can't extrapolate the length of a day from a single measurement of how quickly the sun traverses an arc of the sky, without knowing more about latitude and axial tilt," Sam said. "At least, not with the angles we thought to take. Our timelines are still fuzzy."

"Not that fuzzy," Daniel said. "Look, can you just write this up at your desk? Jack's getting twitchy. And that's making Janet twitchy, and I'm pretty sure General Hammond is next on the list."

She smiled, because there was one person there conspicuous in his absence, and trust Teal'c to take all of this in stride. "I can't concentrate there," she said. "Besides, I thought we weren't going to be concerned until nine hours."

Daniel had a look that seemed to sign, Well, no, but that was before you started writing up your mission report in an elevator car.

He had a point.

"Daniel," she said, flipping the cover on her notebook closed, "shouldn't this scare me?"

"We're going to get you through this," Daniel said, which hadn't been an answer to her question at all. She could feel her heart going quickly, taste the dry bitterness of her mouth, note every one of the usual physical cues. Something wasn't lining up the way it should.

"I should feel afraid, but I don't think I can."


She could hear, behind her, all her teammates hitting the walls or hitting the ground.

She tried to turn, or rather she wanted to turn, but all the brief neural impulses that said say something or help or deactivate the thing seemed to feed back into the strange play of lights that had fixed on her like a vortex.

Profanity flurried up in the back of her mind and dissolved into meaningless constituent sounds. The light separated into frequencies, vibrating on her retinas, and the steady huh-kung, huh-kung of her heart seemed like it came from a foreign entity, a unit of Otherness stuck inside her chest and trying to escape her. She couldn't move.

Vibrating on frequencies unknown.

The vortex was a lock and she had misplaced the key.

The world turned inside-out–

Then Teal'c. Pulling her back like the current on a hooked fish, leveling his staff weapon, direction and aim, compensating for the slight eccentricity of the firing line that remained even after she'd broken down the weapon, rebuilt it, and the sear the hiss of fire and–


They'd assigned an SF to follow her.

For the most part, she'd been able to keep that in mind, but it was slipping. There was something following her, some reactive mass that seemed, with a certain margin for error, to imitate her motions on a macro scale if not a micro one. It niggled at the edge of her attention. She was tempted to run an experiment to determine the thresholds of mimicry but the term experiment was friable and crumbled every time she reached for it.

She went to her lab and picked up an instrument instead.

She picked up the eye, and retreated again. The mess of symbols and data in the room was getting more stifling as the loss of comprehension progressed.

One auxiliary eye, with a history of development that stretched back to clay pots with acids in Egypt. The things on that planet had been too advanced for their established timelines, too advanced for the civilization they'd thought occupied the place. But so had the clay pots.

He'd said something. Daniel had. Something about synthetic and isolating languages, something about pieces of meaning being broken up into little chunks or stirred all together into words whose meanings changed, which rambled on like irreconcilable, and all the could think of was isolating, the act of separating one from others. And organic chemistry, long-chain molecules and sooner or later you got plastics, you got life. Small molecules were more reactive but would you have sentience without both, per se? And how did that map to language? A byproduct of sentience. What would come together out of the long molecules and the short words and the tongues that strung them together and the tongues that measured them apart and did they play by the same rules?

The linguistic sign, as defined, has primordial characteristics, Daniel or de Saussure had said.

She went to Daniel's lab and said "It's getting hard to think."

Daniel was going through the tapes from the temple with a long, drawn expression. He looked up with another. "There are more references to this in the temple litany," he said. "They're jumping out at me as fast as I can catalog them."

She dug her fingers into the corners of her eyes. "But nothing to help?"

He shrugged helplessly. "Unfortunately I think I'm learning more from what they didn't write out than what they did. It seems to be taken as writ that the priests came back out of this. The only time it's mentioned are when they... didn't."

An odd study of absence. Leaving out what was too usual to be stated, which meant there was nothing to help, but no news is good news should have reassured them, but didn't. She made a long, low noise, and put her head down.

There was time, and then a pressure on her shoulder, and then a sound by her ear, and she looked up and blinked.

"Sam?" Daniel said, and she heard The progression of sounds s-o-r.


The linguistic sign unites not a thing and a name.


She was outside someone's door, working through the Collatz Conjecture for every number she could still think of, digging them out of the crumbling debris in the back of her head.

(Conjecture, Daniel had told her, was from con- and iacio, iacere, "together" or "with each other" and "I throw, to throw" – something thrown together. At this moment, something coming apart.)

