By Which My Feet Are Guided
For SG Remix 2008
A remix of abyssinia4077’s Lost
Disclaimer: Not mine.
Author’s Note: I had SO much trouble picking just one story to remix, but this one haunted me so I knew it had to be the one. Abyssis, thank you for an AMAZING stroll through your archive, I was blown away by how gloriously perfect your stories all are. And thanks to PrincessofG who beta’d in her usual gracious fashion.
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I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience. I know no way of judging of the future but by the past.
~ Patrick Henry. Speech at the Virginia convention, March 1775.
Daniel always knew what he did for a living was hard for others to understand. Crawling in the sand, nose to the stone, fingers wrapping delicately around the fragile evidence of another life long gone, most archaeologists got used to the fact that the majority of the modern human population got stalled at ‘crawling in the sand’ and didn’t see much past the gleam of King Tut’s burial mask.
If there’s no gold, there’s no glory, so what’s the interest in a bunch of cracked pots or bone fragments?
More than once, Daniel had wished Indiana Jones had spent some screen time in the lab, or at least with a sieve and magnifying glass. Maybe then it would be easier to explain the wonder of finding a button or a pipe stem in among the ruins of a garden bed, its buried paths once trod by Revolutionary boots and laced with coal slag in the precursor to road salt. Maybe then something of the mystery of the hands that shaped the object and the mind that directed the hands would be easier to transfer to layman’s understanding.
Maybe not. Maybe imagination couldn’t be passed on that way—but Daniel wished someone would try.
Be that as it may, Daniel was a lot more comfortable around the physical remnants of vanished lives than many might consider healthy. He supposed that while there was someone around to care what had happened to those people, to imagine what their lives had been, to give life to their memory, that could only be good. Learning about the past was like using a mirror to see the future—you could see what choices were made at critical points, and hopefully be better able to face the necessary decisions when such crises came round again. Daniel liked bringing meaning back to the small forgotten things—he liked to think that whatever spirits might still linger on connected to such remains would appreciate his efforts.
His team had gotten used to it—the search for meaning, the conjecturing about past lives and their eventual losses. They none of them were unused to death. P2X-639, however, made Jack nervous as a spooked horse.
Contrary to Jack’s often stated opinion, Daniel was not oblivious to his surroundings. His training precluded it. Details in archaeology, in language, in manners of dress and styles of architecture—all of those were vital to better understanding of a culture, dead or otherwise, and out here those details saved their lives more often than not. So he noticed when Jack got jumpy, and quiet, and fidgety in turns.
Even so, it took Daniel a long time to place what it was about this planet that was so different from an Egyptian worker’s village buried in years of Nile delta mud, or even Ernest’s Heliopolis.
There was absolutely no life here. It wasn’t just that there were no animals—that planet they’d been to with the high radiation, early on, when Hanson went crazy and thought he was a god, there had been no birds or squirrels there either. Here, though, by the morning of the second day, they’d all absorbed that the crucial difference was a sense of loss. Nile delta villages got flooded, moved, rebuilt. Not here.
People, large animals, small ones: these things were not missing, evolved, or replaced, they were gone.
Even knowing that he’d never be given the time to conduct a proper field study, the mystery appealed; Daniel wanted to know—why, how? Removed or destroyed? The former would be preferable for the sake of whoever had lived here, but given the stakes they’d discovered out here in the wider galaxy, the latter was more likely.
Given that, the thigh bone wasn’t much of a surprise. That it was merely the first of a wide spread of bones wasn’t either—illness, starvation, war, many things could cause this kind of mingling of ceremonial burials and loose unburied bones in a specific area. People had wondered for decades which of those causes had been responsible for the disappearance of the Anasazi, for instance, looking for evidence of population migration due to climate change or growing tensions with neighboring tribes. Daniel could imagine charts of population distribution, trade routes, plots of agricultural and urban development spreading out across the known landscape.
Nothing in this graveyard was anything Daniel hadn’t seen, analyzed, studied before. Nothing he couldn’t handle in the same professional manner as he’d run dozens of excavations, trusting in solid field work, research, lab results to build the old stories out of their fragments and bring them back to meaning.
Bones didn’t bother Daniel.
The doll did.
Professional detachment logged details: the stitching, the quality of the cloth, the wisps of nearly-white blond hair, the blue of the button eyes, the leaking cottony stuffing. Details coalesced and supported assessments in comparison with the ceramic in his other hand about the technology level of the society, probable European origin of the population, cultural emphasis on decorative arts.
But this time Daniel wasn’t really seeing industry or economy.
Daniel saw long fingers, capable with needle and thread, taking incredible care to tuck all the loose ends into the stitching. He saw those same hands cradling the completed doll before handing it over to a little girl, who looked like that picture Sam’d sent in of her four-year-old self for one of those baby-photo guessing contests at the SGC last New Year’s. Daniel saw tiny hands clinging, gap-toothed smile wide and delighted. Someone’s baby, well cared for, loved.
The dying sunset colored everything in Daniel’s vision in deep contrasts of blood red light and shadow, from the doll in his hand to the bleak valley ahead, where the ruins of a city squatted down for the night in their lonely, silent progress to oblivion. There was no population migration here, no chance for salvation from the Stargate or the skies, no next chapter. Just a merciless, inescapable end for every man, woman, and child.
Of Daniel’s many faults, lack of imagination had never made the list. For the first time, he wished it had.
There was motion behind him and Daniel registered Jack’s living presence with a kind of hysterical relief, unable to stop himself from leaning back into Jack’s hand on his shoulder.
Daniel’s voice struggled insignificantly against the empty wind and the mute reproach of the scarred and twisted landscape.
“They’re all dead.”
Daniel wasn’t sure what he said after that, whether the words that fell out of his mouth about loss of civilization, of memory, history, culture, were even making a ripple in the air. Jack increased the pressure of the arm across his shoulders, making up for the way Daniel suddenly felt ephemeral. He was incoherently grateful for Jack’s determined solidity bringing him back to the ground.
Daniel laid the doll and bowl down again, voice locked in the back of his throat as he recited the blessings from the Book of the Dead.
He let Jack pull him back to the heat of the fire and Sam’s speculations about world-wide disaster, but none of them had the heart for discussion. Abandoned by his academic discipline, Daniel mostly sat there registering the tightness around Jack’s eyes, the tension in Teal’c’s shoulders, the unbearable quick brightness of Sam’s words which did nothing to impact the silence. Daniel was relieved when Jack sent them all to bed, not that he slept.
He needed to hear them breathing.
There was no comfort in the ghosts that watched over this place, no guiding light shining out of the past to light the future. Professional detachment carried them all to the ‘gate, kept eyes dry through debriefing, and tortured Daniel in the shower until tears ran hot down his face under the soothing disguise of twentieth century plumbing. The sense of being betrayed by history and his vocation eventually lightened with the steam, but like the memories of the gray dust of P2X-639, it still clung smokily to the edges of his consciousness.
Patterns of a lifetime directed his feet towards his office, and Daniel was ready to bury himself in the soothing orderliness of artifacts and ancient texts, but halfway there the archaeologist stopped, mid-stride, and changed direction.
Like a lodestone, he let the one other defining pole of his life pull him forward, feet guided unerringly to the elevator where Sam and Teal’c were waiting, watching as Jack appeared from around the corner. Their faces said life, and company, and home: an old story, yet always a new one. Daniel felt his voice return without having to say a word.
The elevator door opened, and together SG-1 stepped forward into the light.