“Alright, recruits.” O’Neill opened the file he’d been carrying with him all day.
Sam lifted her head and tried to hide her exhaustion. They’d walked through the forest for two hours, and she had yet to see the purpose of it. From the looks of the other recruits, she wasn’t the only one who had lost her motivation.
Her stomach growled and she pressed her hand against it with a wince.
O’Neill looked around. “You’re all stranded in an unfamiliar location with no way of getting home. Night is close, so you gotta make camp. You don’t have any weapons on you. Just your clothes.”
A collective groan rippled through the group. Sam closed her eyes. That probably meant she wouldn’t have lunch today. Or be able to take a shower in the foreseeable future.
O’Neill raised his brows. “That’s the spirit.” Sam could swear she saw a smirk play around his mouth. He looked at Colonel Sheppard and the other man stepped forward.
“You’ll all swarm out and prepare for the night. We won’t divide you into teams this time.” He gestured around him. “This clearing marks the meeting point. You can move in each direction from here, but don’t move more than twenty minutes away.” Sheppard held up a number of armbands. “Each of you will get one of these. They hold a sensor so we can keep track of your movements. We’ll pick you all up in about an hour.”
Tim Hanson stepped forward. “What are the rules, sir?”
O’Neill turned his head and dropped the file he’d been studying. “Survive the night.”
O’Neill straightened. “That’s all that matters, recruit.”
Sheppard looked up from his notes. “Use your heads, people, and think on your feet. And don’t consume any food or water you might gather during this exercise.” He sat down on a tree stump. “Those of you unfortunate enough to end up ‘dead’ by the end of the day will be on kitchen duty for the rest of the week. So take this exercise seriously.”
A mumble went through the group. Sheppard cleared his throat.
“We’re aware that most of you haven’t had any survival training. The idea of this exercise is to train you to deal with new situations.”
He handed out the wristbands. Sam clasped it around her arm.
“Alright, swarm out, people. And good luck.”
Sam raised her eyebrows when some recruits spread out in different directions. Where should she go? She didn’t know anything about this forest so all directions might be equally right or wrong. She turned and started walking into the forest.
If she wanted to stand a chance, she had to approach this logically. Her stomach growled again, and she sighed. If only they’d let them eat before the exercise.
Hunger was merely an inconvenience at this point, though. She’d learned to go without food for days when she’d been on her own. If she wanted to survive the night, she would need shelter—preferably a warm and save place that would shield her from weather and animals alike.
She faltered in her steps. In the distance, some of the other recruits trudged through the forest. Okay, running aimlessly through the forest was probably not the best approach.
She stopped and sat down on the trunk of a fallen tree to look around. The steps of the others grew quieter, more distant. A calm silence fell over the forest, occasionally interrupted by the distant howl of a bird or the cracking of branches somewhere nearby.
There was something else, though. Something she hadn’t even noticed over the sound of her steps and the chattering of the recruits. The distinct babbling sound of flowing water. Maybe a stream or a river, but definitely somewhere close by.
Water was a good start. If she found shelter somewhere close to a river, she’d have two of the three necessities taken care of. She’d also be more likely to find fruit or edible leaves near water.
She changed direction. Soon the water glistened through the thicket. It wasn’t a large stream, but it looked clear and clean.
The edge of the stream was earthy and covered in pine needles. In the distance, some of the other recruits walked away from her position along the water. If there was shelter anywhere downstream, they’d claim it before she got there. Going upstream made more sense.
Did she need shelter at all? Sam lifted her gaze up to the thick growth of pine needles above. The trees would provide a passable shelter from rain. If she instead made a fire, and searched for a sheltered spot under a tree, that should work just as well.
What about animals, though? She hesitated and picked up a small branch from the ground. Were there any animals in these woods she had to beware of? Certainly their instructors wouldn’t have let anyone wander off on their own if there was any danger of a brown bear attack. Still, unknown location, they had said. Better to be prepared for anything.
She trudged through the underwood, and fought her way through some smaller bushes blocking the way. Berries grew on one of them. Her heart sped up. Food. She leaned in to examine the bush. With their small, round, dark shape, they vaguely reminded her of currants. Something was off about them though. Didn’t the leaves of currant bushes usually look different?
Picking strange berries might be a bad idea. She weighed one of the black fruits in her hand, then discarded it and moved on.