28, 14, 7, 22, 11, 34, 17, 52, 26, 13, 40, 20, 10, 5, 16, 8, 4, 2, 1.

113, 340, 170, 85, 256, 128, 64, 32, 16, 8, 4, 2, 1.

16, 8, 4, 2, 1. (abject. thrown away from.)

8, 4, 2, 1. (object. thrown against.)

1, 4, 2, 1.

After a while, she stopped and rubbed her eyes.

She looked back at the paper, and the pattern. One thing leading to another in a predictable, regular fashion. The pattern was clear, though each cog, each input, was getting blurry.

1, 4, 2, 1.

There was something uneasy about the Collatz Conjecture. Something true and obvious to the eye, which refused to be true and obvious to the mind. Undecidable. Lacking the ability to be decided.

The sensor on the ground next to her was pointed at the squeak of space between the door and the floor, registering fluctuations in infrared small enough to be background variation. Then the door opened, and a body came out. The air of the hall mingled with the air of the room and smelled like heat and wax-smoke. The infrared sensor registered a blip.

It had been hot, in the direct path of the vortex. It had felt like it.

The body said her name, or something that felt like it.

"I think I can solve it," she felt like she said, or meant to say. She tore the page out of her notebook and passed it up to him, and started a new string of numbers – unrelated to the eye; related, to the mind – on the next sheet down, with a diagram of the temple, the alien device, the waveforms of the vortex. If she could pin it down, in graphite or ink, she could decide it.

There were two voices conversing above her, and she turned the sensor to point at one of them. It gave off more infrared than the background radiation.

She rubbed her eyes again.

There were sparks of pain playing out patterns in the middle of her head, where words and diagrams usually tumbled, interacted, evolved. Now it was mostly silence and noise and the numbers she'd been throwing back in an attempt to make it fill again.

8, 4, 2, 1.

1, 4, 2, 1.

She reached up, snatched the paper, scribbled 1 = 8, and handed it back up again.


Or more, he'd said. Consider a word like irreconcilable. Break it apart. You know what it means to reconcile – re, to do again; conciliare, to combine, or gain, and that contains con, indicating "together" – and you know reconcilable.  Able to be reconciled. And irreconcilable – not able to be reconciled. That's what it is. Building synthetic meanings out of atomic meanings. Now, most people think in language, but you can grow up – you know, there have been children who have grown up – without contact with language, or society, and they lose that ability, and they think in something else.


You have to find a way to establish your own referents, he'd said.

Nine hours.

From moment to moment the gist of that worry made sense to her.

She was struggling, reaching for the signifiers as they ghosted just out of her grasp, pinning them down, letter by letter by word by word and staring at them until they coalesced, just for a single moment of insight, a single notion that the meaning was right. That was no use. The data was noise; the symbols, interference. She got rid of the symbols and stopped taking visual data altogether.

That left her with a glut of other information: the accumulated memory ready for access via cognition, the sense of the placement of her limbs, temperature and emotion and the passage of time. She swam through all of it until she got a sense, an implicit understanding, of two molecules colliding and interacting, until that scoped and extrapolated out to a world of reactive forces.

Like the reactive mass that was bound to her.

She opened her eyes and estimated mass, composition, impulse, and realized that as for mass, composition, impulse, it wasn't the physics of a physical world that governed behavior here, it was another kind of physics, and it played by different rules. The rules that were used to alter her own position, momentum, interaction.

She cut off visual data again.

Physical and non-physical existed interlaced with each other in a complex, confusing way. A familiar confusing way. Just below her understanding, where the signifiers and referents were.


The idea of sister is not linked by any inner relationship to the succession of sounds s-o-r which serves as its signifier in French; that it could be represented equally by any other sequence is proved by differences among languages and by the very existence of different languages.

No one disputes the principle of the arbitrary nature of the sign, but it is often easier to discover a truth than to assign to it its proper place.


There was something important about an object of attention and a voice, and she took the voice and, with a quick mental move, tied it to a whiff of scent (dry sand, sun and shade–) and a feeling, just at the pit of her stomach and the corner of her mind, of graspingness. She almost had it.

Sun = light. The light was coming in.

Everything around her, the static parts and the movable, were just a complex system. Like any complex system. The static parts didn't matter much. The moving ones did – all impetus, capacity, reaction, and if she could manipulate those, if she could map effects back to their causes, she could cause a change in state which could also affect her. After all, she was just one more component, with the particular quality of altering her behavior according to her own desires.

8 = 1.

The problem wasn't so much comprehension as substitution, navigation.