She followed the stream for another ten minutes, then stopped. Their instructors had ordered them not to move more than twenty minutes away from the meeting point. It was probably time to turn around.
Her gaze fell on a group of trees on the other side of the stream, so close to each other they formed a perfect half circle. Her pulse raced. Perfect shelter and enough space for her to build a fire.
The stream wasn’t steep. The ground looked pebbly and that meant it wouldn’t give way. If she watched where she stepped, crossing the water shouldn’t be a problem.
She pulled off her shoes and socks, then rolled up her khakis. The water was icy. Teeth clenched, she shuddered as she was wading through the stream. Once she reached the other side, she hurried to pull on her socks and shoes.
Just as she jumped up, she saw movement out of the corner of her eye. She spun around. Another recruit walked towards her tree shelter. No way, that was her shelter. She raced towards the group of trees. So did the other recruit.
They reached it at the same time, both panting for air.
“This is my shelter.” Jason Morris took a step towards the trees. Tall and lean, his body didn’t look like much, but she’d seen him in action. He had considerable strength. She stepped forward and blocked his way.
“I saw it first.”
“But I got here first.”
“No you didn’t.” She folded her arms. “We got here at the same time.”
They glared at each other. So he wasn’t going to back down. Well, neither was she. She didn’t have time to look for another shelter. Maybe both of them being here wasn’t a bad thing. The cluster of trees wasn’t an ideal shelter, but if they teamed up…
“How about we both take it?”
Morris let his arms drop. “What do you mean? Like form a team?”
“Just for shelter.” Sam smiled peaceably. “With ground shelter, we’d have to watch out for wild animals, and if there were two of us, we could take shifts. That would give each of us the opportunity to sleep for a few hours.”
His gaze held hers for a few moments before he nodded. “Actually not a bad idea. Although I’m not sure Sheppard and O’Neill want us to team up.”
“Colonel O’Neill said surviving was the only rule. They didn’t divide us into teams, but they never said we weren’t allowed to form them on our own.”
“You’re right,” Morris said and then shrugged. “Okay, seems we don’t have another choice anyway. But we’ll team up just for shelter.”
“Deal.” Sam looked around. “We can build our fire here.” She drew a small circle on the forest floor. Then she brushed away dry pine needles and branches with her hands to clear the area. Accidentally setting the forest on fire would be the worst possible outcome of their training mission. Dry pine needles usually went up like a match, and considering the amount of them covering the floor, she didn’t want to take chances.
Jason walked off into the forest, and after several minutes returned with a few dry branches and pieces of bark. “This should do for firewood.”
“We’ll need more if we want it to burn all night, though.” She scanned the floor for stones or smaller rocks. “And we need something to start the fire. We might have to dry stones from the river.”
Jason shook his head. “No, that won’t work. They’ll take forever to dry in this climate. The best rock to start a fire is a quartz. Maybe we’ll find one deeper in the forest.”
They searched the surrounding area for a few minutes, fighting through thorns and smaller bushes.
“We could also try to use wood for fire making, but that’s considerably harder.” Jason’s voice echoed and Sam looked up. He was about twenty meters away from her. “I found a cedar tree. Great wood for starting fires, but I’ve never managed to do it.”
“We’ll give it a try.” Sam winced when her pants got stuck on a dry thorn bush. “If nothing helps, we’ll have to revert to sharing body heat.”
There was a loud cracking sound. Sam looked up. Jason stared at her, his body tumbling slightly. “Say again?”
She shrugged. “I read it’s the most effective way of surviving and staying warm in the wild. And since we’re a team now…”
“I didn’t mean that kind of team.”
Sam rolled her eyes. Men. “I’m not trying to hit on you. It’s a recognized method of survival.”
“Alright, if you say so.” Jason walked towards her, a branch of cedar in his hand. “I’ll still give the fire a try first. No offense.”
“None taken.” Sam trudged back to their cluster of trees and began arranging the branches on their makeshift fireplace.
They had shelter and water. Now she needed food. Rubbing the back of her hand over her forehead, she looked around. Food was going to be a problem. The berries were the only thing she’d found. She didn’t have any weapons to hunt with. Where the hell was one supposed to find food in an area like this without any weapons?
The man looked at her as he kneeled next to the fireplace to arrange two more branches on it. “Yeah?”
“Any idea where we can find food?” She leaned back against one of the trees and watched him break one of the branches in an attempt to get it into the right shape.
“I have food.”
“Oh.” Well, they’d said they’d only team up for shelter.
He looked up with a sigh, then gestured behind him. “There’s a bush with berries a few minutes down the stream.”
“On the other side of the stream?”
“No, this one. It’s just a few hundred meters. If you hurry you might still make it.” He finally succeeded in breaking the branch and exhaled.
“Thank you.” Sam smiled and turned to hurry downstream. Then her heart sank. Sheppard and O’Neill trudged toward them on the other side.
“Damn, too late. I think our hour is up already.”
Jason straightened and dropped the branch with a frustrated groan. Sam flinched. No fire. And she had no food. Great. That would mean kitchen duty for the rest of the weak.
Sheppard and O’Neill crossed the stream and approached them. They didn’t even bother to take their shoes off or roll their pants up. Even in that, she had behaved incredibly amateurish.
“Carter. Morris.” O’Neill scanned their ‘camp’ with raised eyebrows.
“Sir.” Both stood at attention.
“What’s this?” Sheppard’s gaze fixated on the two recruits. Sam glanced at Jason next to her, but he looked equally confused by the question.
“Um… shelter, sirs.” Sam cleared her throat.
“These are trees,” O’Neill said wryly.
Sam nodded. “Yes, sir. But their tops are thick and won’t let any rain through. Their formation allows natural protection from behind. Our fireplace is right in front of it, which should make some of the heat reflect from the trees and provide enough warmth to sleep even without blankets. And there’s water right there.” She pointed at the stream. O’Neill raised his eyebrows and Sam shrank under his scrutiny. Damn, they’d messed up entirely, hadn’t they?
“I don’t see a fire yet.” Sheppard took a few notes on the file he carried.
“We…” Jason cleared his throat, then held up the cedar twigs. “We were in the process of making one, sir.”
“Not with those.” Sheppard said and took a few notes.
O’Neill circled the fireplace, his eyes narrowed.
“Well, sirs.” Sam closed her eyes. “We considered the possibility we might not be able to start a fire. We figured we’d share body heat in that case.”
O’Neill’s gaze fixated on her. “You teamed up?”
“You didn’t specify we weren’t allowed to, sir,” she said.
Their camp commander nodded blankly and looked at Sheppard who took more notes.
“Why’d you team up?”
“We couldn’t find any other shelter, sir, and Carter suggested if we teamed up, we could share this one and take turns standing watch. That way we’d each get some sleep.” Jason shifted his feet.
So she wasn’t the only one who thought they were in trouble.
“Good thinking, Carter.” O’Neill stepped back next to Sheppard. Sam’s eyes widened. Was he being sarcastic? His face was blank as always, so she couldn’t tell.
“Um, thank you, sir.” Even if he were serious, would it be enough to make up for their failings? She hadn’t found any food.
“Alright…” O’Neill nodded and stuck his hands into his pockets. “You got acceptable shelter, we’ll give you full points for that. You don’t have a fire, but your body-heat sharing idea saves your asses. Water is obvious. How about food?”
“I have these, sir.” Jason pulled a few berries out of the pockets of his khakis. O’Neill looked at them and nodded at Sheppard, who began writing again. “Did you eat any?”
“No, sir. I thought we weren’t allowed to eat anything.”
“Just making sure you remembered my order. It stands until the mission briefing at the meeting point is over.” He turned to Carter. Sam held his gaze and swallowed hard, fidgeting. “Carter?” Impatience dripped through his voice.
“I…” She flinched. Damn, there had to be something she could do, or say. Why hadn’t she just taken the berries from earlier? She exhaled. “I don’t have food, sir.”
“Wasn’t on your priority list?”
Sam became even more uncomfortable under his scrutiny. “It was, sir. Frankly, I’m starving. I just thought it’d be more important to find shelter, so I took care of that first. The human body can go without food for quite a while, so I figured once I had shelter I’d take care of other things. And then our time was up.” Yeah, she should have just taken some of the berries with her. At least she’d have something to show them.
“I see.” O’Neill stalked around her. “You didn’t pass by the berries Morris found? There are bushes on either side of the stream.”
“I did, Sir.”
“But I wasn’t sure if they were good, sir.”
“So you decided it’d be better to go to sleep hungry?”