The word for the world is physics.

(The word for people is chemistry.)


She went to sand-sun-shade (light,device,impetus) and took an object, causing a reaction.

It wasn't a desired reaction but it was a predicted one. She removed herself from the area at a rate sand-sun-shade wasn't capable of.


Piece by piece, artifact by artifact, alien tech by by alien tech, Daniel was boxing up the world.

Physical things.

To go in the pack alongside the video. Video which peeled meaning from the walls. Extraction of a thing with no mass or depth, panned slowly, line after line of text, written into bits and bytes to be put together again back home.

A little piece of alienness always followed them home.

Alien air dirt dust pollen the heat from an alien sun alien ideas memories formed on alien sights smells intuitions sounds. Alien atoms elements molecules trading oxygen into the lungs. Constituent parts of their body were alien. Their thoughts. Their blood.


She went to the thickest mass of symbols and data she could think of.

Call that a node.

She slipped in amidst the noise, hoping to hide herself in the confusion. A few slight manipulations, trial and error of physical components, and the node partitioned itself off from the rest of its space.

The phrase occurred to her: Good enough for government work.

She moved on with the pattern. Component A into system C, system C moved into state F by manipulation of symbols Q, V, X, N, K, and she could feel the change in things down to her bones. Could feel that somehow, the meanings of things were changing.

There was sound coming from the partition, noise, acoustic waves, generated probably by a repeating, percussive impact between two forms of mass. She ignored it. The change was reaching critical mass, reaching completion.

The partition ceased to be.



The world turned inside-out.


Blue light, white light, invisible light, and the vista made sense again, the mountain was a mountain was a mountain, and all the data in the world was thrown apart and upended and falling back into place like a drawer of odds and ends shaped spontaneously into a typewriter by gravity.

It was such a revelation that she'd barely caught her breath, situated herself in Lab, late night, open door, before the artifact – which, now that she looked at it, seemed to be wired directly into an experimental naqahdah-potassium reactor – heated well past white light, and exploded.



(the means by which the sign is produced is completely unimportant.)


She woke in the infirmary.

Which wasn't surprising, all told; for the most part, if concussive trauma was enough to knock you out for five seconds it'd be enough to knock you out for five hours or five days, and it really should be looked at by a trained medical professional. And there were flash burns she could feel on her hands and arms, and her left shoulderblade hurt, and so did that hip.

"Ow," she said. And after a second or three – or, hell, more, make it more, make it as many as she could count and put in sequence – the thought came trailing in after it, That sound signifies the experience of discomfort. But the sound and its meaning were linked again, like the infirmary bed and the reason she was on the infirmary bed, and the reason Colonel O'Neill was looking up from a rubber-band ball from a plastic chair beside her.

"You're awake," he said. He sounded surprised.

"The device we activated on '459 was some kind of – of cognitive reprogramming machine, altering the relationship between concepts and their comprehensions," she said.

There was silence for a single, lean second before the Colonel sighed and said "That's... nice. Can you name the current president?"

Sam frowned, and without thinking said "Well, yes, but what does that have to do with–" before it clicked Ah, right, they're worried about my grasp on reality. She exhaled, and named him. "But the point is, this might be how the residents of '459 were able to develop so extensively, even in areas of physics which should have defied their available methods of inquiry. They–"

"Carter," Colonel O'Neill said – and she was back enough that she could winnow out the exasperation in his tone, but also the tinge of amusement.

"They made the process to get back from that altered state inherently explicable to people in that altered state," she explained. "I was just lucky that Daniel brought back the components he did. And that the NqK reactor was enough like their power supplies to activate it."

She was pretty sure the look on the Colonel's face meant All right. You're awake. I think I might have to go home now.

"It's – sorry," she said. "It was a new way of seeing things. I guess I'm still processing." And everything made sense, but nothing made sense, but it was all sense in a different way.

She ground her teeth. She desperately wanted to talk about it – and that before the certainty that there would be a written report due on this, too – but she wasn't sure where she'd find the words.

" one else got caught in that explosion, did they?" she asked, instead.

"Nope. Just you." The Colonel set aside the band ball, and leaned forward. "They got the door open, but Teal'c came by and decided you needed your space. I guess he assumed you knew what you were doing."

"Yeah," she said. "The strange thing is, I did."

"Huh," the Colonel said.

And there was silence for a moment more.

"Well, you sound fine," Colonel O'Neill said. "Maybe you just needed to get thrown across a room like the rest of us."