Sam winced. “I thought, better hungry than possibly sick or dead. Sir.”
“Alright.” Jack nodded and walked back to Sheppard, who clipped his pen back into the pocket of his shirt. “We’ve heard enough. Will you two find your way back to the meeting point?”
Sam’s shoulders slumped. She’d failed. Maybe she’d walked by some source of food without recognizing it? She’d read so many books, why hadn’t she been able to judge the berries correctly? “We will, sir.”
“Good. Make your way back there then. We’ll meet up with all of you after we’re done.”
“Yes, sir.” They both replied in unison, and watched the instructors walk away. Sam sighed when they were out of earshot and walked over to the trees to sink against them. “Damn.”
“I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking. I should have given you some of my berries. We could have said that we collected them together.” Jason put his hand on her shoulder.
“It’s fine.” Sam shook her head. “They would have known we were lying. They’re tracking our movements, remember? I’m sure they saw we only teamed up after we had long passed the berry bush.”
“Tell you what, next time we’ll team up from the start.” He nudged her with his shoulder.
“Yeah.” Sam nodded with a weak smile. Sheppard and O’Neill had insinuated that they expected them to make mistakes, but she couldn’t help being angry at herself for not paying more attention.
They waded through the stream back to the other side. This time Sam didn’t take her boots off and winced as cold water flooded in and soaked her socks. Their feet made squishy sounds as they strolled back in the direction of their meeting point.
“So.” Jason picked up a branch and drew random patterns in the pine needles on the floor as they walked. “You think they’ll let us eat any time soon?”
“I hope they won’t take our success at finding food today into account for tonight’s dinner ration.”
“Don’t worry.” Jason smiled at her. “I’ll share mine with you if they cut yours.”
“It was a good idea. The body heat sharing, I mean.” He looked straight ahead. “I have to admit, when you suggested it I thought you were making that stuff up, but apparently O’Neill and Sheppard accepted it. It saved at least parts of our asses. How did you know about it?”
“I read about it.” When she saw his confused stare, she shrugged. “I like to read.” She lowered her gaze to the floor. How long had it been since she’d read a good book? God, how she missed that. “At least I used to do it when I was still in proximity of a library. How did you know about the fire?”
“I saw it once. When I was little, my parents took me on a trip and our camp guide started a fire like that. I guess my memory must have faded a little.”
“Don’t sweat it.” Sam gave him a warm smile. “I wouldn’t even know where to start. At least you had an idea, and I am sure at some point you’d have succeeded.”
“Yeah?” He raised his eyebrows and they both laughed. It was quite a walk back to the meeting point.
Sam buried her hands in her pockets, and inhaled. “So, how do you like training so far?”
“It’s fine. You?”
“Yeah. It’s okay.”
He shot her a sidelong glance. “Different from what you thought it would be?”
Sam nodded. “A little. Not that I am complaining. Just that, I expected something else. I thought it’d be more about covert operations, strategy and such.” She’d thought finding a resistance contact and convincing him to bring her into the organization would be the hard part. Her first month alone had been easy compared to this.
Now she constantly had to fulfill expectations, most of which she lacked the skills to fulfill. She’d never been good at physical exercises. Her strength lay with the sciences. She was good with her head, her body not so much.
There was a science department at camp. So maybe once she completed training she could do something related to that.
“What about you?” She glanced at Jason.
“Well, I kinda expected this.” He shrugged and flicked a little stone into the stream with his branch. “My family has a proud tradition of being in the resistance. I was recruited by one of my brothers.”
“Wow. A resistance family?” She didn’t even know there was such a thing.
“Yeah.” Jason nodded. “They didn’t tell me anything about what it would be like, but my brother devised a physical work-out to prepare me for training. Your family isn’t resistance?”
Sam faltered, and turned her head away to study the dimness of the forest. “I don’t have any family.”
Her father was definitely the opposite of a resistance member. As a loyal servant to the Aschen Ministry, he was considered a traitor, a collaborator, by these people. Besides, after she’d run away, she wasn’t sure he’d ever want to see her again.
“Oh.” Jason looked at his feet. “Well, at least you don’t have anybody to disappoint then.”
“Right.” Just myself. Her chest constricted as she remembered her dad. Was he worried about her? Maybe he was searching for her. Or had he assumed that she’d committed suicide after nearly three months? Depressing thoughts. She looked at Jason. “So, have you made any friends yet?”
“Well. You’re pretty okay. I get along well with Lee, though he’s a bit older. And I share a tent with Jennings. He isn’t bad either. How about you?”
“Well, there’s you.” She laughed. “And a couple of the other guys. Some of them seem to be avoiding me off-duty.”
“Such as Hanson?” Jason smirked.
Sam’s head jerked around. “You noticed?”
“Yeah. I think it bugs him they let a woman in. No offense.” Jason shrugged and kicked one of the smaller branches into the stream. “I personally don’t care, as long as I can trust people. I can trust you. Not so sure about Hanson yet, so I’m just ignoring him.”
“He’s good though. He always scores the highest points.”
“That he does.” Jason shrugged. “But that doesn’t say anything about his character.”
“True.” Sam nodded.
After a long walk, they finally reached their meeting point. A few of their fellow recruits had already gathered and waited. Everybody was busy discussing how they’d mastered (or failed) the challenge they’d been given.
Tim Hanson bragged about having gotten points for all three: shelter, water and food. He’d found a cave near the water downstream, and he and two other guys had come across a lonesome apple tree.
Finally, Sheppard and O’Neill returned, accompanied by the last recruit to return.
“Alright people.” Immediately the group stood at attention at O’Neill’s announcement. “We have a few lucky people who survived today, and a whole lot who didn’t. Reyes, Lee and Stewart…” He looked up at the three men. “You froze to death. Next time, remember to take care of shelter first before running off to chase some rabbit for dinner.” His face remained blank but there was an audible wryness in his tone. Sam stifled a smile. Then she remembered that she’d messed up as well. Unlike her, at least the three of them had thought about food.
“Millowitz, you didn’t have shelter, either. Wong, Niles, Morris, Stanton and Jennings—you’re all dead too.”
Morris? What? Sam looked at Jason next to her. Why on Earth was he dead? He glanced back at her in confusion, and straightened up when O’Neill’s gaze came to rest on him.
“Next time make sure to choose berries you know are edible.”
“But… those were currants, sir.” Stanton fidgeted.
O’Neill raised his eyebrows. “They weren’t. The berries might have looked the same, but the plant they’re growing on is called nightshade. If you eat a lot of them, the result’s a rather unpleasant death.” He looked around. “So I hope you all followed the standing orders not to eat anything.”
“Um, sir.” Face pale, Stanton raised his hand.
“Oh for crying out loud.” O’Neill looked at the recruit grimly. “It seems we have a candidate who will spend the night in the medical tent. And the next two days after that in confinement for defying a direct order. How many berries did you have?”
“Five. Maybe a couple more. I was just so hungry, sir.”
“Well, lucky for you, that’ll only cause a stomach ache. Consider it a valuable lesson, recruit. Report to the doc once we’re back at camp.”
“Oh crap.” Next to Sam, Jason looked down at his pockets. O’Neill’s glanced at him and visibly fought a smirk.
“Yeah, you might wanna empty those out.” His eyes shifted to Sam. She straightened. “Carter, Longfellow, Hanson and Richmond, you all survived. You’re lucky enough to have the evening off. Go enjoy a warm meal at the food tent.”
Sam’s eyes widened, and she glanced at Jason. What the hell happened? How was this possible?
O’Neill closed his file. “I expect you all to write a report about the proceedings today. I want you to detail every one of your steps, and explain why you took them. That‘ll help us determine whether you were actually using your heads or just got lucky. Hand it in tomorrow morning at the briefing. Dismissed.”
Sam relaxed visibly and turned to walk back to camp with the other recruits.
“Carter.” Sheppards voice made her stop. “A word, please?”
Swallowing hard, Sam stepped closer. “Sir?”
“You ever had survival training before?” O’Neill picked up the items lying on the tree trunk.
Sam shook her head. “No, sir.” He looked up and his intense gaze sent tingles through her. “Well, sir, I lived on the streets for a while and picked up a few things there, but if you’re referring to actual training like this? No.”
“You were the only one of the recruits who didn’t have any food at all.”
Yeah, she had been. Why hadn’t they failed her? At least the other recruits had made an attempt at gathering food. She straightened out and swallowed hard. “Yes, sir.”