She laughed, and her fingers twitched against their bandages. "It was exhilarating," she said. Terrifying, yes, but also. "–not getting thrown across a room." The other part. The strange part. The reason they kept coming into work every day – see things in a different light, and understand a little bit more. Or less. Or other.

"Yes, well, knowing you," he said. "Just don't make a habit of it."

After a moment, when she had only grinned in answer, he stood.

"You need anything? Magazine, jello, nurses with painkillers?"

A new language, she was tempted to respond. A new system of writing. Something that could indicate everything that's slipping out of mind.

"I'm good," she said instead. "Thank you."

"Right then," he said, and tossed the rubber ball up in one hand and caught it with the other. "Ah, and, Daniel says he's sorry." He shrugged. "He thinks he might have accidentally made something worse."

She turns her head and gives the Colonel a confused look, then shakes her head. "No," she said. "I don't think so. Actually, could you thank him for me? I think he might have helped."

An odd expression tugged at the Colonel's face. Probably as a result of being relegated to passing messages between the people on his team. But he smiled, and said "Sure. Why not?" and turned to walk out the door.

(Against the floating realm of thought... no more so than ideas.)

She was tempted to tell him It's significant, but that was a joke only Daniel would get. Instead she tilted her head back and closed her eyes under the florescent lights, and let their hum and the Infirmary bustle settle: strange, and familiar, without needing to mean a thing.

- END -

Date: 2011-11-29 06:44 am (UTC)
fignewton: (daniel hmm)
From: [personal profile] fignewton
Oh, this is so SAM.

(No appropriate Sam icon at the moment, alas.)

Sam and Daniel WonderTwins! Sam and the nature of language as she comprehends it (all done to formulae, all down to numbers, fit the pieces together and see) and how Sam and Daniel are so much alike, with only the focus slightly tilted sideways. Yes.

I like the alienness of all this. Not everything they meet through the Gate is going to make sense in terms of our own experiences.

And those bits of team. ::hugs them::

Love that last line, how not meaning a thing can sometimes mean -- well, everything.

Date: 2011-11-29 09:07 pm (UTC)
twistedchick: (brainleaf)
From: [personal profile] twistedchick

Date: 2011-11-29 10:14 pm (UTC)
twistedchick: (brainleaf)
From: [personal profile] twistedchick
It's a color-adjusted (by me) view of the human brain. I found a brain scan online years back and played with coloring it, not in any systematic way -- the colors do not indicate anything medical or physiological. I'm glad you like it.
Edited Date: 2011-11-29 10:14 pm (UTC)

Date: 2011-12-03 12:47 am (UTC)
princessofgeeks: (Samwhiteshirt by Paian)
From: [personal profile] princessofgeeks
"The word for the world is physics.

(The word for people is chemistry.)"

This is SO SO SO SO Sam.

Thank you. Knotty and thinky and deep. Go you.

Date: 2011-12-03 02:46 am (UTC)
cofax7: climbing on an abbey wall  (Default)
From: [personal profile] cofax7
Well, that is really cool.

And I don't know if this is a compliment or not, but every once in a while I come across a story I could never have written in a million years, and this is definitely one of them. Excellent.

Date: 2012-04-20 09:27 pm (UTC)
paian: Carter running with weapon (carter action by hsapiens)
From: [personal profile] paian
This is delicious, and strikes sparks for me in the most delightful ways off Babel-17 and Ian Watson's The Embedding and a bunch of Le Guin things and definitely Calvino, too. I don't know why I didn't comment when I first read, but it's a great re-read, too, and here's a rec.

Date: 2012-04-20 10:40 pm (UTC)
beatrice_otter: Sam Carter against a blue background. (Sam)
From: [personal profile] beatrice_otter
This is awesome, and I loved how lyrical it was.

Date: 2012-12-12 07:29 pm (UTC)
fignewton: (Sam keel you with my brain)
From: [personal profile] fignewton
SUCH a pleasure to rec this fabulous Sam piece. :)

Date: 2013-07-14 08:07 am (UTC)
antonomasia: (stargate sg-1)
From: [personal profile] antonomasia
I'm actually a bit concerned by how much sense this made to me. You made the math and the linguistics BEAUTIFUL and somehow completely understandable, and I think my perspective of the world has actually been changed from reading this. My favorite line was "and all the data in the world was thrown apart and upended and falling back into place like a drawer of odds and ends shaped spontaneously into a typewriter by gravity," although, like Sam, I'm unable to form the right words to explain why. I also wanted to say that I second fignewton's entire comment, but especially the part about Sam and Daniel being similar yet different.


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