“I look forward to reading your report, recruit.” O’Neill’s lips twitched into a smile, and she held his gaze. No trace of irony or sarcasm. Her stomach did a little lurch. In the dimness of the forest, his eyes looked almost black. Hesitantly, she smiled back at him.
Sam turned to catch up with Jason and the other recruits. Why was O’Neill looking forward to reading her report?
The final evaluation of the exam would depend on the reports, so maybe she’d screwed up after all and they just needed confirmation of it. Then again, he’d smiled at her. And what a smile it had been. Warm, and intense. Encouraging.
Sam’s steps slowed. There was no use racking her brains over this. She’d learn about the results the next day, and if they decided she’d screwed up, she’d have to learn from her mistakes. She’d done her best and at this point that was all she could do.
A mild breeze played through the grass. Sam inhaled deeply. The air smelled faintly of wet grass and pines from the previous night’s rain. She walked past the food tent.
It was early afternoon already. Their final mission briefing wouldn’t start for another two hours. Too bad, there wasn’t a lot to do at camp for those who didn’t have training or briefings scheduled. One of Janet’s medical books under her arm, she strolled over to the training ground.
O’Neill was training with Mitchell. Sam leaned onto the wooden bar of the fence and watched the two men. O’Neill was rumored to be the best fighter at camp. Certainly a fight between him and Mitchell would be interesting.
How unusual to see Colonel Mitchell in the position of a student. She had assumed their teachers had already learned everything there was to learn but that didn’t seem to be the case. Life here at camp seemed to be a constant process of learning, no matter what rank one held.
O’Neill effortlessly blocked one of Mitchell’s advanced attacks and rendered him motionless on the ground. She lifted her head. Damn, he was good. How had he managed to do that?
The flawlessness of his technique left her in awe. She tried to focus her eyes on his stances, tried to follow the fight as best as she could, but their movements were too fast. It certainly took years, if not decades of training to become that proficient in close combat. As things were, she had trouble applying basic stances in stressful situations. She’d never get close to beating someone as good as O’Neill in a hand-to-hand fight.
With a sigh, she straightened. Maybe she’d been kidding herself thinking she could make it in the resistance. Yes, she was good with repairing things, and good at understanding scientific concepts. But in the end she was just book smart. None of that was of much use here.
The two men ended their fight with a friendly shoulder clap and exchanged a few words, undoubtedly evaluating their performances.
I wonder where he comes from. Sam studied O’Neill thoughtfully. His tan looked even darker in the daylight. He was different from any man she’d ever met. And he had extraordinary skills that one didn’t just learn anywhere on the streets. But his dark, threatening side fascinated her even more.
How long had he been with the resistance? What kind of operations was he involved in? Certainly, a man with his skills wasn’t just reduced to training recruits and writing reports.
When he turned his head and their gazes met, she jerked her head up and her cheeks flared. Damn, she hadn’t meant for him to catch her staring.
His eyebrows rose and he nodded at her, turning to walk toward her. Sam lifted from the fence.
“Carter.” He smiled at her, still a few meters away. “Enjoyed watching the training?”
Sam swallowed and forced a smile. “Sorry, sir. I didn’t mean to stare.” He smirked. “Sir, may I ask what kind of technique you just used?”
His eyes sparkled.
Sam cleared her throat. “Well, the stances looked different from what we are taught.”
O’Neill nodded. “Yeah, it’s very advanced. More focused on coordinated attacks than the basic defensive training you’re starting out with.” He came to stand in front of her on the other side of the fence. “I read your report about yesterday’s survival training. Do you have a minute to talk about it?”
“Oh. Yes, of course.” She nodded. O’Neill walked around the fence to join her. Slowly, they strolled up the hill to a few wooden benches. He grabbed the towel lying there and rubbed his face with it.
“I like your writing style. Succinct and sticking to the things that matter. Maybe a bit too wordy at times, but over time you’ll develop a feeling for that.”
“And I like the way you think, recruit.” O’Neill dropped the towel and sat on the bench. Sam looked at him in surprise. “You’re resourceful and creative. You did make a few mistakes, but that’s to be expected.”
“Like not having found any food, sir?” She sighed, and he studied her intensely for a moment.
“No. Like thinking you needed it.”
“The requirement was to be alive by the end of the day. You assessed correctly that you can go several weeks without food. Why did you still worry about it?” He kept his eyes locked on her face as she stared at him blankly.
“I thought…” He was right. She knew one could go without food for days or weeks. Why had she worried about it? “I thought you expected it, sir.”
“Ah.” Jack nodded. “There’s your first problem. You overthought the situation. You seem to be pretty smart, and you have a keen instinct for survival, Carter. But you gotta learn to distinguish when to rely on your head, and when on your guts.”
“Yes, sir.” She lowered her eyes in mild frustration.
“Don’t sweat it. That’s something that’ll come with experience and practice. You said at the end of your report that you didn’t have enough time to go back and get the berries. So if we had arrived later, would you’ve had the berries then?”
Sam’s winced. “I think I would have, sir.”
The expression on his face gentled. “You know that means you actually lost too, right?”
She nodded and glanced at the food tent. “Kitchen duty, then?”
He chuckled and scraped his hand through his hair. “No. Just making a point. Why did you change your opinion about the berries?”
“I’m not that versed in botany. Jason was certain they were black currants. And I…” Damn. She flinched and brushed a hand through her hair. She’d doubted herself. Despite her gut instinct, she had put another recruit’s opinion above her own and automatically assumed he was right.
“You doubted your own assessment.”
“I’m afraid so, sir.”
Her whole life, she’d been a good student and always known the correct answers to every study question she’d faced. Now she was constantly swimming in a sea of unknowns none of which she had answer to yet. Learning from books and making calculations had been easy.
“Considering what I’m reading on your face, I think I can save you and myself the speech about self-doubt.”
Sam smiled at the wryness in his voice. “Yes, sir.”
“You learned a valuable lesson yesterday, Carter. If you team up with somebody and decide their assessment is more valid than your own, you gotta be damn sure that you can rely on that person’s judgment.”
He was right. Nothing had indicated that Jason had deeper knowledge of plants, except for the self-secure way in which he’d proclaimed the berries were currants.
That wasn’t even a survival-training mistake. Even in science, claims had to be backed up by fact. Why on Earth had she just taken Jason’s word for it?
O’Neill got up and put his hand on her shoulder. “Sometimes self-doubt is the only thing standing in the way of an excellent performance.”
She stared at him. Excellent? Had he really just called the rest of her performance excellent?
“There is no right or wrong in most of the tasks, Carter. As we stressed, it’s about survival. So lose that attitude of trying to please and fulfilling expectations. Stick to the mission you’ve been given. Use your head and the means at your disposal to fulfill the task.”
His lips twitched into a smirk. He dropped his hand and threw the towel over his shoulder. “Alright, I don’t know about you, but I’m starving.” He began walking backwards towards the food tent. “So I’m gonna go have lunch.”
“I’ll see you later on at the briefing.”
“Have a good lunch.” She gave him a beaming smile, and he faltered in his steps, suddenly looking slightly put off. Then he returned her smile. And what a stunning smile it was. She swallowed as her stomach flip-flopped. Hurriedly, she turned and clenched the book to her chest. Damn, what was wrong with her? What the hell had that been?
She turned her head once more looking back. And found him doing the same. What on Earth? Cheeks burning, she hurried to her tent.
Jack looked after the young woman as she rushed up to her tent. Damn, she was beautiful. The sunlight reflecting off her hair made it look almost golden. And that smile. Got to him every time. He could swear he’d just seen a similar reaction in her, but that might just be wishful thinking. And even if it weren’t, he was married for crying out loud.
Get it together, O’Neill.
Carter was an interesting woman. But more importantly, she was a promising recruit. She got better day by day. Her progress at close combat during the past two weeks was remarkable. She was smart. The kind of smart that couldn’t be trained into a person. Even when faced with previously unknown situations, she adapted and tried to figure them out with a cool head.
Her performance during the survival training session had been outstanding for somebody who’d never had professional survival training before. Not only did she possess intuition, she’d displayed team spirit and creativity. It had been the first exercise in which she’d surpassed Tim Hanson who usually got the highest marks.
Hanson had done well, but he hadn’t put much thought into his actions. He’d gotten lucky passing and his report had made that clear.
Carter had strategized first, and then acted. If she hadn’t strayed from her own assessment, her performance would have been flawless. Someone like her would be really well suited for work in Cell 4. She handled unknown and unprecedented situations with a cool head and came up with a reasonable plan.
He’d definitely keep an eye on her.